C.C. Aune Interviews Lady Weston from The Ill-Kept Oath
Strictures on Women in the Early Nineteenth Century
Picture, if you will, an elegant, early Nineteenth Century country parlor. A wooden lap desk lies on my knees. I hold a quill pen in one hand. Across from me sits sixteen year old Lady Josephine Weston. Like her older cousin Prudence Fairfeather, she has all the qualities of a Jane Austen hero: good character, intelligence, and wit. Like countless other women of her time, however, her education has extended only so far as the skills a lady needs to attract a suitable husband. She feels the deficiency, and she longs for more than just a dutiful wife’s fate, but Josephine has come to realize that even wealthy women have few opportunities to enjoy independence.
The historical fantasy novel THE ILL-KEPT OATH opens with Josephine and Prudence on the cusp of adulthood and wishing they had some say in their own lives. The author has chosen to discuss these frustrations with Josephine early in the novel, before an onslaught of magic and mayhem turns the cousins’ lives upside down.
CC Aune: So, Lady Weston, where and when were you born?
Lady Josephine Weston: I was born on the 31st of January 1803 at Greenbank Manor in western Wiltshire, England. Alas, I have never traveled more than three miles from this house, not even to London, which I find a grievous outrage.
CCA: What influence did your birth family have on you, your choices, and your life? Explain why and how.
Jo: Indeed, is that not the central matter of my story? My mother died when I was but an infant, in a carriage accident, they say. Yet I know she must’ve perished in some other way, for Papa has since suffered from constant bad nerves. He hid us all—including my two orphaned cousins—out here in the country. Edward and Prudence have lately been allowed to leave the estate. I, on the other hand, expect a dull and sequestered future as my Papa’s protectoress. I’m considered restless and headstrong, like Mother. What I wouldn’t give to know more about her, but no one will tell me!
CCA: What drew you to the person you fell in love with?
Jo: I beg your pardon? I’m sure I don’t know whom you … do you mean Mr. Quimby? This cannot be a proper question! I am not in love with the lieutenant. I’ll concede that he’s handsome, kind, and … well, intriguing, but clearly he has no interest in a mere schoolgirl like me. Besides, he knows better than to pursue a romantic connection so far above his own rank.
CCA: Very well, then. Do you subscribe to the general belief that women are the weaker sex?
Jo: Goodness, this is not a subject I’ve pondered before. We females are told from birth to modulate our voices and actions, to exude beauty and refinement. Personally, I chafe at the constraints of the Feminine Ideal. I like frocks and coiffures as much as the next girl, but in secret I’ve taken up the art of fencing. I have also shot a troll at close range and assisted in emergency surgery, and so I ask you: what signifies weakness? Size and physical strength? I’m small, but I am strong. Lack of determination? I’ve matched wits with many a man and come out ahead. A tendency toward frequent displays of emotion? Well … on that count, I’m striving to improve.
CCA: What do you want from life?
Jo: I’m a sixteen year old heiress whose duty is to make a brilliant marriage. With my choices prescribed, ‘want’ is a word I scarcely understand. ‘Hope’ better suits, as in, I hope to be blessed with a loving union. I do, however, have other, less lofty goals. In the short term, I would like for others to cease thinking of me as a troublesome child. In the long term, I aim to learn all I can about my deceased mother’s life. She seems to have been involved in something dangerous and, dare I say, exciting!
CCA: What exterior force is preventing you from reaching these goals?
Jo: My Papa, who lives in constant fear for my safety. For some unknown reason, my heritage is a secret. We must never travel or speak to anyone who shows an interest in our past. So many rules, beyond all the usual ones that constrain a young female!
CCA: What force within yourself is preventing you from reaching these goals?
Jo: Obviously, gaining others’ respect is entirely within my grasp. I must display more ladylike circumspection and poise. As for unearthing Mother’s secrets, that depends on sidestepping exterior forces. I am not my own stumbling block there; success will depend on my ability to outsmart those who hold information.
CCA: Is one of your senses more highly developed than the others? In other words, are you more visual, or audial, etc., or do you rely on the famous “sixth sense?”
Jo: Cousin Prudence has the sixth sense, not I! This is a curious question. I suppose audial, since I am known for eavesdropping, which I sometimes do to protect my papa. I will intervene, you see, if I think a pending crisis might set back his health. As such, I’ve grown adept at reading a speaker’s mood and character from the tone of his voice. Lieutenant Quimby, for instance, will tease, but never maliciously so. His style differs from that of all other men in my sphere; he seems only to want me to look up in surprise. Dear me, this answer took an unexpected turn!
CCA: What really moves you, or touches you to the soul?
Jo: Any friend who can see the real Jo hidden inside. Who doesn’t expect me to live according to some dictate. Who encourages my interests, not quashes them for the sake of propriety. Who is at all times warm, honest, and compassionate. Fiddlesticks, is that a tear? As usual, I have failed to control my emotions.
CCA: Then let us change to a cheerier note. What’s the one thing you have always wanted to do but didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t? What would happen if you did do it?
Jo: Travel! Anywhere! To London, of course, and once I had exhausted my interests there, I would take ship to the Continent. Unlike my modest Cousin Prudence, I would make myself the toast of the town. I adore dancing but have never been to a ball. I want to attend parties and suppers, the theatre and museums. Simply walking in London’s great parks would please me. I would have a dozen beaux all at once. I’d make a great splash, simply because I’m the girl who neither simpers nor faints, but takes fencing lessons and maybe even learns how to box!
CCA: What do you consider your special talent?
Jo: Haha! Fixing things, I suppose. Managing great messes. Making silk purses from sows’ ears, and doing whatever I must in the process. Not in any way that breaks laws or accepted mores, but I will certainly push boundaries. I keep secrets, voice my displeasure, and stand up for what’s right. I have a particular aversion to men who think their gender trumps my better judgment—men like my boorish neighbor Arthur Grant, not to mention Cousin Edward, whose brusqueness might fade if only he gave in to his better nature.
CCA: Describe your ideal mate.
Jo: Must I have one, and must you continually drive the subject back to this topic? My duty as the sole heiress in a line lacking males means that choice will likely not factor into my fate. I shall marry whomever Papa deems Greenbank’s best steward, be he old or young, handsome or disfigured. Papa adores me, so he’ll endeavor to mind my romantical feelings. At least my prospects are better than someone like Prudence, who has nothing but beauty to offer a mate. Anyway, I would hope for fondness to precede a match, but consider Romeo and Juliet: is it not worse to fall in love without any hope for a union? If that be the case, one might well wish for the freedom to never marry at all. Men have that right, but we females are owned first by our fathers and afterward our spouses.
CCA: How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you like to change?
Jo: I am restless, on edge, and unsatisfied. I would change nearly everything about my situation. I would travel, as I said. I would investigate the mystery of my mother’s family. I would lead a liberal life, without any constraints. I’d befriend whom I liked, love whom I loved, and consort only with persons who happily accorded me those rights. Generally, things men have the liberty to do.
CCA: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Jo: Those ideals named above. In short, the freedom to pursue knowledge and companionship as I desire. If I could achieve that, I think I should be very happy indeed.
CCA: What is your greatest fear?
CCA: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Jo: Petulance, which is childish.
CCA: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Jo: Must I choose just one? Cowardice.
CCA: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Jo: Womanliness. I am not delicate in body or mind, and I do not care to be treated as such. Or did you mean a Biblical virtue? I’m afraid I spoke without thinking. This conversation has me all in a dither! In that case, I would say temperance. Restraint has its value, but applied too relentlessly, temperance can also wither a soul.
CCA: On what occasion would you tell a lie?
Jo: Anytime the truth would cause more grievous harm, but never to aggrandize myself. I prefer not to make lying a habit, but unfortunately it has become second nature to me. I have no choice. Most everyone in whom I would like to confide will either suffer pain or take action to silence me. These are insupportable alternatives to keeping a lie.
CCA: What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Jo: Only that I am small statured, which has the effect of causing others to underestimate my potential and authority.
CCA: What is the quality you most like in a man?
Jo: Forthrightness. I dislike being spoken over as if I were a child.
CCA: What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Jo: Intelligence. I cannot stand women who pretend stupidity because they think men expect it.
CCA: What is your most treasured possession?
Jo: I have a set of pistols that once belonged to my mother. They were given by King George I to some ancestor of mine, though I can’t work out why. I shot and killed a troll without having to load either one. Afterward, Lieutenant Quimby took them for safekeeping, and he quite admired them … I was supposed to lock them up once he returned them, but instead I hid them in my bureau. I don’t know why I did that—impulse, I suppose, mixed with a bit of sentiment … for my mother, you know!
CCA: Final question, then: How would you like to die?
Jo: Well, that’s an unpleasant question! Are you planning to kill me off? The precise manner of death does not matter to me, but I would like it to be in the service of others. Perhaps I might die protecting someone, either shielding them with my body or standing up for a cause. If premature, I would like my death to have meaning. Were I to live a long life, I’d want to expire in the arms of someone I loved. Either way, I should like my survivors to say, “There went a brave girl.”
CCA: Don’t you mean a brave woman?
Jo: Yes, perhaps in order for others to stop regarding me as a girl, I must change the way in which I view myself. Funny, but your curious questions have provoked me to explore ideas I never had considered before. If my loved ones were privy to all I have just said, it would cause them much consternation. I doubt I shall ever become what most people would term a proper English lady. I rather relish the idea.
CCA: Knowing you as I do, that declaration does not remotely surprise me.
CC Aune’s ramblings have led her through 49 states—nine of which she has called home—plus a fair number of countries. She has been a journalist and a contributor for the companion book to PBS’s 2000 series In Search of Our Ancestors. Currently, she directs the blog One Year of Letters, which explores the internal landscape of writers. The Ill-Kept Oath is her debut novel.
Social Media Links:
Blog — One Year of Letters: www.oneyearofletters.com