Little Victorian Heroines
and Their Appalling Behavior
[Excerpted, with generous permission, from the memoirs of Georgina Nesbitt.]
In my early childhood, I was afflicted by a series of governesses. Among them was poor old Miss Benton. Miss Benton was infuriating. She would believe (at once!) all manner of things that Papa told her, even when these things were nonsense. However, if I dared to bring anything interesting to her attention, she treated me as she might a gibbering mongoloid. For Miss Benton, all of human knowledge could be divided into three categories: common sense, madness and filth.
For instance: arithmetic was common sense, algebra was madness and calculus was filth.
I do not exaggerate.
Papa once told her that I was never to go up the stairs to the attic. Miss Benton accepted this - it was common sense. I told Miss Benton that the command was absurd - we had no attic. The stairs that should have led to our attic, I explained, led instead to a cellar.
“Don’t be foolish, Georgina,” she scolded me. “How can stairs that go upward lead to a cellar?”
Miss Benton was all of five and forty, and yet I had to speak to her as if she were a child of three or a man of one hundred and two.
“Stairs that go upward can lead to a cellar, Miss Benton, if the cellar is not our cellar but rather someone else’s. For instance, what if someone lived in a home directly above us? Should he be denied a cellar simply because our home is in his way? Though architecturally unorthodox, might he not place his cellar in the space between our home and his?”
Miss Benton, to her meager credit, allowed that this could conceivably come to pass. Though it would be madness, and quite possibly filth.
“But, Georgina,” she persisted. “There is no one living above us. The house belongs entirely to Master Nesbitt, your father.”
“Very true,” I said. “Our situation is more roundabout. The cellar at the top of our stairs does not exist above us in space, so much as ahead of us in time. It is the cellar of Mr. Gregory Shame, who resides in the early years of the Twenty-First Century. Papa does not like me to visit, because he believes it is a bad influence.”
Miss Benton looked at me pityingly, as if any child who said such things could not possibly expect a place in decent society or God's heaven.
“Let me ask you, Governess,” I said in my sweetest and most deferential tone. “Did Papa say that you were not to go up the stairs?”
Miss Benton’s eye’s rolled backward, as if a transcript of her conversation with Papa were recorded on the ceiling. Perhaps she had scrawled it just behind her forehead and was only now realizing that her vision did not extend so far.
“I cannot recall that he did,” she said finally.
“Very well. I will stay here and busy myself with my Latin, while you go up the stairs and verify that they lead to Mr. Shame’s cellar. If I am right, you must apologize to me for the lack of trust and respect that you have shown the daughter of your employer.”
“And what if, Georgina” said Miss Benton, in a travesty of shrewdness, “I merely find an attic, and not an enchanted cellar at all?”
Dull as she was in the face of anything interesting, Miss Benton was keenly alert when it came to her own needs and desires.
“In that event, my dear Governess, I will reveal to you where Papa hides the key to his liquor cabinet.”
Our bargain struck, Miss Benton left me unattended and marched up the stairs.
I was fully aware that a ravenous ogre guarded the entrance to Mr. Shame’s cellar. And the ogre was fully aware of my difficulty with governesses. Ogres can be ever so useful when properly understood.
If any readers thinks me wicked, I can only ask them what they would have done at the age of six and three quarters, with a magical world above their heads, and a stubborn old cow blocking their way. Might they, too, not have felt a need to overthrow their governess?
She only ever listened to Papa, anyway.
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