Saturday, July 9, 2022

Spotlight: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

Book Description:

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique designs.

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?
When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option. 
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.


April 1893 ~ Lucy

Lucy turned the envelope in her hands to read the sender’s address. It was from her barrister’s clerk, Mr. Wilfred Clemens. Using the tip of her dressmaking shears she slit it open and pulled out two pages: an official document and a letter. The letter, written in black ink, confirmed that the marriage between Lucile Christiana Sutherland and James Charles Stuart Wallace solemnized on the 13th day of September 1884 had been dissolved on the 30th of April 1893. She could see Mr. Clemens’s long, clean shaven face, his lips pressed together in disapproval as he had written in his even copperplate hand: “Your decree absolute has been granted and you are now legally divorced.” She was officially dropped from polite society.

She stared down at the document releasing her from James. What had she expected to feel now that the long years of her marriage were over: elation, joy? Guilt that she had not been a worthy wife? Gratitude that she would never smell the sour odor of stale brandy on James’s breath as he lay beside her in their bed, or feel him fumbling at her nightdress, his legs thrusting hers apart? She shook her head to rid it of his slurred command that she lie still when she had tried to pretend she was turning away from him in her sleep to avoid the brutality of his nightly assaults, until, bored with her, he had pushed her away, and told her she was frigid.

She sat down at her dressing table and looked at the serious woman gazing back at her in the looking glass. Where has that eighteen year old girl gone who fell so completely in love nine years ago? That laughing, happy girl? She saw for a fleeting moment the skinny tomboy who swam in the icy water of the Gulf of St. Malo, who fished in the pond for tiddlers in spring and skated on its surface in winter. Is she still in there, somewhere?

She searched her reflection for lines. Yes, there they were at the corners of her eyes. Her mother reminded her not to frown; her sister dismissed them as laughter lines. Lucy traced the edge of her jawline with her forefinger: my face is too thin. She pulled the lamp closer and leaned into its light. Her skin was still firm, her mouth full-lipped. At least she hadn’t become grim and tight from nine years of disappointments and the indifference of a husband whose interest lay only in women who drank gin and kicked up their legs in a pantomime chorus. Did he ever really love me? She wondered. Had that younger, superficially charming man ever felt any emotion deeper than the need to gratify momentary physical pleasure?

She did not feel joy that she was free—not a quiver not a shred—she simply felt relief. If relief was all she felt, so be it! Perhaps joy of a sort would come in its own time. She bent and opened the bottom drawer of her chiffonier and lifted a parcel onto her lap, peeling away the layers of tissue paper. A bright flash of indigo and violet gleamed in the light as she held the silk up to her face. Violets and heartsease. Women of her mother’s generation believed that flowers were symbolic. Violets represented faith, and heartsease peace. The rich hue made her skin look porcelain smooth, pearl white. She shook out the folds of taffeta around her like a cloak and walked slowly around the room, feeling the heavy rustle pull behind her.

Wrapped in silk she hurled the two pillows on the right side of the bed across the floor, pulling her own into the center. She lay down and stretched her arms and legs out as far as they would go to the bed’s four posts. This is my bed now, my room and if I can hang onto it, my house!

She smoothed her hands down over the violet silk and looked around the pretty room she had created in the weeks she had waited for her divorce—obliterating all evidence of a masculine presence. A swathe of white muslin embroidered in white roses, looped around the crown of her bed, softened the thick mahogany posts. Gone were the heavy red brocade curtains, blocking the light from the windows, replaced by simple dove gray linen, over sheer white muslin, that she kept open at night. She had recovered the gold and maroon cushions with silver-gray silk. To her mother’s horror she had painted over the burgundy wallpaper with a tinted wash of lavender. The pale walls reflected the rising sun in the morning, flushing them a soft pink and in the evening had the cool grayish tint of lavender. She lay quite still in her bed, her hands folded behind her head, breathing in the late night air as it belled the muslin curtains inward.

For the first time in weeks she was hungry! No more half-raw joints of beef squatting on the sideboard in my house! Tomorrow she would order a roast chicken for lunch. Surely Celia would be able to manage something as simple as a roast chicken? What a pity James had emptied the cellar, her meagre budget didn’t extend to wine. She ignored the niggling voice that whispered in her head: Supposing it doesn’t work, what will you do? What will you do?

It will work!” she said to her room, slowing the rhythm of her breath. “It will most certainly work!”

After breakfast she would put on her hunter-green broadcloth and walked to Farmers & Rogers in Regent Street where she would buy ten yards of the sheerest gray chiffon and a length of deep indigo silk for the sleeves of the dress. Sleeves were important and hers would be sublime.

Lucy could see the dress as if it were hanging in her wardrobe. She reached out to the table by her bed for the tablet of drawing paper and a pencil. Sitting up against her pillows she started to sketch the bodice. “Smooth, tightly fitted with a plunging vee neckline,” she instructed herself, “ending between my breasts.” She looked down and laughed. They were not as mountainously glorious as Elinor’s snowy prow, but they would look impressive enough if she pushed them up with her corset. “The décolletage trimmed with the Chantilly lace from my wedding dress and embellished with . . . a bow?” She tapped her pencil. “No, dark blue appliqued flowers. . .here and here and here.” Her pencil traced lightly over the page: “Soft, bouffant gray chiffon sleeves, set over the indigo silk, and gathered into frilled cuffs of long lace above the elbows, because romantic sleeves half-covering slender arms are irresistible.” She drew the line of the skirt. “Simple. . . feminine,” and corrected herself. “Alluring and feminine.” Alluring is what would sell. The dress must captivate, attract women who would want one like it.

When she looked up from her drawing the sun was streaming in through the windows. It was the first day of her new life.

Chapter 1, pages 11-14

About the Author:

Tessa Arlen
writes historical fiction when she is not toiling away in her garden. She is the author of the Edwardian mystery series: Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson; the Woman of World War II mystery series. Poppy Redfern. And two standalone historical novels: In Royal Service to the Queen, and A Dress of Violet Taffeta

Read an in-depth interview with author Tessa Arlen revealing insights into her new historical fiction novel, A Dress of Violet Taffeta.

Title: A Dress of Violet Taffeta

Author: Tessa Arlen
Publisher: Berkley
Published: July 2020
ISBN: 0593436857

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the excerpt, Andrea. Lucy was such a trailblazer for fashion and women entrepreneurs. Arlen did a fabulous job with the era, fashions, and characters. I am looking forward to her next novel.