This month I’m posting my Classics inspired short story that was short listed for last year’s Jane Austen Annual Short Story Award.
Hope you enjoy!
The Secret Life of Lady Susan.
“I can see the mountains this morning,” I said pressing my palm flat against the coldness of the window pane, imagining my grandmother standing here. I could almost see her fingerprints on the dusty glass. God, how I missed her.
“Snowdonia, all the way down to the Nefyn,” I whispered.
“What’s that?” asked Rosie, from her spot, cross-legged on the floor. She looked up from the piles of letters, unopened bills and junk mail.
“Nothing,” I sighed. “Just the view, never fails to take my breath away.”
“You’re such a drama queen, Mother.” Rosie rolled her eyes, bowed her head to the open letter in her lap; a curtain of blonde curls fell across her face.
I allowed my gaze to follow the roll of the green cliffs, down to the expanse of ocean, sparkling blue and bright in the morning sunlight. After four days of persistent rain following the funeral, the grey clouds had finally lifted. As if it had shaken off a tatty old raincoat, the beauty of Anglesey revealed itself.
“Mother, why did people call Nanna, Lady Susan?”
“Why? What are you reading?”
“Just some belated condolence cards. There’s one here from some Major something-or-other, and he calls her Lady Susan. We’re not secret gentry are we?”
“Not that I know of, sweetie. It was just a nickname.”
“Because of her name? Susan Armitage, you mean?”
I nodded. “Something like that.”
“I thought it was ‘cos she talked with a plum in her mouth. I mean, I loved Nanna to bits, but she did have her airs and graces, didn’t she?”
“Your great-grandmother had high standards that’s all. In fact, I think her nickname came from a Jane Austen novel.”
“Well, she sure was a fan, wasn’t she?” said Rosie, nodding towards the packed bookshelves.
My eyes scanned row after row of old books. It would take weeks to clear the house, months even. What we’d get done during this half term break would barely scratch the surface.
“So, was this Lady Susan a character then? Like Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones?”
I tutted. “Pride and Prejudice.”
“Same difference. Colin Firth in wet britches … yum!”
With a grin, she folded the card back into the envelope and jumped to her feet.
“Fancy a coffee?” she asked.
“I’m starved. Any chocolate biscuits left?”
She padded across the library floor, and was through the door before I had chance to respond. I smiled and shook my head at her stick-thin frame. I dreaded to think of the colossal amount of calories she must consume in a day. Nothing like me. I could only assume she’d inherited her father’s genes, but as the first and last time we’d met had been at Rosie’s conception, his metabolic rate hadn’t been the most pressing topic of conversation.
I crossed to the corner bookcase, dropped to my knees, and ran my fingertips along the aged spines, pausing as I reached the collection of classics.
At fourteen, I’d decided I wanted to be a novelist. I developed a passion for books, working my way through the contents of grandmother’s library with a zealous haste.
“Why do your friends call you Lady Susan, Gran?” I’d asked one mid-winter’s evening, while we were both curled up in front of a roaring fire, noses buried in our books.
She’d smiled; a slow, almost sly look, and selected a thin hardback from her Austen shelf. “Here, read this, one of her early works.”
The novella was titled simply, Lady Susan, and I soon discovered why the nickname stuck. The character was a sexual predator who used her intelligence and charm to manipulate men, and spent her life searching for a suitable husband and father for her daughter.
My grandmother had a deep mistrust for men. She made no attempt to hide it. She’d been spurned by her first love, she explained, and it would never happen again. She thought men inferior in intelligence, and so when I’d read about Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon, I’d laughed aloud. No matter which man my grandmother came into contact with – be it her solicitor, her gardener or even her late husband – none would ever get the better of her and she always got what she wanted. Always.
The door banged open, puncturing my thoughts. Rosie slid across the wooden floor, my mobile in one outstretched hand.
“It’s Dave,” she whispered, making a mock gagging face.
I shook my head, waved the phone away.
“I’ve already said you’re here,” she hissed.
“Tough. Tell him I’ve got a headache. I’m sleeping. Whatever.”
Rosie glared and turned her back on me. Her words were low and brief. When she faced me, seconds later, her scowl still hovered.
“You can’t keep the poor bloke hanging around forever, Mother.”
I sighed. “I know.”
“He’s a good man. He loves you. He wants to be here for you. What’s your problem?”
I shrugged. “Where’s my coffee?”
With a dramatic sigh, Rosie spun and left the room. Mugs and spoons rattled noisily as she banged around the kitchen.
“You know, you’re gonna end up one sad, lonely old spinster at this rate,” she said, minutes later, as she entered with a steaming mug of coffee in each hand.
“Rosie, come sit.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, just come and sit down. I want to show you something.”
I moved to the worn sofa and patted the cushion beside me.
Rosie scowled, but sat, tucking her legs under. Another trait she’d inherited from my grandmother.
“Here, take a read. You asked about Nanna’s nickname.”
Rosie wrinkled her nose as she read the title and author.
“I know. I know,” I said, pushing the book into her hands. “Just give it a try. Okay?”
Rose nodded and took a long gulp of coffee. “Okay. It’s all the cowering and simpering. The batting eyelashes and heaving bosoms. I mean, it’s so not me, Mother.”
As Rosie opened the book, a white envelope dropped into her lap.
“It’s got your name on it,” she said, holding it out to me.
“Oooh, I wonder what it is?”
Rosie hitched herself closer to me as I turned the envelope over, recognising my grandmother’s handwriting. I tore it open and slid out a single sheet of paper. A small silver key fell into my palm.
“This is so exciting!” said Rosie. “What’s it say?”
I opened the letter.
This key opens the secret drawer of my desk, located behind the letter rack. Inside, you will find the history of my time in France during the war.
These letters are for you. I trust you understand their significance. I leave them with the hope they may help you realise your ambition of becoming a writer. Also, there is a decade’s worth of diaries in my safe that I hope will help you achieve your dream.
I’ve often wanted to tell you. But I took an oath sixty years ago that I carry into the next life.
You’re as much a Lady Susan as I. But I hope one day you can be an Austen too.
I love you, sweetheart x
“O.M.G, Mother,” said Rosie. “I didn’t know Nanna lived in France?”
“No, me neither. Not a clue.”
“Well, come on, let’s find this secret drawer. This is so exciting!”
Together, we crossed to the antique desk. The leather chair squeaked as I sat. With trembling fingers, I pulled out the letter rack and inserted the key into a small lock. With a click, a wooden drawer slid forward, revealing bundles of letters all tied with ribbon of differing colours.
“Wow.” Rosie whispered, lifting out a batch tied with red silk.
“Let me,” I said, taking the letters from her. I wasn’t sure why. Who did I think I might be protecting? My grandmother? Or Rosie?
“Just be careful with them, they’re really old.”
“You just want to vet them, be honest.”
I stayed silent and untied the bow, peeling off the top envelope and sliding out the letter.
My darling Susan,
Why do you ignore my letters? My calls? Why will you not see me?
You must know that I return to Köln at the weekend.
I must see you again. I must! I cannot walk the streets of Paris, cannot see the beauty of the Notre Dame, cannot stand on our favourite bridge and hear the gentle rush of the Seine, without thinking of you, my beloved. You fill my waking thoughts. You fill each dream night after night. I would never have believed a woman existed who could captivate me in such way.
I would die for you, Lady Susan.
To touch you. To smell you. To taste you. To hold you. To kiss you.
Just once more. I beg of you, Lady Susan, come back to me.
Yours with loving gratitude
General Heinz von Manstein.
I slid the letter, traces of a distant cologne still lingering on the delicate paper, back into the envelope. Beneath it a telegram, folded in two.
Translation of encrypted message from British HQ: Von Manstein terminated. Sniper attack at Gare du Nord. 06:00. 28.8.42. Await instructions. Remain at Ritz until further notice.
My hands trembled as I pulled a green-ribboned pile towards me, thicker and more bulky than the last.
Mon cherie Susan,
When will you respond to my proposal?
I wish not to rush your decision, I know this was unplanned. But I am due to leave for Naples in a little over a week. I cannot imagine the journey without you beside me.
You ask for time. I give you as much as I can. How much longer do you need?
You say you love me. Sweet darling, you must know I love you. I ache for you. I cry tears every night I spend alone, and my heart will surely break if I cannot hold you soon in my arms.
I desire you and I miss you. Please, Susan, be my wife.
Yours forever love,
The next …
My darling Susan
I am in despair. As I write, my life seems worthless. I have heard rumours of such wickedness. I must speak to you soon. I am going insane here, a prisoner in my own home.
Mon Cherie, do not be angered at my questions, but I have to know. Is it true you have betrayed me? Is it true that the Resistance search for me here in Paris?
Please reply. Please tell me it cannot be true. You know I have contacts, they tell me the Gestapo believe you are a spy. They are searching for you, and they will not rest until you are captured. I hear such terrible tales of torture … Oh, I cannot bear to put down the words on paper.
Please, come with me to Naples. Be my wife. Let me love you again; let me protect you from the madness of the world.
I would die rather than live another day without you.
A spy. Good God.
Lady Susan was a spy?
My grandmother was a spy?
I sat back in the chair, watching as Rosie’s eyes scoured a similar pile; this one secured with a black velvet ribbon. This was too much to take in.
“Mother, can this be true?” Rosie looked at me, blue eyes shining. “I mean, Nanna …”
I shifted in the chair, trying to piece together what I knew of my family history, complex as it was.
“Your nanna was a strong woman, Rosie. She had a difficult start in life. She fell pregnant, unmarried at eighteen, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. It made her very independent, fiercely so. She vowed to raise the child alone. This was unheard of at the time. Can you imagine?”
Rosie nodded, blonde curls bobbing; eyes wide at more revelations of skeletons in her family closet.
“My mother, Cassie, was totally different. Very shy and reserved. She married your grandfather, George, and I came along late in her life. She was shocked to say the least when I popped into the world, healthy and screaming, when she was forty-one. She died when I was four, and I moved in with my grandmother.”
“What about your father? Didn’t he want you?”
“It wasn’t that simple, sweetie. He was a local G.P. He was quiet, studious, happy to hand over full control. He’d been a lot older than my mother, and, in truth, never recovered from her death. He died when I was twelve.”
And it was odd, I had grieved, but never truly missed him. He’d never really been there, just a shadowy figure in the background of my life, hidden by the bright light that was my grandmother at centre stage.
“That’s so sad. You must have grown really close to Nanna.”
Yes, I’d shared my whole life with her. I thought I knew her, knew everything about her. How wrong I’d been. These letters … well … these brought a whole new dimension to the enigma of Lady Susan.
I realised Rosie was speaking.
“So, I guess she decided to get her own back on men, to betray them. God, she must have been really hurt, musn’t she?”
I nodded, remembering the Jane Austen novel.
“I think she took her inspiration from the novel, took it to another level though. She was a remarkable woman.”
“I so have to read the book now!”
I smiled, stroked back the curls from her face. “You remind me of her in so many ways, sweetie. Do you think you could give me a few minutes alone? I need to try and make sense of things. This has come as a bit of a shock …”
Rosie nodded, leaning across to kiss my cheek and hug me. As she left the room, she picked up the book from the sofa.
I looked around the room. Grandmother’s presence was everywhere, surrounding me. God, I missed her so much. Was she here? Watching over me?
I sniffed back tears and re-read the letter. My grandmother was amazing. She’d planned every detail of her death as precisely as she’d planned each of the ninety-one years of her life.
Perhaps, she was right. Perhaps I was a Lady Susan too, endlessly searching for the past sixteen years for the perfect man, good enough for me and my daughter. And good bloke or not, I knew it wouldn’t be Dave.
With sudden clarity, I knew what my own future held, understood what my grandmother wanted. I was the matriarch now. I would make this my home, surrounded by memories of my grandmother, and with her guidance from beyond the grave, I would become that writer.
And my first book would be titled ‘The Secret Life of Lady Susan.’
(c) Gillian E Hamer 2009