Valley of the Moon, California
The smell of buttered toast was a time machine. I stepped inside it and traveled back to 1871. Back to London. Back to my childhood kitchen, to the lap-bounced, sweets-chunky, much-loved seven-year-old boy I once was, sitting on a stool while Polly and Charlotte flew around me.
Whipping cream. Beating eggs. Chopping parsley and thyme. Oh, their merry gossiping! Their pink cheeks. Nothing scared them, not mice, spiders, nothing. Shoo. All the scary things gone.
“More biscuits, please,” I said, holding out my empty plate.
“No,” said my mother, working the bread dough. She wiped her damp forehead with the heel of her hand. “You’ve had enough.”
If you’d walked into the kitchen at that moment, you’d have had no idea she was the lady of the house, working right alongside the servants. My mother, Imogene Widger Bell, was the only daughter of a knocker-upper. Her father had made his living by rising at three in the morning to knock on the windows of his customers, waking them like a human timepiece. My mother herself had entered service on her twelfth birthday. She was cheerful, hardworking, and smart and ascended quickly through the ranks. From laundry maid to scullery maid. From kitchen maid to under cook. When she was sixteen, she met my father, Edward Bell (the son of the gardener), by a stone wall. She, enjoying a break, the sun beating down upon her face, the smell of apple blossoms in the air, an afternoon of polishing silver in front of her. He, an assistant groundskeeper, coiled tight, knee-deep in brambles, and desperate to rise above his class.
Besotted with my mother, he presented a lighthearted façade to woo her, carefully hiding the anger and bitterness that fueled his ambition. His only mistake as he saw it? To have been born into the wrong family. My mother did not see things that way. Her belly was full every night. She worked alongside honest people. Her employers gave her a bonus at Christmas. What more could one ask?
They were terribly ill matched. They never should have married, but they did. And though it took many years, my father eventually did what he’d set out to do: he made a fortune in textiles. He bought a mansion in Belgravia. He hired staff. A lady’s maid and a cook for my mother. A valet for him. They attended concerts and the opera. They became patrons of the arts. They threw parties, they hosted salons, they acquired Persian rugs for every room.
And in the end, none of it mattered: they remained outsiders in the class that my father had hoped to infiltrate. His new “friends” were polite to his face, but behind his back referred to him as “that vulgar little man.” He’d earned his fortune, it was not passed down to him—they would never forgive him for it. All the bespoke shirts in the world couldn’t hide the fact he was new money.
“Joseph, five minutes and then back upstairs to your schoolwork,” said my mother. “Did you finish your sums?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“No,” said Madeline, the governess, who had appeared in the doorway and was holding out her hand to me. How long had she been standing there?
I groaned and slid off the stool.
“Don’t you want to go to university one day?” asked Madeline.
I should have been in school already. That my mother had convinced my father to allow my sister’s governess to give me lessons at home was a miracle. My father consistently reminded me this would come to an end and I would soon be sent away to a proper school.
If only he knew what really happened at 22 Willoughby Square once he left the house every morning. My mother sailed us out of the sea of oligarchy and into the safe harbor of egalitarianism. We became a community of equals. Titles evaporated. Young Master, Little Miss, Cook, Girl, Mistress, Governess. Poof, gone. Polly, Madeline, even Charlotte, the lowliest kitchen maid, called my mother Imogene.
As a result my education was broad. I was taught not only how to multiply and divide, to read and recite, but how to blacken a stove, how to get candle wax out of a tablecloth, and how to build a fence. Some of the lessons I disliked more than others. Egg gathering, for instance: the chickens terrified me. They’d run after me, pecking at my feet.
“I hate the chickens,” I said to my mother. “Why do you make me go out there?”
“How else will you learn what you love to do?” she said. “You don’t have to like everything, but you must try.”
What my mother loved was greengage plums.
The most sublime-tasting plum in the world, she always said, but the tree had a fickle temperament and was notoriously difficult to grow. She had a small orchard in the back of our garden. I had never tasted one of her greengage plums, or if I had I couldn’t remember. The last time her trees had fruited, I was a baby. Every July I’d ask if this was the year the plums would come.
“You must be patient,” she told me. “Everything good takes time.”
I was a greedy boy. I stamped my foot. I wanted a plum now.
“How to wait,” she said, looking down at me with pity. “It’s the hardest thing to learn.”