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Authors: Anne-Marie Vukelic

Far Above Rubies

BOOK: Far Above Rubies
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Far Above Rubies

Anne-Marie Vukelic

For Beatrice and Ursula, my grandmothers, and for my mum, Eve: women whose value is ‘far above rubies’.

I hope that my readers will forgive me where they find that, in my earnest desire to capture the spirit of Catherine Dickens, and to tell her story, I have on occasions departed from known facts, or dramatized them.  

At the close of the novel there is an appendix which is intended to enlighten the reader as to which of the chapters are based upon well-documented accounts of the life of Charles and Catherine Dickens, and those which have sprung purely from my own imagination. In addition, it clarifies where dates, names and places may have been changed or added to suit the purpose of a novel.

My thanks go first to my husband, Steve, without whose loving support I could never have found the time to write this novel. Additionally, I am grateful to Mr Roger Flavell BA (Oxon) for his invaluable suggestions and for the sharing of endless resources; to Professor Francis O’Gorman for insightful advice pertaining to synopses, and to my nephew, Michael Carter, for being a sounding board at the submission stage. Miss Eleanor Carter gave of her time to read the first completed draft of
Far Above Rubies
for which I am most appreciative, and I am grateful to my father, Mr George Carter, for his assistance with the title. Thank you to Kim and Richard, for being who you are, and to my boys, Jon-Marc and Alexander for making me so proud. 

11 June 1870  

Gad’s Hill Place, Kent  

 

I often wondered how I had arrived at the person that I was now, the person that I had become, and I have asked myself many times, ‘is it circumstances that form a person, or does a person form his own set of circumstances’?
 

In the beginning, I was not at all as I am now – or was I? – too many years have passed by for me to remember now, but after his death I never ceased reflecting: if a man desiring a quiet and obedient wife finds that when she becomes that which he desires, his creation disappoints him – who is to blame? The woman for displeasing her husband, or the man who has made her what she is now?
 

 

26 December 1834  

18 York Place, Chelsea  

 

‘Alice! It is nearly seven o’clock and the little ones are not yet in bed.’  

My mother’s voice held a note of hysteria in addressing the maid, which was her custom whether the emergency was real or imagined. ‘The guests will be arriving soon: please will you hurry?’

Situated at the end of an elegant curved terrace, our house had been in need of much repair when Papa had bought it, and hence he had secured it at reduced price, but now he was the well-respected editor of the
Evening Chronicle
and our home reflected his elevated station in life. It was Boxing Day and Papa, who was a keen cellist, was holding a musical evening for a small circle of his talented and amusing friends. My sister, Mary, and I delighted in such evenings, and while Mary loved to practice her conversation, I preferred to stand on the edge and watch the guests with occupied interest. Papa’s parties were a wonderful opportunity to stay up late, observing the adult world of which we would soon be a part.

The bedroom was in complete disarray, dresses were strewn across the bed, shoes tumbled from the wardrobe and no matter where I looked, I could not find my sapphire ear-rings. Even little Georgina became caught up in the excitement and I became hot with impatience as we bumped heads in her attempt to try on my jewellery before her bedtime.

‘Georgie! If you insist upon bouncing on that bed any longer, I shall chase you from the room!’ I snapped.

In the rumpus of confusion, Mary sensed my frustration and she carefully unclipped the jewellery from her own ears and held out her hand.

‘Here, take mine, Catherine,’ she smiled.

It was an act that typified her nature: as a child, Mary had always shared her toys, played the games that other children wished to play and, when slighted, forgave all in a moment. Mary always told the truth, and saw the good in everyone. In short, through my sister’s eyes, the world was a beautiful place. I, however, had a hot temper. I knew it only too well and found that I could not help but be hasty, even when I tried not to be.

Among the guests that evening were Mr John Black, editor of the
Morning Chronicle
, an intellectually minded liberal and an accomplished raconteur, Sir John Easthope, the proprietor of the aforementioned, Mr Thomas Anderson, an actor who frequently trod the boards at the Queen’s Theatre in Tottenham Street,
Doctor and Mrs Francis Bell, the family physician and his wife, and Mrs Elizabeth George, a talented pianist and soprano soloist.

Mary and I surveyed ourselves in the looking-glass before going downstairs to join the party. My dark hair and
heavy-lidded
blue eyes were much admired, I knew, but Mary’s delicate features and neat figure were also drawing attention now that she was sixteen.

The room was alive with animated conversation. Mr Black and Sir John sipped at their sherry and discussed their newspaper circulation figures. Mama conversed with Dr Bell’s wife about the success of her Christmas charity work, and Mrs George warmed up her vocal chords and practised her scales on the pianoforte. After greeting the guests I stood by a half-open window, glad of the cooling air in a room full of people.

I was suddenly startled by the sound of a tapping upon the window pane, and turned to see the boyish features of a young man, his face pressed close against it. He pointed to the room and mouthed the words, ‘Let – me – in.’ I looked about for Papa, not at all sure what to do, when the tapping began again. The young man repeated his muted request and I threw open the window in a bid to ask him to leave; but, with the nimblest of movements, he seized the opportunity and jumped right into the room.

He was dressed in a sailor’s outfit and, as no one had appeared to notice his arrival, he gave a loud cough. Satisfied that he had gained the attention he sought, he announced, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the hornpipe!’ and he began to dance with sustained vigour. When he had finished, he threw open the window, jumped out, and was gone.

A few minutes later, the door opened and in walked the very same young man, dressed in his tail coat. He walked around the room, saying, ‘How do you do?’ and shaking hands as if he had never been here in his life before. When he saw all our puzzled faces, he roared with delight at his own tomfoolery, and I was thankful the guests did likewise. I was most grateful that
everyone saw the joke as I felt quite perplexed by his outrageous behaviour.

Papa introduced him to us all as Charles Dickens, and it appeared that my father had employed him both as a reporter and to write some sketches for the
Evening Chronicle
. I must admit that I didn’t know what to make of such a young man and a man he was, being four years older than myself. I watched as he talked with ease to those around him, and observed how quickly he endeared himself by means of his interesting conversation and playful humour. His manner of speaking was rapid and full of enthusiasm.

‘Gentleman, let me tell you about a most remarkable case I am reporting upon at the local magistrate’s court, that of a Mr Samuel Galloway, who was arrested for causing a disturbance in the City. The poor, deluded soul believed himself to be the King’s brother and wished to be recognized as such!’

I stood very quietly on the edge of the group, thinking I had been listening to Mr Dickens discourse completely unnoticed by him, when suddenly he swivelled abruptly upon his heels, turned his head and addressed me directly.

‘Do you know, little miss, the fellow was so convincing that when he left the courtroom, some of the witnesses lifted their caps and made a low bow!’

He roared his infectious laugh again, and I could not help but smile.

 

Later, as Mary and I lay in bed, talking over the evening’s events, I asked her whether she had noticed Mr Dickens with his vibrant personality, his large brown eyes and his soft wavy hair. She replied dreamily that one could not fail to have missed him and that she was decidedly in love with him. We both giggled, but as Mary fell asleep I wondered why I felt such an unexpected prick of jealousy at her words.

After that, the dazzling Mr Dickens became a regular visitor to our home and I was pleased and thankful to observe that he always used the front door from then on. I realized that, as he
spoke enthusiastically to my father about his work, and laughed out loud at Mary’s constant chatter, his eyes rested often and longingly upon me, and although I felt shy, I found that my feelings for him were growing.

 

On 7 February, Charles celebrated his twenty-third birthday, and Mary and I were invited to attend a party at his lodgings in Furnival’s Inn. I was disappointed to find that they were situated at the end of a narrow, dog-legged alleyway which opened out onto a dismal courtyard; but my disappointment was quickly extinguished by Charles’s enthusiastic welcome.

‘Come in! Come in! Come in!’ and he bounded up the stairs ahead of us. He accompanied us around the room and introduced us to his other guests, until finally he came to the last two gentlemen, who appeared to be conversing intensely over legal matters.

‘Ladies, may I introduce you to my good friend, Mr John Forster?’

The serious-looking young man nodded at myself and Mary in turn with the formality of an elder statesman, and Charles winked at us with an air of mischief, as if to acknowledge the humour of his friend’s pomposity.

‘And this is Mr Thomas Mitten, a clerk at the courts, he points me in the direction of all of the most interesting cases to report on, don’t you, Mitten?’

Mr Mitten nodded cheerfully and then began to regale us with tales of legal cases both humorous and alarming. The evening progressed with such high-spirited dancing and music that I hardly noticed the gloominess of Charles’s humble accommodation and, when I had not the energy to match his own, he whirled Mary around the room instead.

The next day I wrote to my cousin Elizabeth and told her how, in a quieter moment, Charles had led me to believe that he wished us to enter into an ongoing courtship; however, as I sealed the letter I wondered why it was that I was filled with a nagging uncertainty. Charles was both gentlemanly and
pleasant, and Papa assured me that he had a great future ahead of him if his success matched his ambition. So why was I troubled by doubts? Because at times, I noticed how Charles seemed to enjoy Mary’s company more than mine and, worse still, he would become strangely distant and preoccupied with work so that I felt that he was not giving me the first place in his attentions. But all the family loved him so: Mary continued to dote on him and showered him with gifts, little Georgina climbed onto his lap whenever she got a chance, and Mama believed that he would become every bit as accomplished as Papa. So I realized that I must lay my doubts to rest and think how blessed I was that he should set his intentions upon me.

Three months later, at a most unexpected moment, he asked me to marry him. We had been listening to Papa play the cello, when he had leaned close and whispered nervously, ‘Kate, I have something to ask you. Would you find it too intolerable to become the wife of an impoverished writer?’

The sudden proposal stunned me for a moment and then I clasped his hand in fervent affirmation. ‘No, my love, I wouldn’t.’ I laughed with delight. ‘That is, I mean to say, yes, yes I will!’

He put a finger to his lips and motioned that I should let my father finish playing.

‘Then let it be so,’ he whispered, squeezing my hand in return.

The proposal had been all the more surprising for only the week before I feared that I had lost him for good, when he wrote and admonished me sternly for my hasty temper. It was true that whenever he was too busy with his work to see me that I would become moody and petulant the next time we were together. But I had not wanted to lose him and, having been reproved, had promised that I would endeavour to become a more placid and undemanding love in the future. It appeared that he had forgiven me after all and so I too could forgive him anything, as long as he would assure me of his steadfastness.

As if in answer to my worries, Charles took up lodgings in Selwood Terrace, a row of houses just north of Fulham Road and
only a short walk from our home in York Place. It had a pleasant outlook and was much brighter than Furnival’s Inn had been, and I hoped that it was here that we would begin our married life together. Mary was excited to see it, too, and presented Charles with a silver inkwell for his desk.

‘Lor’, Mary, what a capital gift!’ he exclaimed with pleasure and swung her round, embracing her warmly. ‘How is it that you always seem to know just what I need, and when I need it? You are the cleverest little lady that I ever knew.’

‘I think that it is because we are of one mind, and so alike in many ways,’ she laughed, admiration shining in her eyes.

I tried not to show it, but their growing friendship sat uneasily with me and I felt jealous again. Mary was animated in a way that I was not and I could see that Charles delighted in her easy company. But I reminded myself that I was the one that he called ‘my dearest Kate’,
I
the one who would be his wife and
I
who would be his unfailing support. Mary would have to find her own suitor.

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