Behind the Velvet Curtains

Fiction / Andrea Quinlan

:: Behind the Velvet Curtains ::

The Wild­flow­ers

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!

A Plot

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.

An Audi­ence

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.