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In the past, when the majority of upper-class women were completely dependent on others for their maintenance, it took great courage to disobey. Annabelle, the eighteen-year- old heroine in False Pretences, is too spirited to agree to her unknown guardian’s plan for her to marry Monsieur le Baron de Beauchamp. The following extract is the reaction to the instruction given to Annabelle by her headmistress, Miss Chalfont.
“It is unreasonable to order me to marry the man without allowing me time to become acquainted with him.”
“Do not refer to your bridegroom as ‘the man’. I have told you his name is de Beauchamp.”
Rebellion flamed in Annabelle’s stomach. “What do you know of my…er...bridegroom-to-be, ma’am?”
Miss Chalfont looked down at the letter. “He is described as a handsome gentleman of mature years.”
“One would think the description is of a piece of mature cheese or a bottle of vintage wine.”
Miss Chalfont frowned. “Do not be impertinent, Annabelle, you are not too old to be punished.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am, but please tell me how mature he is,” Annabelle said, her eyes wide open and her entire body taut with apprehension.
“Monsieur le Baron is some forty-years-old.”
“How mature?” Annabelle persisted with her usual bluntness.
“He is forty-two-years-old.”
Annabelle stood, bent forward, and drummed her fingers on the edge of the desk. “Please be kind enough to inform my guardian that I will not play Guinevere to an aging Arthur. I would prefer to build my nest with a young Lancelot.”
Miss Chalfont’s shoulders heaved as though she was trying not to laugh. “Regardless of your preference, you must marry according to your guardian’s wish.”
…/Annabelle’s anger boiled and she felt sick in the stomach. Now that she was old enough to leave the seminary, it seemed that unless she refused to co-operate, she really would be disposed of without the slightest consideration for her personal wishes. Simultaneously afraid to obey her guardian and furious because not even Miss Chalfont seemed to care about her dilemma, Annabelle straightened up. She looked around the cosy parlour, with its thick oriental rugs, pretty figurines on the mantelpiece, and a number of gilt-framed pictures on the wall, one of which she had painted. “I will consider the marriage.” Annabelle looked down again, in case rebellion revealed itself on her face. However, she had not lied. She would consider the marriage proposal, but not in the manner Miss Chalfont expected, for she would find a way to reject the elderly baron.
Miss Chalfont stood, walked round her desk, and patted Annabelle’s shoulder before resting her hand on it. “My dear child, there is little for you to consider. I dread to think of the consequences if you disobey your guardian. You could be cast penniless from here with only the clothes on your back. After all, your guardian does have complete power over you.”