At the school in Lausanne, the Italian boarders wore silk underwear and high-heeled sandals, and painted each other’s toenails after tea, but they crossed themselves a lot and were strict about their purity; they were saving themselves for the men they would marry. The English, they said, rolling their eyes, had no morals whatsoever. “Is due to their climate. Everybody go to bed with everybody there to become warm.”
But Louisa did not believe this. The English girls, with their light scornful voices and careless grace, were so clearly a higher order of being. At dinner they commandeered the best table, as though by right, and afterwards took possession of the red parlor next door, where there was a fire laid every night, and a vase of silk peonies was reflected in an ornate gilt mirror. If one of the Greeks or Germans or Italians wandered in to retrieve a book or a handkerchief left behind during the day, the English girls would fall silent, watching her, until she retreated again.
Everyone grumbled about them behind their backs—it was a bond among all the other nations—but was nonetheless eager for their approval. The Swiss girls seemed happy to be asked about local dressmakers or cafes; the French girls, when approached to explain the rules of the subjunctive in their language, were delighted to oblige.
The most glittering of the English boarders was Celia, who could often be heard on the telephone under the stairs, expressing disbelief: “Tell me you didn’t. Are you completely barking mad, poppet?…He can’t have. Not even the Caitfords are that stupid…” She had once stopped Louisa on the landing and asked her if she happened to have seen a pink kid glove anywhere; Louisa wished passionately that she could produce it, but she couldn’t, and Celia went on up the stairs.
Excerpted from The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton. Copyright © 2011 by Evelyn Toynton. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.