Detail from a hand-colored engraving of Villa Diodati, by Edward Francis Finden, ca. 1833, after a drawing by William Purser
Elizabeth Bennet felt tiny.
While she was acutely aware that she was of smallish size, she had been, throughout most of her life, larger than most of the living creatures surrounding her on Longbourn’s grounds. Perhaps the horses and cows were bigger…and the less said about the rather fractious sow that Papa insisted on keeping, the better…however they were safely separated from the youngster by fences and stalls.
However, everything about the main floor of Harrod’s made her feel small. Glass-covered display cases loomed over her head. Finely dressed ladies made all the taller by mountainously fashionable headwear towered above her as she and Madame Robard made their way down aisles lined with tastefully-displayed wares. The decorated ceiling flew above great arches and was supported by columns that marched to the edge of her sight before coming together in the indeterminate distance. The great atrium soared away from her, making her clutch Maggie’s hand all the tighter.
Only one time before in her life had Lizzy felt insignificant in nearly the same degree. That was when she and Papa had stopped at Uncle Edward’s warehouse in Cheapside. She had been overwhelmed by great stacks of packing crates and rolled goods stored beneath the rough-hewn beams supporting the roof. Of course, Lizzy reminded herself, that was over two years ago, and she was much bigger now! Even so, Gardiner’s Mercantile could not hold a candle to the great department store.
Maggie felt the increased pressure against her hand and guided the girl to the edge of the floor where she settled Lizzy on a padded bench before resting beside her as well.
Maggie looked over at Lizzy who was slightly flushed, and, noticing that her eyes were dilated as well, worriedly asked, “Are you feeling well, Elizabeth? Is there something which I can offer to help you? Are you thirsty? Hungry?”
The young girl, reassured by the comforting concern running through Maggie’s questions, replied, “I will own to feeling somewhat overwhelmed, Madame Robard. I have never before seen such a large enclosed space.
“Is this truly a establishment which offers all the goods for which we would usually have to visit four or five shops to satisfy our needs? Even in our brief walk from the doors to this point, I saw a milliner, a stationer, a haberdashery, and a counter selling scented soaps. What else can this ‘Harrod’s’ offer?”
Maggie chuckled as she recalled her own emotions when she had first entered through the great doors of Le Bon Marché, an edifice which had been barred to her in her old life as Maggie Small. Her bona fides had been validated with the attendants as she assisted young Kate in her wedding purchases. The aura of the Fitzwilliams and Renoirs had erased her past, whitening the soil applied by society but never by herself.
“Your Papa has been teaching you Latin, I believe. Perhaps you could tell me what Omnia Omnibus Uibque means.”
Lizzy furrowed her brow and considered her assignment, “I may not be completely correct, but if I am not mistaken, it means ‘All things for all people, everywhere.’”
As her husband had been earlier, Maggie was impressed with Elizabeth’s acuity. In praise she responded, “You are not mistaken. That is Harrod’s motto. Mr. Tomkins has heard of other chauffeurs purchasing supplies for their motorcars from Harrod’s. For us, though, it means that we will be able to quickly obtain all the clothing you will require for our trip.
“Before that, though, I do believe we require some sustenance to fortify us before we move to the young misses’ department. Would some ice cream make you feel more comfortable?”
Widened chocolate eyes and a blazing smile gave Madame Robard the answer she needed. She guided her charge to the pleasantly decorated ice cream parlor which had been added in the last few years, obviating the need to leave the store for any respite from the business at hand.[i] A judicious application of freshly scooped strawberry ice cream aside some biscuits restored Miss Bennet’s spirits.
Lizzy had never experienced the unadulterated pleasure of being waited upon hand and foot. After all, she was the second daughter in a household that had swiftly expanded to five…and as such she was more often the recipient of Jane’s cast-offs, although these were certainly not rags. With that many growing children on a modest estate, Mama had, perforce, outfitted her brood for durability not fashion. Thus, the Mistress of Longbourn, Mrs. Lucas, Mrs. Long, and Mrs. Goulding frequently pooled their resources to outfit Meryton’s ever-expanding girl child population.
Here at Harrod’s, though, Elizabeth Rose Bennet was at the center of a whirlwind of shop girls and matrons. Standing atop a pedestal in the center of a private salon clad only in her shift, she was measured for dress-up and dress-down outfits, country and city clothes. Most of what Maggie approved was quickly brought from the prêt à porter storerooms and slipped over Lizzy’s head and upraised arms. Needed adjustments were noted on a seamstress’ notepad before one piece could be removed in order to be replaced by another one.
To suggest that she was outraged by the brevity of some of the fashions with dresses only covering her to mid-calf would have been an overstatement. Lizzy was one who looked before she offered up her opinions about the behavior of others. She had been observing the world about her since her arrival some four hours earlier. What she had gleaned was that the measure of modest clothing had changed since her day. Ladies dressed as Madame Robard was were considered properly covered even if a gentleman could ascertain the color of their hose.
There was one area, though, under which she drew a red line—even at the tender age of only ten years. This happened after the salon’s matron softly conferred with Madame, and then approached Lizzy to address her.
“Madame Robard tells me that you are a dear relative of our Lady Fitzwilliam and will be travelling to the family beach house at Deauville. You will discover that the beach and waves will call out to you, especially as the summer deepens. For that you will require a bathing costume.
“I would not presume to fit you for one here today. Even in private, you may become uncomfortable. However, I do have an illustration of the style that I think you would find most becoming. T’is made of cotton, is cut loosely, and is a periwinkle blue with white accents.”
She held the plate[ii] up before Lizzy’s eyes. The girl’s breath caught in her throat and her orbs widened in complete amazement.
The sprite looked happy enough…but how could her parents allow her out with bare arms…and I hope she is wearing some sort of stockings!
Lizzy violently shook her head. But, while she was occupied with another outfit, Maggie nodded to the matron who quickly added the bathing suit to the list.
After some two hours of intensive shopping and fitting, punctuated by respites for restorative lemonade and small sandwiches brought up from the terrace restaurant, Maggie and Lizzy prepared to leave. The purchases had been carefully packed in a modest-sized traveling trunk at Madame’s request in recognition that there would be little time for such a task when Matlock House had been regained. The salon’s matron and salesgirls all gathered around wishing “the young miss” a bon voyage. More than one gushed how they wished they could be journeying to the mysterious foreign shores of the French side of the Channel.
Elizabeth graciously spoke with each one, expressing her thanks for their attention. The matron fussed over Lizzy for a final moment, straightening the girl’s new frock, before suddenly clucking her tongue against her teeth. She looked up at Maggie and exclaimed, “We forgot a hat. Miss Elizabeth surely needs a new hat to wear as she boards the train to Southampton!”
The woman dashed off, followed by two of the older shop girls. In two minutes the three women returned, each bearing three or four different examples of the milliner’s art.
Broad brim, turban, or derby-style; straw, silk, velvet, or gauze…some with feathers, others with entire birds…the choices astounded the Hertfordshire miss. Many seemed suitable only for taller, more hawk-faced older women. Others were designed for young girls, but impressed as being almost infantile. But, Lizzy calmly looked at each selection, tending to favor the darker motifs. None appealed to her.
After the last chapeau had been picked up, tried on, and then ultimately judged to be wanting, Lizzy glanced at Maggie and the lead attendant. One of the assistants pursed her lips, leaned over to her manager, and whispered in her ear. The matron then whispered to Maggie who tipped her head and gave a Gallic shrug.
“Perhaps Miss Elizabeth would care to view our storeroom of young lady’s hats?” the forewoman asked. And then indicating one of the associates, she continued, “Myra here would be pleased to guide you behind the curtain. You might find something which suits.”
Led away into a dim recess filled from floor to ceiling with hatboxes, Elizabeth gasped at the task before her. However, Myra had been behind the counters at Harrod’s for nearly five years. She believed that any woman, young or old, instinctively knew what style would suit her. Given time, even this strangely serious young lady with the remarkable dark eyes would find her hat. So she urged Lizzy to wander around while she, Myra, would watch her reactions in the hopes of going to school on them.
But, Myra’s attention was diverted for a moment when a few hatboxes suddenly tumbled from their months’, if not years’, long perches. Surprised at this unusual occurrence, she picked up the errant packages and stowed them away. Turning back to the aisle, she was surprised to see Lizzy holding a head form in both hands. Displayed atop it was a hat that Myra had never seen before.
The rich burgundy crushed velvet material was dusty from its long night in the tombs. But the most distinctive feature which transcended even the dimming properties of the city’s powder which had winkled its way into this deep bowel of the giant store was the oversized red rose that graced the bucket-style hat’s side.[iii]
Myra solemnly took the form from Lizzy’s out-stretched hands, set it on a workbench, and lifted the hat free. Carefully brushing the dust off, she adjusted the rose petals and lowered the hat onto the girl’s chocolate curls. The hat settled nearly to her ears, being slightly oversize. Yet, Lizzy’s happy smile told Myra that the old hat, unwanted until today, had found its kindred spirit.
[ii] Accessed from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/50/d8/6e/50d86ef3e486ee833580ad3ece8c594d–retro-summer-antique-photos.jpg on 8/12/17.