Catherine Kullmann interviews Olivia Rembleton from The Murmur of Masks
2 March 1815
We are sitting in the beautiful drawing-room of Southrode Manor, Mrs Rembleton’s home in Hertfordshire. It is an intriguing house, the centre of which is over two hundred years old, she tells me, but new wings were added after she and her husband acquired the property so that one may now enjoy every modern convenience.
CK: How long have you been living here?
OR: Since Michaelmas 1804.
CK: Is Hertfordshire your home county?
OR: [Looks surprised.] Not by birth. However, I have lived longer here than anywhere else and it has become home to me. My father was a naval officer and liked his family to be near at hand when he returned to England. We moved several times when I was a child to suit his postings, but when I was twelve, my mother and I removed to Bath. She was reluctant to send me away to school but wished me to attend a Young Ladies’ Academy there which I did as a day scholar.
CK: Did you and your mother remain in Bath once your education was complete?
OR: For some months, yes. Then, with the cessation of hostilities against the French in 1802, both my father and my brother, who was also a naval officer, were put on half-pay. My father took a house in Kingston, near Portsmouth although he did not have a ship. He didn’t trust the peace, he said, and he was right.
CK: That was the Treaty of Amiens, was it not? How long did it hold?
OR: Fourteen months. [She sighs.] After it collapsed, our men were soon recalled to active service. I’ll never forget the day my father sailed. My mother and I went onto the ramparts and watched as the Hector disappeared over the horizon. It was as if she dropped off the face of the earth. I never saw my father again—he was killed in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar.
CK: I am so sorry.
OR: [Shrugs] You learn to live with uncertainty, pouring over scraps of information gleaned from dispatches published in the Gazette. Letters come erratically and at great intervals. And one day, you open the Gazette and read that there has been another battle. The death or injury of a senior officer may be reported, but generally not that of more junior ones. For news of them, you must wait for a letter that may be in a strange hand. Or until you hear a male voice in the hall. You go to see who it is, your heart in your mouth. If you are fortunate, your loved one stands before you.
CK: Is that how your brother came home?
CK: Your mother must have been overjoyed to see him safe and well.
OR: [Shakes her head.] She did not live to welcome him home. She died suddenly not long after he and my father had put to sea.
CK: You mean in 1803?
CK: My dear Mrs Rembleton! How dreadful for you! You must still have been very young.
OR: I was eighteen. We had taken a house in Weymouth but had not yet moved there.
CK: Forgive me if the question is too intrusive, but how were you circumstanced after your mother’s death?
OR: Comfortably enough materially, as it turned out, but—I had no home. I was not of age and, even if the lease of the house in Weymouth had been in my name, it would have been impossible for such a young lady to live there on her own. We wrote to my father, but had no idea when we might expect to hear from him. He had the right to dispose of me, if you like—he could send me to live with some lady of his acquaintance or perhaps decide to marry again and have me make a home with his new wife. I would have had to obey. In the meantime, my mother’s brother would be my guardian. He was a childless widower of long standing and clearly reluctant to take me into his tonnish bachelor household; I would have needed a chaperon and a maid and his life would have been turned upside down. I felt like a cork tossed on the waves, Mrs Kullmann. Mamma had been my anchor and she was gone.
CK: What did you do?
OR: My uncle was acquainted with Mr Rembleton. He was his brother’s heir and under pressure to marry and sire sons. He thought a marriage might solve both our problems—his need for an heir and mine for a home I could not lose. I found him pleasant and I liked the way he treated me as a responsible adult. He made no bones about meeting my requirements for security for me and our future children, and so I agreed to the match. It gave me independence, you see. And once I married, I was legally of age. Although as a wife I would be subject to my husband in all things, I trusted Mr Rembleton that he would not exercise his authority unduly and indeed he never attempted to do so.
CK: And so you lived happily ever after?
[OR flinches slightly and looks away.]
CK: I’m sorry; I did not mean to distress you!
OR: [Waves dismissively] It is not important. Our relationship did not develop as I had hoped it would. I discovered much later that Mr Rembleton had not been as honest with me as he might have been and that there were unsurmountable obstacles to a close connection between us.
CK: Was he unkind to you?
OR: No, not actively unkind. In many ways he was a good man and, indeed, no different than other husbands of the beau monde. One could also say I was young and foolish and expected more than he promised.
CK: But you came to regret your marriage?
OR: Regret is the wrong word. It gave me my children. They mean the world to me.
CK: You could have had children with another man.
OR: [Shakes her head, with a fond smile] They would not be these children. Children have very individual personalities and they have much of their father in them. Although he did not live here, he visited regularly and always spent time with them. He was a better father than most tonnish gentlemen.
CK: How old are they?
OR: John is ten, Miranda is eight and Samuel is four.
CK: You spoke of being subject to your father and, later, to your husband. Must women always be subordinate to men?
OR: The law makes us so.
CK: Do you believe we are really the weaker sex?
OR: It would be foolish to deny that in general men are physically stronger than women, but when it comes to bravery and endurance, I consider us to be their equal if not superior. How many men do you think would face childbirth again and again?
CK: A married woman has no choice but to do so, it is her lot in life. The law does not recognise rape in marriage and the Church requires her to vow obedience to him.
OR: [snorts inelegantly] And he has vowed to love, cherish, comfort and honour her. Do those vows count for naught? But not all men are brutes, Mrs Kullmann, I am happy to say.
CK: That is true.
OR: There are ways of—spacing one’s family, shall we say, if a gentleman is considerate and a lady wishes to. Not all do. And it does not alter my conviction that to brave the pains and perils of childbirth again and again requires bravery and strength equal to anything called for on the battle field.
CK: I cannot but agree. But—do you think it is right for the law to give a man such power over his wife?
OR: No, certainly not. It is ridiculous that once a woman marries, she becomes a ‘feme covert’. Her very legal existence is suspended; she is regarded as being one person with her husband and her property becomes his. What’s more, he is entitled to dispose of her future earnings and any inheritance she might receive. And, worst of all, she has no claim to her children—her husband may remove them from her care at whim.
CK: It is a wonder any woman marries.
OR: How else is she to live if she is not of independent means? When my brother was eighteen, he was a midshipman and Acting Master’s Mate on the Achilles. If he had not chosen a military or naval career, he would have been at university. His world would not have fallen apart when his mother died. But girls are brought up to be dependent and because they are dependent, they must be submissive. They are handed from their fathers or another male to their husbands—the marriage service requires a woman to be ‘given in marriage’ no matter what her age or station may be. The underlying assumption is that she is incapable of acting for herself.
CK: Can the situation of women be improved, do you think?
OR: [Sits up straight.] Certainly. Have you read the Declaration of the thirteen United States of America? It begins. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If instead of ‘men’ in such pronouncements, we said ‘men and women’ or ‘people’, we should have made a beginning. Then we must do away with the principle of ‘coverture’ we discussed earlier so that a married woman retains all rights to her person and her property. Laws should apply equally to men and women so that a woman may also sue for divorce, for example. And we must allow women to be educated to the same level as men, and open the professions to them so that respectable unmarried women may earn their living, just as their brothers can.
CK: That would be a utopian society indeed. Do you fear for your daughter in today’s less equal world?
OR: Sometimes. [She smiles ruefully]. I would like her to cultivate her mind as well as her manners and hope that her intelligence will repel the wrong sort of suitor while attracting the right ones. My chief tasks must be to encourage her to think for herself, to help her make the right choice and to ensure that the marriage settlements are equitable, especially as she will be well-dowered.
CK: Marriage settlements?
OR: Legal documents drawn up between the two families before the marriage to ensure the future financial security of the bride. Funds are set aside in a trust, the income of which is designated [she takes a deep breath and quotes] ‘for her own separate and peculiar use in the nature of pin money and exclusively of the husband who is not to interfere or intermeddle therewith nor is the same or any part thereof to be exposed subject or liable to his debts, control or interference’. It also provides for her jointure should she be widowed.
CK: Who provides these funds?
OR: Generally the bride’s family, as her marriage portion.
CK: So this is a way of preventing her husband from getting his hands on it?
OR: On all of it, at least. But settlements must be signed before marriage. Sadly, the ton is full of fortune-hunters, some of whom are very charming, and more than one well-brought up young lady has been cozened into an elopement with the result that she loses the protection a settlement would give.
CK: Would you prefer Miranda did not marry at all?
OR: No, no. I hope she finds a loving husband who is worthy of her.
CK: What of your sons? Your elder son will be Lord Rembleton in due course. Will he not be obligated to marry and sire an heir just as his father was?”
OR: Again, I hope that John and Samuel find happiness in marriage, but I could not encourage either of them to marry against their inclination. To everything there is a time, and if the time comes for the title to become extinct, then so be it.
CK: How can a couple find happiness in marriage, with such inequality between them? Is it possible for a man and a woman to be friends in such circumstances? I mean true friends, bound by ties of affection, enjoying one another’s company, exchanging confidences and providing support and encouragement when necessary.
OR: [Raises her eyebrows] True friendship within marriage? It would require perfect trust, would it not? Perhaps it is something that could grow after many years together.
CK: How do you see your own future, Mrs Rembleton?
OR: [Laughs] I am too preoccupied by the present to even consider the future, Mrs Kullmann. Apart from my personal concerns, as a nation we must become accustomed to being at peace. For more than twenty years, England devoted all her energies to defeating the French; much has been neglected in that time that must now be set to rights.
CK: You are still a young woman. Have you no secret wishes, no dreams for yourself?
OR [Looks startled, then pensively smooths her dove-grey skirts.] I don’t know; I hadn’t thought—perhaps. [Her lips curve into a soft smile and she looks, unseeing, into the distance. She rises at the sound of voices.] Miranda and Samuel have returned from their walk. Do come and make their acquaintance.
The Murmur of Masks Amazon
He could not woo her then but can he win her now?
Eighteen-year-old Olivia Frobisher loses her home when her mother dies suddenly. Adrift, vulnerable, and unaware that Jack Rembleton’s love is already given elsewhere, she accepts his offer of a marriage of convenience, hoping that love will grow between them. When Luke Fitzmaurice asks her to dance at her first ball, he is clearly shocked to discover she is married to an older man. Olivia too is shaken and realises that in accepting Jack’s offer she has cut herself off from the world of youth. For her there can be no flirtations and courtships, no subtle wooings, no falling in and out of love. She has joined the ranks of the matrons without first having enjoyed her girlhood.
Ten years later, fate offers Olivia and Luke a second chance. Before they can begin to explore all that might be between them, Napoleon escapes from Elba and Luke feels obliged to join Wellington’s army in Brussels. Which is more challenging—the Battle of Waterloo or the fight for Olivia’s heart and hand?
Catherine Kullmann’s debut novel offers lovers of historical fiction an authentic portrait of the passion and turbulence of the extended Regency period. A warm and engaging story of a young woman’s struggle to survive and find love in an era of violence and uncertainty, The Murmur of Masks sparkles with wonderful period detail.
I was born and educated in Dublin. Following a three-year courtship conducted mostly by letter, I moved to Germany where I lived for twenty-five years before returning to Ireland. I have worked in the Irish and New Zealand public services and in the private sector.
I have a keen sense of history and of connection with the past which so often determines the present. I am fascinated by people. I love a good story, especially when characters come to life in a book. But then come the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’. I am particularly interested in what happens after the first happy end—how life goes on around the protagonists and sometimes catches up with them.
My debut novel, The Murmur of Masks, was published in July 2016. It will be followed by Perception & Illusion in 2017. My books are set in the early nineteenth century—one of the most significant periods of European and American history. The Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland of 1800, the Anglo-American war of 1812 and the more than a decade of war that ended in the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 are all events that continue to shape our modern world. At the same time, the aristocracy-led society that drove these events was under attack from those who demanded social and political reform, while the industrial revolution saw the beginning of the transfer of wealth and ultimately power to those who knew how to exploit the new technologies.
I have always enjoyed writing, I love the fall of words, the shaping of an expressive phrase, the satisfaction when a sentence conveys my meaning exactly. I enjoy plotting and revel in the challenge of evoking a historic era for characters who behave authentically in their period while making their actions and decisions plausible and sympathetic to a modern reader. In addition, I am fanatical about language, especially using the right language as it would have been used during the period about which I am writing. But rewarding as all this craft is, there is nothing to match the moment when a book takes flight, when your characters suddenly determine the route of their journey.