Eleanor Bates sat in an empty corner of the courtyard at Highbury. She was at last able to escape all the wedding guests, none of whom she wished to speak with. Having to smile and curtsey and try to make conversation was terrifying for her. She was happiest alone in her room with her books and writing her stories.
She told her aunt, Mrs. Sophia Bates, she did not wish to attend the wedding of Mr. Woodhouse. She offered to stay at home and care for her little charge and cousin Molly, who was five years old. Her aunt and uncle had employed her as governess for the little girl. Molly was an eager learner, loving to draw and read. She and Molly would have a wonderful time together at home, she was sure.
But Aunt Sophia said no, that since her uncle was the vicar, and was performing the marriage ceremony between Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Emily Brown, their entire household was obligated to attend. It was their duty, she said.
She relaxed for the first time all day. Taking a deep breath, she could smell the mix of honeysuckle and lilac floating in the air. Off in the distance, she could see Miss Emily, now Mrs. Woodhouse, greeting her guests. She seemed very happy. She floated around in her lacy blue and white gown with an ephemeral flair. But Eleanor wondered; was she really happy? She knew Miss Emily’s marriage to Mr. Woodhouse had been an arranged match. That idea appalled her. She wanted to marry for love. She wanted to fall in love, like the girls she read about in Fanny Burney’s novels. That was the only way she would marry. And if she didn’t find this love, she would work as a governess, as she was now with little Molly. She knew an intellectual life was inappropriate for a young lady, but it was her heart’s desire and she was determined to have it, even if she did find a suitable husband.
She jumped at the sound of a voice coming up behind her. “Eleanor Bates, there you are!” said Sophia. “What are you doing out here?”
Eleanor stood. “Just enjoying the grounds, Aunt. They have such exquisite gardens here at Highbury.”
Sophia narrowed her eyes. “Eleanor, we talked about this. You have to learn to make conversation and engage other people. I promised my sister that I would make sure you became a proper young lady.”
Eleanor”s parent had died when she was ten years old. She had lived with her grandmother up until last year, when she became Molly’s governess. “I am a proper young lady,” Eleanor replied, hands on her hips. “You would not have entrusted me with Molly’s education if you did not think so.”
“That is true. But you are 18 years old. You must start thinking about your future.”
“I have. My future is in my scholarly pursuits and in teaching others.”
“So you wish to be an old maid? Old maids don’t have much of a life, Eleanor. What will you do for money?”
“I will make money from my writings and from teaching young girls.”
“That is not a life for a young woman like yourself. Your parents would not have allowed this, and neither will I. As long as I am responsible for your care, you will learn what it means to be a proper young lady.” She grabbed her hand. “Look at you! You look lovely in that dress. Don’t you want others to see how beautiful you look?”
The dress was ugly, thought Eleanor. She hated pink. It was girly; a color worn by silly girls with empty heads. But her aunt insisted the color was perfect on her. Gave her skin a bloom. And her aunt had insisted she wear a corset. Every breath she took was agony.
“Come now, you have yet to meet the bride.”
“Do I have a choice?” she asked.
Mrs. Bates grinned. “Absolutely not.”
“Yes, I suppose I should get used to not having a choice. If you are determined to marry me off, I will certainly won’t have my own free will once I am someone’s wife.”
“Be quiet now,” said Mrs. Bates in a low voice. “Young ladies must speak in a low voice.”
The new Mrs. Woodhouse was sitting with Mrs. Weston.
Mrs. Bates stopped, turning to Eleanor. “Sitting with the bride is Mrs. Weston. As a member of the Churchill family, she was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte before her marriage. She was also a friend to the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Georgiana. She is one of the most fashionable women in London.”
“Then what is she doing in Highbury?” Eleanor whispered.
“She married Mr. Weston against her family’s wishes.”
Eleanor grinned. “I like her already.”
“Yes, well, she will probably become most important here. She and her husband are thinking of buying a home here, so we must be exceptionally polite.” She pulled on Eleanor’s hand again as she hesitated. “Come along now before we lose sight of her.”
Mrs. Weston was definitely copying the Shepherdess style made popular by Marie Antoinette. Her huge hat sat high on her head. The blue and white bow around it was almost as big as the hat itself. Her long curly brown locks flowed freely around her shoulders. Her blue and white striped gown had large puffy sleeves trimmed with lace, which also encircled a low neck that most women would consider indecent.
“Mrs. Weston, may I introduce my niece, Miss Eleanor Bates. She is living with us and working as a governess to my daughter Molly.”
The woman smiled, then looked her up and down. “Yes, your uncle the vicar spoke well of you to my husband. He says you at quite good at your books. But remember, dear, your books won’t get you a husband.” She looked at her again, then looked over at Mrs. Woodhouse. “What do you say, Mrs. Woodhouse? Do you think this girl will be the next one down the aisle?”
Emily Woodhouse smiled. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bates. Thank you for sharing our special day with us.”
Eleanor congratulated her. “I hope you and Mr. Woodhouse will find much happiness together.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “I’m sure we will. I am very lucky. Mr. Woodhouse is a good man.
Mrs. Weston pushed herself back into the conversation. She took out her handkerchief, gingerly wiping her cheek. “All husbands are wonderful in the beginning. Give it time. You will see his flaws soon enough. But you didn’t answer me, Mrs. Woodhouse. Is Miss Bates the next bride here in Highbury?”
Emily’s cheeks reddened. “I cannot say, Mrs. Woodhouse. Do you seek a husband, Miss Bates?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” blurted Mrs. Weston. “Every young girl seeks a husband. She just has to be pointed in the right direction.” She took Eleanor’s hand. “When my husband and I finally settle in Highbury, I will take you under my wing, young lady. I know all the most gentile ladies in England. After being under my tutelage, you will have such graces no man will be able to resist you. You will be better wed than our Mrs. Woodhouse here.”
“Ellie!” said an excited child’s voice.” Little Molly Bates ran to Eleanor, grabbing her around the legs. “You must come with me to the duck pond. There is a new duck there. They call it a Muscovy duck. It was brought here from another country by Mr. Woodhouse’s friend.” She grabbed her hand, “Come, please.”
Eleanor looked at Mrs. Bates, her eyes pleading.
Mrs. Bates nodded. “Go ahead, my dear. You and Molly have fun.”
Eleanor smiled, looking relieved. She curtsied, then ran off after her little charge. The ladies stood watching them.
Mrs. Bates sighed. “She does need help in the social graces. What 18-year-old do you know that would rather look at ducks than socialize? I do worry about her so.”
“Everyone grows up at a different pace,” said Emily. “I think she may need more time before marriage.”
“What she needs is to be taken in hand,” said Mrs. Weston. “And between us three ladies, we will make the marriage of Eleanor Bates our special project. As soon as I am settled, we will have tea and discuss the details.”
Mr. Woodhouse appeared, standing behind his bride. He took her hand in his, then looked around at the women’s faces. “What are you ladies contriving?”
“What makes you say that, Mr. Woodhouse?” asked Mrs. Bates.
“Because I always know when ladies are up to some scheme.”
“Mrs. Weston was just saying we should try and help Miss Bates get a husband,” replied Emily.
He shook his head. “Oh no. Matchmakers are the worst. They create all kind of trouble.” He pulled Emily away. “Come, my dear, you have other matters to attend to. We have more guests to greet.”
As they walked away, Mrs. Weston shook her head. “Men just don’t understand. No two people can make a marriage happen alone. Help is always required. It takes an experienced woman to know that.”
Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Bates turned to watch Molly and Eleanor. They had removed their shoes and stockings and were jumping around in the pond with the ducks, kicking water and laughing.
Mrs. Weston shook her head. “We have a lot of work to do, Mrs. Bates.”
“Yes, it appears so,” said Mrs. Bates. And while she knew Mrs. Weston was right, she turned her head away and smiled.