Beverley Oakley: Cressida’s Dilemma

Rediscovering the Magic

Beverley Oakley

Many years ago I dipped into nineteenth century journalist Henry Mayhew’s report on crime and prostitution in London and discovered a gold mine of material for my fiction writing.

One real-life story in Mayhew’s book, London’s Underworld, became the basis of Cressida’s Dilemma, a sweet, sensual Regency about a long-married couple rediscovering what was once wonderful about marriage.

The anecdote Mayhew recounted was about a husband and wife who’d drifted apart and who were each, individually, enticed to seek diversion at a house of assignation. Mayhew describes the “house…where ladies, both married and unmarried, go in order to meet with and be introduced to gentlemen, there to consummate their libidinous desires.” He gives an account of one such “lady of intrigue, belonging to the higher circles of society, married to a man of considerable property, [who] found herself unhappy in his society… Her passions were naturally strong, and she one day resolved to visit a house that one of her female acquaintances had spoken about…” When her unknown paramour, whose features were indistinct in the gloomy but tastefully decorated ‘May Fair’ house, began to converse with her, the lady “with a cry of astonishment recognized her husband’s voice” while he, equally confused, discovered he was speaking to his ill-used wife. Surprisingly, Mayhew finishes, saying: “This strange encounter had a successful termination, for it ended in the reconciliation of husband and wife, who discovered that they were mutually to blame.”

In the days when marriage really was a contract for life, except for the very rich, there must have been many marriages that could have done with a bit of shaking up like this. Goodness knows how meeting in a house of ill repute could have led to this couple’s reconciliation when I’d have thought the very opposite would have happened but there’s no accounting for what’ll stir the fires of passion.

And it certainly makes for a good story.

About Cressida’s Dilemma

In Cressida’s Dilemma, I teamed the idea of a naïve, timid young wife afraid of having more children with a mystery surrounding a lost child, a case which consumes her husband. Thus rumours that Cressida’s once-adoring spouse has returned to the arms of his former mistress, a singer at Mrs. Plumb’s Salon, puts the couple at cross purposes and gives each very different motivations for entering a “house of ill repute”.

Cressida’s Dilemma is the book is the first in my Salon of Sin series, where kitchen maids and cuckolded duchesses don disguises and venture through the red baize door of Mrs. Plumb’s House of Intrigue to find love. Many of these characters are, in fact, based on those interviewed in Henry Mayhew’s London’s Underworld.

Below is part of the first chapter, in which Cressida’s bullying cousin gloatingly passes on the rumour that is titillating London town.


Chapter One

“The Earl of Lovett has taken a mistress?”

The breathy shock of pretty newlywed, Mrs. Rupert Browne, sliced through the buzz of conversation, lancing its unsuspecting target three feet away and causing a deaf colonel to ask the duchess solicitously if she required a glass of water.

Still choking on her champagne, Cressida, Lady Lovett, strained to hear the response of her cousin, Catherine, who had obviously disseminated this latest shocking on dit while she smilingly assured deaf Colonel Horvitt she was quite all right, as if her happiness were not suddenly hanging by a gossamer thread.

cressidasdilemma_800 copyShe could only hope she was making the right responses to the colonel’s monologue. All her concentration was focused on the nearby conversation as she waited desperately for a rejection of the outrageous claim.

“Surely not?” gasped the generally well-intentioned but oblivious Mrs. Browne to Cousin Catherine’s whispered reply. “But the earl made a love match. Mama told me he scandalized society by marrying a nobody.”

Cressida had to use two hands to keep her champagne coupe steady. The indignity of being described as a ‘nobody’ was nothing compared with the pain of hearing her husband’s amours—real or otherwise—discussed in the middle of a ballroom. She forced her trembling mouth into her best attempt at a smile as the colonel leaned forward and wagged his finger at her, his stentorian tone precluding further eavesdropping. “Your husband ruffled more than a few feathers with his speech in the House of Lords last night, Lady Lovett.”

Cressida had once giggled with her ferociously forceful cousin, Catherine, that the colonel used his deafness as an excuse to peer down the cleavage of every pretty lady he addressed. She was in no mood for giggling now. Clearly, Cousin Catherine was disclosing details about the state of Cressida’s marriage, of which Cressida, apparently, was the last to know. She straightened and pushed her shoulders back, suddenly self-conscious of appearing the sagging, lacking creature the several hundred guests crowded into Lady Belton’s newly renovated ballroom must imagine her, if they were already privy to what she was hearing for the first time. Before her last sip of champagne, she’d considered herself happily married. It was all she could do to remain standing and dry-eyed.

Adjusting the lace of her masquerade costume, she managed, faintly, “Ah, Colonel, you know Lord Lovett and his good causes.” She tried to make it sound like an endearment, but the axis of her world had become centered on ascertaining what other titbits about her marriage Catherine was divulging to Mrs. Browne.

The music swelled to a crashing crescendo, the end of which was punctuated by Mrs. Browne’s shocked squeak, “Who is the woman? Madame Zirelli? Was she not once Lord Grainger’s mistress? No! His wife? He divorced her? And now she and Lord Lovett—?”

Cressida hadn’t wanted to come to Lady Belton’s masquerade. Little Thomas was teething, but Justin had been especially persuasive, reminding her that it had been a long time since they’d been out in public, and that, yes, he knew Thomas was cutting a tooth, but there was nothing Cressida could do that Nurse Flora couldn’t, just for a few hours that evening.

Searching the ballroom for her husband, she spied him talking to her friend, Annabelle Luscombe, near the supper table. Justin’s look was enquiring, as if he were hanging on her every word. Cressida knew he would take equal interest if Annabelle were talking about her latest bonnet or about the Sedleywich Home for Orphans, of which Justin was patron and Annabelle on the committee.

A frisson of longing speared her. Justin had looked at her like that when she’d first met him. So handsome, so determined, so interested and sincere.

The thought that he’d made a special plea for her presence tonight purely in the interest of stilling wagging tongues was almost too terrible to consider.

A mistress? Her kind, beloved, faithful Justin?

As if he were conscious of her from across the room, Justin turned, his dark brown eyes kindling at the sight of her, the warmth of his smile spreading comfort like a woolen mantle. It radiated across the heated, perfumed distance that separated them. Dear Lord, he looked like a handsome prince taken right out of the pages of a storybook, his brown, wavy hair brushed fashionably forward, topped with the laurel wreath required by his costume, his sideburns contouring his elegantly chiseled, high cheekbones. Dressed like a stately Roman senator, he was the stuff of every girl’s dreams, yet it was she, insignificant Miss Cressida Honeywell, daughter of a poor country parson, who had won his heart all those years ago.

She’d thought she still had it—had vowed she’d always keep it.

Rallying, she took a step forward, responding to the invitation implicit in her husband’s eye, but the colonel began counseling Cressida on the dangers of Justin making speeches about orphans and sanitation when he could better rouse his audience in the Lords if he concerned himself with more important matters.

The look she’d just exchanged with her husband was enough to all but dismiss her fears. Exhaling with relief, Cressida smiled at the colonel who, obviously regarding this as encouragement, closed the distance between them as he pursued his argument. She retained her smile as Justin, from the other side of the room, focused another very warm glance in her direction before attending to the hunchbacked Dowager Duchess of Trentham, whose eightieth birthday celebration this was. Justin had the gift of making every woman feel the center of his especial interest. Clearly something must have been misconstrued…

And yet.

Awareness prickled through her—that she had for some time sensed all was not quite right. Taking a step back, she swallowed past the lump in her throat while making, she hoped, the appropriate responses for the benefit of the colonel. Justin, lately, had not been the contented husband of old. The recent bolstering she’d silently received from him faded upon this acknowledgement and her eyes stung. She knew her behavior had not been beyond reproach—that she had withdrawn and that understandably, he was confused. Some months ago, he’d tried to raise the subject, yet she’d brushed it aside, incapable of putting her feelings into words, unable to entertain that unmentionable aspect of their marriage at the heart of all their problems.

Forcing aside her shame, she turned in the direction of her cousin.

“Catherine? A minute, if you please?” Cressida waylaid the stately, dark-haired young woman dressed as a siren as the colonel—thankfully—responded to his wife’s perfunctory summons. With a little intake of breath and a stammered excuse, the recently gossiping Mrs. Browne slipped away while Cousin Catherine betrayed her guilt with a blush.

“Why, Cressy, I did not notice you. How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough to wonder who Madame Zirelli might be and what she is to my husband,” Cressida responded with uncharacteristic harshness.

Catherine’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, Cressy,” she gasped. “I had no idea you— I’m so sorry. But of course, it’s only gossip. You know how quick people are to jump to conclusions.” But her cheeks were flushed. She knew she was guilty of the charges Cressida made. “You’re looking unwell, Cressy. I’ll take you home. We’ll have a nice, cozy chat in the carriage, shall we? I hadn’t expected to see you out this evening, you’ve been hiding away so long.”

Cressida was about to argue that she planned to return home with Justin when Catherine took her arm, saying breezily, “Don’t trouble yourself over Justin. He’s asked me to tell you he’s off to White’s with Roddy Johnson. He knew you were anxious to return home to little Thomas.”

Was that grim satisfaction she saw on her cousin’s face?

It wasn’t until she’d gained the darkness of the vehicle that Cressida broke her tense silence. She could barely force out the words, but she would not have Catherine secretly gloating over something Cressida was apparently the last to know about.

“I’d thank you to tell me everything you told Mrs. Browne.” Sinking back against the squabs of her husband’s plush equipage, she hid her disquiet beneath a veneer of dignified anger. “If she is under the impression Justin has taken a mistress, you apparently did little to disabuse her of that notion, when I know very well it is not true. I’d like to know the source of your information.”

Catherine shifted beside her, and although Cressida could not see her face, she could tell she was uncomfortable. “No need to get on your high ropes, Cressy,” she muttered, and Cressida could imagine the proud, defiant tilt to Catherine’s pointed chin as she defended her actions, just as she had done all through her impish childhood and spirited adolescence. “Like you say, I’m sure there’s nothing to it.”


So what’s the most unlikely reason for a couple reconnecting that you’ve ever heard of? I’d like to offer a copy of my Ellora’s Cave Dangerous Gentlemen or Her Gilded Prison for any ideas or comments.

About the Author

Beverley Eikli author shot for ARRA copyHistorical romance author Beverley Eikli’s love of the gypsy lifestyle and appreciation of the world’s varied heroes was honed during years of working in the male-dominated safari and airborne survey industries. Redemption is her favourite theme and flawed heroines her specialty. Now living with her family in Melbourne, Australia, twenty years after hitching her star to the Cessna Caravan (now a Boeing 777) of the handsome Norwegian bush pilot she met around a campfire in Botswana’s beautiful Okavango Delta where she ran a safari lodge at the time, Beverley teaches creative writing, makes historical costumes and works as a disaster events researcher.

You can find Beverley here: Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter

And you can buy Cressida’s Dilemma in ebook or print here.