Travelers unfamiliar with the countryside around the great house would come upon its boundary walls with some surprise. At first, one might wonder whether these walls, twelve feet high and clad with a rustling coat of ivy, marked the perimeter to some isolated institution—a hospital, perhaps, or an asylum. The prongs of black-painted iron that spiked the top pointed both inward and outward, as though their maker had been undecided whether he was trying to keep people in or keep people out.
The gates appeared similarly well fortified, wrought from tall corkscrews of iron and tipped with bristling spears. But they were also festooned with a genial tangle of iron pomegranates and pineapples, in the midst of which a letter “T” was vaguely discernible, as though struggling to free itself from the clustering fruits. Closer inspection revealed that the gates were rusted closed, with comfortable mounds of moss growing over their sagging lower hinges like slippers.
Mrs. Talbot had designed the gates, drawing up their specifications during her first confinement. Mr. Talbot had had them hammered out in one of his iron foundries in the city. He put up the gates to mark the arrival of their first child. But the boy succumbed to a fever within days of the gates’ erection, and in an uncharacteristic display of manly emotion, Mr. Talbot vowed that they would not be reopened until the birth of his next son. As a result, both family and visitors were, from then on, obliged to gain access through the stables.
The death of this infant son marked the handing over of Mr. Talbot’s ironworks in the city to foremen and accountants and his partial retirement to the country. It also signaled the birth of the Collection: the beginning of Mr. Talbot’s relentless accumulation of ancient and modern artifacts from all corners of the known world. It was, he declared at the outset, to be a collection that embodied and quantified progress, one that demonstrated the triumph of human ingenuity over nature and history. A collection that served to enlighten those who looked upon it and to rival all others in its richness and diversity (apart from that held by the British Museum, of course, but then one had to know one’s limitations).
It was not long before every room in the house had become home to a variety of items lovingly selected as representing the very best of human achievement. Wherever one looked—whichever door one opened, whichever shadow one peered into—Mr. Talbot’s artifacts and antiquities could be found. Suits of armor rubbed shoulders with fossilized sea creatures and display cases of Greek pottery. Medieval fireplaces, torn from their hearthstones in the castles of Europe and rebuilt against the walls of the great house, reared beside stuffed animals and bronze statues. Cases filled with regiments of gassed and pinned butterflies lined the walls above ingenious mechanical inventions, military accessories, and the most modern of scientific instruments. The stables were packed with the latest innovations in farming machinery, the conservatory replete with botanical specimens.
On occasion, Mrs. Talbot expressed reservations about the growing number of seemingly indiscriminate items that came to crowd the halls, drawing rooms, and numerous chambers of her home. But then she gave birth to Lilian, Alice, and Emily—triplets, unique to medical science in the whole of southern England and, as such, the most prized curiosities in their father’s entire museum. Mrs. Talbot suggested to her husband that this sudden influx of daughters take priority over the amassing of useless objects. To Mr. Talbot, however, such procreative providence simply confirmed the importance of his collecting activities.
Defeated, Mrs. Talbot took refuge, with her daughters, in the conservatory. Before they were two years old, little Emily died of typhoid fever. When they were barely five, their mother followed her daughter and son into the grave, dispatched by the bite from an exotic spider, which had been found lurking in the foliage of a recently acquired banana plant.
Troubled by these setbacks, Mr. Talbot sought solace in the possession of still more things. Members of the household, both family and servants, came to accept that they might return to their rooms to find that they had been graced, in their absence, with a German grandfather clock, a stuffed grizzly bear, a case of Napoleonic swords, or some other unexpected item.
“This is your heritage,” Mr. Talbot would say to his remaining two daughters, who seemed now to exist only to irk his sense of perfection. “Your past, present, and future. This family made its fortune in industry and engineering. Clearly, it is to human ingenuity, and to its legitimate offspring—progress—that we owe our wealth, our success, and our current situation in life. And yet”—and here he would pause to brush a philosophical hand across his glossy whiskers—“progress can only be understood with reference to the past. We are giants, but in turn we stand on the shoulders of giants. I am paraphrasing Newton, of course, one of England’s greatest thinkers. Now, both of you, if you are to serve any purpose in this house you must understand the Collection as fully as I do myself. To this end I require you to write a short essay on the origins and purpose of this piece.” He would dab his handkerchief at an eye moist with emotion and run his fingers over the flank of a stuffed and mounted platypus, the cogs and wheels of a machine for peeling sixty apples simultaneously, or the bulging hips of a porcelain vase.
It was only when his daughter Lilian was obliged to leave the great house that Mr. Talbot’s enthusiasm for collecting showed any sign of wavering. In the weeks that followed Lilian’s disgrace and preceded her departure, and for some time after that, Mr. Talbot neither added to, nor adjusted, his Collection in any way. The clocks stopped ticking; the models and engines stood silent. The conservatory was locked, and the furnace for the hothouse grew cold. A silent mantle of dust gently gathered over everything— including, it seemed, over the memory of his daughter’s disgrace.
Eventually, Mr. Talbot received an invitation from the Society for the Propagation of Useful and Interesting Knowledge that proved too intriguing for him to pass over. A Mr. Bellows was to speak on the subject of aeronautical machines.
“You should go, Father,” Alice said soothingly. “What greater symbol is there of man’s dominion over the heavens, as well as the earth, than a flying machine?”
Mr. Talbot found himself unable to disagree. Within a week the entire Collection was gleaming once more, and Mr. Bellows had been installed in the attic with his plans, his books, and his models.
“I have shone the light of inquiry into every corner of civilization,” Mr. Talbot declared one evening at dinner. “I have explored every niche of human endeavor, every chink of history and science. I have, if you like, anatomized progress. And now, to record the most prized artifacts in my Collection, I intend to employ an expert in the very latest techniques of image creation. A photographer.” He concluded the sentence with a tremendous exhalation of breath, as though simply uttering the word were a relief, like the lancing of a boil.
No one spoke. Across the cluttered expanse of the dining table, Alice and her father’s aunt Lambert exchanged glances.
“There are certain inquiring and inspired members of the Society for the Propagation of Useful and Interesting Knowledge,” continued Mr. Talbot, “who are interested in particular items in my possession. Were I to have a photographic record of such pieces, I might be able to satisfy the curiosity of these fellows simply by offering them a picture to look at. Besides, I understand Fenton is doing this sort of thing for the British Museum, and what’s good enough for them is good enough for me.”
“I believe these cameras can capture images the human eye is unable to detect,” quavered a voice out of the gloom. “Ghosts and fairies. Angels. An incubus even! I should very much like to see some of these ethereal beings. Perhaps this photographer fellow will oblige?”
“Ghosts and fairies?” thundered Mr. Talbot. “Really, Mother! This is science, not fancy! Chemistry and optics, not the absurd dreamings of a romantic mind!”
“I understand that many of these insubstantial images are created when the human subject moves away during the exposure time,” said Alice. “They are no more fairies and spirits than you or I. But we can ask the photographer himself. I’m sure he’ll be able to give you a more satisfactory explanation—perhaps he will even provide a demonstration.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” Mr. Talbot grunted in his daughter’s direction. He fumbled in a waistcoat pocket for his gold toothpick.
“I did some reading on the subject.”
“Well, you might like to read some more. I’d like you to furnish me with a full explanation of how the photographic process works before this photographer fellow gets here. I don’t want to appear foolish, after all. Perhaps you would condescend to give me a few lessons too.”
“Of course, Father,” murmured Alice, knowing that her father would lose interest in the project almost as soon as it had begun (though not before the photographer had arrived and made himself comfortable, of course). They would then be saddled with the man indefinitely, she thought irritably. Why, it had taken her an age to get rid of the two cuneiform translators, who had spent most of their time arguing about the inscriptions on Mr. Talbot’s Sumerian tablets. And was not Mr. Bellows still at work up in the attic? So many experts had visited over the years that it was impossible to recall who they were and what they had come for. As for what had happened to Lilian—had her father learned nothing from the experience?
“Do we really need a photographer?” she said. “Surely there have been enough people here as it is?” Alice surveyed her four great aunts and her grandmother, whose faces were ranged in baleful desiccation round the dinner table.
Aunt Lambert nodded her agreement. “Indeed. This is simply another of your schemes, Edwin. A waste of time and money, just like all the others.”
“And why get Alice involved?” said Aunt Statham. “She has enough to do without teaching you how to use your own artifacts.”
“Ladies, please,” whispered Old Mrs. Talbot.
“Come, Edwin, my dear,” said Aunt Pendleton gently. “You know Alice has very little recreational time, once she has recorded and researched and filed and goodness only knows what else she gets up to on your behalf—”
“I don’t mind tending to the Collection,” said Alice hastily, fearing Aunt Pendleton was about to extol the virtues of more fitting womanly pastimes, such as needlepoint or visiting the poor. “And I’ve already experimented a little with Father’s camera. The results are not unpleasant.”
“Oh yes,” said Aunt Rushton-Bell. “You have made some beautiful pictures, my dear. You are quite the photographer yourself. Indeed, perhaps we don’t need this photographer fellow at all. Alice herself could photograph the Collection, if that’s what is required?”
Alice looked at her father. It would save money, certainly, though she did not relish spending the next six months photographing the March of Progress. Perhaps it would be better if the photographer came after all.
But it had been many years since Mr. Talbot had listened to an opinion voiced by his female relations, and his aunts’ words fluttered past him, like moths into the darkness. Instead, he heard only that Alice had acquired some practical familiarity with one of his items.
“My dear, your loyalty to the Collection and the knowledge that underpins it is commendable. You know I regard you as my curator? Ah, such a calling! I tell you, Alice, your youth may be over, but oh! The glories of the mind that accompany a lifetime devoted to tending the finest examples of man’s skill and ingenuity. Surplus women are seldom granted such opportunities.”
Alice felt her face turn red.
Mr. Talbot dabbed at his eye with a napkin. “Just make sure the fellow doesn’t break anything. My good friend Cattermole recommends him, so he must be a trustworthy fellow, but one can never be too careful.” He glared at the pale faces of his aunts, unnerved for a moment by this sepulchral jury, and turned again to Alice. “I’m sure I can rely on you to do your duty?” He did not appear to expect an answer but turned to gaze greedily at his most recent acquisition, a life-sized electroplated statue depicting Truth overcoming Prejudice. Truth was naked, apart from a strategically draped sheet that seemed to have all but slipped from her hips as she raised her hands in alarm. She had the appearance of having just emerged from a hot bath, her face registering surprise and disgust that she had trodden on the slippery coils of the serpent of Prejudice that someone had carelessly left on the floor.
“And what, may I ask, do we know of this photographer?” persisted Aunt Lambert.
“The fellow has a university degree in . . . something or other. Medicine, I think. Worked at St. Thomas’s with Cattermole for a while, taking photographs of diseased body parts and tumors and such like.”
“And his name, pray?”
“Blake.” Mr. Talbot prised himself out of his chair to run an admiring hand over Truth’s electroplated thigh. He stole a glance at his fingertips, as though checking for dust, but appeared to be satisfied with their cleanliness.
“And when is he coming, this Mr. Blake?” said Alice.
“A week from Monday.” He narrowed his eyes. “You seem very interested in him.”
“I merely ask in order to prepare his rooms.”
“Humph.” Mr. Talbot gave his daughter a close stare, as if to ascertain whether she had changed at all since his glance had last rested upon her. He observed her large ears, her heavy eyebrows and low hairline. What did young men look for in a woman these days? he pondered, his hand resting for a moment on Truth’s burnished rump. Was it a slender neck? Soulful eyes? Graceful hands? In his own youth it had been shoulders—soft, white, sloping shoulders. He glanced at the corresponding parts of his daughter’s figure. Her shoulders were square. Her neck unremarkable. Her eyes too curious (her gaze almost hostile, he noticed with some disquiet). As for her hands—they were large square hands, hands not unlike his own, other than the fact that his had wiry black hairs sprouting from their backs and hers appeared to be curiously stained with brown blotches. No, he concluded with some relief, Alice was as ugly as ever. It was Lilian who had been beautiful. “Not that you’ll catch his eye,” he muttered to himself, though it was loud enough for the entire table to hear. “I’ll have no worries on that score.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine diRollo. Copyright © 2009 by Elaine diRollo. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, 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.