Book Club

Upon returning from war, a Victorian gentlemen joins a new reading circle.

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I’m not sure if I regret the day I saw the notice in the Keble Gazette: Margate Book and Literary Circle seeks broadminded gentleman to complete membership.

I wrote a letter by return, introducing myself, and sent a lad off to deliver it to Mrs Hardcastle of 17 Hawley Square—one of the more fashionable areas of the resort town.

Her reply brimmed with enthusiasm. She was certain I was exactly the type of person they sought and would complement the small group perfectly. I was to attend the very next meeting, having read and absorbed the 3s 6d edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley.

I arrived in good time at the Assembly Rooms on Cecil Square to find the private room that had been set aside for their meeting. Even though I was early, it appeared they had already started. I knocked and entered to be confronted by an expectant silence, punctuated with a few barely-stifled whispers and even one quite unseemly gasp.

Should it be such a surprise that I, a dashing military man newly returned from the Crimea, standing six feet tall, in the latest fashion, set off by a handsome moustache, should elicit such a response from the four middle-aged women in the room?

“Captain Jackson, I presume? I am Mrs Eunice Hardcastle,” said one, rising to greet me, hand extended. She was a fine-looking, well to-do woman, if rather dowdily dressed—as were they all.

I took her hand and gave a little bow. “Indeed. I am very pleased to meet you.”

Introductions to the other three were made, although they did not rise as they proffered me their hands to shake. There were varying degrees of tittering and cooing as I took and released first one hand, then another. Miss Reynolds looked quite flushed as she rather limply proffered me her hand and I thought she might swoon away there and then.

I sat, making a circle of five around the cards table. Mrs Hardcastle seemed to be in the chair, and after directing Mrs Buchmann to pour me a cup of tea, launched straight into a discussion of Frankenstein.

I will not repeat every word, but it should be recorded the ladies had not overly enjoyed the book, although they looked as though they suppressed sniggers as they berated it. Miss Radcliffe even said she found it ‘blasphemous and obscene’—although on what grounds she was hard-pressed to explain.

I felt I should respond and said that I thought it was a marvellous read. I took care to explain how it showed a young woman could make a good stab at being literary, should they put their mind to it. Neither was I concerned how science was portrayed as challenging God’s monopoly on creating life.

“Oh, you are too bold, sir,” Miss Reynolds proclaimed, although she said it with a broad smile on her face. “What should we think of you?”

“You may think I am an open-minded man, as you wished for in your advertisement. I have seen much, and I have thought long on life and I do not necessarily hold views polite society might embrace. Furthermore—”

“Well, that’s all to the good,” Mrs Hardcastle interrupted. “Our next book may be more of a challenge. Let’s see if you practice what you preach.”

The ladies erupted in a new chorus of giggling as she threw a manuscript in front of me on the table. They seemed to know what was happening in advance. Had this been a test of my mettle?

Mrs Hardcastle continued, “It’s a French text, translated into English and circulated by a very specialist press. A particular favourite of these ladies.” More giggles. “Read it, and if it’s to your taste, we will all meet again next week, same time—chez mois, as I believe the French say. Mr Hardcastle is away on business and I’ve given the servants the afternoon off.”

“And remember, Captain Jackson,” Miss Radcliffe piped up with a gleam in her eye, “one word of Book Club—one solitary word—outside our little group, and it will be the end of you. Understand?”

I nodded, laughing heartily at her attempt at humour. Honestly, where do these women get such ideas? No doubt from something she has read. A child’s discarded Penny Dreadful, perhaps.

Five days after our delightful soiree, I find, in front of me, the well-thumbed copy of The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage by the infamous Marquis de Sade, as yet unopened.

I have only just found the time to read it, but I suspect it will be…enlightening.

Lee quit the corporate world to write spec-fic and horror. He was twice shortlisted and published by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.

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