Can an idealistic young doctor and a fallen woman find love when Victorian society believes they should not?
Dublin, Ireland, 1880.
Tired of treating rich hypochondriacs, Dr Will Fitzgerald left his father’s medical practice and his home on Merrion Square to live and practise medicine in the Liberties. His parents were appalled and his fiancée broke off their engagement. But when Will spends a night in a brothel on the eve of his best friend’s wedding, little does he know that the scarred and disgraced young woman he meets there will alter the course of his life.
Isobel Stevens was schooled to be a lady, but a seduction put an end to all her father’s hopes for her. Disowned, she left Co Galway for Dublin and fell into prostitution. On the advice of a handsome young doctor, she leaves the brothel and enters domestic service. But can Isobel escape her past and adapt to life and the chance of love on Merrion Square? Or will she always be seen as a scarlet woman?
Read an excerpt from Chapter One…
Donning her best dress – a navy blue relict from her pre-Dublin life with a square neck and buttons up the front – and a fashionable hat in matching navy blue she had purchased from a second-hand clothes stall, she walked to St Stephen’s Green. It was the last day of July and the trees of the park, newly opened to the general public, were lush with leaves of varying greens. They reminded her of Ballybeg but she blinked a few times to banish the memory. For now, she was going to find a spot in the sunshine, watch the ladies and gentlemen parading past, and mull over what she could possibly gain employment as.
She found a suitable spot on the grass near the lake but found the ducks and pigeons far more entertaining. A little boy in a white sailor suit was throwing pieces of bread into the water for them and there were heated battles between the birds for possession. A little further along the lake shore, a gentleman folded his newspaper and got up, leaving it on the grass as he walked away. Immediately, she got to her feet and retrieved the newspaper. It was the previous day’s Dublin Evening Mail.
Out of curiosity, she went through the pages until she found the Situations Vacant columns. Her eyes rested on one advertisement for a parlourmaid but her heart sank when she read that references must be presented. She bit her nails for a few minutes before twisting around and glancing through the trees at the imposing red-bricked facade of the Shelbourne Hotel across the street. She tore the advertisement out of the newspaper before closing and folding it, placing it on the grass, and putting the advertisement in her handbag.
Leaving St Stephen’s Green, she adjusted her hat so it sat on her head at a jaunty angle, and crossed the street. She entered the hotel as if she knew exactly where she was going. Taking a quick glance around the foyer, she went to the reception desk. Scrutinising it, she saw just what she wanted. The concierge was dealing with a guest at the other end so she took a chance and grabbed a few sheets of notepaper and some envelopes. Hiding them in the folds of her skirt – trying desperately not to crumple them too much – she nonchalantly left the hotel, the doorman lifting his hat to her as she passed.
Her heart raced as she walked along the footpath towards the top of Grafton Street. She had never stolen anything before in her life. Retrieving the items from her skirt, she saw that she had three sheets of notepaper and two envelopes before halting. The name of the hotel was printed at the top of the notepaper and her heart sank. How stupid not to have realised that. Well, she wasn’t going to go back with them now. She carefully folded the sheets of notepaper and put them in the envelopes before carrying on. Now to find a pen and some ink. A pencil was out of the question.
She wandered slowly down Grafton Street, passed a café, then turned back and peered inside. A young man was busily writing something in a notebook with a pen at a window table. She would have to part with some of the two shillings and sixpence ha’penny on tea or coffee. She went in, sat at the next table and ordered a cup of coffee, the young man only glancing briefly at her.
“Excuse me?” she began before he bent to write again.
“Yes?” he replied rather shortly, clearly not having liked being disturbed.
“I hope you don’t mind, but could I please borrow your pen? I have an urgent letter to write.” She pulled a sheet of the Shelbourne Hotel notepaper out of an envelope, laid it on the table, and he stared at it curiously. “Please? It is very urgent.”
“All right.” He passed his pen and pot of ink to her, reached for a teapot, and poured himself a cup.
“You’re very kind, thank you.” She smiled at him and then up at the waitress who brought her coffee.
She dipped the nib into the ink, took a deep breath, and wrote a character reference in the nearest she could manage to her mother’s handwriting.
The Glebe House
To Whom It May Concern:
Maisie Byrne was a house-parlourmaid in my household from June 1876 to July 1879. During that time she proved to be a hard worker, good timekeeper and was always polite, tidy, courteous, and willing.
I would have no hesitation in recommending Maisie Byrne for any future household position she may apply for.
Martha Stevens (Mrs)
She signed her mother’s signature with a flourish and read the reference through twice. Maisie had left because her own mother had fallen ill. They had never seen her again and the chances of her turning up in Dublin were scarce.
She added milk and sugar to the coffee and sipped it, waiting for the ink to dry. The young man leant over, read the reference, and laughed.
“I hope you get the position.”
She smiled and placed the envelope containing the unused notepaper in her handbag. “So do I. I really need it. Thank you very much for these.”
“Not at all,” he replied, taking the pen and ink back.
“Are you writing a book?” she asked, glancing at the pages of neat handwriting in the notebook, and he rolled his eyes comically.
“I hope you get published.”
“Thank you… Maisie.”
Twenty minutes later, she stood outside a terraced Georgian townhouse on Merrion Square and took a deep breath to compose herself. She went carefully down the steep areaway steps and rang the bell. A maid, barely five feet tall, wearing a grey dress and white apron and cap, opened the door and looked her up and down.
“I’ve come about the position—”
“Yes, yes, you’re the ninth since it was advertised. Come in.”
A little dejected, she followed the maid into the servants’ hall. The cook, another maid, and a footman were seated at a long dining table and gawped at her curiously while the tiny maid knocked at then opened a door to her left.
“Good morning,” she said politely.
“Morning,” the cook replied, reached for a teapot, and poured herself a cup as the tiny maid returned.
“Mr Johnston will see you now. In the butler’s pantry – there.” The maid pointed to the door she had just opened and closed.
“Thank you.” She walked to the door, braced herself, and knocked.
“Come in,” replied a loud voice in a harsh Ulster accent and she complied. The butler and a woman, presumably the housekeeper, were seated behind a table. “Stand there.” The butler pointed to a spot right in front of the table. “I am Mr Johnston, the butler. This is Mrs Black, the housekeeper.”
“Good morning, Mr Johnston, Mrs Black.”
Mr Johnston glanced up at her, then leant back in his chair. He was a gaunt red-haired man of late middle age, while the housekeeper was a little younger, her dark hair tied in a bun at the nape of her neck. Both were dressed in black. Mr Johnston wore a black coat, white shirt with wing collar, and a black cravat, while Mrs Black’s dress was tightly buttoned almost up to her chin. She stood meekly as they noted her accent and their eyes took in her general appearance, face, figure, hair and posture.
“Name?” the butler asked.
“Maisie Byrne, Mr Johnston.”
He nodded and held out his hand for the reference. Heart thumping, she handed it over and watched as he read it before passing it to Mrs Black.
“You have not worked since July 1879,” he said. “That is a year ago. What have you been doing during that time?”
“My mother had consumption, sir, and couldn’t look after herself,” she told him, hoping she sounded convincing. “I left my position at the Glebe House and cared for her until she died a month ago.”
“And where was that?”
“Gloucestershire in England. My mother had moved there to care for her sister. Aunt Mary also died of consumption. I have come back to Ireland because I now have no relatives left in England.”
“Do you have relatives here in Dublin or in—” The butler leant over and peered at the reference in Mrs Black’s hands. “Ballybeg?”
She shook her head. “No, Mr Johnston, but Ireland is my home, and I am more likely to find another position here in Dublin than in Co Galway.”
“Number 68 is the residence of Mr and Mrs James Harvey, Maisie. Mr Harvey is a barrister. Mr and Mrs Harvey entertain frequently, their guests often not leaving until the early hours. Despite this, parlourmaids at number 68 are expected to rise every morning at six o’clock. They are expected to work very hard.”
Six o’clock in the morning. She almost winced. Quite often, she didn’t go to sleep until six in the morning. “Yes, Mr Johnston. I am prepared to work very hard.”
“The wages are twenty pounds per year,” the housekeeper informed her, passing the reference back to the butler. “There is one-half-day off per week and every second Sunday. Servants at number 68 are also required to provide their own uniforms. Parlourmaids wear grey for mornings, and black for afternoon and evenings.”
Servants had to buy their own uniforms? Had she enough money for them? “Yes, Mrs Black,” she replied all the same.
“And last, but certainly not least, parlourmaids – indeed, all servants at number 68 – must have no followers.”
“Followers?” She was mystified and fought to stop herself grimacing. Had she just given her lack of knowledge of domestic service away?
“In your case, Maisie, men friends. Male admirers.”
“No, Mrs Black,” she replied quietly.
The butler glanced at the housekeeper, who gave him an almost imperceptible nod, and he got to his feet.
“Come with me, Maisie. Mrs Harvey is in the morning room and wishes to see each applicant.”
“Yes, Mr Johnston.”
Her heart thumping again, she followed him upstairs to the hall, and almost walked into him when he stopped suddenly.
“Wait here,” he said and went into a room at the front of the house.
She gazed around the rather cluttered hall. Two narrow mahogany tables stood along one wall and a mahogany grandfather clock stood across from what she now knew to be the morning room door.
“Maisie.” She jumped as the door opened and the butler held it open for her.
She walked into a large bright room. Two huge brown leather sofas stood opposite each other at right angles to the fireplace and on the walls, she counted four gas lamps. Before she could take in more of the room, a woman in her fifties with greying reddish-brown hair piled elegantly on top of her head got up from a writing desk at the window with the reference in her hands.
“I have never received a reference written on Shelbourne Hotel notepaper before,” Mrs Harvey said, by way of a greeting.
“When I received the telegram from England telling me my mother was very ill, I left the Glebe House as quickly as I could so I wouldn’t miss the Dublin train,” she replied, hoping it wasn’t glaringly obvious she was making the story up as she went along. “Mrs Stevens kindly told me I could request a character reference at a later date so, when my mother died and I was preparing to return to Ireland, I wrote to Mrs Stevens. That is the reference I received, Mrs Harvey.”
“Probably in town visiting her dressmaker,” Mrs Harvey murmured, smoothing a hand over a beautiful high-necked day dress of gold silk satin. “Well, Maisie,” Mrs Harvey continued, folding the reference. “You begin on Monday. You may move in tomorrow.”
She was so flabbergasted she almost forgot to reply. “Thank you, Mrs Harvey.”
Mrs Harvey nodded and dismissed her from the morning room.
Her head spinning, she followed the butler back to the servants’ hall.
“Mrs Black will be expecting you tomorrow afternoon or evening, Maisie,” he told her, and all she could do was nod as she left the house.
Climbing the areaway steps up to the pavement, she walked away in the direction she had come.
* * *
Will was violently sick in an alleyway not long after leaving Sally Maher’s brothel. It was just as well he hadn’t hailed a cab. Strangely, vomiting cleared not only his stomach but also his head. He hurried across the city to Brown Street South in the Liberties, hoping he wasn’t going to be late, as his housekeeper had his breakfast on the kitchen table at eight o’clock every morning. The kitchen was at the back of the house, and he could smell and hear bacon frying as he closed the front door and hung up his hat. Mrs Bell, a widow for many years and always dressed in black, turned away from the solid fuel range to look at him as he came into the room.
“Morning, Dr Fitzgerald,” she said, one eyebrow rising a little. “Hungry?”
Surprisingly, he was. “I am, Mrs Bell, and a cup of tea would be lovely.”
“The kettle’s on the boil,” she added, turning back to the range.
“Excellent.” He sat down at the table and cut himself a slice of her exceptional soda bread.
“Enjoy yourselves last night?” Mrs Bell asked, putting a plate of bacon, egg, and sausage in front of him.
“Thank you, yes, we did.”
“What you can remember of it.” She smiled. “You need to go out more. A young man like you.”
“I’ll be out all day today.”
“I mean properly out,” she elaborated. “The pub, theatre, or whatever takes your fancy.”
“I saw enough pubs last night to last me quite a while.”
She harrumphed and stood back from him. “You know, you don’t look as rough as I thought you would be. Did you get drunk at all?”
He laughed. “Extremely.”
“No sore head?”
“Throwing up did wonders for it, Mrs Bell.”
Chuckling, she returned to the solid fuel range and made a pot of tea.
Will ate a hearty breakfast, brought some warm water upstairs to his bedroom, and washed and shaved. He then put on the clean shirt, collar, and cravat Mrs Bell had left out for him, followed by a hired black frock coat in the latest style, waistcoat, and trousers. Mrs Bell nodded approvingly when she saw him about to leave and making a final adjustment to the cravat.
“All the ladies will be after you, dressed like that.”
He immediately thought of Cecilia but managed a weak smile. “Once Fred’s a married man, I’ll relax.”
As best man, he had to get Fred to the church with no mishaps. Hailing a cab on Cork Street, Will travelled to Fred’s home on Ely Place Upper, hoping his friend was there and that he wouldn’t have to return to the brothel and pull Fred out of bed. Luckily, he found Fred in the hall and surprisingly docile – the magnitude of what he was about to do was dawning on him – and by a quarter to eleven they were seated in St Andrew’s Church beside Jerry waiting for Margaret Dawson to arrive. An hour later, Fred was a married man, and they returned to Ely Place Upper for a celebratory meal.
“One down, two to go,” Fred roared after the speeches had been made and put arms around Will and Jerry.
“Perhaps.” Will reached for another glass of champagne.
“Will?” Fred followed him outside to the garden. “Cecilia’s gone. Married. Forget her. I’ll wager you forgot about her for a while last night, eh?”
He nodded and thought of Rose. What a life she was leading. Had he pried too much into the origin of her scar? Had he been too harsh in his advice? She must know the risks of disease. His thoughts then returned to the scar on her back and how he had kissed its entire length… He glanced back at Fred. “Your cab will be here at five o’clock. Make sure you’re both ready.”
“Yes, sir,” Fred replied, giving him a mock salute.
Destined for a honeymoon in London, Fred and Margaret got into their cab, which was to take them to the North Wall Quay passenger terminus and the express night service to Holyhead in Wales. The ship was due to depart at 7:30 pm and the newly married couple would be in London by 8:35 am the next morning.
Will heaved a sigh of relief as the cab turned a corner out of sight. His job as best man was at an end. He decided to walk home and bought an evening newspaper on the way. Sitting down at the kitchen table, he read it from cover to cover. The newspaper contained articles and commentaries on continuing agitation between tenant farmers and landlords in the west of Ireland, and on the Land League, who aimed to protect the tenant farmers from being evicted by their landlords and obtain reductions in their rents. But it was one tiny paragraph which caught Will’s eye and held his attention. The paragraph mentioned a woman who had committed suicide by drowning after jumping into the River Liffey at George’s Quay opposite the Customs House that morning. The body had not been recovered and was presumed to have been carried out to sea on the tide.
Low in spirits, as he was, he couldn’t imagine ever being unhappy enough to jump into the Liffey. He closed the newspaper and went upstairs to change out of his hired clothes.
In a newspaper the next morning, as well as observations and editorials on Mr Parnell and the Home Rulers, who believed Ireland should have its own parliament while remaining within the British Empire, there was a short postscript of sorts on the bottom of the front page. The woman who committed suicide at George’s Quay the previous day had been named as Rose Green, a prostitute from Montgomery Street.
“All right there, Doctor?” the newspaper seller asked anxiously, as Will lowered his edition, blood draining rapidly from his face, leaving him dizzy.
Good grief, was it the same Rose? Had she taken his advice and left the brothel, only to find herself unable to cope? What a waste of a life. He shook his head, cursing himself for not minding his own business.
“Yes… No… I’ve just had a bit of a shock. Thanks for asking, Brendan.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Mrs Bell commented unhelpfully, as he sat down for his mid-day meal. “Mary Boyle hasn’t..?”
“No. No, she’s a little better, actually.”
“Thank God. Oh, there’s a message from your mother. Came about an hour ago.”
The message was to inform him that he, along with his parents, were invited to dinner by their neighbours, James and Harriett Harvey, on Friday evening. The Harveys’ neighbours on their other side, the Belchers, would also be attending. Will rolled his eyes. The Belchers had a daughter…
“I’ve been invited out to dinner,” he told Mrs Bell wearily. “My mother is determined to find a replacement for Cecilia for me.”
“I wish she wouldn’t.” He groaned. “Amelia Belcher is pleasant enough, but I’ve been hurt more than enough for now, and I’m not at all interested in replacing Cecilia.”
“Go, anyway,” he was advised. “And tell your mother you’re a grown man. You’ll find yourself a wife in your own good time without her help, one who’ll be lucky to have you.”
He smiled. “If only you were my mother.”
Mrs Bell’s eyes widened, and she smoothed her hands over her greying hair. “I’m no way old enough to be your mother, Dr Fitzgerald. Sure, aren’t I only forty-eight.”
“You give sound advice, which I’m very grateful for.” He made a helpless gesture with his hands then shrugged. “I’ll go to the blasted dinner, and I’ll tell Amelia all about my practice in the Liberties.”
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“A Scarlet Woman is a real page turner, and I have no doubt that lovers of Irish tales will adore this story!” Books & Benches
“A Scarlet Woman by Lorna Peel is a beautiful, gritty tale of love, despair, and learning to trust, set in Ireland in the 19th Century.” Linda at Books of All Kinds
“This is a very different book in many ways and I loved it!” Kelly The Sassy Book Lover
“It is a heartfelt and bewitching read, which transported me to the past as I became totally immersed in Isobel and Will’s lives.” Tina at A Reader’s Review Blog
“This is historical romance at its wonderful and surprising best.” Kathy’s Book Reviews
(Book Cover): LILLIE LANGTRY (1853-1929) UK socialite, actress and mistress of Edward VII in August 1885. Photo William Downey. Photo credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
(Book Cover): Gun Powder Office: Photo credit: The National Library of Ireland on The Commons / No known copyright restrictions
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Lily Langtry, Photo File A” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1081-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Dublin Doors: Photo Credit: Liamfm via Flickr.com / CC BY-SA 2.0
Eugène Delacroix – Portrait of Léon Riesener: Photo Credit: irinaraquel via Flickr.com / CC BY 4.0
Merrion Square: Photo Credit: Shutterstock
No.67 Merrion Square: Photo Credit: Lorna Peel
Map of Dublin: The Sunny Side of Ireland. How to see it by the Great Southern and Western Railway … With seven maps and over 130 illustrations, etc. Image Credit: The British Library / Public Domain, from the British Library’s collections, 2013