Sara Sheridan writes the popular 1950s Mirabelle Bevan Murder Mysteries, as well as historical novels set 1820-1845. Fascinated by female history, in 2019 she remapped Scotland according to women's history to memorialise our forgotten foremothers. In 2014 she was named one of the Saltire Society's '365 Most Influential Scottish Women past and present'. Sara has written over 20 books — both fiction and non-fiction — including her latest novel, 'The Fair Botanists', set in Edinburgh in the summer of 1822, in which Henrietta Liston plays a cameo role.
Here, in a creative response to Lady Liston's material in the National Library of Scotland's archives, she imagines Henrietta's return from her residency in the Ottoman Empire to Edinburgh society in the winter of 1821.
The snow does not make the darkness seem lighter. Quite the reverse, Henrietta thinks as the carriage trundles into Edinburgh, the wheels turning on the setts so much noisier than the unpaved highway from Ratho. They debated whether they should come at all, but the Listons love company and Robert has missed, in particular, the companionship of gentlemen like himself, for they have seen almost nobody since their return from Constantinople. Besides, should the road become impassable, somebody will put them up. Sir Walter's townhouse on North Castle Street is only a block from the salon and he a much-missed, dear friend. 'We braved those rapids in Canada,' Robert says with a smile as Henrietta reaches for the leather strap to steady herself as the carriage jostles. She does not point out that was 20 years ago. 'And that terrible storm. Do you remember, I fished a poor sailor out of the swell?' She remembers that too — she considered her husband most dashing. She still does. 'The heat can be quite as distressing as the cold,' she replies. 'It's only a flake or two.'
By the lamplight along the stone terraces, they can see better now that the flurry is far more than a light dusting but she does not correct herself. The habit of understatement has got them through time and again, and it is getting through that matters. Robert's breath clouds when he coughs and she worries that he has caught a cold, but as the carriage draws to a halt on Charlotte Square and she takes in the scent of woodsmoke on the icy air, she is distracted from her wifely concern. Her stomach turns. Henrietta has befriended more than one President of America and taken tea with women from the royal harem in Constantinople, but here, in Scotland, she knows society thinks of her as the orphaned niece of a Glasgow Postmaster who married a man who earned his title, rather than inherited it.
She pulls her fur tippet up to her chin and lets her husband hand her down. His white hair is distinguished, just visible beneath his top hat, the satin gleaming in the lamplight. Behind them the raised, grand, square garden with its thin saplings looks as if it has been iced by Monsieur Carême. On all four sides, candlelight glows at the edges of the shuttered windows with their glossy black glass. Robert offers Henrietta his arm and she takes it, gliding up the stairs past the footman at the door of Joseph Brodie's house, where tonight, at the tail-end of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh's brightest minds will endeavour to outshine the very stars. The coachmen blanket the horses and, as the Listons disappear through the door, the men cluster around braziers flaming on the far side of the road. The Brodies are generous hosts and their cook will send out mulled cider and hot pies for the drivers come 10 of the clock. For now they share a hipflask of cheap whisky distilled on the Water of Leith, and smoke their pipes to keep warm.
The house smells pleasantly of cigars and smoke from the fires as the Listons hand over their cloaks in the flagstoned hall. Henrietta smooths her pale, taffeta gown and her pearls click together as she moves smoothly past the fine display of red-berried holly amid evergreen leaves and climbs the stairs to the drawing room, from which emanates the sounds of discussion, laughter and someone playing Hayden on the pianoforte. Inside, they are offered tiny glasses of syrupy ratafia from a silver salver and Joseph Brodie greets them. He is far younger than the Listons and since his father died, considers them family. Daniel Brodie was firm friends with Henrietta's father — the men corresponded between Antigua and Jamaica where they both had substantial and similar interests. Henrietta has divested herself of the four slaves she inherited, but Joseph Brodie has not given up his human holdings, which are considerably greater. She knows he feels guilty about it. Not guilty enough to forgo this house, though, with its dozen staff and the two carriages.
'You are back! You are back!' Joseph beams delightedly. He kisses Henrietta's gloved hand. 'We must hear all about Constantinople. How was it, ambassador?'
'Bin nasihatten bir musibet yeğdir,' Robert says jovially. 'I learned a great deal.'
'You learned to speak Turkish!' Joseph laughs. 'Of course you did. How many tongues is that now?'
Robert blushes. He could not possibly say.
'I make it 10,' Henrietta cuts in. 'I am trailing far behind. But many of the women spoke French, which I can manage. The French have a great presence on the Black Sea.'
'Less of a presence now, as I understand it,' Joseph says jovially, referring to the nub of Robert's mission. Britain may have beaten the French at Waterloo, but His Majesty's interests in the Middle East were in danger of being confounded by Britain's closest enemy. The chic and much younger wives of Constantinople's French diplomats took out their husbands' frustrations on Henrietta. They gossiped about her unrelentingly. 'She has the ruddy cheeks of a farmer's daughter,' she heard one sneer. 'And the dress sense to match. She is too old.' Henrietta tried to befriend them regardless of such jibes, but the Turks were easier. And, she comforted herself, the pastries were just as good, if not better, than any French patisserie. Indulging her sweet tooth with baklava was at least some comfort for the hisses and the whispers stung. She knows Robert loves her but he is older than she, grazing 80 years of age now. He no longer visits her at night.
'And your plans for your estate?' Joseph enquires.
'We must plant trees,' Robert insists. 'My wife was most taken with America when we were there and its glorious woodlands.'
Robert's gushing is quelled when he is greeted by William Ritchie, founder of the 'Scotsman' newspaper, and one of the city's more radical lawyers. 'We have much to discuss,' Robert says. Henrietta knows that he wishes to hear Ritchie's view of the radical uprising in Glasgow the year before. The news took several weeks to reach them in Turkey and he has been considering the movement ever since. Across Europe working men are demanding more rights and Sir Robert, while passing sympathetic, does not entirely approve.
The men dissolve into the melee of the room. Joseph takes Henrietta by the arm. 'You must meet my sister,' he says.
'I did not know you have a sister,' Henrietta's surprise is unguarded. She has known the Brodies her whole life. Joseph has two younger brothers. 'Has Benjamin married at last?' she asks.
'Isabel is my blood sister. Well, half-blood,' Joseph admits. 'She arrived in Edinburgh while you were away. Quite the delightful surprise, though I admit my wife was not pleased.'
Henrietta does not comment. She has always found Joseph's wife snobbish. Instead, she peers into the throng, trying to spot a woman with a family resemblance to her host. It crosses her mind that the girl may be mixed race. Joseph's father had a reputation amongst the other plantation owners for dallying with his female slaves.
'And you have recognised the girl?' she asks, her tone without judgment.
'There was no question of that,' Joseph replies. 'My father settled a sum on her mother. She was educated in Perth and now has set up house here.'
Henrietta finds she cannot control the expression of surprise that electrifies her face. 'Set up house?' she repeats. 'A girl on her own?'
'Near the Canon Mills,' Joseph adds.
Isabel Brodie, when they find her, perches on a blue velvet chaise by the grey-veined mantel. She is so tiny that Henrietta finds herself smiling. The girl is a veritable ornament, her auburn hair is ringleted, bound with gold ribbon and peppered with tiny, diamond stars. The gentleman she is speaking to is quoting Lord Byron most fluently, and intermittently, Miss Brodie claps her hands, her chestnut eyes sparkling. 'Marvellous!' she says enthusiastically.
Henrietta is put in mind of the pretty nanny who was in charge of the Adams' children at Peacefield. Dorothea — the girl — had a mesmerising effect on the youngsters and as well as the nursery, was also in charge of a small corgi, who she had meticulously trained. The Adams doted on the girl, Abigail, the first lady, swearing that should America ever need extra diplomats, the government must engage Dorothea at once, though of course, the Adams could not do without her in their own household. 'There would be a riot in the nursery,' she declared fondly. 'The children adore her quite unreasonably.'
Isabel looks up and smiles. She gets to her feet, the muslin of her dress cloud-like. Behind her, for the first time, Henrietta notices the red bloom of an amaryllis in a porcelain pot on the Carrera marble.
'Ah — how lovely,' she breathes. Joseph must have a hothouse somewhere nearby. Such an exotic flower would never survive in this weather if it had to be transported far.
The gentleman's Byronic protestations cease.
'I hope you are not trying to seduce my sister,' Joseph says smoothly.
'Now, Joseph,' Isabel berates him.
The gentleman, flustered, retreats.
This,' Joseph announces, 'is Lady Henrietta Liston, whose late father was a dear friend of our own papa.'
'Miss Brodie,' Henrietta offers her hand.
Isabel clasps it. 'Please, call me Belle,' she says.
Henrietta can see the resemblance now, not in Miss Brodie's physical appearance but in her air. Joseph was born with a double measure of confidence and Belle is the same. Their father was notorious for his refusal to conform. The Brodies tried their best to bring him to heel, but he would have none of it. Yes, these, she thinks, are Daniel's children — the wrong side of the bedsheet or the right side makes no matter. Joseph retreats.
'My brother has the right of it. That gentleman was trying to seduce me,' Belle admits frankly.
'I am very sorry to have interrupted him,' Henrietta laughs.
Belle gives a tiny shrug, almost imperceptible. 'Truly, I have no interest,' she confides. 'My taste runs … older and wiser men.'
Henrietta sinks onto a mahogany chair upholstered in navy velvet to match the chaise. This young woman is quite extraordinary. Of late Lady Liston has despaired, of the younger generation. Where is the Alison Cockburn of the 1820s? The David Hume? The Adam Smith? Belle Brodie cannot be more than 24 years of age and most girls would die rather than admit either an interest in, or knowledge of their own desires. A frisson passes through her. The conversation of women, even here in the world's Enlightenment city, can be restricting. Already she likes Miss Brodie immensely.
'They say you visited the sultan's seraglio,' Belle continues smoothly. 'Is that true?'
Henrietta confirms it. 'In Constantinople. Such arrangements are common. It is a beautiful place. Most comfortable and the ladies welcomed me warmly.'
'Do they suffer from jealousy?' Belle asks. 'Of each other, I mean.'
'I am sure some of them must,' Henrietta admits. 'We did not speak of that.'
Belle cocks her head to one side. Had she been given access to the inner rooms of the sultan's palace, she certainly would have asked this question.
'Your brother tells me you have a house to the north of the city.'
When Belle smiles her face lights up. 'It is only a small house on a terrace nowhere as grand as this, but I enjoy living there. I must say, I like this amaryllis,' she adds, indicating the flower. 'It certainly cheers a winter evening. Though sadly, it has no scent. That always seems such a failing in something so beautiful.'
'Ah you are a botanist, like me,' Henrietta enthuses. 'I noticed it straight away. I wonder where he got it.'
'He does not have a hothouse, but he was lately playing cards with Viscount Melville and I have a notion that he may have won it.'
'A worthy wager.'
'Now we are home from our travels I am planning my garden,' Henrietta admits.
'Your children must be glad to have you back.'
Henrietta pauses. It always hurts. It is one of the few downsides to the travelling, that people often presume, because they do not know that the Listons are alone. 'Sir Robert and I are not blessed with children.'
This is unusual. 'I'm very sorry to hear it,' Belle says.
Something about the girl allows Henrietta to elaborate. 'I was past 40 when Robert and I married. We had been friends for 10 years or more.'
'It is not always the way, but we knew each other well. When you marry …'
The girl cuts in. 'It is most unlikely that I will marry, Lady Liston.' This conversation is taking a most unusual turn. 'I do not desire it,' the girl admits.
This knocks Henrietta out of her line of thought — an explanation of herself, that she suddenly realises she does not need to give. She has never met a pretty, well-provided girl of good family who does not wish to marry. Not in any of her travels the world wide. Belle does not seem bitter — sometimes girls set themselves against marriage through disappointments of one kind or another: because they are not attractive or they have no portion. Or because they fell in love and no proposal was forthcoming. Belle sips on her ratafia contentedly. There is no sign that she is unduly religious, Henrietta thinks, for it is true, now she considers it, that a young lady might elect to join a nunnery. But not this girl. 'What is it that you desire?' she finds herself asking.
'I have my own money,' Belle says blithely. 'I do not wish a man to manage it.'
The fire crackles and a cascade of hot ash tumbles onto the slate. Henrietta had not considered this possibility and suddenly feels most concerned for Miss Brodie. An unmarried lady would be mistaken to think she might advance herself under her own steam. Society looks warily on a woman who is alone. It pities her. Where might the girl have got such an idea?
'Have you read Mary Wollstonecraft?' she asks. 'Her book is quite radical.'
Belle gestures airily. 'Oh yes. Such a shame she died before she could write another.'
Mrs Wollstonecraft flung herself off Putney Bridge and drowned more than 20 years before. Henrietta's view, like that of most of society, is that the poor woman was driven mad by all her thinking. 'The Rights of Woman', indeed. Here, in this Enlightenment city, ladies read quite as much as their menfolk, but after Mrs Wollstonecraft's demise, several families removed her book from their shelves and in the subscription library on the High Street even two decades after her death, 'The Rights of Woman' remains stowed, safely, beneath the counter, and must be requested.
'I believe she has a daughter still living,' Belle continues. 'Wouldn't it be marvellous if she were to write a book too?'
Henrietta shifts on the navy velvet. 'And if some older, wiser gentleman were to come along?' she ventures. This, after all, is what Belle said she preferred.
'I should see,' Belle says. 'My brother declares he can write a watertight legal agreement so my property would not be entailed, but there are other considerations of course. Freedoms that are not financial.'
Henrietta suddenly feels strangely maternal towards this girl. A mere 10 minutes' acquaintance has had the most extraordinary effect. She cares about her quite as much as she does for the American aloes she has taken to cultivating by hand. And that is saying something. Belle's brother, she recalls, talked about the child's mother in the past tense. Perhaps she has had no guidance. 'But you must not concern yourself about that, Miss Brodie,' she says, making the obvious assumption. 'I can understand how a young lady might find herself nervous about the physical side of things. I hope you will not mind me saying, but the intimate company of a gentleman can be the most tremendous fun.'
Belle's cheeks colour and she starts to laugh. She claps her gloved hands as if in delight. 'Oh Lady Liston, you are kind, but … ' she leans in to whisper. 'I know.'
Henrietta's first thought is that she should remove herself. On the other side of the room she can see her husband, now in animated conversation with a gentleman who she recalls is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. But she does not move and she cannot say why. If anything she settles further into the chaise. Belle waits, as if to be sure that the older woman is not going to stand. A footman passes and dispenses more ratafia into their glasses. The women are silent as he pours. They watch him as he moves away.
'I have shocked you,' Belle states baldly. 'I apologise.'
Henrietta sips. 'It seems much has changed in Edinburgh since I was last here,' she says. 'But your brother receives you?'
'His wife is most displeased about it,' Belle admits. 'And that is rather the point. There is nothing she can do, is there for she has married him and must bend to his will in all things.'
'Who is it, Miss Brodie, who keeps you?' Henrietta's cheeks are famously ruddy. A Swedish diplomat once sneered that no amount of white lead would render them acceptable. The man was most perturbed because Robert had negotiated an excellent position for British linens with the Foreign Minister in Stockholm. Still, Lady Liston's colour deepens further. The harem was not as shocking as this. There, amid the latticed screens and the incense, she discussed sweetmeats with the ladies and endeavored to procure the receipt of the spiced tisane they were drinking which they claimed did wonders for the skin.
Belle has no such reservations. 'Discretion is of the essence,' she says. 'Neither I nor my staff could ever utter a gentleman's name.'
Henrietta concludes that Miss Brodie's lover is married. 'I see,' she says. Growing up in Glasgow her aunt always said you could tell somebody's nature by their eyes, but this maxim is failing her. Belle's eyes are clear and innocent as a babe. 'I'm not sure this conversation is appropriate,' she says.
'Very well,' the girl replies without pointing out that Lady Liston asked a question to which there was no socially appropriate answer. 'Perhaps we should discuss matters botanical.'
For the first time in her life, Henrietta realises that she is not as interested in plants as she is in the conversation to hand, but she is not sure now how to manoeuver herself back into it. She takes a breath, drawing on all her diplomatic skill. Some months ago she was asked to assist a friend's cousin, discussing a miscarriage with his wife. This is more difficult.
'I once met Lady Hamilton,' she says slowly, as if trying out the words. 'My husband had business at Whitehall and brought me with him. It was quite by chance, when we were first married.' Emma Hamilton was Lord Nelson's mistress. 'We took tea,' Henrietta admits.
Belle's eyes shine. 'Really? I have seen her portrait of course, but what was she like?'
'She dressed rather showily, I thought,' Henrietta admits, noting that the sprigged muslin that Belle Brodie is sporting would best be described as demure.
'I find myself fascinated by the Wilson sisters,' Belle enthuses, naming two of London's great courtesans of the Georgian age, the eldest of whom had an arrangement with the Duke of Wellington. 'They say Harriette Wilson is writing a book.'
Henrietta wonders who might say such a thing for it implies they are not only acquainted with Miss Wilson, but also in her confidence. She must be now near 40 years of age and residing it is said in comfortable rooms in Mayfair on account of the secrets in her possession.
'A lady of such experience would no doubt have a great deal to say,' she manages. 'A titled friend of my acquaintance once employed an erstwhile poacher on his estate. He said he gained a great deal of useful knowledge from him.'
Belle sits still as a statue and smiles.
'I cannot claim the experience that Miss Wilson must have surely amassed. I should have thought that the ladies of the sultan's harem would be well placed to help … if you required useful knowledge.'
Henrietta's fingers feel quite weak. She has not exactly asked for help. She certainly does not know how to put what she would like to know and is having difficulty even thinking of the right words, let alone saying them. But Sir Robert has not visited her in the night for over two years now. Not once.
'I suppose with age, desire fades,' she says steadily. 'I imagine that is often the way with older gentlemen.'
Belle reaches across the chaise and clasps Lady Liston's hand. She gives it a little squeeze. Henrietta finds that her eyes are filling with tears. 'My husband and I are the best of friends, you see,' she admits.
Belle leans in and whispers. 'But he rejects you? When you visit him?'
Henrietta's heart is racing. 'I? Visit him?' she says in disbelief.
Belle nods. 'Oh yes. There is certainly room for a little enthusiasm, I should think, after many years of marriage.' The girl's expression is grave. 'And when you visit him I suggest a silk shift scented with citrus, if you have it. Oranges, I find, can be most suggestive and not at all obvious. Not, you understand, to be spoken of, and only in small amount. And if you can find a lamp with ruby glass — to cast a gentler light.'
Henrietta has never considered she might seduce her own husband by means of perfumed silk and soft lighting. Her tactic has been to remain patient and hopeful and to simply wait.
'And what if he doesn't … like it?' she asks. The humiliation feels as if it stings already.
'I hope he does. And of course, it might take a try or two, but if he does not respond, you could endeavour to ask him … more directly. A little encouragement can work wonders and it seems to me there is natural warmth between you. When you came into the room, I noticed as he handed you to my brother he turned in your direction.'
Henrietta did not notice Miss Brodie when she arrived, but then a young girl in Belle's position might have an eye to the room for many reasons.
'Even if your first attempt is not successful, you may find the notion grows on him, in time.'
Henrietta understands the need for patience. She is suddenly struck with the idea of creeping barefoot from her chamber to his and slipping between her husband's sheets. Why had she not thought of this before? 'Well, Miss Brodie,' she says, 'I must say I find what you have told me most interesting. Thank you.' She rises. 'If there is anything I can do …'
'I should like an amaryllis,' Belle says. 'If you can manage to procure one.'
'I shall see if I can get a bulb or two and will grow them for you myself.'
Henrietta lays down her empty glass and kisses the girl on the cheek. She has a silk shift, though she has not worn it in some time. The scent she will order from the apothecary off the High Street in Glasgow with whom she has been in correspondence for many years. The man made medicine for her aunt and uncle. She can certainly trust him. The lamp she hopes might be available at Kennington and Jenner. As she crosses the room she feels beautiful for the first time in a long while. Belle Brodie she concludes is some kind of fairy. And the girl is right, there is affection between herself and her husband ğ a natural feeling. Why should she not play on that?
Robert has done with the lawyer who has retreated into an ante room. The geographer has quit the floor and now sits at the card table in the window playing Faro with two ladies. Henrietta's husband has moved on again and is engaged in conversation with Belle's brother on the matter of the death of His Majesty's wife. King George was said to have revelled at the obsequies during the summer. There was little love lost between the royal couple. Most women felt outrage for Queen Caroline, being treated so shabbily. As Henrietta approaches the men, she wishes she had brought a fan. It was so cold a night and with the snow she did not think of it, but now she wants to hide her face. More than that, she wants to flirt with her husband. It feels quite outrageous.
Joseph smiles, clearly discerning a difference in Lady Liston, upon which he cannot place his finger.
'I hope my sister did not offend you … she is very … frank,' he says.
Henrietta raises her hand. 'Belle is an extraordinary person,' she replies. 'A treasure. We will correspond.'
'Made a friend, did you, my dear?' Robert cuts in.
Henrietta slips her arm through her husband's. 'Joseph's younger sister.'
'How nice,' Robert says. He does not remark that he did not know Joseph had a sister. Momentarily, Henrietta wonders if he knows of her already. She squeezes his fingers.
'Shall we make for Ratho?' he says. 'It will be after one of the clock by the time we get back at this rate.'
'Yes. Take me home,' Henrietta smiles. 'I should like that a great deal.' And she resolves to hold his hand all the way, stowed close to him under a travelling rug. No longer shy of what she wants and confident that she will have it.