This week I will be guestblogging over at the lovely Madame Guillotine‘s gaff about historical nonfiction, which is pretty much the love of my reading life. If you recommend me a biography of a city or a historical woman or, heck, even a tulip, the likelihood is that I’ll download a sample from Amazon and probably buy it. At present I’m reading Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder by Kate Colquhoun, which is casting a fascinating light on what I’d thought was an open and shut case where the identification of a murderer hinged on the details of top hats.
And here is an extract from my upcoming steampunk romance Firebrand. The first of Team Beta has got back to me with it, and informed me that I had my heroine sending an email in chapter twenty-three, which was slightly more punk than I intended.
The candlelight flashes off the gold braid on the gentlemens’ uniforms. The ladies’ skirts bounce and swirl, occasionally revealing an ankle. Rivulets of lace bounce over bosoms ranging from flat to frankly astonishing. There’s a lady over there who looks a bit like Lady Guisedale and is flirting with three colonels at once, which proves that if you happen to be shaped like a pepperpot you might as well put yourself out to be a cheery pepperpot.
The General with all the daughters dances particularly well: his partner is a copper-skinned lady with angular eyes, who looks so like one of the ladies-in-waiting I think that she must be her sister. I rub my bare arms, and think of my sister, sneaking through the bare brick passageways and murky tunnels that my imagination conjures up beneath Seymour Castle.
The music changes. My foot taps: one, two, three, one, two, three. I haven’t danced the waltz since my first husband died.
And just like seventeen years ago, a young officer is bowing in front of me. I have no idea whether he’s someone I should be dancing with or not (I didn’t have any idea back then, either) so I look at Lady Guisedale, who gives me a magisterial nod. I’ve realised by now that at least some of her stubbiness is down to pregnancy, so I feel bad about mocking her sour expression and high-handed manners: it can’t be any fun sitting in a draughty ballroom in high-heeled shoes when you’re in a delicate condition.
I can’t say my own experience exactly consists of being whirled round the floor on wings of ecstacy. It’s mostly a battle not to have my feet trodden on, though the young captain does tell me a funny story about a regimental goat.
It’s been a long time since I did something as simple as putting on a fine gown and going to a ball. There’s no one here to judge me. No one who can hurt me, at any rate. My stepdaughters are far away in New Trinovantium and the Bishop is with God, and I wish him and God joy of one another.
The captain and I fall into step with one another at last. The ballroom whirls past me, all glimpses of laughing faces and black-clad musicians and the flicker of dancing-slippers under lace petticoats.
God, it really is just like Alvanda seventeen years ago. I bet half those young men are swearing to come back heroes or not at all, and the young women are clasping their hands and thinking it all so romantic. Some of them probably weren’t born when Hy Alva fell.
The General’s youngest daughter doesn’t look more than fifteen. She’s beautiful, with tight dark curls held back with a ribbon from her ebony brow. I think of myself at that age – though I was never as beautiful – and I feel something tremble inside me, at all the things she doesn’t know.
The orchestra scrape and twiddle to a close. The great room is full of breathless laughter and clapping. Skirts billow out as ladies curtsey. Young men in regimentals bow.
And then I see him. Across the dancefloor. He’s heading straight towards me.
The man from the painting. The Duke.
Image: The New Ballroom, Louis Haghe