When researching The Last Days of Leda Grey, I took enormous pleasure in reading a book that was published during the Edwardian era: Three Hundred And One Things A Bright Girl Can Do.
I have to say that I would have loved to own such a book when I was a girl. It’s quaint, and in some ways it lingers in the realms of the nineteenth century. And then, there is the fact that only wealthy young ladies would have had the time or the means by which to truly apply themselves to its activities. But, it’s also exciting in its intention of offering independent thought, not to say to advise on certain tasks that are brave and somewhat reckless, even in our more liberated days.
As the book itself explains ~
There is no need to become “mannish”, for girls have a world of their own, and qualities of their own, and a happy, healthy schoolgirl has surely no need to wish to be anything else, or to seek to imitate anyone else. All she need do is be herself.
Of course it was published at a time when women were gaining voices in their fight for the right to vote, and to live on equal terms with men. This new politics brought new freedoms, and the chapters on sports and outdoor pursuits feel very modern and confident ~ as shown by these lines from the Preface: ~
A girl may be able to swim, and yet she may not be a sufficiently strong swimmer, nor a sufficiently daring swimmer, to go out of her depth. Shall she, therefore, abstain from swimming? Certainly not. She still has the exercise of swimming, the fresh air, the sunshine, the exhilaration, the tonic effect of salt or fresh water, and, indeed, it may be that she receives all the advantages that are enjoyed by the strong swimmer who pushes far out to sea.
Push on, young women. Push on! Swim and splash, or play hockey, or badminton. And even if such outdoor pursuits are not what takes your fancy, there are pages on knitting, and sewing, or sketching ~ and samples of music for you to play upon the house piano. There are lectures on architectural styles, on lace making, and pet keeping. There are recipes for drinks and meals. And for those with more daring imaginations, there are a host of ‘magic’ tricks to create mystification among your friends. There are even some tutorials that explain how to make garden hammocks, to read futures in palms, or tell fortunes. Not forgetting the fabulous parlour games with names like Wizard’s Writing. And then there are the plays to produce ~ with much reference to Louisa May Allcott and the lengths that her Little Women went to when producing their fictional shows at home.
A play, here called Norna, or The Witch’s Curse, is offered for our Bright Girls to act in - with pages and pages of scripted text, followed up by instructions for make-up and costume, or the way to create a drop curtain, such as those you would find on a real stage. Even the lighting is discussed with details of all the chemicals to purchase for different coloured flames, which must have been quite a fire risk ~ and which brings me on to the main event that I used in the pages of my book. The spectacle known as Cremated Alive.
This pyrotechnic extravaganza is described through the lips of Leda Grey, when my teenaged heroine and Theo, her brother, put on a show one afternoon; neither one of them realising then that the act will have significance in events that occur in their future lives ...
On the evening before our ‘Cremated Alive! A Dramatic and Fiery Spectacular’, I spent hours on my costume. It was one of the vestal virgin robes from the fancy dress racks in the shop, to which I’d added pins and chains found in our mother’s jewellery box.
During these preparations my brother was in the drawing room, arranging the window’s large box bay into a sort of a private stage, just as the book suggested. With the window’s shutters being closed so as not to be seen from the street outside, he’d erected a wooden table that was customised with mirrors, along with the sack in which I’d hide when I ducked behind the furniture, with a bell that I would jangle, and the most convincing charred black skull that he’d made from papier mâché . . . just waiting there to be revealed when I vanished in a puff of smoke.
When we came to perform the thing itself, Rex ~ with the ringing of the bell and the sudden flaring of the flames ~ could only be subdued again when we put him in the garden, along with any scraps of meat left over from our leg of lamb. He’d barked, and Mrs C (who’d also stayed with us for lunch that day) had screamed, becoming very red, with a creaking of her corset bones when leaping from her seat to grab a vase of flowers on a stand, and about to fling its contents out to douse the conflagration, before Ivor had the common sense to make her sit back down again.
But how delighted I had been to think she’d really been convinced, even if that wild reaction might have been enhanced by Ivor’s wine, whereas Theo and I had been reserved, only sipping a little over lunch to be sure of our wits while we performed. But to hear our audience applaud! And then, when Ivor said that if we did a turn at the theatre Royal we’d be sure of a standing ovation ~ well, I’m sure his tongue was in his cheek, but still, I felt so happy. I felt not the least cremated. I felt as if I’d walked through fire and found a new me on the other side. I felt a humming in my blood, as exultant as I’d ever been when I’d dared to dream of a future life as an actress in the moving films.
© Essie Fox. The Last Days of Leda Grey. Published by Orion, November 3 2016.