Eliza was in the middle of curtsying to the Queen when she decided it was time she lost her virginity.
She was rather shocked at herself, not for the nature of the decision, but for managing to make it at such a moment, such a terribly important moment in her life; both her mother and her godmother (who was actually presenting her) had instilled into her endlessly how lucky she was, because this was positively the last year of court presentation; it had been declared an anachronism, not in keeping with the new Elizabethan age. And here she was, in her blue silk Belinda Belville cocktail dress, in the presence of the Queen—so much younger and prettier in the flesh than her photographs—and she was thinking not about being part of a deeply important tradition that had lasted for generations, but about with whom of all the young men she was dancing and flirting with that wonderful summer she might achieve this new ambition. It really was rather bad of her.
Concentrate, Eliza! What would her mother and godmother say if they knew that after all their organising and lunching and juggling with dates and guest lists for her season, that her mind was fixed not on what to them was the almost sacred part of the whole thing, but on something very unsuitable indeed.
She straightened slowly and moved towards the side of the throne room, making way for the next wave of girls.
Eliza was attracting a lot of attention that summer. Indeed she had become a bit of a favourite with the popular press, had so far appeared in the Express three times and the Mirror four. Her mother had felt it rather lowered the tone of Eliza’s season, but Eliza thought it was wonderful, and a lot of the other girls had been really jealous. She wasn’t pretty— her features were too large, and her coloring too strong, with slightly olive skin and very dark hair combined with very dark blue eyes, and she had more than once heard her mother saying worriedly to her grandmother that she did hope no one would think there was foreign blood in the family. But she also knew that she was extremely attractive.
Boys had made passes at her from when she had been only fifteen. Indeed, she had first made the pages of Tatler the year before her season, watching her brother, Charles, play cricket for the Old Etonians on Father’s Day.
But this year was truly hers, and she had already been granted the Big One, a full-page solo spot at the front of Tatler.
“Miss Eliza Fullerton-Clark,” the caption said, “daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Adrian Fullerton-Clark. Eliza, a charming girl whose interests include skiing and the history of art”—I didn’t know that, thought Eliza—“will have her dance at the exquisite Fullerton-Clark home, Summercourt, Wellesley, later in the season.”
The photograph had been granted its prominence by Tatler’s social editor, Betty Kenward, the redoubtable Jennifer of “Jennifer’s Diary,” whose word alone could promote a girl from being just, well, a girl, to a success, someone to be marked down as having a future. Which meant not a future in her own right, but as the wife of someone rich and powerful, at best heir to one of the great estates of rural England.
And Eliza’s future had been most carefully planned. Sarah Fullerton-Clark, together with her best friend (and Eliza’s godmother), the Honorable Mrs. Piers Marchant, had visited Mrs. Kenward in her eyrie at the top of a small flight of stairs from the Tatler editorial floor. Mrs. Kenward had given them the regulation small tomato juice and shared with them the almost mystical tools of her trade: her diary of the season, with every girl’s dance and date so far, and a list of eligible young men, rich and well connected, christened (by the tabloids) the “Debs’ Delights.” The Delights had a longer life span than the debs, and were summoned for several summers, at no cost to themselves, to attend dances and parties, Ascot and Henley, and whole weekends at fine country houses, where the only requirement upon them was to wear the right clothes, not to drink too much, to be polite to their hostess, and to smile at and charm the prettier debs.
Charles was on the list, of course; he was very tall and dark, and charmingly diffident, a favourite with the mothers; Sarah and Anna Marchant had left Mrs. Kenward’s office with a recommendation for the date for Eliza’s dance and some starred names of young men on the list, denoting particularly impressive titles or fortunes.
Eliza was staying with the Marchants in London during the week that summer, since she was doing—as well as the season—a course at one of London’s smarter secretarial colleges. Eliza was determined to work, and not in some feeble little job either; she wanted a career. She knew what everyone including her mother said, that a job was just something to do until you got married and to earn you a bit of pocket money, but Eliza wanted more; she wanted a job that was interesting and absorbing, something she cared about “that will make me a person in my own right,” she said to Charles, “not just as someone’s wife or whatever.”
Fashion fascinated her particularly: not just clothes, but the way they worked, how you could tell so much about a person from what they wore, how important they were to the picture you presented to the world.
In spite of her decision, taken in such sumptuous circumstances, Eliza was still a virgin as the date for her dance approached. For one thing, she’d been terribly busy. She’d been to literally dozens of dances and cocktail parties; she’d had a starring role in the Berkeley Dress Show, that great annual opportunity for debs to be models for a day, and managed to catch the eye of the photographer from the Evening Standard and hit the front page, wearing a white evening dress by Hartnell. And at Queen Charlotte’s Ball—the Harlots’ Ball, as the Debs’ Delights called it—she had been quite near the front in the line of girls pulling the giant cake into the ballroom: yet another photograph in the tabloids.
And then there was her own dance, so much discussed and planned. It had passed far too quickly, a magical fairy-tale evening that had just drifted by without any clear memories of anything, except fragments: the perfect June night, the garden filled with roses, the white marquee so gorgeously dressed up, the crowds and crowds of friends, the band playing exactly what she wanted, the endless champagne, her father flushed with pride, her mother kissing her and telling her how proud of her they were. She’d danced and danced, literally till dawn, with an endless flow of charming young men, and then fallen into bed, amazed that she wasn’t drunker, considering how much champagne she had consumed.
It was the crown on a wonderful summer, and she wished it need never end.
Her mother was pale but happy the next morning, relieved at the success of the dance, relieved it was finally over. It had occupied her thoughts and fed her anxieties for almost a year; but it seemed to have been worth it. Worth the bank loan Adrian had had to take out, the sleepless nights, the endless work. But it was all an investment in Eliza’s future, and not even to be questioned.
Having her dance at home in the country, rather than in London, had saved a lot, and was so much nicer, everyone had (apparently genuinely) said.
Eliza’s dress had been from Bellville Sassoon again—but Sarah had had her own dress run up by her dressmaker, and Adrian’s tailcoat being a little worn and slightly out-of-date was desirable rather than the reverse. Nothing more common than spanking-new evening clothes on the older generation. Adrian had bought his coat soon after they had first met; she had invited him to a dance in the country and, seeing where Sarah Cunninghame’s infatuation with him just could be leading, Adrian had considered it a sound investment for two weeks’ salary, and twenty-five years later it still looked superb.
And Charles, of course, darling Charles had looked brilliantly handsome as always; he had danced with her not once but twice, telling her how lovely she looked, how proud of her he was. Not many sons would do that.
And as a final coating of icing on the cake, both Tatler and Queen had sent photographers.
“Hallo, Mummy. Pleased with your night’s work?”
“Oh, Charles, hallo. Darling, you look tired. Sit down and I’ll get you some breakfast.”
“No, I’m fine. Had some earlier. Well, it all went well, didn’t it? And Eliza looked jolly nice.”
“Didn’t she? And seemed to enjoy herself.”
Sarah smiled at him: her firstborn and the great love of her life. After Adrian, of course. She could hardly believe he was twenty-one, and out in the world. Well, he’d have to do his National Service first before finally settling down to his career. He was hoping to go overseas: “Hong Kong, or maybe Gib. See a bit of the world before I have to buckle down in the city.”
“Darling,” she said, patting his shoulder affectionately, “I shall miss you.”
“Oh, nonsense. Time’ll fly by. I’m looking forward to it, actually.”
“And you’ll be called up soon, now you’ve left Oxford?”
“Yes. It should be fun.”
“I believe it’s awfully tough.”
“Can’t be worse than the first half term at prep school.”
“Charles! Were you really so unhappy?”
“Well, a bit. I was homesick. And quite hungry; the food was awful. But it didn’t do me any harm, did it? God, the old place looked nice last night, didn’t it?” he added.
“Didn’t it? Your grandfather would have been so happy.”
The old place was an exquisite small Palladian villa, built at the top of a gentle rise, smiling graciously down on the village of Wellesley, a little to the south of Marlborough and looking just slightly—although beautifully—out of place there, like a fashionable woman wearing her couture clothes to walk down the village street. Built in 1755, it had a charming legend. A young but very wellborn architect called Jonathan Becket was at a soiree one evening in Bath. There he met and fell in love with the beautiful Lady Anne Cunninghame, and she with him; married to Sir Ralph Cunninghame, she was the young and dreadfully spoiled daughter of the eccentric Earl of Grasmere, used to having her own way in all things and not in the least in love with her middle-aged husband.
Sir Ralph could refuse her nothing; and when she spoke longingly of a “fine house, created precisely for me,” young Becket got his commission and created a breathtaking place, not large set against the grand houses of its day (a mere ten bedrooms, and only three receiving rooms), but very beautiful with its glorious south front “greeting the morning sun,” as Lady Anne described it in her journal, and with its classical pillars, its gently curving steps, its wide terrace, its exquisite orangery, set some five hundred yards from the house. “It is just for me,” she went on, “created to suit my beauty, as my darling says.”
Her darling (presumably Jonathan Becket, rather than Sir Ralph) went on to serve her with a wonderful park behind the house and a small sloping grass sward to the front of it; most of the park had now been sold, leaving only ten acres for the present-day incumbents.
The house was christened Summer Court; it was to be largely a summer residence, for Sir Ralph liked the bustle of Bath, and she saw herself holding her own small court there; the name was contracted to a single word by one of her more modest descendants.
It was hugely uncomfortable: impossible to heat satisfactorily. When Eliza arrived for her first term as a boarder at Heathfield, she was astonished at the other girls’ complaints about the cold dormitories, the draughty study bedrooms, the “dribbly” showers. It seemed the height of luxury to her, accustomed as she was to waking to ice on the inside of her windows and a four-inch bath deemed disgracefully wasteful. But she adored the house. It had stayed with the Cunninghames through ten generations; Sarah’s mother, the last Lady Cunninghame, had been the first in the line to fail to produce an heir. She had produced only one child, and that was Sarah. Thus it was that Sarah’s father, the ninth baronet, had been forced, his signature dragging with dreadful reluctance across the paper, to entail it to her. Or rather, to her and her husband. It was better than selling it, which was the only other option. And Sarah did love it.
“Never let it go” had been his last words to her; and she promised. It was owned by a trust, and they were merely its tenants for life; it was slowly bankrupting them. But keeping it was what mattered, and the children loved it as much as she did.
The fact that the estate was far too small to support anything more than rabbit shooting and a few pheasants didn’t apparently trouble Charles; but Eliza once overheard two of the fellow undergraduates he’d invited down for a few days discussing “Charles’s Brideshead fantasies” and that they’d expected something ten times its size: “Drives and lodges, that sort of thing.”
There was no proper drive, only a rather pretty tree-lined avenue up from the village, and certainly no lodges. The house had been designed to stand as part of the village. But the charming stone cottages, pretty Norman church, medieval duck pond, and seventeenth-century inn that had set the house off so prettily in 1755 had become extended by a sprawling growth of mock-Tudor bungalows to one side and to the left another of council houses—albeit it for the most part with lovely gardens—a school (late Victorian, not beautiful), a bus shelter, a children’s playground, and a shop.
But it was a proper village; it had a heart. The school was thriving, the church more than half-full most Sundays, and the inn (now the White Hart pub) busy; most people knew most people. And the Fullerton-Clark family were popular—the children had all gone to the village school for the first few years of their education, Sarah opened the grounds several times a year—most famously for the Easter-egg hunt, in which the whole village took part—and Adrian did his bit, as he put it, by drinking in the White Hart whenever he could.
The village had even been made to feel part of Eliza’s dance; the local band had played a set, and the fireworks had been let off on the village green rather than at the back of the house.
Yes, Sarah thought, her father would have been very happy last night, happy with what she had managed to do.
And even forgiven her for marrying Adrian. Perhaps.