Clarissa: Chapter One

It is probably for the best that Clarissa Bennett did not know all of the difficulties involved with obtaining an invitation to St. James’ palace to be introduced to greater society. Lord and Lady Lipton, while persistently insisting on a positive answer for their request, did so in such a polite but insistent manner that the good people of the palace were completely flummoxed in their attempts to deny the request without actually denying it outright.

Clarissa’s own attention was, as it should be, focused on such matters as to the white dress she would wear when being presented at court, and what kind of ball would take place afterward. As far as she knew, being presented at court was something that her particular class of young woman took for granted as long as they were healthy enough to do so, but the good people at the palace did not necessarily see it that way.

They had questions, many questions. Among those questions was the matter of what class Clarissa herself belonged to. To be sure, Clarissa was the foster daughter and cousin of a viscount, and many young women, like Lady Lipton, had been presented because of the status of the relatives who raised them and not necessarily the status of their parents, and this was a heavy consideration in her favor. Unfortunately, there were considerations not in her favor, and not merely the fact that her father was a merchant. To be sure, he was a substantial merchant involved in global trade, and the family would likely be able to move into the ranks of at least the gentry if they wished, but then there was the matter of Clarissa’s illegitimate birth. This weighed heavily on the minds of those responsible for setting up the presentations, for they did not wish to encourage the claims of illegitimate children to be recognized by society, thinking it bad morals.

No one, of course, who knew Clarissa at all could think herself a practitioner of bad morals. Indeed, Clarissa herself was sweet-tempered, well-beloved of her younger foster siblings for her affectionate behavior towards them. She was intelligent, and eager to learn, but not showy about it in a way that made other people feel bad if they were less intelligent than she was. She enjoyed horseback riding and dancing and finery, and was unaffected in her love of the beauties of creation and in her friendliness towards others of any age who were introduced to her. She did not appear to have any personal enemies, and was thought of by her friends and family and acquaintances as a delightful companion, modest without making a show of it, accomplished not only at a great many of the beautiful arts of womanhood but also of the art of putting people at ease and not making them envious of her attainments. This sort of skill was to be especially prized, and along with her thirty thousand pounds, made her likely to find a great deal of success in finding a stable household for herself even though she looked forward to no manor of her own, unless her dowry helped purchase it or her husband was himself an heir.

And yet it would remain difficult for her to attain such a marriage if she did not make a suitable entrance into society. Lord and Lady Lipton were themselves somewhat torn on the nature of the size of the dowry that Clarissa would bring into any marriage. On the positive side, there are a great many people who would be more likely to be interested in someone who brought not only considerable personal virtue but also some sterling into any potential marriage. On the other hand, there were a great many fortune hunters who would not make for good matches themselves. When it came to marriage, after all, people thought about what sort of people and what sort of situations would be best for them. Seldom did the thought enter their mind that they had to be good for the people they were marrying as well. It is all well and good for a worthless young man to think that a beautiful wife with a large dowry would be perfect for settling his gambling debts and allowing him plenty to live on, but how much thought did such people put into the question of how it would be for such a person to be tied to them for life. What did they have to offer, other than conversation about card games, politics, horses, and dogs? Clarissa would bring into a marriage enough of a fortune for a couple to live comfortably on, as well as unobtrusively good morals, a great deal of goodwill and kindly affection, substantial family networks, and the ability to have charming conversation in English, French, and Italian. What would he bring to the table? For the moment, such concerns were merely academic.

A flurry of letters went back and forth between St. James Palace and the household of Lord and Lady Lipton. The good people of the palace had questions, and the Lord and Lady had plenty of answers, written at length and in considerable detail, with the offer of supporting confirmation from friends and relatives, from the rector who was a witness to the spiritual life of Miss Bennett, and from anyone else that the people at the palace wished to talk to. Since most of this conversation went on via franked letters, the writing was conducted, lamentably, at a loss to the post office, which failed to collect its usual two penny charge for the letters that went back and forth between London and Yorkshire.

As the correspondence went on, more people got involved with it. Not only did the people at the palace have questions, but so did various religious figures in the Church of England, and benevolent societies of women who wanted to make sure that only the right sort of women were to receive the respect and honor of being presented at court. Not only did Clarissa’s character come under scrutiny, but there was also an examination of that of Lord and Lady Lipton themselves. In the course of time it was revealed that Lord and Lady Lipton were not only regular weekly worshipers, but also had private bible studies in their household with their rector. If Clarissa’s father and mother had never been married, that was at least largely due to her profession as an entertainer and the restrictions she was under in her world. Still, the fact that the relationship had not been an adulterous one but had been conducted with faithfulness, if secrecy, on both sides, meant that Clarissa at least could be legitimized if that was thought necessary.

It was not thought necessary. Once it became clear that Lord and Lady Lipton were not backing down in seeking a presentation for their foster daughter, the people at St. James palace understood that they would likely need to find a gracious way to let that happen, however little enthusiasm they had for it. But the more they found out, the less they realized they would be setting negative precedents, and so although the discussion dragged on for months, long enough for Clarissa to turn seventeen, eventually the desired letter arrived addressed to Clarissa inviting her to be presented at St. James Palace with suitable notice to provide the time for a ball to be planned, soup to be made at the London residence of the Lord and Lady Lipton, and dresses to be made both for the presentation and for the ball afterward to the delight of Clarissa.

Although not all of the more important people realized it, the talk of Clarissa’s struggle to be presented at St. James proved to be of interest to their servants as well, who were pleased that Lord and Lady Lipton would be so strong in defense of the interests of their foster daughter and so intent on providing her with a suitable entrance into society. Even if it meant more work for them, it was a comfort to know that their Lord and Lady were so intent on acting in the best interests of the other members of their household, even though it put considerable strain on them to do so in terms of their time and energy. Lady Lipton, in particular, was praised for being so unflappable even as she was bearing the Lord’s fourth child to term. She continued to do her duty even as her belly was swollen, although it was clear as well that the Lord kept her away from anything too strenuous and made sure that his lady was comfortable during the pregnancy.

Although they did not share their thoughts, necessarily, with the Lord and Lady, other members of their circle were highly interested in the upcoming presentation of Clarissa. Her father, of course, was overjoyed to know that his only daughter was to be presented as a member of the upper classes, which would indicate the possibility of a useful marriage alliance, assuming that someone could overlook the conditions of her birth. Knowing business as he did, he did not think that there would be any difficulty in finding some impoverished noble who would be willing to overlook her birth, but that the difficulty would be in finding someone worthy of being connected with his family. Naturally, he counted Lord Lipton and all of his connections, even those through his own marriage, as being his own connections that brought honor and credit to him. His eldest son, who was being trained to take over the family business, and possibly earn enough to purchase an estate for himself and move into the gentry if conditions warranted, was similarly pleased that his younger half-sister was in a position to bring social capital to the family. Having long forgotten any hostility towards her, he was an intelligent enough young man to realize that any honor that she received reflected well on anyone else she was connected to, and any resentment he might have had for his cousin in raising her as a young lady and not as a merchant’s bastard faded when he saw what advantage her connections and upbringing provided to the rest of the family. His brother was perhaps a bit less intelligent, but having been trained to be part of the Madras regiment of the East India company as an officer, he did not have much reason to keep the matter in mind, as he was laboring in his own way to provide himself with an honorable place in the world.

As for Clarissa herself, as might be expected, her choices for what to wear to her presentation were excellent, as she not only had good taste herself but also had the wisdom of good advice from her foster mother. She looked forward to the coming presentation with eagerness and happiness, and all who knew her could see her undiluted joy at being recognized as a young woman in society, not because she had any dreams of being the most memorable member of high society, but simply because it gave her the chance to share in the experiences she had seen and heard from her family, and which she properly considered to be, at least if not her birthright, then something that was expected of her and people like her.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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