We five, p.1

We Five, page 1


We Five

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We Five





  5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd.

  Ann Arbor, MI 48103


  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  WE FIVE. Copyright © 2015, text by Mark Dunn. All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Dzanc Books, 5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103.

  Designed by Steven Seighman

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Dunn, Mark, 1956-

  We five : a novel of unintended collaboration / Mark Dunn.—First edition.

  pages ; cm

  ISBN 978-1-938103-12-4 (hardcover)

  1. Authorship—Fiction. 2. Women authors—Fiction. 3. Female friendship—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3604.U56W4 2015 813’.6—dc23


  First U.S. Edition: October 2015

  Printed in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For the four Weekley sisters:

  Mary, Leslie, Laura, and Julia

  All life is just a progression toward,

  and then a recession from,

  one phrase—“I love you.”




  I fell in love with Elizabeth Gaskell’s secret back-drawer novel We Five in the early nineties when I was looking for a work of Victorian fiction to adapt to the musical stage in partnership with a composer and a lyricist, who have since left the theatre and now raise Jerusalem artichokes. In the course of my investigation into what has happened to Gaskell’s story of five young female friends who fall prey to five young men of predatory purpose, I discovered that since the posthumous publication of Gaskell’s book in 1867, it has—over the succeeding decades—been adapted by three other novelists of some literary stature:

  Grady Larson—We Happy Five, published in 1910.

  Gail Lowery—Five Saints, Five Sinners, published in 1930.

  Daphne Rourke—Songs and Sirens, published in 1952.

  Swift upon the heels of the publication of my first novel I Am a Time Bomb in 2000, I tried my own hand at retelling Gaskell’s story (set outside of Manchester, England, in 1859); I placed my version of this story, Five Came Running, in north Mississippi in 1997. It sold respectably well—not quite as well as my first novel, but better than my third, published in 2009, The Dithering Heart.

  Given the similarities to be found among We Five and its four subsequent adaptations (including my own), I felt that this story might do with one more telling, an amalgamation of all five auctorial voices, each of the five versions of the story coming into violent collision at its climax.

  Perhaps a word or two should be said about the book’s epilogue, which is taken from an upcoming sixth version of the story…

  Or not.

  Mark Dunn

  March 2015

  Dramatis Personae


  Jane (Janie) Higgins

  Maggie (Margaret, Mag, Mags) Barton

  Carrie (Caroline, Car) Hale

  Ruth (Ruthie) Thrasher

  Molly Osborne


  Tom (Thomas, Tommy) Catts/Katz … who pursues Jane

  Jerry (Jeremiah) Castle … who pursues Maggie

  Will (William, Willy) Holborne … who pursues Carrie

  Cain Pardlow … who is supposed to pursue Ruth

  Pat (Patrick, Paddy) Harrison … who pursues Molly


  Lyle Higgins … Jane’s younger brother

  Clara Barton … Maggie’s mother

  Sylvia Hale … Carrie’s mother

  Herbert (Bert, Herb) & Lucile (Lucille) Mobry … Ruth’s guardians

  Michael Osborne … Molly’s father

  Jemma Spalding … Molly’s cousin


  Vivian (Vivien, Viv) Colthurst … We Five’s employer (or manager or immediate supervisor)

  Reginald (Reggie) & Mirabella (Bella, Mira) … Carrie’s neighbors and friends of We Five

  Lydia DeLash Comfort … famed evangelist in the Aimee Semple McPherson mold

  Miss (Abigail) Dowell … Miss/Ms. Colthurst’s assistant

  Chapter One

  Tulleford, England, August 1859

  (from We Five, by Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell)

  Jane was the oldest of the five. She was also the tallest (with or without the clackety pattens). Though she was thought at times to be the most outspoken of the five, yet her friend Maggie was also possessed of an opining nature, which rivaled—sometimes even surpassed—Jane’s characteristic candour.

  As for Ruth, let it be said that when she was not repairing in quiet solitude to her books and her biscuits and her beefsteak pudding, she was given to speak her own mind in a clarion voice that tended to call a room to silence.

  And what of Carrie and Molly, the remaining points on this pentagram of interlocking friendship? They would enter the lists on occasion themselves, but only for just cause, or if defence of personal honour demanded it, or, in the case of Molly, if the little girl within her was put into a mope. Consequently, Jane Higgins and her friends Maggie and Ruth and Carrie and Molly were given to occasional conversational skirmishes—skirmishes that sometimes disrespected Jane’s seniority (and imposing height)—on a variety of topics, each, thankfully, of minor consequence.

  Except when they should be of major consequence.

  Yet disputation was the natural order of things, and had come to be accepted, as one comes to accept that shawls will fray and draggle, and stays will pinch, and white muslin will soil, but that is no reason to toss aside one’s entire wardrobe, which otherwise serves.

  For Jane and Maggie and Carrie and Ruth and Molly, having become friends in early girlhood, found a kinship of the heart, which was underpinned by the following sad verity: that with the untimely youthful demises of Maggie’s two sisters, and the crib death of Molly’s younger sister, there was not a single living female sibling to be claimed amongst the quintet (and no siblings at all for four of its members—or shall we say, no siblings at all for four of its members of which they were aware). In effect, five sisterless friends became sisters of a different sort, their sisterhood constituting a melding of several hearts that was fixed and enduring—a most remarkable thing for five women of an age in which beauty and animal spirit tended to engender the building up of permanent little walls of jealousy and mistrust, as might be readily glimpsed amongst the many other clutches of young maidens who worked and played together in Tulleford, the mill town of their birth. But in this special circle of similarly situated seamstresses, one noticed no such fatuous partitions, despite the inevitable differences in character and temperament to be found amongst them, and if they were at times to disagree and dispute as all sisters will disagree and dispute, there ensued without exception a cleansing aftermath of repentance and the putting of things to rights with a demonstration of only the most tender species of affection.

  They called themselves “Circle Sisters,” or “Sisters of the Heart,” or, when an economy of self-denomination was required, simply “We Five.” And each of the young women, having attained in the previous two years the age of one-and-twenty, and each being neither married nor affianced, but, in fact, wholly unattached in any romantic sense, owned a different opinion with regard to her present state of singularity, it being an intolerable lot in the short run for one of their number, tolerable
but preferentially undesirable by degrees for three of their number, and utterly and blissfully convenient for the fifth member (who had no desire whatsoever to wed)—each of these views to be sorted out and properly assigned for the reader as our story unfolds.

  Jane Higgins was, by her own admission, “the sage observer.” She would not deny the astute observation that she was the wisest member of the group in every aspect of her nature (so long as the contention was voiced out of earshot of any other member of her circle who might disagree). However, Jane was not, by any measure, the most comely of the five, nor ever could she be deemed anything beyond “palatable in appearance” and “pretty after a fashion” by the prevailing consensus, her face being attenuated, arguably equine, her eyes deeply set. These attributes might be appropriate for a Transylvanian or Mediterranean exotic, but for a young woman of English stock, they constituted somewhat of a demerit, for they gave the impression of one fixed to a perpetually sombre, even lugubrious mien, or one robbed of restful sleep, or, more unkindly, one given to occasional neighing and clopping of the hooves. In reality, Jane, though crippled by a diminished upbringing, had overcome a great number of personal difficulties, such triumphs of mettle earning her the right to hold her head high and to wear her pride as a badge of honour, and not to be thought of in any negative way whatsoever, save by one generally unacquainted with all her redeeming traits.

  Who was the fairest of the five? Perhaps it was the circle’s youngest member, Molly Osborne, whose flaxen hair set her apart from her dark-tressed circle-sisters. Molly of the long lashes and wispy brows and oh-so-not-very-English softly rounded chin, indented with a dainty, almost capricious cleft. Molly of the arresting milk-blue eyes and the enchaining smile, which curled the plump lips with every glad thought or in response to even the smallest demonstration of spontaneous kindness, or whenever she found herself tickled by the wand of mischievous delight. (For Molly had an impish streak, which drew humour from circumstances not always conducive to the production of jocularity.) Molly, who turned the head of every young mill-working lad in the town of Tulleford and captured the eye of all their fathers as well (the men giving themselves license to partake in a furtive glance, which did little harm and which tended, in the main, to uplift the soul for some time thereafter). Molly was a chatterer and Molly was the one least shorn of her girlhood, and the coquettish nature that sometimes presented itself was nothing more, in fact, than the flit and flutter of a girl not yet molded fully into womanhood, though everything about her look and carriage might argue to the contrary.

  Carrie Hale was the musical one, skilled at playing on both the pianoforte and violin, and blessed with an angel’s voice. Carrie’s face was music of a different sort, composed of full bright lips and cheeks, crimsoned by nature’s rouge, and set with hazel eyes that trilled their own song through glimmer and sparkle. There was drama and mystery in these eyes, as well, just as there was drama and mystery in the heart and soul of this lyrical creature, who was Carrie to everyone but her mother, for whom Carrie would always be Caroline (“singer of carols”—or at least this was the derivation assumed by Sylvia Hale, who knew little of the name’s monarchial pedigree).

  Ruth Thrasher, by contrast, was quiet and retiring, save for those occasions when, in the company of her friends, she animated herself with clever observations and opinions. Ruth was a little plump (and had been at times quite a bit plumper), possessed of a pillowy frame and doughy cheeks, and a face that might give openness and light in one moment and the adumbrative appearance of brooding introspection in the very next. Whenever there was a matter to be decided, Ruth kept her own counsel until such point as it became necessary to break a tie, and then what Ruth said would rule the day, and that was the way she liked it, for keeping herself in detachment and studying a matter from every aspect was the best way for her to maintain her habit of feeding her intellect (alongside her equally insistent alimentary tract).

  Ruth, unlike her circle-sisters, had been an orphan from birth. She was the daughter of an unmarried cook, employed by two maiden sisters of advanced age and truculent disposition. (The identity of Ruth’s father was never discovered.) When Ruth’s mother expired upon the parturition bed, the sisters allowed the baby Ruth to remain in their house, to be nursed with only the greatest of reluctance and to be fed sparingly. To compensate for this act of self-sacrificial Christian charity, Ruth was put into service at a very early age. The two women who superintended her youth were coarse and cruel and overworked her in Cinderella-stepmother fashion. At the age of fourteen, having had her fill of back-breaking chores and lumpy gruel and living in a house without a mote of love to be found within, Ruth ran away and became maid-of-all-work for a Dissenting minister and his sister on the other side of town, who subsequently taught her to read and to respect herself and to love God and do His will, and to sew. The minister and his sister, seeing the need to rescue their maid from a long, dull life of washing linens and scouring floors, sent her to the dressmaker and milliner, for whom she now worked in the company of her four circle-sisters. It was Ruth herself who, in response to Mrs. Colthurst’s promptings, invited her four childhood friends to join her in employment there. (Mrs. Colthurst, you see, had worked in Manchester as an assistant to a successful modiste until she was disfigured in a terrible carriage accident and was no longer able to model the gowns her employeress designed. Having saved a few guineas over the years, the enterprising dressmaker ventured out under her own industry and opened a dress shop in neighbouring Tulleford.)

  And what of Maggie Barton? She was passionate and smart and decisive and often precipitant, her manner bold (sometimes when boldness was hardly required). There was something enviably admirable in her determinate stubbornness and her steadfast unwillingness to admit to even the occasional miscalculation. But even for those who may see such wilfulness as a deficiency of character, the flames of her incandescent nature were seldom caustic, and one could scarcely look into her dark smoldering eyes, or take in the contemplative expression of serious purpose, or attend the eruption of mirth from her laughing lips that found ridiculousness in everything not overshadowed by death and illness and the other misfortunes of life, without falling helplessly subservient to her galvanic temperament. Maggie Barton wasn’t beautiful, her face having been pocked (though, fortunately, not deeply so) by a childhood bout with the scourge of smallpox. But there was voluptuous heat and pulchritudinous passion in her soul, and if Molly was the one who turned the male head and put a fluttering butterfly kiss upon the male heart, then it was Maggie Barton who, to put it indecorously, inflamed the male loins.

  “Maggie? Maggie, dear, is that you?” The voice, which belonged to Maggie’s widowed mother, was more robust than usual, though it emanated from the bed of an intermittent invalid.

  “Can it be anyone else?” returned Maggie, her own voice raised in volume. Maggie, having just shut the front door behind her, was now standing at the foot of the narrow staircase that led to the two companion bedchambers of the diminutive family cottage.

  “Have you returned from the market?”

  “No, Mamma. I’m still there. Oh, Lor, how my words do carry!”

  Maggie chuckled. She set her bundle of greens upon the vestibule chair and mounted the stairs. As she stepped into her mother’s tiny apartment, she found the drapes opened wide and the room flooded with radiant early morning sunshine. (It was clear to Maggie that her mamma had previously risen to welcome the day, and then promptly retreated to her bed, slipping indulgently beneath the cool sheets.)

  “Don’t you look pretty this morning? Tell me how long I may have you before you dash off to spend the balance of the day with Mrs. Colthurst.”

  “Scarcely any time at all, Mamma. And it’s all Mrs. Lumley’s fault, if you must blame someone. She detained me with a most long-winded story about her son—the one who serves in the Royal Navy, not the one who mends umbrellas and chases dogs. Mrs. Lumley still fancies that one day Henry and I will wed and I’ll giv
e her eight sturdy grandchildren, all of whom, she has no doubt, will look exactly like him. How are you feeling this morning, Mamma? Mrs. Forrest said she’d be happy to look in on you later. What should I tell her?”

  “You may tell that meddlesome woman she needn’t come at all,” bolted out Mrs. Barton as Maggie descended languidly onto the bed, taking care to spread out her skirts with both hands to keep them unruffled. “I feel quite myself this morning,” Mrs. Barton went on, “and have it in mind to spend most of this beautiful summer’s day out of bed. I may even pay a visit to the tittle-tattling Mrs. Forrest for a change.”

  “She’ll be most surprised to see you,” laughed Maggie. “Only last week she summoned me to her doorstep to tell me in a most grave and despairing tone that in her studied estimation you are living on borrowed time.”

  “What a deliciously morose woman!” exclaimed Mrs. Barton, who signed her desire for a morning embrace from her only child by extending her arms and twiddling her fingers.

  Maggie obliged. The two held themselves thusly across the bed until Maggie felt pinioned and succeeded in wriggling herself free and then popping up from the bed like the little clown sprung from the box. Mrs. Barton took this opportunity to give her daughter a good looking-over. “Tut, tut, tut. You’re much too pretty to spend your day in the back of that woman’s dreary dress shop, stitching away with those other girls like prisoners in a women’s gaol.”

  “You mustn’t speak so unkindly of Mrs. Colthurst. She’s a good woman and a generous and thoughtful taskmistress. Only last week she rewarded us with yet another twenty-minute interval in the fresh air and fortifying sunshine; we are now permitted three opportunities during the workday to leave that windowless workroom and take a bit of a stretch.”

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