LISA CORSETRY SITE
“She is exquisite, absolutely adorable!” exclaimed Lady Catherine Hetherington.
“I know dear, quite the pretty picture,” replied her companion, the Duchess of Beverley.
“Her dress, deportment, dancing and speech are all quite flawless. My, what a pleasant change from the majority of today’s young ladies, if ‘ladies’ be the correct term to use, most hardly deserve the title.”
“I quite agree with you there, dear. More like serving maids than girls of distinction. Quite a change from our day, which after all, was only thirty years or so ago.”
“I know, it’s disgraceful, the debasement of society. But she, well, she is a delight, everything that a young lady should be!”
Lady Catherine took out her spectacles and peered through them intently. “And her waist, why it must be no larger than fifteen inches!”
“Smaller than that, my dear, thirteen to be exact!”
“Well I never!”
The ‘exquisite’, ‘adorable’ creature whom the two ladies were admiring was Lady Roberta Godfrey, the newly-married bride of the Duchess’ son, Lord Stephen. It was her first ball since the wedding and she had arrived in the finest dress imaginable, a fantasia of blue silk with fine lace and decorated with innumerable sprays of real roses that her maid had painstakingly pinned on that very afternoon. The fine plumage and vast, billowing crinoline, coupled with her pretty porcelain white complexion, attractive bosom, small hands and minute waist, guaranteed that without doubt, she truly was the proverbial ‘belle of the ball’. Her graceful poise and elegant chatter merely confirmed the vision of feminine perfection.
“She looks more like a china doll than a real lady, I do declare!” announced Lady Catherine. “However did Stephen find her?”
“It was when he was in France, he received an invitation to a ball organised by the finishing school that she attended. The moment that he set his eyes on her, he was captivated, you know how young men are. Anyway, a week later he proposed to her by letter and the girl accepted. It seems that she too had been quite taken with him at the ball.”
“Delightful! A true life romance in this day and age.”
“He did well, indeed. We so feared whom he might choose. That Isabella Hawthorpe whom he courted for a while, well…”
“Oh, my dear, you don’t need to tell me, I’ve met the girl, an absolute dragoon, and her mother…”
“Oh! I know, a dreadful woman, most dreadful indeed!”
“If only our Arabella were more like that.”
“Arabella, oh, how is she getting on?”
“Don’t ask my dear, don’t ask. It’s dreadful, most dreadful!”
I feel reader that perhaps I should explain. Arabella Hetherington was Lady Catherine’s fourteen year-old niece. Six months previously, both her parents had been killed in a malaria epidemic that had swept its way through Britain’s Indian Empire, where they had lived and her father had worked as a civil servant to the Crown. As her godparent, Lady Catherine had been obliged to assume responsibility for the girl, but since her arrival at Rudyard Hall, things had not run smoothly.
In India, Arabella had been used to getting her own way most of the time. With countless servants at her beck and call, she had spent her days doing as she pleased, riding her pony and generally lounging around the villa. Her parents had not been strict, quite the opposite in fact. They believed strongly in personal freedoms, and her mother was a very early feminist. Their type was rare in Britain, and they were considered queer and quirky by most and utter embarrassment by the family. At fashionable gatherings they were often shunned, and Mary Hetherington’s refusal even to wear a corset led to her ostracisation by many of her peers. Their incompatibility with aristocratic English life was one of the main reasons behind Hugh Hetherington deciding to take up the offer of a post in Mumbai. It was also the reason behind Lord Hetherington, his father, talking to some high-up friends of his in the government, who made sure that Hugh was offered a post as far away from Britain as possible.
Consequently, Arabella was, in her aunt’s eyes at least, quite a disaster. She roamed around the house at will, continually engaged herself in boyish pursuits in the hall gardens, and refused any sort of feminine training whatsoever. Although she’d only been at Rudyard Hall for four months, she’d already caused two governesses to hand in their notice, and Lady Catherine was sure that the third was preparing her letter of resignation at that very moment.
“My dear, she is absolutely awful. I cannot begin to describe the turmoil that she has created within my home since her arrival.”
The Duchess placed her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “What sort of turmoil, my dear?”
“Oh, unimaginable turmoil. For a start, when she arrived, she brought with her her nurse from India. I couldn’t believe it, what would people think, a brown person in my house? It’s wholly unacceptable!”
“And then she spent most of her days wandering about half-dressed!”
“Why ever did she do that?”
“That’s exactly what I asked her, and the insolent little miss merely replied that that is how she had dressed out east and that is how she would dress here also.”
“Well, little miss," I said to her, ‘You are not in India now, and here in Britain you must dress and act like a lady.’ But did she heed my words? Not at all! We tried getting her into a corset and crinoline, but when we did eventually manage to lace a corset onto her, the little hussy merely went and fetched a letter opener, sliced through the laces, and then ran through the house screaming obscenities!”
“Well, I never!”
“It’s true, dear, it’s all true. She spends her time talking to servants, climbing trees and swimming in ponds. I can’t control her, and her governesses can’t either.”
At this point Lady Catherine began to weep. “I’m quite at a loss! I’m sorry dear, I know that I shouldn’t be getting so emotional, but I really am at my wit’s end. No school will accept her - what am I to do? I promised to look after her, but I do declare that she is beyond looking after. Who am I to turn to?”
“There, there my dear, dry your eyes.” The Duchess handed her friend a handkerchief. “Do you know what, your story reminds me of a tale told to me recently by the mother of another young lady that I know... Oh my, what she was telling me about how awfully rebellious the little madam was, and what a tomboy too! She sounds even worse than your Arabella!”
“But does this story have a happy ending, dear?” asked Lady Catherine, miserably.
“Indeed it does, my dear, indeed it does.”
Lady Catherine looked up in surprise. “Then what is it?”
“ ‘It is over there, my dear.”
And at that the Duchess pointed towards the exquisite Lady Roberta.
* * * *
Several days later, we find Lady Catherine seated in the drawing room of
Bickersley House, home of Lady Bickerley,
“Lady Catherine, you would not believe, my, she was terrible, absolutely awful! Far worse than even your niece sounds!”
“Is that possible?”
“Entirely! Why, she used to go around, shouting profanities, breaking crockery, dressing in boy’s clothes… Oh! I shudder to recall it!”
“But Lady Roberta is so, so delightful now. What caused her to change?”
“One thing, Lady Catherine, or perhaps I should say one place, La Maison de Poupees.”
“La Maison de Poupees, ‘The House of Dolls’?”
“Correct, Lady Catherine. A strange name I admit, but an absolutely first class establishment. It was the school that we sent her too, on the recommendation of a close and dear friend.”
“A school! Is it in France?”
“No, Madam, not at all. Actually, it’s in Imperial Russia!”
“Yes, it’s located in a large mansion in the midst of some forest. Russia is full of forests I believe.”
“But sending her to Russia, I mean, is it safe? So far from Britain, or indeed any civilisation at all; we don’t even own it do we?”
“I don’t think that we do, and I admit that I too had my doubts, as a mother you know. But our friend recommended it so, and well, you’ve seen the results, I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. I can’t speak highly enough of the place. Would you like the details, Lady Catherine? I can easily write you an introduction to the headmistresses, a half French lady by the name of Dorozhkina.”
“Do you think that she could really sort Arabella out, though?”
“Madam, if she’s managed to make a lady out of my Roberta, then she could make a lady out of any girl!”
“You seem down today, Arabella, whatever is the matter with you? A lady should try and appear content at all times, even when she is not.”
“I miss India, aunt. Why can’t I go back overseas? I know so many people there, it’s my home really.”
Arabella had been itching to get back to India from the moment that she’d set foot on English soil. She hated her so-called native land, with its dreary light, constant drizzle and uptight, cold people (most of all her aunt and uncle), with their stupid ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude; people that her fun and freedom-loving parents had despised. My how she missed her former life in the Raj, and my how she missed her mother and father, whom she wept over every night before she fell asleep. No, she longed for India, with her darling nurse Navinda, the long hot summers and drenching monsoons rains into which she used to run and dance until she was soaked to the skin. She’d never been the best behaved girl, but not unbeknown to her aunt, she was deliberately playing up. Her plan was a simple one; to annoy her godparents so much that they’d have enough and send her back to where she came from.
“Well, don’t you worry too much, Arabella,” her uncle announced, “you’ll be going back overseas soon enough.”
Her ears pricked up. “Overseas, uncle?”
“Yes miss, overseas. Your aunt and I have decided that since you have proved to be quite uneducatable at home, you must be sent away to school, to an establishment where it is to be hoped that they can make a proper lady out of you.”
“But I don’t want to be a boring proper lady, and Mama didn’t want me to be one too! I’m me, and that’s that!”
“My little miss, what you want or do not want is quite immaterial. You are under our protection by law now, and you will continue to be until you come of age or marry. As for your dear Mama’s wishes…” He snorted. “Well you see what a mess my sister’s ridiculous notions have caused already!”
“Don’t you insult my mama! Go to hell!”
“Arabella!” Lady Catherine was aghast.
Her husband however, merely thumped his fist down onto the table. “And don’t you blaspheme in my house! You are going away to school, and that is that!”
Arabella knew that she was beaten. “A school in India?” she asked pitifully.
Her uncle smiled cruelly. "Oh, no miss, not in India at all.”
“In Russia, Arabella, Imperialist Russia.”
Russia! Land of steppes, forest and tundra. The realm of the tsar and a country of cold, cold weather. Even Rudyard Hall seemed like paradise compared with that. It was like a different planet entirely, compared to India.
“Russia! No, uncle, please!”
“Oh yes, Arabella, Russia!”
Arabella sat glumly in the stagecoach watching the seemingly endless forest pass by the window. Opposite her sat a burly man, a Russian, who spoke not a word of English. She knew that for sure from when she had asked him something earlier. The simple reply of “Nyet!” was sufficient. Throughout her entire journey from Rudyard Hall she had been accompanied by someone or other to make sure that she did not attempt to run away. Not that she would have tried even if she was alone, after all, where would she go and what could she do? She had not a penny upon her and besides, how bad could a school be? She would simply annoy the headmistress enough until she was sent back to Britain in disgrace. And from there onto India, she hoped… And if all else failed, there was always her secret letter. She felt her coat pocket carefully, yes, it was still there!
The journey had not been a pleasant one. The ship had hit stormy waters almost as soon as it had left the Thames and, when the storms finally abated, the freezing cold had set in. All the way to Murmansk she had wrapped herself up in her furs and stayed in the cabin, rarely venturing up onto the deck. Then, there had been the long train journey to a place named Shalakusha. Arabella had never heard of it before, and no wonder, too. It was little more than a wooden platform and a collection of peasant’s huts in the middle of nowhere. And from there this stagecoach ride through the vast forests of Northern Russia - mile upon mile of trees and not another vehicle or person in sight. How long had she been travelling, she knew not. Hours and hours and hours and hours…
“Uh!” The Russian nudged her and grunted. Arabella, who had been dozing off looked up at him, he was pointing out of the window. She stuck her head out into the icy evening air and looked forward. There it was! Up ahead stood a huge mansion built in the traditional wooden style. They passed through two gateposts, on one, written in French, was the school’s name, La Maison des Poupees.
Arabella was stood in the middle of a plush office, her baggage by her side. In front of her, stood very erect, was a thin woman with a serious visage and a steely gaze. She was clothed in a dark blue dress with a large crinoline and a tiny waist.
“Parlez vous Francais?” snapped the lady.
“No, I’m sorry, I speak only English,” replied Arabella.
The lady tutted, “Anglais, anglais,” she muttered. Then she looked up and said, in strongly-accented English, “You will learn soon. Today I will speak English to you, it will be the last time. In
La Maison des Poupees we converse only in French.”
She paused and looked Arabella up and down. “You do not corset?” she asked, with a look of disgust.
“No, I never have. My mama did not think it necessary.”
The woman gave a look of horror and tutted once more.
“You will.” She paused again and looked Arabella in the face. “I am Mme. Dorozhkina,” she announced, “the Headmistress here, and the person under whom’s care you are now in. I have been charged with the task of transforming you into a lady.
It will not be easy, but it is possible, I assure you.”
“Do not interrupt! Do you know what la Maison des Poupees means in English?”
“No, Mme, I do not.”
“It means ‘The House of Dolls’, or ‘The Doll’s House’. Why is my establishment called ‘The House of Dolls’, Mme Hetherington?”
“I don’t know.”
“I call it that because that is what a lady should be like, a doll. Her appearance should be flawless, her dress immaculate and she should be silent. A lady of distinction is, like it or not, a pretty accessory to her husband, like a doll is an accessory to a child. That is all, do you understand?”
"No, Mme. Dorozhkina, I do not! I am not a pretty accessory or a doll and I never shall be. I am Arabella Hetherington and a person in my own right, my mama taught me that!”
Mme. Dorozhkina laughed. “Mme, you are not even Arabella any longer, let alone an individual. Within these walls you shall be known as ‘Justine’, is that understood?”
“No. I am Arabella, not Justine.”
“Justine, you are Justine and that is final! Now welcome to la Maison des Poupees, I am a busy lady and it is getting late. Come!”
“No, just you wait here a minute!” Arabella took out her secret weapon, her mother’s letter, from her coat pocket and thrust it towards Mme. Dorozhkina. The Headmistress took it and read it out loud.
“To Whom it may concern,
I am writing to you as the mother of Arabella, the child you see before you. Should I depart from this earth to another place, I wish it to become known how I wish my only child to be brought up. Both my husband and I have educated her from her earliest days to realise the importance of others and of her own brilliant character. I wish this process to be continued. Any attempts to transform her into just another mere society miss meets with my sternest disapproval. She is destined for great things, of that I have no doubt, I trust that you may help her to achieve them.
Yours faithfully, Elizabeth Hetherington, Mumbai, India, 1857.”
“Well, well,” said the Headmistress, after she had folded the letter up. “So these are your mother’s wishes then?”
“Indeed they are Mme.”
“Hmm, and do you have a copy of this letter at all?”
“No, Mme, I do not.”
“That’s a pity,” said Dorozhkina, who then, to Arabella’s amazement, walked over to the roaring fire and placed the letter upon it.
“No!” screamed Arabella.
“It seems that no one will ever know,” laughed the Headmistress, “which is for your own benefit. Such ideas are the bane of this day and age, and they do not permeate into these four walls. Now, we are running late! Come!”
Arabella couldn’t believe it, her hope had literally just disappeared in flames. What sort of woman was this Mme. Dorzhkina, what sort of lady would do that, destroy the wishes of a dying lady? She was aghast, but what choice did she have? The burly Russian had entered the room and Dorozhkina was beckoning her outside, she followed glumly, after all, she had no choice.
Arabella traipsed behind the Headmistress down innumerable corridors until she stopped at a door which Mme. Dorzhkina unlocked, opened and entered. Upon entry she found it to be a rather pleasant little bedroom, complete with a dressing table and single beds. Dorozhkina beckoned her over to the other side of the room where there was a door.
“Undress and bathe!” she commanded, “The bathroom is through there. We shall return within twenty minutes. Be ready and dressed it the chemise shift that you will find by the bath side!”
And at that she departed, leaving a bewildered Arabella to slowly strip of her clothing and climb into the already-prepared, steaming hot bath.
Twenty minutes later, Arabella stood in the middle of the room dressed in only a shift, when Mme. Dorozhkina re-entered, accompanied by a stern-looking maid.
“Justine, this is Svetelina, she will be your maid from now on. She does not speak English, or Francais, so that should save you the temptation of trying to converse with her. A young lady should never converse with underlings unless she has to.”
“My name is Arabella, not Justine.”
The Headmistress ignored the remark and commanded, “Come over here!”
Arabella made her way across the room to where the two women stood. Above them, dangling from the ceiling, was a rather strange contraption, which looked a little like the trapeze that she had once seen at a circus that had visited Mumbai.
“Do you know what this is?” asked Dorozhkina.
“A trapeze?” ventured Arabella.
“Th ignorance of her! This, Justine, is a lacing bar; we ladies use it to corset.”
“I I am not corsetting!” shouted the girl.
“Svetilina!” the Headmistress snapped. The she uttered she command in Russian. The stern maid came up to Arabella and grabbed both of her hands.
“Hey! Get your hands off me! Let go!”
But Svetilina did not let go. Instead she brought the girl’s hands up to the so-called Lacing Bar and by means of leather straps, attached them to the device! Arabella now stood, completely helpless, her hands above her head. “What’s the meaning of this?” she demanded.
“You shall see,” replied the Headmistress, who then went to the wall and pulled some sort of lever. Slowly the bar started to rise, taking Arabella with it! Just as her feet were about to leave the ground, it stopped.
“This bar helps us considerably when it comes to tight-lacing. By stretching the body as such, we can reduce the waist further than can be done my standard lacing methods. Of course it’s not the most severe method we have here at La Maison des Poupees, but it will do for now.”
“Let me go! Let me down! What do you think you are doing?”
“Svetinlina, we cannot be having this racket!” Mme. Dorozhkina issued another command to the maid who pulled out of her pocket what looked like a ball, affixed the a leather strap. The ball was then, to Arabella’s surprise and disgust, then shoved into the young girl’s mouth, and tied tightly behind her head. She could complain no longer, nor indeed make any sound louder than a grunt. Mme. Dorozhkina smiled at this latest development and then said, “That’s better, silence.” She then issued some more commands to Svetilina, who went over to a wardrobe and returned carrying a small white object; a corset!
“These, Justine, are night stays. Shorter and less severe than the training corsets that you shall soon become accustomed to wearing. We ladies wear them in our sleep to ensure that our bodies keep the fine shape that our day corsets mould them into. Svetilina!”
The maid then fitted the stays around Arabella’s torso and started to pull at the back.
“As this is the first time that you have worn stays, we shall not be too severe,” the Headmistress announced.
The maid pulled away, and Arabella felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She tried to breathe, but could not, the stays were compressing her lungs so. And Mme. Dorozhkina said that they would not be severe! If this was light lacing, she didn’t bear to think what the day corsets would be like! Just as she was beginning to feel dizzy, Svetilina stopped pulling, and the Headmistress took out a tape measure. “56 centimetres!” she announced, “That’s about 22 inches to you.
Hmm, your waist is not large and appears to be quite pliable, I am sure we can do well with you, Justine.” Svetilina lowered the lacing bar and freed Arabella’s hands from their restraints. As her weight was transferred to her feet once again, Arabella felt the pressure on her waist grew and it tried its hardest to return to its former shape. The Headmistress led her over to a full length mirror.
“Look, Justine, don’t you notice the difference? You are so much prettier already!”
Arabella looked at herself in the mirror. She certainly did look different, but she didn’t know that it was an improvement. She had never, unlike many girls her age, aspired to be wasp-waisted, and she didn’t like it being imposed on her now. Besides, she was sure, whatever the improvement in appearance, it was not worth all the discomfort. Her gag, however,
prevented her from responding verbally, so she merely shook her head.
“Never mind, you will change,” said Mme. Dorozhkina. “Now to bed!”
Svetilina led her over to one of the single beds and Arabella got in.
“Just one thing, Justine,” said Mme. Dorzhkina, “Show me your hands.”
Arabella was puzzled but she did as instructed. As soon as she did, the burly Russian maid grabbed her wrists, pulled them together in front of her and snapped handcuffs on them!
“Just to make sure that you don’t get any silly notions of trying to loosen your corset, Justine. Good night!”
And at that, she left, leaving a confused and startled young girl in the bed, unable to speak and in great discomfort from her overly tight corset.
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