“My dear Sabrina, I don’t know what to do.”
The loud whisper from the direction of the hallway alarms me. I know that voice. I’ve known it for many years. But what I find most troubling is that Lady B knows that voice and the last time she heard it was when Mary was announcing her plan to hire a mistress for her son.
That silenced the room.
But it hasn’t been the most shocking thing to grace Lady B’s ballroom since she opened it to authoresses this last July. So I take a deep breath and beckon Mary in, because if Lady B has borne our shenanigans this long…
Mary: Sabrina, I need help!
I’m half afraid to speak.
Mary: Tomorrow I conduct my first interview for a mistress and I have no idea of the etiquette for such a situation. Does one ask questions? Require references? I certainly cannot request a demonstration of skills!
Sabrina: Shh! (I look about the ballroom, desperately hoping that no one, not even that potted plant to our right, has heard her.)
Mary: I know, it’s indelicate, but I’ve embarked on this path. What do I do?
Sabrina: I’m not entirely certain why you think that I would have a better idea…
Mary: I’ve read your stories, cousin.
Sabrina: I assure you there is no such scene in anything I have yet written.
Mary: Exactly. Yet.
Sabrina: All right. Let me think.
I quickly google modern approaches to interviewing and hiring: behavioral interviewing (past performance is best indicator of future success), group interviewing (ability to work in a team environment), stress interviewing (rapid-fire questioning or stressful situation)—
Mary: (pacing as I search) I do hope you come up with something. I have heard that keeping a mistress is a terrible expense.
Sabrina: I believe if a man keeps a mistress for his own, as opposed to visiting a courtesan who entertains many men, the cost can be prohibitive. A separate establishment alone, not to mention the dressmaker and jeweler receipts might exceed the expense of a wife.
Mary: I knew you’d understand about these things! Last night, I thought through every example I’ve ever known of a lady attempting to judge the character of a woman interested in her son. I even turned to that memorable scene from Miss Austen’s book for guidance.
Mary: Odd, I don’t quite remember the scene going that way.
Sabrina: Nonetheless, you might very well wish to ask this young lady whether she can dance or sing. Does your son like either of those pursuits? You certainly would wish to choose a woman who shares your son’s interests.
Mary: My Georgie was always quite talented at the pianoforte.
I brace myself for a motherly reminiscence on the talents of her darling son.
Mary: But I am still concerned about this expense. While George has no fears on that account, I can hardly charge this escapade to him. My own finances…well, I could hardly offer carte blanche.
Sabrina: Yes, there should be boundaries, a contract, in fact, delineating the details of your business arrangement.
Mary: A contract, I do like that. Makes it all seem so much less… sordid.
Sabrina: But first you must find the right woman for the job. That clip from Pride and Prejudice reminds me of another interrogation. Perhaps we could turn to Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell for inspiration?
Right. I’m forever confusing myself with all these details of time and space.
Sabrina: This is Lady Bracknell, from the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, when she interrogates her daughter’s suitor, Jack. Both clips comprise the entire interview.
Mary: A handbag! Well I hardly think it should matter if this lady were born in a handbag or a barrel. After all, it isn’t as if my son were about to marry her.
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Sabrina: Heavens forbid, Albert!
Mary: Wait! Is that not the same woman portraying both Lady Bracknell and Lady Catherine?
Sabrina: Yes, that is Dame Judi Dench, an actress of considerable renown.
Mary: Dame, truly?
Mary: From her letter, I know the young woman that I interview tomorrow considers herself an actress. I certainly hope she is not as formidable as Dame Judi Dench.
Sabrina: I am certain an actress of skill knows when it is appropriate to make herself formidable. In fact, an actress might be the perfect thing for your son. Only a month or so ago, the fabulous Nell Gwyn visited us here at Lady B’s and she certainly was a woman who knew how to attract a man.
Lady B: Please, Miss Darby, not again.
Uh oh. We’ve been discovered. I shoot a suspicious glance at Albert, who is suddenly nowhere about.
Mary: (with a sniff) In any event, I don’t think she’s quite my Georgie’s style.
Sabrina: Lady B, you do remember my cousin?
Lady B: (dryly) How could I forget?
I’d like nothing more than to back out of the room at the moment and find someplace to hide. However, the problem must be solved. So I put it to all of our inventive and wise friends in the Ballroom. What does one ask a prospective mistress and how does one conduct such a delicate interview?