Hi Tessa and welcome to HJ! We’re so excited to chat with you about your new release, A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA!
Please summarize the book for the readers here:
A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA is the story of the real-life Lucy Duff Gordon (nee Wallace) who was a fashion designer and innovator in the exquisite and cutthroat world of Belle Époque haute couture.
When Lucy was abandoned by her spendthrift husband (who runs off with a pantomime dancer) she didn’t hesitate to sue for divorce: a scandal in 1893! A penniless single mother, she spends her last few pounds on a bolt of silk and working from her dining room starts the perilous business of building a dressmaking business that will become a fashion empire.
Bright and witty with a flair for publicity, Lucy designs what she calls Dresses of Emotion for her rich and titled clients. She even gives her favorite gowns names: Passion Flower’s First Kiss; The Sigh of Lips Unsatisfied and a Dream of Endless Summer are breathtakingly original gowns that take fashionable London by storm. Encouraged by her success, Lucy opens fashion houses in New York and even Paris directly competing with the grand fashion houses of Worth, Doucet, and Poiret. She is at the forefront of introducing her latest models by staging one of the first mannequin parades, and designs clothes that flatter the softer feminine curves without contorting women into an S shape with whalebone corsets!
But fate sometimes has a way of dealing with the success and Lucy’s headlong rise to the top comes to a halt one bitterly cold spring night in 1912.
Please share your favorite line(s) or quote from this book:
“The Parisians think that English women know nothing about style. About line, color and texture. They write us off as country bumkins with untidy hair and big feet. They are still putting bows on everything, the poor things! They want us to look like nicely wrapped birthday gifts, or boxes of chocolate!” Lucy Duff Gordon on opening a fashion house in Paris.
“’Ark at ‘er, for Lawd’s sake. You’d never know we don’t have two pennies to rub together. White fish, she says—where does she think the money comes from? A nice piece of haddock that’s what we’ll be having with a good helping of cabbage to keep us regular!” Celia Franklin, Lucy’s assistant-come-scullery-maid on how to juggle a tight budget in the early days of Lucile Ltd.
Please share a few Fun facts about this book…
- It is a terrible shock for Lucy Wallace to wake up one day. husbandless, with no money in the bank, and a five-year-old daughter to support. Her mother is appalled too and has very little sympathy for Lucy’s predicament, particularly since Lucy is nearly thirty. And she is mortified when Lucy opens a “shop” and starts a dress-making business. Existing on whiffs of sal volatile to help her through the ‘shame’ of being associated with trade, Lucy’s mother only rallies when society hostess Lady Daisy Brooke becomes Lucy’s top client, and doors start to open all over London!
- Lucy’s sister, Elinor Glyn—who writes racy novels in her spare time, is indispensable in introducing Lucy to her rich and titled friends—inviting her to her husband Clayton Glyn’s newly rebuilt luxurious country house for the weekend—an opportunity for Lucy to show off the stunning gown she has made and hopefully kick-off her dress-making business. Unfortunately, the dashing Clayton finds newly divorced Lucy in her alluring dress irresistible and makes an undercover play for her. Now Lucy knows she can’t even borrow money from her sister without compromising her brave new start in life. As she fends off Clayton’s amorous advances, she prays that the rich women gathered at the Glyn’s house will fall in love with her dress and come to her with orders for similar gowns.
- Lucy’s new client, Lady Brooke, the Countess of Warwick, is remarkably well-connected to all of London’s top circles and cliques. She is the current mistress of the Prince of Wales and reigns supreme in Bertie’s sophisticated and decadent Marlborough Set. Lady Brooke’s one downfall is her addiction to gossip. Elinor warns her sister to beware of Daisy Brooke’s favorite pastime. “Just remember,” Elinor advises Lucy “that Daisy is not called the Babbling Brooke in society, for nothing!”
- Undoubtedly the era in which Lucile became one of London’s top fashion houses was considered decadent by any standards. The rich and titled married to consolidate land and wealth, but once wives had produced an heir and spare, they were quite free to take lovers. Discretion was the watchword of the day. Divorce was out of the question, and to cause a scandal in polite society was unforgivable. But amorous liaisons especially during cinq a sept the hours in the day between tea and changing for dinner were when ladies received their lovers. For these romantic moments, Lucy invented the tea-gown: a loose, silk garment, easily unbuttoned and worn without a corset. These elegant gowns were the perfect attire for receiving gentleman guests.
What was the research process like for A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA? ?
I was already in love with the early 1900s after researching for my Edwardian Lady Montfort mystery series, so it was a world I was familiar with. There were so many ‘eccentric characters’ knocking
about in the 1900s: from union leaders to artists, to novelists and playwrights. The leisured classes were often talented anthropologists, expeditioners, and adventurers too. But it was also a decade of extraordinary change, both socially and politically so it was a fun era to research. I had come across Lucy—she was referred to as a “shop keeper” who designed “naughty lingerie” and who “married up” and became Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (the Edwardians were such terrible snobs that Sir Cosmo was not allowed to present his new wife at court because she was a divorcee in ‘trade’.) I was fascinated by her riches-to-rags-to-riches story.
Did any scene have you blushing, crying or laughing while writing it? And Why?
Well, I always laugh out loud when I write. But there is a scene in the book when Lucy is building her business and has worked herself to a standstill and she becomes very ill. Writing that part of her story really gave me goosebumps.
Lucy’s assistant, Celia Franklin, goes to Lucy’s house to receive orders for the day and is horrified to find Lucy so ill with pneumonia that she is unable to talk to her. Lucy’s mother and sister are terrified, and the doctor is quite clear that she might not pull through. Before penicillin pneumonia was a killer.
Celia has every reason to love Lucy, it was Lucy who rescued her from a life of drudgery and hopelessness as a scullery maid and had given her the opportunity to learn how to make dresses with her. Separated by the vast social chasm that existed between the uppers and the lowers in the late 1890s, Lucy and Celia have formed an inseparable bond, and are truly close friends. I cried when I wrote about Celia’s fear for Lucy’s recovery because most of us have experienced that terrible sense of loss.
“She took me in when she could hardly make ends meet herself: gave me a home. Never a word did she ask me about those three demeaning years in the workhouse: the degradation, the hunger. Working all daylight hours in a room so cold your fingers could hardly hold a needle. She liked me, you see, she liked that her little girl trusted me. Funny thing, trust is, so
fragile. . . so easily broken. So anyway, she took me on . . . taught me everything when no one else thought I was good for anything. . .”
Readers should read this book….
As always when I write historical fiction, I hope that I open a window into another time and place, into another world. An escape from our humdrum world of technology. The past also teaches us so much about our future because history does repeat itself over and over again. If we are aware of our past, our history, we are in some way prepared for our future.
I love writing about women who rise above their fate, and who have the courage and energy to break the rules and achieve their dreams. But it wasn’t until I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and came upon an exhibition of Lucy Duff Gordon’s incredible clothes from the 1900s, that I really understood what a genius she was. Her clothes were superb: vibrant colors, exquisite detail, and workmanship, and that beautifully gauzy style of what we call the Titanic era now. I fell in love. I wanted to write about the women who had created these shimmering gowns and dresses. The more I found out about Lucy the more addicted I became to writing her story!
What are you currently working on? What other releases do you have in the works?
I am working on another historical fiction, set in England and Egypt during the mid to late 1930s, before WWII about a woman who wrote a novel based more or less on her own life. I cannot give you a title or any more than that just now, other than I am absolutely loving the writing process! Fingers crossed!
Thanks for blogging at HJ!
Giveaway: 1 Print copy of A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA by Tessa Arlen
To enter Giveaway: Please complete the Rafflecopter form and Post a comment to this Q: From the cramped ateliers of the great fashion houses of London to the sumptuous drawing rooms of the super-rich and titled A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA covers the lives of the women who made the dresses, walking costumes, visiting outfits, and ball gowns for society’s great hostesses. What did you learn about the ‘rag-trade’ of the 1900s that you did not know before?
Excerpt from A Dress of Violet Taffeta:
he cup shook in Lucy’s hand, slopping tea over the tablecloth.
Damn. She blotted the spreading stain with her napkin, trying not to catch her mother’s critical eye.
Mrs. Kennedy wrinkled her nose in fastidious disdain. “Not like you to be clumsy, dear,” her mother said. “Are you feeling quite well?”
She was spared an explanation. “Oh, for heaven’s sake! Will you look at the toast—quite burned—and they have forgotten the marmalade!” Lucy’s mother rang the bell at her elbow. “Where is Palmer? What on earth is going on in this house?” She jangled the bell again, her eyebrows raised at the careless attention to their breakfast.
Lucy leaned her hot forehead into the palm of her hand. Please, she begged whichever god was responsible for deep, dreamless sleep. Just one night—is that too much to ask?
“Really, my dear, you must speak to them—they get worse every day.” Her mother shook her head at the misery of poorly trained servants and opened her embroidered reticule. Lucy watched the sal volatile make its first appearance of the day and stifled irritation. If only all of life’s real catastrophes could be righted with a sniff from a cut-glass bottle
with a silk tassel, she thought as she hung on to silence. The signs were clear: her mother was having one of her bad days.
“I waited half an hour for my early morning tray, and it was brought up to me by an untidy-looking girl who I don’t believe I have seen in the house before today. It’s rather frightening, Lucy, to wake up to find a complete stranger in one’s bedroom even if they are offering you tea.” She took a delicate sip from her cup and put it down again, her lips pursed in a moue of distaste. “It’s cold, and the milk—the milk has turned.” Her voice sank to a martyr’s whisper. “It’s quite un-drink-able.” Lucy looked down at clotty clouds floating on the surface of dishwa-
ter gray tea. She took a mouthful and swallowed in defiance. “Yes, Mama, the milk’s off.”
Her mother’s exasperation at Lucy’s inability to supervise her servants drifted across tired table linen, mismatched china, and the offending toast. “They won’t exert themselves if you don’t take the time to correct them, Lucy, will they?” Her tight smile of grievance struggled against outright disapproval at her daughter’s handling of her domestic staff.
All Lucy wanted to do was grope her way back up the stairs to her room, lay her aching head down on her cool, smooth pillow, and drop into sleep, but it was time to brief her mother on the uncertain future of her household—the House of Hell, as James had called it the last time he had slammed the front door on his way to his club.
She straightened her back and met her mother’s gaze. “You are abso- lutely right, Mama. But I’m afraid that the servants won’t exert them- selves at all—because they have gone, all of them. I gave them notice two weeks ago.” She tried to make her voice light, as if dismissing a houseful of servants was an everyday occurrence to be remedied by the Slade Domestic Agency. “Yesterday was their last day, which is why . . .” Her voice faltered as she saw the faces of women who had been her ser- vants and companions for the past nine years when they had said good- bye. As they had held her hands or enfolded her in their arms and wished her all the best in the world. At least they found new, grateful, and hopefully stable employers. Well, nearly all of them.
Her mother’s hand flew to the single strand of pearls around her neck and held on to it for dear life. “You let them go? My dear child, then who was that person in my room?”
“That was the scullery maid—I agreed to keep her on for another week or so . . . She is very willing.”
Dismissing her maid, Clotilde; the housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson; Cook; the parlormaid, Palmer; Esmé’s admirable but intimidating nanny, Mrs. Cameron; and the odd job man who came on Fridays had had a strange effect on Lucy, and its outcome lay upstairs in her chest of drawers, wrapped in tissue paper.
It was a complete waste of energy to try to put an optimistic gloss on what she must say next. “You see, Mama . . . James . . . It seems that James has left me.”
Her mother held her breath. Her eyes closed for a brief flutter of a second. “Oh, Lucy, not again.”
She might as well say: Which James? Lucy thought as she watched her mother struggle for composure. She never had time for him in the first place—no wonder she didn’t notice when he left a month ago!
As she waited for her mother’s “Whatever are you going to do, dear?” the skin on her arms seethed in a sting of unease so close to fear that she was amazed she could string two words together. Without a husband, or the necessary means, deserted wives simply did not survive, and if they did, it was not in a way that polite people recognized. We are equipped for marriage and bearing children but not for desertion. It was not a new realization. Lucy had known the moment James had stormed off into a rainy February night with a badly packed valise that she might very well be destitute within six months. Three if her plan did not work. Her mouth was as dry as toast. She took another mouthful of sour tea. I’ d give anything in the world right now for a whiff from that blasted bottle. She felt the familiar stirring of resentment and welcomed it as an alternative to dread. Why didn’t she have a comfortable mother? A kindly woman with a soft bosom on which she could lay her tired head and cry out her crushing fears and the deep aching despair of being abandoned?
Mrs. Kennedy did not encourage outward displays of emotion: swollen eyes and red noses were vulgar—even if the love of one’s life had been carried off in three days, as in Lucy’s father’s case, by typhoid.
“I can’t imagine he will be gone for long, dear. James tends to be unpredictable. I expect he’ll be back when . . .” A dismissive wave of her elegant hand. From the moment Lucy’s mother had met James she had considered him irresponsible: lacking in all reliable masculine virtues.
The money runs out? Lucy knew how her mother’s mind worked. Is that the best you can do? Irritation rescued her from self-pity. “I’m afraid that this time it is for good. Even if he wanted to come back, I would say no. So, it seems I have no husband!” Lucy heard defiance in her voice. Her mother, no doubt, heard her remark as brazen.
I have no husband! A month ago, the dreaded words had left her trembling. Saying them aloud, she felt her fear begin to subside. A surge of something akin to excitement prickled in her throat with the exhila- rating effervescence of champagne. Stop it, she told herself. Not enough sleep has made you light-headed. But the feeling of giddy elation per- sisted. Even if she couldn’t pay the bills, and they were turfed out of the house, she was free of James: his erratic and badly timed disappearances, cold sarcasm, and two-day hangovers.
“He ran off with a pantomime dancer.” She pressed the tips of her fingers to her lips to stop herself from laughing. I sound like a heroine in one of my sister’s stories. She gulped another mouthful of sour tea. “Her name is Gilda, Gilda La Vie—I believe she pronounces it Lavvy.” Laughter rippled upward, met cold tea coming down, and rushed it back the way it had come. She pressed her napkin over her mouth to prevent more damage to the cloth.
Her mother looked away. “I am not surprised that you are over- wrought, dear. I always said that James—” She lifted a hand, palm out- ward. “Perhaps we should not discuss that now.” Her mother’s fragile bone structure, fine gray hair, and soft voice belied a deeply practical nature. “I am sure he has made adequate provision.” She tugged a scrap of lawn and lace from the cuff of her sleeve and handed it to her daughter.
Lucy blew her nose. “There is no money—he took the last of it.” She watched her mother’s hands reach for each other: two terrified children seeking comfort. “I had to let the servants go so I could pay the rent.” She didn’t mention her other extravagant purchase the day before yes- terday. Have I completely lost my mind? she asked herself.
“My dear child, whatever are you going to do?” Her mother twisted both of her wedding rings on her thin fingers. Twice widowed, she had married once for love to Douglas Sutherland, and the second time for financial security. When her second husband died of chronic dyspepsia, Mrs. Kennedy discovered that she had not married for an assured future after all and had come to live in Davies Street (just off the fashionable end of Berkeley Square, she told her friends) with Lucy and James.
Lucy knew exactly what her mother was thinking: I would be wel- comed everywhere as a widow: no one wants an abandoned wife hanging around, particularly if there is no money.
She met her mother’s gaze: She’s hoping that if I am ever lucky enough to find myself a second husband, I’ ll choose one who is wiser with his invest- ments, or, at least, easy on the brandy.
Her mother’s expression intensified into one close to rebuke. And now she’s worried that I am closer to thirty than to twenty.
She stared across the untidy table at her mother’s pale, powdered face. “I would rather die than marry again.” It was a challenge, quickly tempered by her mother in the graceful tit-for-tat she excelled in.
“Well, you can’t marry again, can you, dear? You already have a husband.” And then to cap it: “Have you told your sister?”
Lucy’s resentment intensified. Her younger-by-a-year sister, Elinor, with her spectacular marriage to the heir of a rich family, was every mother’s perfect daughter.
“No, not yet,” she lied and crossed the fingers of both hands.
When her mother left the dining room she would go upstairs to put on her hat for her morning walk. The guest room door was directly op- posite the door to Mrs. Kennedy’s room. Lucy could see her mother jogging her sister awake in a flurry of concern and whispered lamenting
as she announced Lucy’s abandonment and looming financial cata- strophe.
She glanced at the dining room clock. It was half past nine. Elinor was volatile at the best of times; if she were awoken too early, it would be fatal. In her eagerness to be rid of their mother’s desperate need to discuss Lucy’s dilemma, Elinor might give away everything she and Lucy had planned together last night.
Lucy reached across the breakfast table, took her mother’s hand, and went to the heart of the matter. “There is nothing either you or Elinor can do to help, Mama. I have started divorce proceedings against James—for desertion. My decree absolute will be granted in a few weeks.”
Her mother snatched back her hand and brought it down on the table- cloth with a slap that made the cups quiver in their saucers. “Divorce?” She hauled in air like a drowning woman. “Have you completely lawst your senses, Lewcy? If you divorce James, you will lose every single one of your friends. The scandal will be unimaginable. You will not only be destitute, an exile from all decent society, but your child will have no father! Have you thought of that? No, of course you haven’t. Well, think of it now: if you proceed with this insanity, Esmé will be made a ward of the court.”
Lucy pushed open the door to her sister’s bedroom with her shoulder and, followed by her Pekingese, NouNou, and her plump puppy, Mi- nou, maneuvered the breakfast tray into the dimly lit room.
A head lifted itself briefly from the pillow. “Oh, it’s you. I thought it was Mama again.” Elinor turned over onto her back, her long hair spread out on either side of her beautiful, grumpy face.
“She’s gone for her walk, with Esmé.”
Elinor’s brows came down as Lucy dumped the heavy tray onto the bed. “You should never have told her about your divorce. She’s frantic— unstoppably frantic. What you should have done . . .” Two hands pushed hair back from her forehead. “What you should have done was wait
until it was final. You could have made up a story—and she would have believed you. James was hardly ever here anyway.”
Lucy’s head throbbed. Last night she and her sister had finished off the remnants of a decanter of brandy that James had somehow over- looked. She had hoped it would make her sleep—but it had kept her awake all night, tossing and turning in a depressed state of what-ifs.
“Yes, I know that she would far prefer me to be widowed than watch me stand up in court and tell everyone that ‘my hubby ran off with a Gaiety girl.’ But if I don’t divorce James, there is nothing to prevent him moving back when he tires of this woman. And if, in the meantime, my scheme is successful, then he’ll drink away any money I might have in the bank before he runs off with another dancer. It has to be divorce.”
Elinor pressed the heels of her hands against her closed eyes. “Dogs off the bed.” Lucy picked up both Pekes and put them outside the bed- room door. “You surely didn’t tell her about Gilda Lavvy, did you, Lucy?” “Whyever not? She needs to hear it from me rather than one of her
gossipy friends. I didn’t tell her anything else, by the way, did you?”
Elinor turned onto her side with her back to her, and Lucy swallowed down alarm—had Elinor told? “Elinor, don’t go back to sleep, it’s nearly eleven o’clock. Mama will be back soon, and I have a favor.”
“Another one?” Elinor pushed herself upright to loll against her pil- lows and accept tea.
“I want you to take Mama back to Grosvenor Square with you. I have so much to do, and you know how demanding she can be. Anyway, I don’t think she can survive without a crew of servants. She has to be given time to adjust, and I would prefer her to do it in your house and not in mine. It would be kinder.”
“Kinder to whom? Certainly not me.” Elinor sorted through the of- ferings on her breakfast tray with an irritable jabbing finger. “You seem to forget, Lucy, that Clayton is redoing the drawing and dining room. The house is in chaos, which is why I am staying here with you.” And under her breath: “What on earth made me think that was a good idea?”
Lucy remained silent: at this hour of the day, it was always best to let Elinor lead the way.
“What about Esmé? Mama could look after Esmé for you now that you have fired Nanny.”
Lucy was already shaking her head. “No, I can’t have that. Mama scolds and corrects her. If Esmé makes the slightest noise she is sent to her room. I need time; you have to give me more time. And isn’t she due to you for a visit? You promised me you would take her this year.” I must not, Lucy reminded herself, start an argument with Elinor. I need far too many favors.
“What possessed you to get rid of her nanny?” “Too expensive, but the scullery maid is—”
Elinor bolted upright, green eyes wide with disbelief. “No one, Lucy, absolutely no one trusts their daughter to the care of a scullery maid. If you were going to keep one servant, it should at least be someone useful, like the cook”—she waved a piece of scorched toast—“or Nanny.”
Yes, why did I agree to keep on that sad fright with her chapped hands?
Lucy asked herself. “She had nowhere else to go.” “And that’s a reason?”
“Elinor, she is only sixteen: Cook hired her two weeks ago. She has no family, no one at all.”
“And no skills, except washing pots and pans and sweeping the floor. You know nothing about her, and you entrust your little girl to her care?” Elinor, annoyed at being woken twice by her family, was now in a quar- relsome mood. “Where is she from? Did she produce references? No, of course not. She is probably a workhouse girl.” She threw her arms wide and tossed back her hair. “Why don’t you hire a butler from the rookery while you are giving room and board to all the riffraff in London?”
Always such histrionics; she should be on the stage, Lucy thought.
She saw again the thin face of the maid crumple when she had told her that she could no longer keep six servants and that she was to be let go with five shillings and a reference. I can’t even remember her name. Francis? Frank? Franklin!
“She is from Northumberland. She was obviously from a decent family before she was made an orphan. She is polite, she can read and write, and her mother was a dressmaker. Yes, Elinor, she came to us from a workhouse, but Cook was nobody’s fool and she told me that Franklin was a decent, clean, God-fearing girl.”
A flash of gunpowder from the bed—Elinor had after all drunk most of the brandy last night. “Rubbish, absolute and complete and ut- ter rubbish. She is a workhouse menial, willing to tell any tale to keep her place. That God-fearing scullery maid is probably packing up the silver in one of your hand-embroidered coverlets at this very moment.” Lucy shook her head. “There is no silver—James sold it all last year.
If a pleasant young woman will accept food and shelter as compensation for hard work, and you are in my position, you jump at it. Do you imag- ine for one moment that Mama will put on an apron and produce break- fast, lunch, and dinner?” Her voice cracked and tears streaked down her cheeks. “Why on earth would I turn out a girl onto the streets to fend for herself? Franklin and I are in the same damned boat.” That’s twice that I have sworn this morning. She felt her self-control begin to fray around the edges. I must get a grip, she told herself as tears started to splash in earnest. Elinor’s anger evaporated as quickly as it had crashed into the room.
She took her sister by her shoulders and pulled her close. “I’m sorry, Lucy, please don’t cry. I didn’t mean it. Everything will work out, I’m sure of it. We have a plan. I didn’t tell Mama, I promise,” she whispered as she stroked Lucy’s disheveled hair. She pulled back to wipe away her sister’s tears, and imitating the high, fluting voice of their mother, she added, “We don’t use that sort of language, Lewcy, we are not a family of tinkers.”
Lucy pulled away, laughing through her tears. “You can’t tell her
anything—she would never understand.”
“Well, she will find out, eventually. So be prepared.” Elinor took her sister’s hand and held it tightly.
“I am not sure I understand what I am about to do, either.” She squeezed Elinor’s hand to emphasize something they had agreed on last night. “You will ask Clayton to open a bank account for me, in my
name, won’t you? I have enough money to open an account—but they won’t give a bank account to a woman, divorced, married, or single, without the guarantee of a responsible male.”
“Yes, yes. I will make him do it first thing tomorrow morning. But”—Elinor pointed her forefinger—“this venture has to be carried out with tact and discretion. Otherwise, Clayton will be angry.”
“I wouldn’t dream of doing it any other way. If it doesn’t work . . . then I’ll have to try something else.”
Elinor lazed back on her pillows and smiled. “I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Come on, darling, no more dread and panic; it will be fun, you’ll see.”
The last thing in the world it will be is fun, Lucy thought as she re- membered the lawyer whose fees she couldn’t afford, the tradesmen who were already impatient to settle February’s accounts, and a landlord with a short fuse. Not to mention parting with some of her precious few pounds on a reckless purchase that made her wonder if she had lost all judgment.
Her sister sat forward. “Stop worrying. Our plan will work. And anyway, I will tell Clayton that he has to lend you some money—to tide you over.”
Lucy started to shake her head. “No . . . please don’t. I have enough to get me started. I would rather—”
The door flew open and Esmé came into the room at a run. “We are back from our walk, and Grandmama wants to talk to both of you!” She threw her arms around her mother’s neck and kissed her cheek. “She says I am not to play in the garden with Celia because she has to make lunch, and I have to stay out of the way in the nursery, all alone, and be good.” Tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks. “And I heard her tell Celia that we were all going to stay with Aunt Elinor, and that we wouldn’t need her anymore. Which is wrong because Celia is my nanny now, and I like her much more than Grand.”
Elinor sank her head into her hands, her shoulders shaking with laughter. “Not an Ethel, or a Mabel, but a Celia? How poetic: you have
a scullery maid who calls herself Celia! I think you’ve got trouble on your hands, sister.”
Lucy pulled her daughter up onto the bed and into her lap. “Her name is Celia Franklin and she and Esmé are friends, aren’t you, dar- ling?” She tied up a trailing ribbon, smoothing silky dark curls back from Esmé’s round, damp face. You see, she telegraphed with raised eyebrows to her sister. This is why you have to take Mama home with you. Elinor threw back the covers and got out of bed. In her fine lawn nightgown, she was a stirring sight with her magnificent breasts, her long supple back ending in a round bottom as firm as a young girl’s, and a neck like a column of alabaster. She was taller than Lucy, with vivid coloring and the confident allure of a woman feted for her dramatic beauty. Lucy remembered James telling her on their wedding night that she looked like a delicate fawn poised for flight. What a pity I didn’t pay
more attention to that remark, she thought.
Elinor picked up her wrap. “How long must I keep Mama?” she asked as she thrust her arms into the sleeves.
“For as long as you can stand it.”
Elinor bit the top of her thumb as she calculated. “Two days—three? Absolutely no more than three.” Esmé giggled and snuggled deeper into her mother’s lap. “Oh, for pity’s sake! A week, no longer than a week. After that Clayton will put his foot down.” Elinor clapped her hands. “Now, off you go, both of you, and leave me in peace. If I must take Mama home with me, I need to dress and leave before you give me a disgusting lunch.”
Lucy turned the envelope over to read the sender’s address on its back. It was from her solicitor’s clerk, Mr. Wilfred Clemens. Using the tip of
her scissors she slit the envelope and pulled out two pages: an official document and a letter. The letter, written in black ink, confirmed that the marriage between Lucile Christiana Sutherland and James Charles Stuart Wallace, solemnized on the thirteenth day of September 1884, had been dissolved on the thirtieth of April 1893. She could see Mr. Clemens’s long, clean-shaven face, his lips pressed together in disap- proval as he had written in his even copperplate hand: Your decree abso- lute has been granted and you are now legally divorced.
She stared down at the document releasing her from her marriage to James. What had she expected to feel now that the nine years of her marriage were over? Elation? Joy? Guilt that she had not been a worthy wife? Gratitude that she would never smell the sour odor of stale brandy on James’s breath as he lay beside her in their bed, or feel him fumbling at her nightdress, his legs thrusting hers apart? She shook her head to rid it of his slurred command that she lie still when she had tried to pretend she was turning away from him in her sleep to avoid the brutality of his nightly assaults, until, bored of her, he had pushed her away and told her she was frigid.
She sat down at her dressing table and looked at the serious woman gazing back at her in the looking glass. Where has that eighteen-year-old girl gone who fell so completely in love nine years ago? That laughing, happy girl? She saw for a fleeting moment the skinny tomboy who swam in the icy water of the Gulf of Saint-Malo off Jersey island, who fished in the pond for tiddlers in spring and skated on its surface in winter. Is she still in there somewhere?
She searched her reflection for lines. Yes, there they were at the cor- ners of her eyes. Her mother reminded her not to frown; her sister dis- missed them as laughter lines. Lucy traced the edge of her jawline with her forefinger: My face is too thin. She pulled the lamp closer and leaned into its light. Her skin was still firm, her mouth full-lipped. At least she hadn’t become grim and tight from nine years of disappointments and the indifference of a husband whose interest lay only in women who drank gin and kicked up their legs in a pantomime chorus. Did he ever
really love me? she wondered. Had that younger, superficially charming man ever felt any emotion deeper than the need to gratify momentary physical pleasure?
She felt no joy that she was free—not a quiver, not a shred—simply relief. If relief was all she felt, so be it! Perhaps joy of a sort would come in its own time. She bent and opened the bottom drawer of her chiffonier and lifted a parcel onto her lap, peeling away layers of tissue paper. A bright flash of indigo and violet gleamed in the lamplight as she held the silk up to her face. Violets and heartsease: women of her mother’s genera- tion believed flowers were symbolic. Violets represented faith, and hearts- ease peace. The rich hue made her skin look porcelain smooth, pearl white. She shook out the folds of taffeta around her like a cloak and walked slowly around her room, feeling its heavy rustle pull behind her. Wrapped in silk, she threw the two pillows on the right side of the bed onto the floor, pulling her own into the center. She lay down and stretched her arms and legs out as far as they would go to the bed’s four posts. This is my bed now, my room, and if I can hang on to it, my house! She smoothed her hands down over the taffeta and looked around the pretty room she had created in the weeks she had waited for her divorce, obliterating all evidence of a masculine presence. A swathe of fine white muslin embroidered in white roses looped around the crown of her bed, softened its thick mahogany posts. Gone were the heavy red brocade curtains blocking the light from the windows, replaced by simple dove gray linen over sheer white muslin that she kept open at night. She had re-covered the maroon velvet cushions with silver-gray silk. To her mother’s horror she had painted over the burgundy wallpa- per with a tinted wash of lavender. The pale south-facing walls reflected the slanting rays of the rising sun in the morning, flushing them rose pink, and in the evening the cool grayish tint of lavender intensified. She lay quite still on her bed, her hands folded behind her head, breathing
in the late-night air as it belled the muslin curtains inward.
For the first time in weeks she was hungry! No more half-raw joints of beef squatting on the sideboard in my house! Tomorrow morning she
would order a roast chicken for lunch. Surely Celia would be able to manage something as simple as roasting a chicken? What a pity James had emptied the cellar; her meager budget didn’t extend to wine. She ignored the niggling voice that whispered in her head: If it doesn’t work, what will you do? What will you do?
“It will work!” she said to her room. “Most certainly it will!”
After breakfast she would put on her hunter green broadcloth and walk to Farmers & Rogers in Regent Street, where she would buy ten yards of the sheerest gray mousseline de soie and a length of deep indigo silk for the sleeves of the dress. Sleeves were important in any gown, and these sleeves would be sublime.
Lucy could see it now as if it were already hanging in her wardrobe. She reached out to the table by her bed for the tablet of drawing paper and a pencil. Sitting up against her pillows, she started to sketch the bodice of the dress. “Smooth, boned so it fits tightly . . . with a plunging vee neckline,” she instructed herself, “ending between my breasts.” She looked down and laughed. They were not as mountainously glorious as Elinor’s snowy prow, but they would look impressive enough if she pushed them up with her corset. “The décolletage trimmed with the lace from my wedding dress and secured with . . . a bow?” She tapped her pencil. “No, dark blue appliquéd flowers . . . here and here and here.” Her pencil traced lightly over the page: “Soft, bouffant gray chiffon sleeves, set over indigo silk, and gathered into frilled cuffs of long lace above the elbows: lace sleeves half covering slender arms are irresistible.” She drew the line of a flowing skirt. “Simple . . . feminine.” She cor- rected herself. “Alluring and feminine.”
When she looked up from her drawing the sun was streaming in through the windows. It was the first day of her new life.
Celia came into the dining room as Lucy laid out the double length of taffeta on a white sheet pinned to the Turkey rug.
“What a color,” the maid marveled at the sheen of silk on the floor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anythin’ laike it. What sort of material is it, ma’am?”
Lucy sat back on her heels. “Do you like it?” In the days that her only servant had managed to achieve a flawlessly clean house, deplorable food, and a contented child, Lucy had come to enjoy her maid-of-all- work’s curiosity and her inability to keep her thoughts to herself. She found her slow Northumbrian accent soothing: the long flat vowels and the complete absence of hard consonants at the ends of her words had a rhythm and musicality that made Lucy think of quiet country villages and fields of grazing sheep.
“It’s called taffeta. Look at the way the color deepens and changes in the light.” She picked up a handful of silk and twisted her hand in the sunlight. “See?” She moved the hand holding the silk. “Dawn and dusk. That’s the beauty of this type of silk; it’s alive with iridescent color.”
Celia turned to the dining room table, pushed against the wall to make more space on the floor. “Is this part of it too, ma’am, the dress?” “Yes, this is chiffon. The French call it mousseline de soie.” She lifted
a length and held it up to the light and smiled at Celia through it. “So sheer it’s like mist. I’ll use it as an overskirt; the colors of the taffeta will gleam through it. When I move, the chiffon will slide over the taffeta and these violets will look as if they are flowing across the dress.”
Celia picked up a silk violet and studied it carefully. “You made these, ma’am?”
“Yes. Like this.” Lucy picked up a narrow dark green ribbon and a violet one. She filled a needle with silk thread and, twisting and crimp- ing the ribbons, fashioned a violet with two tiny leaves. She pinned it onto a piece of ink blue lace net. “These will be scattered in a panel down the front of the skirt.” She glanced up at the girl standing ab- sorbed as she watched Lucy’s fingers. “Do you see?”
Celia nodded. “Th’ur laike real flowers.” Her admiration was delight- ful. She turned the silk flower in her hands, absorbed in its intricacy. Her skin was no longer papery and pale but firm and flushed with health. Her hair was clean and glossy, concealed under a perfectly ironed
cap. But the parlormaid’s old dress hung from her thin shoulders. It needs to be taken in; no, it needs to be turned into dusters; that sickly pink is hideous with her pale skin and fair hair.
“We need to see about a new dress for you, Celia.” It wasn’t right to call a servant by her first name; it was too familiar. Her mother had told her that she was asking for trouble. Lucy shrugged off her mother’s often-voiced opinion. What had she to lose? She had already broken the rules. She was a shameless woman: a divorcée. She had a scullery maid to look after her daughter and make her something called pease pudding for lunch and dinner, but the last thing in the world she could bring herself to do was to call this diminutive fairy Franklin.
“That dress has seen better days, and it is far too big for you. I have some cloth somewhere that will do. You know how to sew, don’t you?” Celia bobbed a curtsy. “I do, ma’am. Me mam was a seamstress, but she could do anythin’: cutwork, embroidery, fagoting. Fine shirts she made for genelemen and luvely undergarmints fer the ladies.” She threaded a needle and, picking up a green and a violet ribbon, twisted and tucked the fabric into a commendable imitation of Lucy’s violet. “I can come down later in the evenin’, when Miss Esmé is in bed, and help you with yer dress . . . tha’ is, if you wish me to, ma’am.” She blushed at her presumption and Lucy heard her mother’s voice: I told you she would
She nodded, making her expression grave to mask the pleasure she felt. “Yes, thank you, Celia. As soon as you have finished your duties and given Esmé her bath, I will be up to read her a story; then we’ll work on the dress. Now, you had better run along and make lunch. It’s nearly noon.”
Excerpted from A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA by Tessa Arlen, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique designs.
Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?
When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option.
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.
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Meet the Author:
Tessa Arlen is the author of the Woman of World War II Mysteries and the novel In Royal Service to the Queen. Born in Singapore, the daughter of a British diplomat, she has lived in Egypt, Germany, the Persian Gulf, China, and India. She now lives with her husband in historic Santa Fe, where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.
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