by Tom Porthouse
Having decided to work on my own and to make a critical edition, I found myself wanting to exploit my recent interest in the history of domestic service in Victorian Britain because of a family connection I had just discovered. This enabled me to explore and expand my creative and critical skils in a way that I had never had previously . Upon browsing the stories from the British Workwoman, I lighted on ‘Nothing Worth Living For’ and was particularly struck by the character of Mrs Challis, the old blind governess. I began to wonder who she was, what her life had been like and why she was all alone in an attic room. My story imagines what the life of Mrs Challis had been, without changing the timeline of the original story. I wanted to keep the same central messages of the original story – being kind to others and finding things worth living for in the people around you despite your own circumstances. I also enjoyed adding several pieces of history I had learnt through a documentary series I had watched by historian Dr Pamela Cox and the materials on the BLT19 website.
As her dreams of days gone by begin to slowly melt, Kathleen Challis opened her eyes. The beginning of each day was always one of the hardest for her soul to bear. In those moments she lapsed into an un-Christian feeling of resentment at the affliction which had stolen her sight in the last decade. She even resented the fact that she had ever been able to see at all. Surely it were better to suffer such an affliction from birth, never knowing the beauty of the world you inhabit? That must be the case Yet the cruel games of both age and nature had different plans for her: she had been able to know the beauty of the natural world, be able to delight in the bright colours surrounding her in all directions as she walked through the streets and parks of London, marvelling at the indescribable sights of God’s creations, before they slipped from her as sand through fingers. What she would give to be able to see it all again – even to see the grey, dreary days of the English winter when the sun hides for days at a time and the trees lose their leaves!
She reprimanded herself:she must not give into these selfish ideas! It was not for her to decide what happened in her life: she was a servant of the Lord and she had given her life to Him, accepting all things as the perfect work of the Almighty! Jealousy, resentment and fear were the emotions of the Devil; he delighted in being able to slip into Kathleen’s mind in her waking moments, sowing the seeds of her most unwelcome thoughts and emotions. No! She must remember to be grateful: the Lord works in mysterious way; she must keep faith and know that he had taken her sight from her for a reason. She should accept it as she accepted all of His decisions, with grace and humility and a humble heart.
This did not mean that accepting His decisions made her daily tasks any less irksome.
Despite the decades she had lived in this room, she did not find it any less daunting as she pulled herself from her nest of pillows – giving a wistful adieu to the infinite kaleidoscope of her dreams – and gingerly held her hands out to the top of her straight-backed chair as she stood slowly upright. No matter that she left her chair in that exact position every night for that specific purpose, she battled with the daily fear that this morning would be the morning when she had forgotten to do so, or the chair mysteriously had moved in the night. She might fall on the floor shattering her outstretched arms. Who would come to her aid?
Thankfully, that was not to be that day. Now more secure, she moved herself along her familiar pattern to the window, inching her face forwards until she could sense the glass just before her nose, she undid the latch. She delighted in the bite of the air as it hit the skin of her face, feeling the weak morning sun on her flesh, taking away the aches of waking and feeding her with a morsel of His glorious light.
She had always loved fresh air, loved the days in which she could walk for hours without tiring, without needing somebody to help her along the cobbled streets.
Now she fixed her empty stare upwards, to the Heavens, hoping that today would bring some easing of her aches and pains, perhaps some company. Whilst she was ruminating, a sharp blast of cold wind swept between the gap in the tall houses before her attic window, whipping past her face and making the window glass shake and clatter in its frame. A sharp and fierce memory climbed through her body and into the front of her blind eyes: an attic room and another blast of cold wind.
* * *
“This is where you will be sleeping. I know some other houses have additional space for a governess adjacent to the nursery, but this house was not built that way and the nursemaid has priority to be downstairs.” explained Mrs Finch the housekeeper as she stalked forward in front of Kathleen, surprisingly quickly for a women far out of the summer of youth.
She had led Kathleen through a dark warren of sparse servant corridors and up a steep staircase into the attic bedroom. Kathleen looked around the tiny space with conflicting emotions; the room was draughty and almost bare, and she could already tell that the narrow steep stairs would become increasingly difficult at the end of a long day. A old iron bed was against one wall, a small table squatted on the other side topped with a jug, a washbowl and a small towel. A small window shone weakly hopeful winter sunlight onto a cracked wooden chest of drawers, onto which someone had placed a handheld gas lamp and a book of servant’s prayers. She had never in her life had a room all to herself as her nine brothers and sisters had all clambered into one large bed for her entire childhood: now, at fifteen years old, she was to have an entire bed of her own to stretch out in! Some of the despondency she had felt at having to leave her home and her Board School, where her schoolmistress had told her she could have stayed on to become a teacher herself, faded. The little attic was nothing close to the velvet-carpeted luxury she had glimpsed before being whisked into the backstairs of the house, but it was surely the best a girl of her station in life could expect.
The feelings of anxious hopefulness at her new job, new opportunity and new world were very quickly quashed; upon her first meeting of the children she knew instantly that this new job would be nothing like the warm, fulfilling depictions of life as a governess she had gleaned from the fiction she had read in the London Journal. There would be no secret cream teas, friendly advice or joyful strolls through the grounds here; the little Lord and Lady were vicious and spiteful children who could gain no greater pleasure than by the torture of their servants, whom they knew could never proclaim a word in their own defence. Kathleen would daily try her best to engage the children in their studies, to attempt to foster sunny dispositions and elicit sympathetic sentiments in the children, but to utterly no avail. They would run riot all day, ignoring her requests for calm and decorum, ransacking the nursery, ripping books, scattering toys and their luncheon.
After she had been in her employment for several months, a day arrived when the children surpassed their most dire behaviour hitherto. In response to her attempts to complete a French lesson, the Master had instead hurled a barrage of vile insults at her, in both English and French, and proceeded to throw a bottle of ink all over her dress, ruining the best of the three she owned. As if that was not enough, the little Lady refused to follow the piano instructions she was given and threw a tantrum which culminated in slamming down the lid of the pianos onto Kathleen’s right hand. While the little Lady protested it had been an accident, all of her other actions proved it unlikely. The worst assault of the day was not employed against Kathleen herself, however: she observed the little Lady grinding one of the cakes sent for her luncheon right into the plush carpet of the nursery in direct view of the under-housemaid. The look of pain, resignation and dejection on the maid’s face, who knew that she had no option but to clean it up and say nothing, would stay with Kathleen for a long time. Here was was a mirror of her own feelings.
Having returned to her room, Kathleen could not contain her rage. Throwing herself onto her bed she screamed into her pillow. She screamed for the injustice of it all, the way she was treated, the way the servants were treated, that they had to accept what they were given, the way that the child could crush a beautifully made cake into a carpet without a second thought. What her mother would have given for an opportunity, what her brothers and sisters would have given, just just to share that one piece between them.
Leaping to her feet and wiping her eyes, Kathleen saw Mrs Finch framed against the the doorway, like an apparition sent to reveal a secret from the beyond. She swept into the room and fixed her with a stern and unsympathetic stare. “What is the meaning of this, girl?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs Finch, but I simply cannot endure how I am treated by the children, how they treat all of us. It is not right for children to be so young but already so unkind,” Kathleen replied, already knowing she was on dangerous ground by speaking out.
“You must get these silly ideas out of your head, girl, that you are in some way deserving of respect from the Family. They are different from us. They come from a different world with different expectations. We are lucky to be here; you are lucky to have the opportunity to be ‘mistreated’ as you call it. Would you rather be out there? In the workhouse? Defiling yourself on the street for a piece of bread? This situation is the best that a girl of your station in life could ever hope to achieve. I suggest that if you wish to keep it, you push these grand emotions away from yourself and consult your prayer book.” With a last withering gaze, she turned and retreated back down the stairs.
Taking a deep breath, shaking both inside and out, Kathleen walked over to her book of Servant’s Prayers and opened it randomly to the page titled “Prayer of Contentment” and read:
“Almighty Father, who alone art wise, yea, Wisdom itself, make me to feel that in Thy providence Thou orderest all things for the best, and grant that I may be able to be satisfied with the station in which Thou hast placed me, not envying those who are richer and higher than I, but content to be poor and lonely in this world.”
She had often heard in church that life as a servant of God was not to be comfortable: it was to be pious. Now she understood. He had suffered for us and it was to her to replay the debt she owned with her earthly life of service. She was from the servant class after all: her destiny was to serve the higher born. Just because it was difficult and painful did not mean it was not meant to be this way. She would not be able to find a better life anywhere else; she should not expect anything better. Oh, how painful it was though, how much she missed her family!
* * *
The memory of that moment and of the misery yet to come became so great that a faint moan escaped through Kathleen’s thin lips. It must have been louder than she thought, as there was a knock at the door.
“Come in, who’s that?” she asked warily.
“It’s me ma’am- at least, it’s Margaret Evans, who lives up in the back attic and -“
“I’ve never heard of you before. I’m blind and I am ill. I’m afraid I can’t help you in any way.” Kathleen replied. She did not want to be seen as ill and blind and she did not want some young person to come in and judge the way that she lived, to see with their perfect and healthy eyes the smallness and sparseness of her life. She had realised long ago that to be protected one must be alone. So she would adopt the tone she hears from the Mistresses of the houses she had worked in; she would imitate their air of detached superiority. To make herself more respectable she even called herself “Mrs Challis” though she had never been married. Normally all that sent away young persons like this “Margaret Evans”. However, the voice at the door did not fade and walk away as Kathleen had hoped. Instead she heard the door open and close and light footsteps walk toward her.
“I don’t want help, ma’am, thank you,” said the girl Margaret. Kathleen felt her walking around the side of her chair she could almost see the look of pity on the girl’s face as she looked down upon the shrunken and lonely woman seated below her.
“I heard you moan ma’am, and so I ventured to come in”.
“I am suffering so much in my head. Neuralgia, I believe it is; but it is great pain and I cannot help moaning.” She raised one hand and caressed her forehead slowly to add to the mirage.
“It must be very lonely for you here all alone.” Margaret said sadly.
Strangely, Kathleen did not experience a rush of anger or embarrassment as she had expected to at the pity in the girl’s voice. Instead, she could sense that the girl was not playing at sympathy to mock her. She truly seemed to care for her happiness and contentment; in this moment she also realised that throughout her entire life no-one person had ever asked her if she was lonely. Loneliness was a punishment meted on the debauched, on drunkards, on women who were angry – on people whom society had no desire to assist in any way. Perhaps, it was simply a fact of life to be lonely; perhaps, as this girl’s voice was suggesting, it was not an inescapable fate for her. But then, as she would softly whisper to herself in her governess attic, reading from a print on her wall:
“May I come in now and then, ma’am, and see you?” Kathleen’s heart shone with gratitude, never did she think anybody would even notice she was here, let alone want to spend time with her.
“Do. I like your voice, even if I cannot see your face.”
* * *
Kathleen had not thought she could look forward to anything again, but look forward she did to all of Margaret’s visits. Margaret would bring sweet treats from the markets; she was able to build Kathleen’s fire so that it burnt for many more hours. They would often just sit and talk. Sometimes Margaret would sit on the bed behind Kathleen’s chair and brush her long white hair, and as the weeks and months went by, Kathleen felt able to reveal many of the more difficult parts of her life, and, in particular, her long and difficult years in service with a wide variety of families and households.
When she told of the day she had confessed to the butler of her last household that she was losing her sight, the next day receiving a message from the mistress that she was to pack her bags and leave before that evening, she burst into tears. She expected Margaret to be horrified by her expression of emotion. Instead, Margaret was horrified at the treatment that Kathleen had been subjected to. She talked at length of the injustice of the employers and the other servants who took their side.
Margaret was full of new ideas and new beliefs about the way of the world and about the place of women, and the poor in society. She worked in a shop and enjoyed far more freedom than Kathleen could have ever dreamed of. It was mostly wonderful to hear of the ways that women were stepping out and the marvellous things they enjoyed, like a day off a week and even a pension in some cases! Kathleen did occasionally have to employ a polite smile and a nod of the head when Margaret began espousing some of the more ridiculous ideas about the future for women, such as trade unions and even the right to vote, but she would allow nice sensible girls their moments to have their heads in the clouds.
That night, after Margaret had restocked her fire and kissed her goodnight, Kathleen got into bed. As she lay there, for the first time in many years she was not filled with a terrible desire to fall quickly back into her dreams again. For now, it felt that, despite her blindness, dreams were not the only place she could truly see. Through Margaret’s kindness she could fancy that, for the first time in her long, lonely, life, she could see how the world truly was; its beauty, yes, but also its injustice and inequality. She could also look back and see how the world used to be when she was a girl, where the place in which she had been born dictated her whole life.
Now, with a smile, a sigh and a closing of the eyes, she thought she might even see what, one day, the world might become. Perhaps that was worth seeing and living for.