Fiction / Andrea Quinlan
:: Behind the Velvet Curtains ::
Flora’s bedroom was on the top story of a nondescript terraced house in the least fashionable part of West London. It was a nice enough room, but the heavy wooden furniture and dark velvet curtains gave it a sombre and somewhat depressing atmosphere. This wasn’t ideal for Flora, who had been virtually bedridden with a mysterious illness for the last couple of weeks. Despite this, Flora’s sister Lottie was always close at hand to bring a little cheer. She had bought a bouquet of wild flowers from a street seller which Flora’s mother had arranged for her in a vase on her bedside table. They didn’t see much sunlight and were browning a little at the edges. It seemed a shame to have them in here when they could be enjoying a natural life out in the garden, but Flora loved them so and they seemed to bring life and color into her dreary room.
One of Flora’s favorite ways to pass the time in bed was in reading from her piles of poetry books and plays. Shakespeare was her particular favorite, and Hamlet was her favorite play. Lottie much preferred the romance of Romeo and Juliet but agreed that the tragedy of Hamlet was quite engrossing. Sometimes Lottie would join her in enacting scenes from the play in her room, and the confines of the bedroom soon disappeared and the sisters were transported to the castle of Elsinore. Despite her liveliness and Flora’s natural reserve—it was Lottie who favored the role of Ophelia whilst Flora played Hamlet. A picture of Sarah Bernhardt dressed in a dashing cloak, fur trimmed tunic and stockings was stuck in Flora’s mind. She pulled one of her rugs around her shoulders whilst Lottie used the wildflowers from Flora’s arrangement to decorate her hair.
A Visit to the Theatre
With each day that passed, Flora grew more and more restless. Her pictures and plays were no longer amusing to her. Even the flowers and treats from the bakery Lottie brought her couldn’t bring a smile to her face. Her mother and sister despaired until Lottie came into her room with a cutting from a newspaper. “Look at this!” she announced triumphantly as she sat on the end of Flora’s bed. Flora eyed the small cutting Lottie had thrown onto her bedspread. Lottie picked it up and threw it at her sister. “Well read it!” Flora picked it up and read the headline; “Hamlet at the Adelphi theatre!”—“And you, Mother, and I are going on Saturday this week! Our seats are booked already,” Lottie cut in. Suddenly it seemed that a little light was seeping into her room through a gap in the velvet curtains.
There were many preparations to be made before a big trip to the theatre. Flora and Lottie didn’t have the luxury of buying new dresses since money was tight for them and their widowed mother, but they could buy new ribbons—which Lottie arrived laden with one afternoon after a trip to the milliner’s. Flora and Lottie did magical things with these to give their best dresses new life. They made flowers and butterflies from velvet, satin, silk, and pearl buttons. They would be the belles of the theatre according to their mother. Flora knew her mother had hopes for both of them in making a match. It would save her from a world of worry. Flora couldn’t help feeling like it might be entering another world of all different worries and felt apprehensive when she thought of it. Especially about Lottie—who had a tendency to throw herself into things without giving them enough thought. But for now they would enjoy being young and being in the magical world of art and life which comes together at the theatre!
In Front of the Velvet Curtains
Soon the night of Hamlet had arrived and Flora, Lottie, and their mother were seated in front of the red velvet curtains at the Adelphi theatre. This was very different than being in front of the velvet curtains in her bedroom even though at present they both kept her apart from worlds. They were seated in the better seats of the second floor gallery and had a prime view of the stage. The theatre brought together all the people of London, from the upper classes in the private boxes to the working classes in the stalls and the pit and the middle class, of which they were a part, in the gallery. Flora and Lottie looked across to the boxes. There were two elderly ladies in one of them. There were two young girls with a young man in one of the others. The young girls were very beautiful with elegant evening dresses with no sleeves and hair in elaborate ringleted hairstyles. She momentarily felt like they were poor cousins to those girls in their mended dresses with cheap ribbons and bows added on—then she felt proud. They were different. What they had couldn’t be bought. Her thoughts were interrupted by the house lights going down and the stage lights going up. Soon they would no longer be in a theatre looking at a stage—but they would be in Elsinore. They would see Hamlet and Ophelia in the flesh!
In fact our heroines had to wait some time before they saw Hamlet and Ophelia in the flesh. The first scene of act one of Hamlet concerned Horatio, the soldiers, and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The ghost was unnerving, but they really wanted to see the characters they themselves had embodied. It would be strange to be in the room with them. Hamlet finally appeared in scene two. He strode out into the centre of the stage and stared out at the audience with a gaze which went past them all. The young actor playing him was called Fabian Wood and was making quite a name for himself in London as a Shakespearean actor. Flora wasn’t impressed by any of that, however—nor with the fact that he was quite handsome with dark brown hair flecked with golden touches. She was looking to see if there was something in him. Something familiar and strange at the same time. She was still watching and thinking by the time Ophelia appeared in scene three. The actress playing her was called Millicent Tree. She was also known as a star of the music hall so had a much more worldly air about her than Shakespeare’s fragile heroine who was not of this world, or even Elizabeth Siddal whose likeness in Millais’ painting was a favorite of the sisters. She was more of a voluptuous Pre-Raphaelite heroine who didn’t look like she would throw herself into a river for any man. Flora and Lottie had to admit that Hamlet and Ophelia in the flesh were something to behold.
Back to Reality
The glimpse into Elsinore on the stage of the Adelphi theatre was all too brief. Soon they were seated on a chair in a rattling carriage taking them home. Their mother dozed on the seat opposite—her bonnet still neatly on her head. Flora and Lottie had removed their hats and gloves and were talking about the performance in hushed and excited tones. “You know what I’d like most in the world?” asked Flora eagerly. “To meet the dashing Fabian Wood?” Lottie asked. “No—to take to the stage as Hamlet and Ophelia ourselves. I want to feel what it is like to be them. I want to feel the weight of a sword in my hands for a start!” Flora’s eyes lit up. “Well we are not actors, so I don’t see how we are going to do it!” Lottie could sometimes be so practical. “You’re right. It seems hopeless.” Flora sighed and sank into the seating of the carriage, despondently.
Even as thoughts of the play filled her with a certain excitement, unlike what she had known when art had been far from alive other than in her imagination, Flora felt despondent in the days after their trip to the theatre. Even though she hadn’t seen Sarah Bernhardt nor been on the stage herself—the performance had left a mark on her. Lottie teased her that it was the handsome Fabian Wood who had played Hamlet who she was now dreaming about rather than the fleshless characters of her books. Flora was a dreamer, so flesh and blood didn’t excite her as much as her sister may think. Yet her dreams had been strange and exciting each night since the performance. She had been running through the forest. Metal had clashed with metal. There had been cries and anguish. The Prince of Denmark had been there—but he hadn’t been the man she had read about in Shakespeare. He hadn’t been the man she had seen on stage. He hadn’t even been Sarah Bernhardt. He had been her very self!
“Flora!” Lottie landed on the bottom of Flora’s bed with a crash that made the metal bedhead thump against the wall and Flora herself jolt partly with the movement and partly in fright. “What?! What’s wrong?!” “Nothing—in fact, I have had an idea of how we might make your dream a reality. When I went to the bakery this afternoon, I talked to the baker’s boy about the Adelphi theatre. He said that he could work out a way of us getting into the theatre on a Sunday afternoon when nobody is using it!” Lottie exclaimed triumphantly. “Wouldn’t that be wrong?! What on earth would the managers do if they found that we had broken in? We could be sent to jail.” Flora shivered at the thought of being trapped even more permanently than in her current invalid state in her bedroom. “It’s not breaking in. In fact, this boy says that his sister is a singer in the music hall with Millicent. If anybody comes we can say that we have a message from Mildred for Millicent!” Lottie seemed to have all the answers. “Well—I guess it does sound feasible but how will we get in?” Flora asked cautiously. “Well that’s easy—we wait until they have locked up and then with a handy little piece of wire—we unlock the doors to the kingdom!”
The Theatre in the Daytime
Flora and Lottie decided that they needed to figure out the workings of the theatre before they could stage their plan to get onto the actual stage! The baker boy set up a meeting for them with his sister Mildred. They were to meet her at a tearoom near the theatre in town. Then they would go to the theatre during one of Millicent’s rehearsals and meet her. Mildred would say that they were two young girls who had seen her performance and were dying to meet her—which wasn’t far from the truth. It would allow them to get the lay of the theatre before they returned and sneak in again at night for their secret performance! Although they both felt nervous dressed in their best day suits with gloves and hats in the tearoom—they soon saw a friendly face. “You must be Flora and Lottie! I’m Mildred. It’s wonderful to meet you. Sam told me all about the two of you.” Flora wondered what exactly he had told her. “I know of all of your plans, and I thoroughly approve of them!” She gave them a conspiratorial wink and took them arm in arm. “Let’s get some tea, and then we’ll go to the theatre and meet Milly! She will be most flattered.”
In Milly’s Dressing Room
Milly’s dressing room was a cave of delights fit for the royal Ophelia. It had a large mirror with candelabra on either side and a rack of costumes. Her various greasepaints and accessories were on a small table in front of the mirror. “Would you girls like to try on some costumes?” She gave Flora and Lottie a conspiratorial wink. “Oh, yes please!” Lottie shrieked. “Here—let me see.” Milly walked over to the rack and flicked through the hanging garments with a studied air. She pulled out a red velvet dress in an Elizabethan style. “Try this one, my darling.” She passed the dress to Lottie. “That looks wonderful! I’m sure you will make an even better Ophelia than Milly!” Mildred laughed. Milly gave Mildred a mock disdainful glance. “Less of your cheek. Now, for you!” She looked at Flora with a faintly amused look in her eyes. “I wonder. . .” She moved from one end to the other end of the rack. “How would you like to be. . . Rosalind?” Flora felt her cheeks burning as she gazed at the green and brown velvet tunic and breeches Milly held out before her. “I—I would like to be Rosalind very much. Very much so. Thank you.” She smiled and hugged the costume to her. “It looks like you have both met your matches!” Mildred clapped her hands together.
The Prince of Denmark
Soon the day of the secret performance arrived and Flora, Lottie, and Mildred arrived at the theatre. It was empty as far as they could tell. They had waited in the shadows of the alley until the young theatre hand had locked the door and exited onto the main street. Lottie rushed over to the door and began fiddling with the lock with a long piece of wire. She soon had it open! The kingdom of Elsinore awaited them inside. “Where’s the props room?” Flora looked anxiously around. They had ended up in a long corridor. “It’s that way!” Mildred exclaimed. Soon they found it. Lottie ran and touched all the rich velvets and furs of the costumes and screeched with excitement as she danced around with a fur trimmed cape. Flora scanned the room looking for only one thing—and there it, or rather they, were in the corner. Hamlet and Laertes’ swords! She walked over to them and tentatively placed her hand on the hilt of one of them. It felt strange and heavy in her hands, but a rush of excitement crept over her. She walked towards Lottie. “I have found what I was looking for!”
Caught in the Act
“I can’t think why you like that sword so much. Is it because Fabian touched it?” She giggled as she made a beeline for her maiden costume. Flora was silent. “I don’t think your sister’s tastes lie in that direction.” Mildred gave Flora a knowing wink. Flora looked mainly confused rather than having a knowing answer. They could both think what they liked. Flora barely liked to let her thoughts form. Flora could wear Rosalind’s costume again, but—no—she couldn’t, or could she? She longed for one costume and one costume only. The tunic and cloak Fabian had worn. He had worn tights, hadn’t he? She searched and couldn’t find those—well Rosalind’s breeches would do again. The sisters both hurriedly threw off their walking suits and put on their new costumes. “Oh, my!” said Lottie looking at Flora dressed as Hamlet. “You make a very pretty Hamlet.” “And you make a beautiful Ophelia but hurry—we shouldn’t waste any time.” Flora picked up a sword and the three girls hurried to the darkened stage. Even though it was daylight outside they could barely see. “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” Flora found her voice strange ringing through the empty and shadowy theatre. But she got bolder and was about to continue when suddenly the stage was flooded with light and the two girls—Hamlet and Ophelia—were exposed. What was going on? Flora could feel her heart beating fast.
“That was marvelous! We wanted some light so we could see you better!” Flora looked out into the auditorium and two shadowy figures became clearer. It was Milly and she recognized that voice. . . it was Fabian who had spoken. “I knew you girls were up to something, even though Mildred wouldn’t tell me what was going on!” Milly waved her finger at Mildred, who stepped out from the shadows of the wings. Milly was dressed in an elegant Burgundy suit with a hat with a feather in it. Fabian wore a neat black overcoat over a pinstriped suit. “Please continue—we’ll all watch you from the gallery.” “Oh no—we can’t!” Flora replied, suddenly slightly ashamed and unsure. “Oh yes you can and you will,” Milly laughed—a ringing and rich laugh. “Or else I will tell the manager about you two, and we would’t want that now, would we?” Resigned to continue, Flora and Lottie picked up where they left off. Fabian, Milly, and Mildred whispered in low tones from their seats up in the gallery. “Flora is quite something,” said Milly. “She is,” agreed Fabian and Mildred. Whilst she was acting, Flora thought of the other Hamlet and Ophelia more than she thought of herself and Ophelia even though she knew that she should be letting the magic of the role overtake her as this was a chance to live her dream. Reality was a little different from dreams, though, and her flesh felt all too solid. She was aware of it in a new way. She was aware of a desire. It wasn’t exactly for Fabian like Lottie thought, or even for Milly like Mildred presumably thought. She might be hungry for experiences, but she knew that she wanted more than just love. She wanted art, and she wanted the world!
In the Light
After the performance Mildred, Lottie, and Flora packed up quickly. Milly and Fabian had invited them out for a fish supper at a nearby cafe. Soon they were all seated around a table. Flora looked at her companions. Unlike the characters in Shakespeare’s play, they were lively and full of life. This was a world outside of the confines of her room and her family—even though she loved them dearly. “Milly?” Flora began hesitantly. “Yes, my dear,” Milly looked expectantly at Flora. “What is it? Let me guess—you loved performing and would like to make it a more regular thing? Well, I don’t know that there are any openings at the Adelphi at the moment as they only take very experienced actors and actresses, as I’m sure you well know—but if you don’t mind something a little less regal. . . I believe we may have an opening at the Empress Music Hall.” “I’ll arrange a meeting for you with our manager.” Flora smiled. She had found her sword, and that was the world of performing in the theatre!
From the writer
:: Account ::
I first had the idea of writing a story relating to a staging of the play Hamlet when I saw a punk version of the play staged locally. In this version, a woman played Hamlet. At about the same time, I also happened to come across a picture of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet on an artist friend’s Tumblr. This alerted me to a history of female actresses taking on the role.
Whilst I had initially thought of setting my story in the present time, I thought I’d set it in the Victorian era as I have been reading a lot of Sarah Waters’ novels recently, and she is a big inspiration to me. It is an era I have dealt with in my own work before too—my series of gothic poems The Mysteries of Laura, in particular. I also studied Victorian art and literature so research in this area is very familiar and endlessly fascinating to me.
Like Nan King in Tipping the Velvet, Flora is an unconventional character although she has been living the life of an invalid for a time. She is intrigued by the lives of actors—in particular the likes of the aforementioned Sarah Bernhardt who eschewed typical roles for women both on the stage and off.
This story is about how Flora sees her restricted world opening up. I could have made Flora see a female Hamlet, but I also saw the play well done locally with a more traditional male casting. In that sense it doesn’t matter who she sees playing the character. In Fabian Wood, Lottie sees a traditional romantic interest for her sister. Mildred and Milly have their own plans for Flora, but she takes control of her own life and knows that she wants to move in the world on her own terms and that the world of the theatre and performance have given her an opening to do this.
Andrea Quinlan is a writer and performer based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her chapbooks are We Speak Girl (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), The Mysteries of Laura (Birds of Lace, 2013), and I Wear My Heart On My Sleeve (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). She has had poetry published in various journals and zines including Wicked Alice, HAG, Finery, Poems in Which, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Chapess, and the Best Friends Forever anthology (The Emma Press, 2014). She also interviews artists for her blog, Cyber Fairytales.