Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I must confess, for though I am female, and of lowly rank for a woman of my time, I am wealthy by comparison to many who suffer the drought of a dry marriage bed. But the journey was not an easy one; indeed, the road to my freedom is riddled with potholes and steep embankments, at times seeming to careen from my control altogether. Yet even the dangers excited my blood. I always suspected I was an unlikely breed for a woman cast headlong into a deceptive era, where on the outside there was a polished veneer of social propriety and beneath the wood crawled every vile and wretched atrocity. I marvel now how it is that I survived. Nevertheless, I have always been untamed, and perhaps that is what, in the end, saved me.
I came to the good Robert and Virginia Archibald quite young by today's standards. For more than a decade in their service, I garnered much more than a plate of food and a bed in which to lay my head. This is my life, my tales of growing up, a journal penning my becoming a woman in every sense of the word.
Not all are stellar in memory as they once were, but others stir a remembrance that is yet able to warm as well as a good brandy.
Not only was it improper, by standards set by the men of my time, for a woman to partake in pleasure of a social nature, it was forbidden as a house servant to speak of such trysts. Oh, accepted so it is that, in private, we women are expected to enjoy those moments of passion created for purposes of marriage, but before then, what? God help me, why is it that men are the only passionate beings on earth? Or is it what society at the time wanted us to believe?
Most would consider me of spinster age at the time of these writings. At seventeen, I was unmarried and betrothed to no man. It speaks well, I suppose, of my headstrong behavior, that by choice I remain alone. However, it is not for lack of suitors, or one or two that graciously offered to make me a respectable wife.
I venture to say that my heart was tainted, willing to partake of the sinful fruit of impropriety, but unsatisfied with the taste of most men I'd met. Though I captured glimpses of my imaginary lover in the eyes of many, it would take years and an unusual twist of the fates to find a lover who would challenge and accept me for the passionate woman that I am.
I admit I am a slave to my own passion, a bit rebellious, and so reminded by a distraught aunt and a most horridly strict keeper of the orphanage where I spent a short time.
I am keenly aware of the power of my sexuality and unafraid to confess that, more times than not, my preference is for the strength of a man's hands upon me, giving me pleasure, instead of pleasure derived of my own hand. Either achieves the desired purpose, but I so love the scent of a man's skin.
Passion, in my day, was reserved for a man's pleasure whether married or not. It is accepted as part of a man's virile needs, in some cases even perpetuated by his health.
By contrast, a woman's passion in view of current social standards is not only considered odd, but simply does not exist except for what it will gain for her husband and most importantly for his inheritance.
Proper women, well taught in the attributes that make for the perfect prize, often scorn those of us who are rebellious to society's shackles. The cream of our society is the woman well versed in reading, able to play piano, proficient in needlework, able to sing, knowledgeable in politics, thoughtful only to a point and only in the company of other women, but by no means should it appear we know more than the man in our company. In addition, she is at her best if involved in works of charity and events of social relevance.
Ah, the perfect prize, who would sit and twiddle her thumbs while her husband takes trips of three to four days, journeys on pretense of business. I have known the women they rush to visit in secret.
I fear there was a time when I held none of these comely attributes, and likely was viewed as less than cow dung in the eyes of most. As for my surviving, I owe this to my mistress and her bountiful kindness. Whatever her intent, or however successful were the results of her plan for me, she fashioned me from the ashes of my existence to a woman of substance, if only in my eyes. That is ample recognition for me.
In all that, social propriety demanded I was most fortunate to have the sort of relationship with my mistress that I did. Loyal and hardworking, I dutifully served the Archibalds for years. I kept my affairs discreet, smiled dutifully as I saw to their needs. As a result, through my mistress's personal trials, I became closer to her than perhaps most handmaids would to their employers.
Each encounter has served as a stepping-stone to my growth, sexual and otherwise. Every man I have had the good fortune to meet has left me wiser than before, being able to see deeper into the human heart and mind, mine being the first. It is not a bad life for a young woman left alone to find her way.
Permit me to begin by way of introduction. My name is Anne Cozette Bennett and I was born the youngest of seven into a simple family near Manchester. My father died in a mining accident. My siblings died thereafter, as did my mother, of cholera. I often wonder, even now, why I alone was spared.
These then are my confessions, looking back on a life full and ripe with all my passions, trysts and turbulent trials. It was a contradiction of propriety, with grace and gentility on the surface, and an underbelly of vermin that scurried below. Nevertheless, I grew amidst these changes, polishing the veneer, and enjoying the forbidden fruits that made my life
well, interesting, as you shall see.
I have for a very long time considered that when my time comes (and it does for all regardless of wealth) that should someone find a fascination with the stories of a young, unpretentious handmaid named Cozette, that they should read them by my own hand. I think this is what my mother would have wanted, and I would give anything if she could read it now. I did what I had to do in most cases, for to deny any of the tales, to alter them in any form more pleasing perhaps to the sensitive eye, would be to rob me of all that I am.
My dearest of lovers, as we lay in his bed talking of the past, said to me, "To move forward, my love, you cannot forget your past, but embrace it, all of it. It made you the passionate woman you are today." He, of course, was right in addition to being a most adoring and talented of men, both in skill and in bed.
I pray then if your libido, dry from the tensions of this world, thirsts for passion, let your palate be satisfied as you join me in the fire of my youth.
August 25, 1869
I will be fourteen in a few months. Today my mother informed me that I am being sent to an aunt and uncle, as she no longer has the strength to care for me. I begged her to let me stay. I'd helped her to bury my father and my siblings, all but one. But Everett teeters on the brink of death even now.
"But Mama, please. I can help you with Everett. And what happens if you turn ill?"
"There will no more discussion on this, Anne Cozette. I've written to make arrangements and sent a little money, what I could, ahead of time to help with your expenses. They will expect you by week's end. There is a carriage that leaves Friday morning, and you will be on it."
She sifted through my clothes, checking for spots to be mended or altered. I'd received many of my older sister's clothing at her passing.
I pleaded with her until at last she dropped to her knees, her fist clutched to her breast. Great sobs shook from her and I knelt at her side, comforting her as best I could with my embrace. She looked at me, her eyes rimmed red from her tears.
"I can see no other way, Anne. I have watched my children, one by one, taken from me. You are my last and, thank God, still healthy. You are all I have. I need to know that you will survive. If you stay, there is no hope of that. There is so much sickness here
My childhood had ended. I saw for the first time my mother's view of life. Something deep inside me was pried loose, like a ship pulling away from its moorings, leaving the safe haven of the shore. My mother was giving me my freedom. She was giving me my life.
Before I left, she gave me a thin book with blank pages.
"It was a gift for our wedding, but I never had the time to write in it, with children to raise and a husband to care for. You take it. Your aunt is a very proper woman, who will insist you have an education. She will have writing tools. You
can keep a journal of your adventures. Perhaps, when you learn to write, you can send me letters as well. I'd like that. Please remember one thing, my dear Anne, what I do now, I do because I love you."
I clung to those words as the carriage pulled away from all that I'd known.
September 17, 1869
I have been kept busy with my schooling. True to my mother's words, my aunt Eleanor is a very stern woman and when I am not studying my lessons, she has me helping the housemaid with simple chores. I do not mind the work as it gives me time to think, but it does not permit me much time to write, which I am trying to perfect.
My cousin Edward, three years older than me, does little except to torment small helpless birds. I once caught him about to drown a new litter of kittens as a lark. The evil glint in his eye as he told me to keep silent on the subject, gave warning that I should stay as far away from him as possible.
September 28, 1869
I am at my wits' end, for what has transpired I could perhaps endure if my aunt were not so blind. I have been here only a few weeks, and can see the rules that apply to me do not apply the same to my dear cousin Edward. Yet she insists that I am an evil influence in her house.
While I do not profess to be a model child, and admit that on occasion I am prone to moments of rebelliousness, I question the term "evil" which denotes malicious intent. I have never sought to be hostile, nor would I except for survival's sake. My nature, prone to defiance, I admit comes from being the youngest and so doing what needs to be done for attention. However, in this horrible turn of events, I am not to blame, though blame surely has been adhered solely to me. I shall write you of this, Mother, if my aunt will allow a letter to come to you. Until then, I will place it here, for safekeeping.
Edward found me a few days ago minding my own business in the tree house built at the edge of the flower garden. It was his, I suppose, but I never saw him go there. I did not think it would do any harm to sit there and read.
Edward is a handsome lad, but it is a veneer surely over what lies beneath. Perhaps he is so privileged that it has muddled his reason, for his actions were not that of a gentleman.
I was reading, as my aunt insists I do at least four hours daily, after my chores to improve my skills. She said it would lift me from the depths of my poor social standing, and aid in seeing that I was a well-bred young lady, though I am not sure what she means by this. Her son is no more well bred than I am, apparently.
Unannounced and uninvited, Edward joined me in the
tree house. His deceptive smile could not hide the mischief in his eyes.
"What are you reading?" He eyed me in a way I found most unpleasant as he sat down next to me. From his jacket he withdrew a bundle of worn postcards.
"Look here, what I have." He grinned fiendishly, shoving the cards into my lap.
I kept my gaze on my book, hoping that if I ignored him he would soon tire of his torment and leave. Instead, he pushed the cards in front of me, blocking my pages. A gasp escaped my mouth as I stared at the pictures.
They were black and white photo images of near-naked women draped over beds and straddling chairs, some with barely enough sheer cloth to cover their private parts. I wagered his mother knew nothing of his collection, or surely there would be hell to pay.
Proud as if showing me his latest hunting catch, he shifted one after another for my inspection and I sat rigid between disdain and curiosity, wondering why he would choose to show me such indecent photos.
"A friend of mine at prep school pilfered them from his father. I find them intriguing, don't you, cousin?"
I didn't say out loud what I thought of him or his postcards. "I would like to read now, if it's all the same to you." I hoped that my statement would be enough. Edward had other ideas.
"I shan't worry, cousin. I venture to say that one day you may yet look as ripe as one of these delectable ladies."
He tucked the cards back into his jacket pocket as his gaze raked hungrily over me.
"You aren't too unsightly even for your age and upbringing. A bit frail perhaps, but sure to possess all the right parts. My friend says that a man doesn't require beauty to achieve satisfaction."
I scooted away from him, sensing by his manner that the conversation between us was not one I was comfortable in pursuing. I was not at all aware of what he meant by "achieving satisfaction."
"Now cousin, I wouldn't harm a hair on your head, you know that. But being of the intellectual persuasion, I am curious by nature, and I am, as you may have noticed, a healthy male to which such urges are quite acceptable."