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  • Published: 1 October 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761049293
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 448
  • RRP: $34.99

The Fallen Woman

Extract

Jane Saville's gasp conveyed her shock as her mother's words landed like small blows.

‘It’s the least you can do under the circumstances,’ Eugenie spat, straightening her back against the sofa and pinching her lips in a tight pout of finality.

Jane looked between her mother and her sister Charlotte, older by three years, who at least had the grace to look uncomfort­able, avoiding her gaze. Only moments ago Jane had thought there couldn’t be worse news than the King’s coronation being cancelled due to illness. A year of mourning had been observed for the much-loved Queen Victoria, but the country was looking forward to her popular son Edward being crowned, releasing everyone from grief to start a new era. In her dismay at the news that the coronation was in jeopardy, Jane had decided to paint. It helped her to focus on something other than the disappointment of hundreds of thousands of people, who were now cancelling their street parties and special celebrations. The country’s collective anxiety for the dangerously ill new king would silence the excitement. All the joy flattened with a single proclamation from the palace.

But that news paled as her mother had arrived. She had been seated in the orangery, a whimsical addition to their London home, which her grandfather had made in his later years. Her father had added to its romance by installing a tiny stone fountain and fish pond. Jane was the one who, after his death, had tended to the pond and to the many plants he had grown. The greenhouse was now resplendent with sweet-scented jasmine, plumbago, pelargoniums, ferns and a citrus tree that was struggling but surviving. She loved the constant changing landscape of colours and textures as the various plants came into season. They were her friends in this quiet space, where the soft sound of water was soothing as much as cooling.

Her mother’s arrival instantly destroyed the peace of Jane’s painting session. The garden’s first summer irises had opened fully that morning, and Jane had decided to make a study of one of the blooms. She had dipped her paintbrush into a snowish white made from ground Carrara marble and calcium stearate and was poised to mix the tiniest hint of porcelain earth pigment into the white, which would gently bring the petals into vivid life from their soft pencil sketch. She would need many layers to achieve the vibrant purple of the flower petal, and she had not yet made a single mark when her mother burst into the orangery to make the announce­ment that Charlotte was pregnant to Edmund Cavendish, a man Jane considered a scoundrel but who her sister was convinced simply hadn’t committed to the right woman. He was wealthy, no doubt, but his money belonged to his mother and she likely doled it out as a favour. Jane didn’t blame her. Edmund, as far as she was concerned, was a wastrel who preferred pleasure to business, carousing to family, and any number of adoring women to taking a wife. But Charlotte and her mother had decided Edmund was the right catch, especially because Melba Cavendish wanted very badly what their family already had: high social standing and respect in the coveted royal circle. And Charlotte simply couldn’t look past the money that might be at her disposal if she became Mrs Edmund Cavendish.

Pregnant and unmarried, though. That news had felt like a crack of lightning, sparkling an incandescent cyan in her mind, searing through her tranquil mood to split it in two: one shocked and speechless, the other horrified and galvanised, running for smelling salts. They were required for her mother, who had swooned with an agonised and repeated muttering: a baby out of wedlock.

Her mother had revived, thanks to Jane’s ministrations with the salts. Charlotte had appeared, mute and pale. Jane might have felt sorry for her then if her mother hadn’t ordered tea, forbidden anyone to talk until Mrs Poole had served it, and in that ten minutes come up with an audacious and dark plan that was, her mother thought, the only way forward. Now they were knee-deep in the argument around her ghastly, ill-conceived idea. Everyone was on the attack, including Jane, who hated that she had allowed them to upset her, making her defensive.

‘Under what circumstances, Mother?’ Jane’s tone was as reasonable as she could contrive in the moment.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You said it was the least I could do under the circumstances. I want to know what those circumstances are, given Charlotte is the one who has behaved in a way unbecoming to a Saville. I would even go so far as to say she might earn a title other than Lady Cavendish.’

‘Take that back!’ Charlotte snapped.

Jane was too angry to respond, but she inhaled silently and calmed herself. Years of these sorts of arguments, in which her two closest relatives ganged up on her, had taught her to never raise her voice, not even take a tone, for it was useless. She did not want to waste her life feeling like she was filled with boiling blood or had a catty tongue. This, however, was a whole new level of angst. What her mother was proposing was outrageous. They couldn’t possibly be serious, and yet her mother’s chins were set as far back into her fleshy neck as they could go, while Charlotte’s thin lips had all but disappeared. If not for her nervous tongue licking those lips, Charlotte’s mouth would have gone missing in her anguish, waiting for her mother to solve this catastrophic turn of events.

Eugenie answered. ‘I was referring to our impoverished cir­cumstances through your father’s ill-timed death, not your sister’s poor decision-making.’

‘Well, his death five years ago was an accident. He didn’t die in order to vex you,’ Jane replied.

‘Of course you’d take that attitude, Jane. You and our father were like a precious couple who let no one else in.’

Jane turned to her sister at the caustic remark. ‘I think you should save your petty jealousy for another time. Don’t make this about our father, rest his soul. This is about you. You’re all about ambition, but you have very little care for whom that ambition might hurt.’

Her mother took up the fight again. ‘None of this bicker­ing solves the fact that we are running out of funds as a family. Charlotte marrying Eddie is our chance to change things – all our problems solved. But the pregnancy will ruin everything. Don’t you care about what happens to us? Where’s your conscience?’

‘Couldn’t she have let her conscience serve her before she climbed into bed with him?’ Jane pointed at Charlotte. Both her mother and sister gasped, and Jane took the moment to press her point. ‘I don’t use much of the funds you have, Mother, and soon I shall be earning my own income from my art, so I’ll be glad to pay my way.’

‘Your art.’ Eugenie sneered. ‘Well, you need to make some sort of income, Jane, because heavens alone knows it’s not going to be easy to settle you on a prospective husband.’

‘I don’t need one,’ Jane said, her tone firm.

Eugenie and Charlotte made fresh sounds of disapproval.

‘One day I may want one,’ she qualified, ‘and then I’m sure I shall find him for myself.’ She managed a smile.

Both women laughed now.

‘How funny you are, Jane,’ Charlotte said. ‘Father named you well. You’re as plain as one of your canvases before you begin one of your little “studies”.’ She loaded the final word with disdain.

‘I’ll remind you that Jane was his beloved grandmother’s name, and I wear it proudly. Incidentally, those new canvases to which you refer promise endless possibility, colour, ambition and joy,’ Jane replied, deliberately cool. She mustn’t lose control of this conversation. ‘Anyway, Mother, Charlotte’s decision was made as an adult and hardly without the knowledge of the repercussions. This is not my mess to clear up.’

‘You’d be doing this for all of our sakes, not just Charlotte’s. Don’t you care about this family?’

‘I care enough to live quietly, asking for very little financially, while supporting both of you in a manner that is, let’s be honest now, just shy of service. I’m like a maid to you both. I contribute more than my share.’

Her sister ignored that truth, going instead on the offensive. ‘Your stupid little paintings aren’t going to keep us in food.’

‘Perhaps not, but at least I didn’t resort to acting like a slut.’

The insult hung in the air. Jane hadn’t meant to say it, but she’d been hearing the word in her mind since her mother had made the announcement.

‘I’m going to forgive you that terrible slur against your sister, Jane,’ her mother said, ‘because we need to be a family now. We must work as one.’

‘That’s not true, though, is it? This may be about family, but are you considering what your suggestion will do to my name? To my wellbeing? To my future? You were joking about no one wanting to marry me, but this really will mean that. I’ll be an outcast.’

‘Jane,’ her mother started, as though speaking to a simpleton, ‘if Charlotte does not marry Edmund Cavendish, there is no future for anyone in this family, including the child growing in her belly. We must make this marriage happen.’

‘The answer is no. Simply no. This is not happening. I will not pretend that Charlotte’s child – her illegitimate child – is mine. There will be men who will marry her because they long for marriage, for an heir, for—’

‘But they’ll be old and desperate,’ Charlotte spat.

‘So what? They might also be very wealthy and, frankly, I know that’s what matters here to the two of you.’

‘You’re so selfish,’ Charlotte said.

Jane had to close her eyes against all the retorts she wanted to hurl at her sister, who had no genuine awareness of anyone else’s needs but her own. It had always been like this. Don’t be so sur­prised, Jane, she said to herself. This kind of self-centred approach is nothing new. ‘No, Charlotte, you’re being selfish, asking me to ruin my life because you were short-sighted to the point of being simple. What were you thinking?’

‘Without this marriage, Jane . . .’ Charlotte began in the same wearied tone that her mother had used a moment earlier, but Jane would not hear it.

‘I know all that, Charlotte. I want to know what you were thinking by allowing Edmund Cavendish to take advantage of you like that. What did you think might possibly happen?’

‘Well, our mother asked me to ensure he was bound to me.’ Charlotte dared to smile, unaware of her mother’s pursed lips, which told Jane she hadn’t asked Charlotte to go quite this far.

‘It was a moment in time,’ she said almost dreamily. ‘One day it might visit you, Jane . . . although that’s doubtful, given your plain presentation, propensity for isolation and the paint on your apron.’

That was a lot of alliteration, Jane thought, but kept it to herself. ‘Is that the best you can do to make a man want you? I don’t pretend to understand or get involved in matchmaking or courting; I don’t know how to flirt or catch the eye of a man. You know all those things, and you’re good at them, plus you’re beauti­ful, and that alone will always attract men. But I’m certain you also know that to let Eddie be so intimate with you risked everything you’re surely aiming for. What you’ve given him was the ultimate prize. Now he has it, why is he going to—’

‘Because, Jane,’ their mother said, enunciating the words so they felt like daggers, ‘Melba Cavendish wants this marriage too, and Eddie Cavendish is scared of his mother. He’s terrified of being cut off, so he will keep the secret if we do.’

‘What exactly is the secret we’re keeping? How on earth do we pretend the child is mine, when clearly Charlotte is the pregnant one?’

‘Haven’t I made myself clear? We will say that you have got yourself pregnant out of wedlock and that your good sister Charlotte is postponing her wedding to accompany you some­where out of London, away from society, where you can have your child . . . where the air is fresh and the countryside will revive you. Then Charlotte can return to London and marry Edmund, as planned . . .’

Jane had rarely seen eye to eye with her mother in recent years, but she never thought she could stoop this low. Truly? Was she mad? No, Jane could see her mother was thinking lucidly and with her usual cunning. In a blink, Eugenie Saville had come up with a clever but twisted way in which to release Charlotte from all responsibility for her carelessness.


The Fallen Woman Fiona McIntosh

The heart-stopping new historical adventure from the bestselling author of The Sugar Palace.

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