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The Night before the Ball

Your Humble Blogger is still early in reading it, but I wanted to pass along a thought on the first bit of a book I’m reading. It’s set in Victorian England, and in the first scene it’s the night before the Hunt Ball. There’s a room full of women, young and old, all a-bustle and sleepless in the midwinter night, and they are all focused on the beautiful gowns, of course. Except for Our Heroine—we can tell she’s Our Heroine, because not only is she the title character, but she is not looking at the gowns but out the window at the moonlight on the snow.

You have the idea? You know what kind of a book this is going to be, don’t you? Except that I’ve completely mislead you. The women in the room won’t be wearing the gowns or dancing at the ball. They are focused on the gowns because they won’t be allowed to sleep until they finish sewing them. These poor women are indentured to the milliner, who is venal and selfish and is besides in desperate competition for business; she has obtained the commission by assuring the thoughtless gentry that the gowns will be finished by morning. The only way to do this, of course, is by driving the workers to exhaustion; Our Heroine expects to be rebuked for looking out the window at the moonlight on the snow, but (in addition to the weariness of work) she has been shoved into a dark corner of the workroom, where she can barely see the fine work she must complete.

OK, now you have the idea? You know what kind of a book it’s going to be, don’t you? Probably many of you are thinking it’s either a contemporary book along the Sarah Waters lines or possibly a 70s book in the women’s liberation movement. It’s a biting satire, turning the opening scene on its head. Except the folk who know Elizabeth Gaskell’s early books, who have probably spotted Ruth already, or who just know the sort of thing that goes on. The book was published in 1853; it predates most of the books with those scenes of preparation for the Ball, the ones that don’t include the needle-women in the workroom.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,