The Ball Gown

Our Writing Group spent a Day at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter this week. We wandered round and looked at the exhibits and we each choose and item to write about. I selected this ball gown and wrote the beginning of an Historical Romance.

‘Will he notice me? He must,’ Sophia said. Her breath coming in short bursts as her maid, Anna, pulled tight the corset round her waist.

The invitation to the Big House had arrived six weeks ago. A large stiff card edged in gold with her name written on it in an educated hand.

‘Sir William and Lady Goldbrough would like the pleasure of your company at a Grand Ball on 23rd October 1883 at 9pm.’

Sophia’s immediate reaction was one of ennui. Country Balls were so, well, boring; young girls twittering and giggling, awkward young men who trod on your toes and talked of hunting and fishing. So tedious after the excitement of a season in London, but that had been four years ago.

Her father had grumbled at the expense of her time in the city, and when she came home without having received a single proposal of marriage, he begrudged the expenditure. She didn’t dare tell him she had refused an offer from the ugliest man doing the season.

Then Anna told her she had learnt that Robert Goldbrough, Sir William’s youngest son had returned from Canada.

‘He’s worth six thousand pounds a year.’ Anna exclaimed.

Robert and Sophia had been childhood playmates, running around the estate, playing in the streams and ponds and climbing trees, until he went first to Eton and then Oxford. They saw each other when he came home on vacation, but slowly drifted apart as he became more worldly, and she remained stuck in her rural backwater. Now he was back.

‘Is his wife with him?’ she asked.

‘No, Miss Sophia. He’s not married. Yet.’ Anna pulled the brush through Sophia’s hair, straightening the tangles, of her strawberry blonde hair.

When Anna had left her, Sophia went to her wardrobe and searched through her ball-dresses. She took out first one, then another, throwing them on her bed. She needed a new gown; something so beautiful that everyone in the room would admire her.

She said nothing for a couple of days, then, when she thought her father was in a good mood, she went down to breakfast early.

‘You’re early,’ her father said.

‘Yes, I wanted to ask you about something.’

He looked at her over his newspaper, waiting to hear her request.

‘I’ve been invited to the Goldbrough’s Ball, and I really need a new gown.’

‘What’s wrong with those you had for London. Won’t one of those do?’  He began to read the paper again.

‘Those old things. No. No. I need something more fashionable, now I’m older.’

‘You need a husband to pay your bills.’

She let him continue reading and nibbled on a slice of toast.

‘Robert’s back from Canada.’ She paused, ‘Unmarried.’

Her father folder the newspaper and placed it by the side of his plate, picked up one of his letters and slide the blade of a knife through the envelope to open it. He pulled out the sheet of paper, and then looked up at Sophia.

‘Go and see your dressmaker, but don’t spend too much money.’

‘Thank-you, Papa.’ She blew him a kiss as she hurried from the room.

The parlour of Mrs Haworth’s house was stuffed with fabrics, silk, satins and velvet as well as the more homely cottons, worsteds and linen. Hanging out of the drawers were ribbons of every conceivable colour, intricate lace and beads of every size and shape. Sophia touched the silks, her hand lingering against the soft fabric. She held up a piece to her face, to gauge the effect on the colour of her skin and her eyes.

‘Blue, I think blue. What do you think, Mrs Haworth,’ Sophia said to the little dumpling of a dressmaker.

Mrs Haworth held out a swatch of midnight blue.

‘Something lighter, nearer the colour of my eyes.’

The dressmaker searched through a pile of cloths, and then produced a fine corded silk the colour of a summer sky.

Sophia sighed deeply. ‘Yes, that’s it.’

‘And the bodice and underskirt of cream,’ said Mrs Haworth. ‘I have just the thing.’

She dived into a cupboard and pulled out a bolt of figured silk satin in two shades of cream.

‘There, hold that against your skin.’

Sophia took it, held it against her cheek. Her face took on the bloom of a fresh pink rose. The silk was soft and tactile, irresistible. Just what she was looking for.

‘We’ll cut the bodice just so,’ said Mrs Haworth running her finger so that it just crossed the top of Sophia’s breasts. ‘The over dress we’ll cut like a coat, with points just here.’ She pointed to hip-level.

‘And a train?’

‘Yes, of course. Just like the London fashions.’

‘Now for trimming the bodice, I’ve got these.’ Mrs Haworth bobbed down and opened the bottom drawer. She pulled out a roll of net embellished with glass beads, the shape of maple leaves.’

Sophia hugged herself. ‘He will notice me,’ she whispered to herself. 

What other ways have writers used to fire the imagination.

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About scribblingadvocate

Born in Lancashire, Law degree from Sheffield University and MA in Creative Writing from Exeter. A barrister for twenty five years, who appeared in the Crown Courts in and around London. When I retired we moved to live in Devon, first on Dartmoor, more recently overlooking the Exe Estuary. After twenty years I still feel an exile from London. Married, no children but own an affable Springer Spaniel. I love reading, walking and travel. I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University and have written three books, Crucial Evidence, Reluctant Consent and Legal Privilege, all set in London. You can email me

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