Mourning Bells is a historical short story that follows Victoria as she deals with the expectations put upon her by her family to accept the gender roles of early 20th century England, while also dealing with the pressure of being named after the most famous Victoria in history, Queen Victoria.
Victoria despised her name.
She had been named after the Queen of England, who her mother believed to be the fairest monarch to rule the commonwealth. Before her mother, Margaret, died, she told Victoria stories of the greatest queen, the youngest to ascend the throne, leading the commonwealth on her own, standing strong even after her husband’s death. Victoria wished she shared her mother’s sentiment when it came to the woman who inspired her own name, but she could not find it in herself. She had no relation to the queen, nor had she ever met her, or even seen her, so why should she force herself to feel a connection with the sovereign? When all is said and done, it did not seem to matter all that much.
Victoria stood still at the edge of the concrete footpath, waiting for the trails of horses and carriages and people to slow so she could make her way across the road. It had rained the day before, so the red mud of the road glued itself to the soles of Victoria’s boots and drowned the trim of her dress. She felt the coldness of the mud against her ankles already, though the coat of moisture was still thin on the fabric of her skirt. Victoria would have to wash it upon her arrival home.
At least Queen Victoria has someone to wash her dresses, Victoria thought with a sense of resentment. Perhaps instead of a shared name, we could share a maid.
A gentleman strolled past on the footpath, tipping his hat in Victoria’s direction.
‘Mornin’ Miss,’ he spoke in a grovelling voice. She bowed her head in response and stared as he continued down the street, tipping his hat at all the young women he crossed paths with. Victoria was careful not to speak when she was unaccompanied. She did not wish to draw any further unwanted attention toward herself. It was scandalising enough that she, a young, unmarried woman, was roaming the dangerous London streets all by herself. She could not imagine the controversy that would ensue upon her and her family if she was seen philandering about town by herself.
The clock face of Big Ben ticked over to nine o’clock. Victoria was, naturally, incredibly late for her breakfast meeting with Francis. She had been reluctant to meet with him when he had first sent her the invitation, but her father later convinced her.
‘Mister Warrington is a good man, and he wishes to meet with you. This could very well be your only chance to marry a decent man,’ he had told her, already writing a letter of acceptance at his desk.
Victoria decided it was best to meet with Francis. Her father was right, this could be her only chance to marry. She was only a fortnight away from her twenty-fourth birthday, and most women her age, that she knew at least, had already married.
Victoria arrived at Wilton’s ten minutes late. She could see Francis in the front room, sitting in a plush green chair. Passing her coat and hat to an employee, she joined her suiter at the small dining table.
Upon seeing Victoria cross the room, Francis stood, adjusted his grey suit jacket, and pulled out a chair.
‘Good morning, Victoria,’ Francis greeted, gesturing for her to sit in the chair he was holding out. She did.
‘I must apologise for my late arrival,’ she offered a smile. ‘There was horrible traffic.’ This was only half true. There had been herds of slow-moving Londoner’s in the streets, but it would have been a simple task to walk around them. Victoria was late because she had not wished to go.
She looked at the man sitting across from her. He was handsome, she thought, with neat blond hair and a thin moustache above his mouth. He was only a few years older than her, but he walked with a slight limp, a result of an injury that left him medically discharged from the Boer War.
Victoria remembered her late mother once telling her to only marry someone she could imagine loving in the future.
‘Queen Victoria did not love Albert when they were first engaged to be wed, but she grew to love him more than anyone else.’
Victoria did like Francis, she supposed. He had always been kind to her and her father, and he came from a decent family. She believed if she married him, she could grow to love him over time.
Victoria was pulled out of her shallow thoughts by the sound of Francis’s droning voice.
‘So, you could imagine my surprise when Mister Harris told me that the woman was his mistress! Poor Gregory and I had been calling her Mrs Harris the whole evening. It must have been so humiliating!’
‘Indeed, it must have been,’ she chimed in, hearing only the end of the tale. She sipped from the cup of tea a waiter had brought by while Francis was speaking.
‘Victoria, I would like for you to join me here again for dinner this evening,’ Francis put down his own teacup.
‘Of course, I would love to,’ Victoria tried her best to sound enthusiastic.
Victoria knew her father would be pleased with Francis’s dinner invitation, but she had not known he would have been overwhelmingly happy with the prospect of his only daughter’s possible engagement.
‘You must prepare one of your evening dresses,’ he ordered from where he sat behind his desk reading a newspaper.
‘Yes, Father,’ Victoria responded, spending more attention on the cloth she was embroidering than on the conversation.
When she was a child, Victoria had sat in this same parlour and listened to her father read the daily newspaper aloud, and watched her mother weave needle and coloured thread through cloth. She would perch herself next to her mother, small hands gripped tightly to her favourite porcelain doll, and take note on how her mother moved the needle through the cloth, crafting flowers, birds and bible verses. Now, the townhouse was filled with cushions, blankets, wall hangings and an odd portrait of Queen Victoria that Margaret had made, in a desperate effort to keep the memory of her alive. Victoria had never minded the crowded armchairs, and her father seemed to take comfort in their presence.
Victoria’s father cleared his throat.
‘I should tell you now, dear, that Francis has asked for my blessing on a marriage between you.’ He paused for a moment, folding the newspaper before him. ‘I have given it. If you were wise, you would accept.’
Victoria looked at the portrait of Queen Victoria that hung on the wall above the lit fireplace. She wondered if the monarch had felt so unsure of everything before her engagement to Albert, or if she ever grew bored at the thought of her future husband. Victoria knew of the urgency placed on the queen to wed a suiter when she first ascended the throne and escape the control of her mother. She couldn’t help but feel the pressure she was enduring over her own upcoming engagement was similar to her royal counterpart; not at their own will, but to appease others. But Queen Victoria had learned to love Albert, and the more she thought about it, the less Victoria was sure she could learn to love Francis.
With a deep breath and a barrel of uncertainty, Victoria responded, ‘Of course, Father.’
‘Victoria, my dear!’ Francis enthusiastically greeted when she arrived at Wilton’s for the second time that day. She had been late again, and had decided that she would most likely be late to any meeting with Francis, as she was always far less eager to see him as he was to see her. She imagined he had arrived quite some time before they had planned to meet, his good leg jumping up and down underneath the dining table with anticipation, nervous fingers tapping against the tabletop, a thin layer of sweat glistening his forehead.
Francis offered his hand to her and she took it, remembering what she had been taught about politeness. She allowed him to lead her to a table in the corner of the restaurant, pull the forest green chair out for her and push it back to the table when she sat down.
‘I assume you are aware why I have asked you to join me for dinner,’ Francis spoke when they were both settled.
Victoria forced a polite smile. ‘I believe I do.’
‘Then you must also be aware that I feel very fondly for you, and that I can provide you with a stable future,’ he continued.
‘I know, Francis,’ Victoria said.
Francis fumbled around his jacket pocket, taking out a small red box. Victoria held her breath, praying that if she held it long enough, she would faint, and the conversation would end.
‘My dear Victoria, will you marry me?’ Francis pushed his hand out to her, showing her the small sapphire ring.
She had not yet decided what she would say when Francis proposed. She had promised her father that she would accept, and knew that if her mother were still alive, she would be forcing the ring on Victoria’s finger, but she did not want this for herself. She let out the long-held breath.
‘Oh, Francis,’ she answered.
‘Do you accept?’
‘I-‘ she began, but stopped herself. Francis kept the ring extended toward her.
‘Do you need time to think it over?’ he asked.
‘I do not know what I want, truthfully,’ Victoria sighed. She could see the confusion wash over her companion’s face as he finally retracted his hand. She wondered if he thought there was something severely wrong with her, to not answer a proposal.
‘You might need to decide exactly what you want, before you reach an unmarriable age,’ Francis spoke suddenly. His face had shifted to one of cold indifference. ‘Don’t believe that you will receive many more offers of marriage.’
Victoria frowned. ‘I do not believe that,’ she spat.
‘You know, Queen Victoria had been married for years and had three children when she was your age,’
Victoria could not help but roll her eyes at the man sitting before her. Francis continued speaking, perhaps unaware of the frustration brewing within the woman he had proposed to just minutes before.
‘One might think that you would aspire to be more like her, considering you share a name-‘ Victoria could not take any more of this.
‘I am not her!’ She shouted, bringing the attention of nearby diners to her. She did not care.
‘I am not her, nor do I ever plan to be like her. It’s just a name. just a stupid, common name!’ she stood from her chair. ‘I just wish everyone would stop comparing me to that woman,’ Victoria gathered her coat that hung over the back of the chair.
‘Please, you’re causing a scene,’ Francis tried to calm her.
Victoria did not bother to look around at the people giving sideways glances to her.
‘I don’t care,’ she said, and she meant it.
‘And in case you hadn’t gathered, no, I will not marry you.’ She said.
Victoria stormed away from Francis and the restaurant and the stale air and stares. She moved quickly, not giving a second thought to anyone who might think to stare and cast judgement on a woman running alone in the streets. She felt like she could finally breathe, despite the coming exertion, and finally separate from the woman whose name she shared.
Loud, melodic bells sounded through the city. Bells reserved for only one event. Victoria stopped, alongside the crowds of people gathered on the paths and shopfronts. She watched as unfamiliar faces contorted with grief, hands moving at the beginning of prayers. These were mourning bells.
The queen was dead.
Victoria could not help the selfish, guilty smile from spreading across her face. Finally, she thought. I am free.
Leila Currie is a third-year creative arts student, majoring in creative writing. Her passion in the arts is writing unique and creative stories and characters that challenge stereotypes, with a particular interest in fantasy and historical fiction. When she is not studying or working, Leila likes to watch Marvel movies and true crime documentaries. During lockdown, Leila has been spending quality time with her cat and listening to Taylor Swift’s new album. She also learnt that it is hard to find inspiration to write creative fiction when she is stuck inside of her house, but that inspiration can be found in the most mundane of places.