Miss Puella Fairmont came to London to make her curtsy at St. James's in the spring season of 1811. She was duly chaperoned into polite society under the auspices of her aunt, Lady Sara Mantel, a dashing matron, who was soon sure she could make a respectable match for her niece in the six weeks set aside annually to present the debutantes. The girl had some looks, some conversation, and some money?not an outstanding quantity of any of the three, but enough to make a fairly interesting combination. Her rather simply styled brown hair was no great asset, but her brown eyes sparkled brightly when she was amused. Her quiet conversation sparkled too upon occasion, and if ten thousand pounds was not a fortune, it was at least respectable.
Her season began auspiciously enough. Puella caught the eye of Sir Horace Farthington, a baronet of easy means and presentable person, but somehow it came to nothing after a few weeks. A few other gentlemen came to call; they stood up with her regularly at the balls and routs she attended, so Sir Horace was allowed to slip away. But somehow, one by one, the others stopped coming around to Grosvenor Square, too. Then suddenly the season was over, and Puella had not received a single offer. No matter. She was only eighteen, and another season would see her more sure of herself, more at ease in society, more sought after.
Puella returned to her mama for the summer and again went to Lady Sara for the fall Little Season. But instead of growing more interested in the social scene, she became bored with it. She reduced her aunt to near hysterics by refusing a much sought-after voucher to Almack's in order to remain home and work on her book. During the summer she had begun a novel, based on her first unsuccessful season. Too Long at the Fair, she had tentatively entitled it. The theme had to do with the folly of the haut ton.
Lady Sara was not an intellectual woman, but she was shrewd and soon cooked up a scheme that would get Ella, as her niece was called at home, out to parties under the guise of training her eye and practicing her pen on the subject of her novel. Mr. Thorndyke of the Morning Observer wanted a gossip columnist to write a daily piece on the social doings of the ten thousand, and as he was a friend of Lady Sara's husband, Lady Sara came to hear of it. She would be his correspondent officially, but in fact the writing of the column would be largely left to Ella. She could feel she was gaining experience at writing and would simultaneously be forced into society. The idea appealed to Ella and was soon put into execution.
The pseudonym "Miss Prattle," was chosen, and the column proved a great success. That same season, Lady Sara's mother, the Dowager Countess of Watley, came to stay with her, and the three women managed to straddle the narrow band that constituted society. Lady Watley was a crony of Lady Melbourne and soon became a bosom friend of the Prince Regent and his set as well. She discovered all the on dits, the gossip, of that scandalous tribe: who was losing a fortune at Watiers, or Oatlands, where the Duke of York set his guests down to faro at twenty guineas a hand, while one or the other of his wife's twenty dogs gnawed their boots and chased their valets. If Prinney changed his affections from one aged damsel to another, as he regularly did, this too was observed and reported, frequently with a venomous quote from Richard Sheridan. Lady Sara gathered in information from the dashing young set and older gentlemen still on the catch for a wife, and Ella herself kept her ears cocked for the goings-on of the debutantes and their beaux. A more comprehensive intelligence service could hardly have been devised for the purpose, and to add richness to the column, Miss Prattle developed an acerbic manner of reporting that won her a wide and appreciative audience.
Almost, it seemed, Lady Sara's scheme had succeeded too well in one direction. The writing certainly increased Ella's interest in going out to parties, but it did not lead her to look for a husband. Quite the reverse, it made her a highly critical young lady, who tended to look for a fault, or at least a folly, in all the men she met. And follies she found a-plenty. Men, she soon discovered, came in three main species. They were either of the Corinthian school, who thought the world began on the riding field and finished in the green baize boxing ring; or they were dandies whose major interest was the cut of a coat and arrangement of a cravat; or they were inveterate gamblers, willing to risk a fortune on the turn of a card, or even on the progress of two flies across a pane of glass. They came, of course, in combinations of these three main patterns, with a few recognizable subspecies such as the poet, the fortune hunter, and the rake. Miss Fairmont acknowledged there were some good men in the world as well, but as they were of no use to Miss Prattle, they were hardly observed at all and never cultivated. She came, she wrote, she conquered, and became without quite realizing it a personage of some consequence herself, albeit anonymous. It was a foregone conclusion that her writing must remain a secret, or she'd have been barred from society.
Conjecture was rampant as to the author of these caustic reports who had an entree into all branches of society. It was variously reported to be Lady Caroline Lamb, doing it for a spree, or her sometime lover, Lord Byron, doing it for spite, or Beau Brummell doing it for money. Never once did it occur to anyone that it was being written by a young lady from the country, still in her teens that first year, and not even known to sight by three-quarters of the great people she lampooned with such scorn and familiarity.
Ella smiled softly to herself when her grandmama would tell her, upon returning from a soiree at Carlton House, the Prince Regent's residence, that the Prince himself had told her in the strictest confidence that Miss Prattle was in truth a purse-pinched and illustrious peeress, or when Lady Sara laughingly reported "Guess who they are saying we are now, love. Lady Oxford! Was there ever anything more absurd? I had it of Emily Cowper. I could hardly keep from laughing in her face, only of course I didn't, for it is she who will give Miss Prattle a voucher for Almack's."
Ella lifted an eyebrow, her brown eyes dancing. "You must certainly not offend her. Miss Prattle is very curious to see how her flirtation with Lord Palmerston goes on, and where shall she do it but at Almack's? Isn't it odd, Sara, that Almack's is considered such a citadel of propriety, when its very patronesses are such high flyers? I think Miss P should raise the point, don't you?"
"Miss P is becoming a crusader for respectability, is she? Your column would die on its feet if the ten thousand should turn respectable on you, Ella."
"Oh, I don't consider more than five thousand possible of conversion; the other half are lost souls," Ella returned airily, her mind following its latest bent--the shenanigans of the patronesses of Almack's. Sally Jersey too had a dozen beaux, she was thinking, as her mind flitted over the other hostesses.
"True--then, too, you always have Clare to fall back on in the unlikely case of mass conversion."
"There is no danger of his reforming at any rate," Ella said tartly. "One can always count on His Grace for some reportable piece of behavior."
"He's not so bad as some of the others," Lady Sara replied.
"You only say so because you are sweet on him," her niece charged. "You are as bad as all the other women, toadying to him, and puffing him up in his own conceit."
"Yes, Miss Prattle, but then we can always count on you to deflate his pretensions."
"No, I only try to. With him I never succeed. He pays me no heed."
"That doesn't stop you from trying."
"Oh, no, I will get him yet," Miss Prattle said, a determined and even martial light in her eyes. There, if only she would sparkle like that in public, Sara thought.
"Every eligible female in London wants to get him," Sara laughed. "That is precisely what makes it possible for him to behave so ill."
"Well, Sara, but Ido not want to get him in the sense of attracting him--I only want to straighten him out a little."
"I know, goose, and you have about as much chance of correcting his behavior as Ihave of marrying Napoleon Bonaparte."
"Rather less, I should think," Ella said. "But still, he is good copy for the column."
"People would read it avidly if you did no more than print a whole column of his name, and nothing else. There's a sort of magic about him."
"Well, he does not seem magic to me, only insufferably rude and overbearing."
"Quite right, but he has the most winning smile in London, when he cares to put himself to the bother of using it."
"A smile is not for using!" Ella asserted, and the two ladies fell into a philosophical argument till dinner was announced.