Ella Middleton, seamstress in Victorian London, 1880, is working in the height of the season. She is laboring for a wealthy client and has been corresponding with a wealthy businessman who has just invited her to the opera. Such a momentous event for a working class woman is almost certainly the occasion of a proposal. Ella is tense over this as well as her work, and her recent discussion with her mother over unfair wages.
Isabella was asleep when I came back to the room, which we shared. I sat down at my bureau and opened Frederick’s letter.
You astonish me. Many things you say stand out to me. “One can never receive merely a part of me. I love whole-heartedly, never holding back.” I often overwhelm people too; indeed I believe I have overwhelmed everyone I have ever met. I do not love half-way and it hurts me greatly that so many people do. With my last love, to whom I was engaged, I gave every bit of myself. And since the engagement lasted two years I have been devastated ever afterwards.
I confess that I am shocked you even looked twice at me. I have been at the end of myself, at the weakest state of my own humanity. Once I would not have been surprised to attract anyone, but now? No. It amazes me that you find me interesting at all. I am a rogue and quite possibly a scoundrel. I have secrets, dark and terrible secrets. I will tell you those things as we come to know each other well enough because I believe in honesty, almost above anything else.
You say that you struggle sometimes in finding someone who understands the value of a life-long relationship, that some of the people who have shown interest never intended to stay. Let me tell you now that I am searching for my other half. If I fall in love, I fall in love to death do us part. This is no frivolous matter. This is of the utmost importance and I speak this with all seriousness and sincerity. You must believe me when I tell you that my intentions to you are the most sincere you will probably ever find.
I must believe? Hadn’t I rambled in the previous letter over the topic of trust? I had not written at least a paragraph about trust being earned, not given. Perhaps he was afraid of not earning that trust? And yet why should he be? Did his last love not trust him? While I found myself touched at his admitting his faults, the word “must” troubled me. I let these thoughts distill as I kept reading.
Please, let me sweep you off your feet. I will never let you touch the earth again.
The letter went on a ways. After I had finished it I sat there in thought.
I didn’t sleep that night. It wasn’t so much that I remember tossing and turning, which I do, but that I don’t remember a point at which I woke up. It was morning and I was awake. I could have tossed and turned for some hours and then slept until morning, but I didn’t. I hadn’t slept well the night before. Was it just the huge amount of stress piling over me? But I woke up to a dark sun. My own eyes could not see the day. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, and kept finding myself sitting at my sewing machine forgetting what I was doing. Finally, at three in the afternoon I told my mother I felt unwell and took the liberty of a rest.
Even then my thoughts ran too rampant to let me sleep, so I took my pen to paper.
You speak of coming to the end of yourself. You speak of not understanding why I should notice you. And yet it is I who feel that way.
My father died when I was seventeen years old. He was closer to me than anyone I have ever known. He was my anchor, my advice, my haven. And today is the anniversary of his death. It was a heart attack. He was there and suddenly he was gone. No warning. No goodbye. Nothing. He was smiling at me and laughing. And then he was on the floor, gone forever.
I have been alone ever since that moment. I have my mother, I have seamstresses that come and go. But my mother has been in a constant struggle of self-denial. I think that one day we will be able to communicate about it, but at least now, at least during the season, things between us always become stressed. In the fall and winter months we relax and talk at some level of trust, but when work is heavy… I don’t know. Things are hard, so hard. If I could have a punctuated form of work, I know I would do better. If I could work on a certain thing for a few hours and then change to something completely different I wouldn’t have such burnout. If my mother thought better of me, if my mother didn’t pressure me, this would be so much easier. But I realize, I can’t ask her to be proud of me. I can’t put my identity in her opinion of me because that is exactly what she is doing to me.
I once looked for someone to replace my father. I thought that I was incomplete in the eyes of others or merely in my own value if I was not loved and supported by someone else. I ran to a relationship as an escape, as the ultimate safety, the ultimate place of refuge, the ultimate place of definition. Of course, I was crushed. I know now that a relationship is not ultimate stability. A relationship is not one protecting another, it is mutual, and it is the sharing of a lifetime. It is the agreement to embark on an adventure together and never leave the other behind.
I confess that I am hitting rock bottom. This is me at the breaking point. I’ve been in so much physical pain that I’ve just, I can’t anymore. You’re right when you say I need a day off, and I’d love to just spend a day with you. But it is so much more. So much, so much more. I would benefit from a day’s rest, but it would not be enough.
Often I wish that I could cry. There are some girls that do so often and sometimes without need. But I am the opposite. I only cry in a dramatic circumstance, and only when I reach a certain level of fatigue. I wish now that I could cry. But I am not relaxed enough to do so. I am tense and pressed for time because I am working so much.
Why are people so unkind? Do those that have hurt me have any idea what kind of pain they have caused? How can people be heartless? Do they not know that love is vulnerability, that to be kind is to hurt more than anything else? That to care is to die? You speak of your dark side, the things about you that scare people away, but more than that, the things about yourself that you are afraid of. Well, I am afraid, because the moment that I admit how broken I am, when I just cry, people run. “You’re emotional. You’re overbearing. You’re clingy.” It’s what they all say. Do I have a dark side? No. But there is a part of me that I fear; because there is a part of me I do not know how to handle. Grief.
I have always been the strong one. If things in my family are rough, I’ll sort through it and give comfort. I am the last to admit my own hurt. I will seek out to comfort others and never ask for help myself.
So, to know me, to be close to me, to want to peel back the layers, to want to search through this castle, you will not just see the things that are pretty. You will find the things beneath the rugs. You will find the rooms I try to lock. You will find the parts of me I do not admit are dying. You will find that while most people see me as happy, I’m dying inside. That as much as I put all my strength in pressing on, that as much as I will never give up, sometimes I wish that I could. Sometimes I wish that someone would understand that to live as I live, to love as much as I love, to be as kind as I am, to be as generous, to be as honest, is to bleed all that I am and all that I have and only cling to the hope that someday, someday this will be worth all that I have given.
I sobbed against my bureau, but no substantial tears came. My father’s face would not leave my mind. After I posted the letter I remember feeling vulnerable and unsafe. Frederick had invited me to his trust, but even then I wondered if I should have said what I had. But it mattered little. What is done is done.