Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How To Undress After a Ball

[Here's a fictional piece by Eberle about Jane Austen for your enjoyment]

You step outside into the night and you are Jane Austen. The carriage is waiting to take you back to the London house of friends you are visiting—they have a reputation to maintain and insisted on sending the carriage, with family crest emblazoned on the door and winking at you in the lamplight. You note, through the carriage window, the illuminated house fronts passing like stage scenery—you don’t visit the metropolis often enough to have lost interest in such things. The carriage jolts over a gap in the cobblestones; after six hours in a hot and crowded ballroom you have a sudden memory of standing underneath the big elm at home, the way its boughs disappear into the night sky as you look up into it, the bell of coolness descending from it like an old-fashioned hoop skirt.

The Lady of the house where you are staying has directed the servant to leave a tray for you in the parlor. You’re not hungry but out of politeness you do eat and then light your own way upstairs to your room holding a candle in one hand and the skirt of your gown in the other. Unlike your titled hostess, your grand gestures must be inward and verbal rather than material
and you are careful not to drip candle wax on your ball dress—you can’t afford to buy another this season, and you do think that this gown is particularly successful, the pale blond mesh overdress giving dimension to the white muslin beneath, as well as masking any slight discoloration-- an economical arrangement. The unfamiliarity of the house passes through you with a shiver and the ballroom conversation goes jangling through your head—it is your curse to remember every word of it no matter how absurd or cutting. Your sister isn’t with you on this visit and you are aware of how alone you feel. Not that you would be able to tell the heart of your thoughts even to her. You never do, not entirely. You would not tell her that tonight you kept thinking: How would the music be sounding to me if he had come, what would dancing feel like if he were in the room?

The Lady has asked Mary, her own maid, to help you undress and she is asleep in a chair by the armoire that looms in a shadowy corner. She wakes up when you walk in and you give her a
moment to collect herself, depositing your gloves and fan on the dressing table. You remove the small twist of fresh flowers from the neckline of your gown where it is pinned securely into the stiff material of the short stays you are wearing. The pincushion on the dressing table is mounted snugly into a small silver boat and makes you think of your visit earlier in the week to Kew Gardens—the Lake, the Chinese Pagoda, and the Temple of Solitude.

Mary takes over as you are unfastening the front of your net overdress—the delicate mesh could be easily torn. She asks you if it was a lovely ball as she unpins the outer sleeves and you say
that it was a lovely ball as you hold your arms outstretched for the removal of the sleeves. You think it’s quite effective the way the gauze opens in places caught up with small silver pins, nothing heavy. You smile to think of all of the girls of good English family playing at being Grecian nymphs in this way—but if it is to be done, it should be done gracefully and not to the point of the ridiculous. Those ornate Grecian headdresses for instance on display right now on Bond Street, tempting as they look, could not be worn by ninety-nine girls out of a hundred—as the Metcalfe girl proved so distressingly this evening. The first pale blond sleeve laid out on the dressing table looks strangely lifeless, reminding you of the shed skin of a dragonfly nymph you saw at Kew Gardens on a rock by the miniature lake; the creature had simply crawled away from its skin forever with an enviable disregard for the proprieties. Does he ever go to Kew Gardens when he is in town, has he seen Captain Bligh’s breadfruit and the African water lilies?

After the overdress and gown are laid aside, Mary unhooks your petticoat. The one thing you
miss about the fashions of your younger years is pockets—you smile remembering the elaborate embroidery you and your sister executed on pockets for each other, the pleasure of such fancy-work worn where no one else would ever see it. You will send Mary off to bed soon but not until she has her reward for sitting up and hears about the food, you know she enjoys these details and her Lady doesn’t get out much anymore. So you tell her of the tower of pineapples, the jasmine and elderflower ices colored pink and moulded into the shape of crayfish. To yourself in the mirror, however, you convey your opinion of the vulgarity of this display through a faintly arched eyebrow. You would have aimed it at your sister had she been there and she would have read your expression as easily as if the words were written in a book. What a luxury it is, you think, the presence of an understanding mind. Would it be like that, if one were living with him always? That shared ease? Mary loosens and removes your short stays, and there it is—the familiar sense of relief that always comes when they are removed, though they are not particularly tight or heavy.

When the maid turns away carrying all your finery in her arms and there is only a chemise
between you and the world, you turn to the dressing table mirror. You are Jane Austen. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you don’t examine the shadows under you eyes, or wonder if you should have risked just a little rouge. Instead, you remember all the moments this evening that you retained, without arrogance, your code of behavior. He once told you that your being had the invincible clarity of a perfectly carved cameo.

Mary returns from the armoire holding a dressing gown and when you are wrapped in this you sit down at the dressing table to take off your shoes and untie the garters that secure your
stockings just below the kneeyou have to tie them quite tightly when you are planning to dance. You tell Mary that you will take down your hair yourself and that she may go. It’s odd, you can’t tell if she’s disappointed or relieved—but that is proper behavior in a well-trained servant.

Now you remove the combs and pins from your hair, and look without flinching into those eyes in the mirror: how did your self-respect survive the ravages of a long night spent in mixed company? At times quite mixed, you reflect, remembering the man (insufferable puppy, your brother would say) who kept pressing you to dance even after you had refused him. It is possible, you realize with a wry smile, that boorishness does not recognize when it is crushed by impeccable politeness, but crushed it is. Having refused him, etiquette forbids you to accept another partner for that dance and your own self-respect forbids you to appear ruffled. How intimately you came to know every detail of that candle-sconce reflected in its mirror on the wall across the room, sitting out that dance.

You then allow yourself one sentimental gesture—you take a dianthus from the bouquet you laid
aside earlier, the one whose astringent spice he once said made him think of you. You separate it from the others and lay it next to the dressing case where you can look at it as you brush your hair. Not orange blossom, he had said, not for you. Careful, you tell yourself, mind your equanimity, there is danger here. A vertigo. You focus on the red fringe of a petal, the almost imperceptible curve that is honing inward toward its heart. When you are done brushing your hair you absentmindedly reveal that your breeding is not of the very best by removing the hair tangled in the bristles yourself rather than leaving this for the maid to do. You place the tangled nest into the hair receiver on the dressing table.

You tip the perfume bottle to gauge its contents. No one seems to be wearing Eau Divine anymore, you must tell them at home when you write next. Your mother gave you this perfume bottle before you left, an unusual gesture for her, and although you don’t feel a rush of affection exactly, you find yourself thinking of her dancing in her youth; it was her perfume bottle, and this fact reminds you that she too has known this moment. You see a hall of mirrors, an image of endless ball-going girls in white muslin. In a sense the whole thing is pathetic. On the other hand, you note, the sensation that you are flying during a waltz, that all time is suspended and all eyes centered on you with admiration is equally true.

That bouncing creature in the Grecian headdress keeps intruding on your thoughts—and you tell yourself that if you don’t stop thinking of her you will have to wonder if perhaps you are jealous of her apparent contentment. And you were a bit of a fool over that conversation at the punch table as well. You reposition a pin in the cushion with a precise stab. Was it right to speak as if you had no feeling for nature at all? It is simply so unbearable when they gush over poetry as if its purpose were to describe a new color they could all paint their carriages. And yet, of course, the feeling you have about that is no more than pride. Your besetting sin, the one you will most have to account for—but there’s no sense in becoming morbid. If God gave you pride He must deal with the consequences. You do try. You open a jar and sniff at a preparation of cucumbers a friend gave you before smoothing it lightly into the skin around your eyes.

You linger over your final gesture at the dressing table, which is to remove the teardrop earrings
from your ears. Do you let yourself think of him now that the night has reached a point of stillness, open, like the center of the water lilies you saw at Kew Gardens? Does he ever go to Kew Gardens, what would it be like to meet him there, to walk with him in the shadowy labyrinths? You spend a moment imagining the boutonniere he would have chosen for the ball tonight. It would reflect a refined taste, a lack of show. Yet also convey an understanding of beauty. Somehow he is able to indicate that to youyour own inner secret—and it is shocking in a way to think that another person might share that country. What you never speak of. What saves you, and also what breaks your heart in secret. What makes the counterweight to duty, restraint, detachment: the light in the leaves, suddenly alive, the balance of color in the sky. Now the horizon turns into the line of his shoulders, so familiar, so exotic. Now you let yourself remember that one glimpse of the sky through the leaves of the elm when he kissed you. A part of you stood slightly to one side, knowing that piece of sky would remain with you forever even if you never saw him again. You place the earrings into their small velvet box and close the lid.

Eberle Umbach
© 2007-2010


  1. Somehow, pulling off the yoga pants and tennies, just isn't the same.

    Fascinating post, Eberle!

  2. Very evocative. Reading it, I felt I was back in those days. I've never been an Austen fan, but I found this gripping.

  3. I love the opening line "You step outside....and you are jane austen" - what a wonderful start!

    and wonderful pairing of the illustrations with such an entertaining and informative story

  4. I love the way you take a moment - a routine - and use it to tell a story. Done with such style too.

  5. Hi folks: Eberle has had an amazingly busy day with a bunch of lessons, but I know she'll be responding to everyone tomorrow--in the meantime, thanks!

  6. Dear Willow,
    I know what you mean! Personally I'd go for ease and comfort over bonnets and corsets every time, but there is something compelling about imagining how lengthy rituals of dressing could create their own particular landscape in some feminine minds. And I think that those moments of longing for the beloved are timeless, and not basically altered by historical era...

    Dear Bill,
    thanks so much! This piece is part of the many directions Audrey and I have sketched out for a book whose purpose would be to give some more depth to the rather caricatured versions in mass-media offerings these days.

    Dear Mouse,
    it was an inspiring opening for me too! And both Audrey and I have been impressed by the illustrations John finds for our pieces, and the work he puts in to do this! In fact, he's given us great ideas for how to approach illustrating the pieces. What a perfect blog host he is...

    Dear Alan,
    your comment really touched me, and made me realize that this is what I want to do in much of my work - to travel the mystery that is present in the everyday. It's also such a thrifty way to find delight.

  7. It is as if you had actually lived it yourself, Eberle! What a perceptive fictionalization of Austen's world! This sort of novel would captivate her fans, I'm sure.

  8. Dear Poetikat,
    thanks so much for your comment! This piece was kind of a fragment I wrote in the midst of other essays that I never really thought about doing anything with - you have inspired me to start imagining ways I could involve this kind of piece with the other essays - thanks!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.