Mother was seated on the bed, fingers knitted on her lap, back straight as a stair rod. ‘Tighter,’ she called. ‘Your waist must be narrow enough to reach ones fingers round. No gentleman will marry you with a body as heavy and thick as a parlour maid’s.’
I gripped the bedpost anew, hands growing numb with the strain, my muscles burning as Natty tugged at the corset lacings. Already, my breath came in short puffs, my stomach compressed until it seemed to rest against my spine. No room for hunger, no room for thirst, hardly room – or so it felt – for my heart to beat in my chest.
‘How shall I breathe?’ I gasped.
The light was failing. Shadows formed about my mother, deep in the folds of her skirt, sunk in the hollow of her throat, caught in her hands like scraps of mink.
‘Are you a labourer digging the road?’ she said, her voice high, trilling as a caged canary. ‘You do not need lungfuls of air, Phoebe. You are a lady. Keep tightening, Natty.’
I believe that last was for spite, for I’m sure the thing was as tight as it could be, though Natty gave another tug, dug her knee in my back, revenge for Mother’s thoughtless words.
I see what an empty headed poppet my mother is, the creature who fills her life with needlework and being pleasingly quiet when my father is home and visiting similarly empty headed dolls to discuss how many yards of lace is fitting for a baby’s cot and how inconsiderate servants are to have relatives who die before Christmas, leaving the household short of staff when exquisite dinners are planned for influential people.
I have listened to these women speak, my head bowed modestly, smiling and nodding when required, saying more in my silence than they do in a thousand words.
Mother’s world is as narrow and suffocating as a corset, but there are other ways to live.
There are people outside our tight circle who do not smile politely and say the correct things and leave visiting cards perfumed with Parisian scent. There are lands with warm seas and spice scented winds and plants that grow without being clipped and pruned and bent to respectable shapes.
I shall have a life. And it will not be my mother’s.