The Tale of Anastasia
Copyright © 2010, Dave Potter
This tale is set in the United Kingdom in the year 1967. It is however, not the United Kingdom that we know. Instead it is an alternate United Kingdom set in an alternative universe. Therefore, much of it is familiar to us, but conversely, much isn’t. In the universe of the story, the United Kingdom is an inward-looking, reactionary society that lags behind many of its neighbours. It is governed by a powerful elite formed of an aristocracy of hereditary landowners and the Church. The Great Reform Acts of the 19th century never happened and the place of a woman is very much that of a second-class citizen… or subject. She has no rights and no property, she is owned by her father, after his death her brother or uncle, and upon marriage, her husband. Wives are expected to be virgins and all women are corseted.
The world however, has moved on faster than the United Kingdom. In Europe, the most developed country is the Soviet Union, the only country where women have anything near equal rights. As a result of the Great Socialist Revolution of 1905, they can vote, work, fight, own property and get divorced. Following the example set by Lenin’s wife Inessa Armand, they have cast off their corsets and adopted a proletarian, freer style of dress. The Soviets now control much of the world, with only the Chinese and faded glory of Germany offering any serious resistance.
Much of the inspiration for this story came from reading ‘Imperial Lace’ by Alice McCloud. However, I must point out that her alternative Britain is not the same as mine.
Links to all parts of the story:
Anastasia Kolyakonova stepped off the zeppelin and into the terminal at London. Inside her breast her heart beat anxiously. What would she find here? What would it be like? What about her mother…? All these questions and more circled round in her head; today was the day that she’d been waiting for, looking forward to yet dreading at the same time. She took a deep breath but her clothes stopped her. They annoyed Anastasia with their stupid stays. Back in Moskva she’d never worn anything like that but when she’d stopped in Berlin on the way over she’d thought it prudent to buy some European clothes as she’d heard that the British police did not take kindly to Soviet female dress. But, the clothes that she’d bought were uncomfortable, heavy and cumbersome whilst the corset sapped her strength. ‘Perhaps I’ll not have to wear it for long?’ she’d thought when she first put it on but since then all the women that she’d seen were corseted, most a lot tighter than her and she was slowly realising just why Soviet dress was frowned upon here. Since crossing the border into Germany she’d not seen a single female ankle or ungloved hand, even amongst the lower classes. Yet at the same time, the dress here was not altogether modest; heaving chests with deep cleavages seemed to be all the rage amongst the females of fashion. She of course, was not fashionable, even by Soviet standards, but she had noticed that the corset had had the effect of making her meagre breasts seem much more matronly, an effect that she had not wholly welcomed.
But why was Anastasia here, a woman alone, disembarking off an airship thousands of kilometres from her place of birth. Well, to answer that, we need to look back into her recent history…
Anastasia Kolyakonova had been born some sixteen years and two months ago in the city of Moskva to one Andrei Kolyakonov and the daughter of the British Ambassador, Clare Hamilton-Smythe. The two had met at an Embassy function, (Kolyakonov was a civil servant), and had fallen in love at first sight. Bowled over by the dashing Slav, Clare had entered into an illicit liaison and Anastasia had been the fruit of it. The Soviets did not mind; in their enlightened proletarian utopia, many people had children without getting married. The British on the other hand were horrified. Clare wanted to marry Kolyakonov, but her father had already promised her to someone else and could not renege on the deal. The pregnancy was kept quiet and the prospective husband discretely informed. He agreed to marry Clare regardless, (though for a greater asking price), as Lord Hamilton-Smythe was his employer. Clare, devastated, tried to elope with Kolyakonov, but her father found out in advance and she was transported back to Britain in haste. Thus it was that Anastasia had never known her mother or the British members of her family.
Not that this bothered her of course, for instead her life was full with her loving father, her studies and her activities as a Young Pioneer. Anastasia, (or ‘Ani’ as her friends called her), was both an excellent student and athlete, holding the oblast record for both 500 and 1000m sprint. She was on the tennis and volleyball teams and swam regularly. Life for her was good, with hikes in the forests, weekends at the dacha and in the week, the best education in the world. She saw only a dazzling career before her with her athletic abilities and natural intelligence combining, she hoped, to achieve a high-ranking officer’s grade in the Red Army. Already she was in the Cadets and next year she was due to start at the prestigious Military Academy. Life was good.
Good that was, until the 21st November, 1966 when a knock came on the door and a uniformed policeman told her that her father had been killed in an accident, run over by a tram as he crossed the road without looking. Tears filled her days then and all was darker. Those tears then turned to shock when a lawyer came to her door and told her that she was now the responsibility of her mother and step-father who were both demanding that she live in England from now on. And so, in disbelief – and yet excitement too – she packed her bags, bade goodbye to her friends and boarded the airship for Berlin and a new life far across the sea…
Ani was surprised when a single man came up to her in the terminal reception hall. “Excuse me miss,” he said, “but may I assume that you are Miss Anastasia Kolyakonova?”
“Yes sir,” she answered in her accented schoolgirl English.
“Good,” he replied smiling. “My name is Lord Curzon, Robert to family members, and you are indeed a member of my family as I am the man that your mother married following her…ahem, tryst… with your father.”
Ani was disappointed. She’d hoped that her mother would be at the terminal to meet her but evidently this was not to be the case. She so wanted to meet her, to see what she was like in the flesh as all she had was a small faded photograph given to her by her father. “A pleasure to meet you, sir,” she said, offering to shake Lord Curzon’s hand.
Robert Curzon frowned and then bent over to her ear. “In Britain it is not customary for women to shake the hands of gentlemen,” he whispered, “though doubtless things are done that way in Russia. You should curtsey instead.”
“Sorry,” whispered Ani back to him and then bent her knees in an exaggerated manner just as she had seen on the films.”
“Much better,” said Robert, “Now to the car!”
The ‘car’ was the next surprise that Britain had to throw at her. Unlike the sleek modern cars of the Soviet Union, this was evidently not built for speed. Instead it was tall, wide and opulent. Inside it was as high as a small room in which one could stand without banging one’s head on the roof. The uniformed driver sat in a separate cab at the front, with no contact to those travelling inside. As soon as he saw them he left his cab and opened the door for them. “Thank you comrade,” said Ani with a smile, but the driver did not reply. “To the townhouse, Greaves!” ordered Lord Curzon and away they went.
As soon as they were moving, Lord Curzon sat opposite her, (for British car seats were not arranged as Soviet ones, with all passengers looking forward), and started to speak.
“Miss Kolyakonova, I must explain many things to you and now seems the best place to start. To begin with, I sense an unhappiness in you, perhaps due to the absence of your mother?” Ani nodded, getting the gist of his conversation with all its long words. “I thought as much. Fear not though, you shall meet your mother soon, but it was not possible for her to meet you today. The reason is this; her shame has never been made public and if it were our family honour would be much damaged. If she were seen in public with you referring to her as ‘mama’, then all could be lost. Besides, you yourself are not fit for presentation in British Society yet. Our rules you see, they are very different from those in Russia, particularly concerning how ladyfolk must dress and appear. You at the moment do not adhere to our notions although I do notice that you have made some attempt to do so which I appreciate. The clothes, where are they from?”
“Indeed, and I do wholeheartedly thank you for attempting to fit in. However, German clothes are not English ones and those do not match the class of society that you now belong to. In Russia I know that class is supposedly a thing of the past, but here it is very much alive, it is the bedrock of our society in fact and your mother and I come from the very highest class indeed and thus it is that you shall belong to that class also. But certain class demands a certain style of dress and your dress befits only the lower-middle classes and the German lower-middle classes at that. Furthermore, your hair, cropped short as it is in a boyish fashion, is most unsuitable for British life and so until that has been rectified and some suitable clothes procured for you, you shall dress in Russian clothes and we shall continue the pretence that you are a visiting Russian tourist or military personage and that I am your guide. That is acceptable for myself with you in London, but it is not acceptable for your mother to be seen in such company and so only when you are dressed as an English lady shall you be taken to our seat at Kedleston and presented to her. Do you understand all that I have said, for I appreciate that English is not your first language?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ani, who had understood most and was now running her fingers through her bobbed chestnut hair.
“Now, we are almost here, but before we alight, one more thing, please do not refer to anyone at all, but particularly not a servant, as ‘Comrade’. The word is much disliked here as it aims to destroy the sacred barriers of class. Now, we are here, welcome to my townhouse, Miss Kolyakonova.”
Ani alighted from the car and this time did not greet the driver. She then entered the house, enormous by Soviet standards, and found herself in a grand hallway where three maids were waiting, dressed in stiff black and white uniforms and wearing corsets far tighter than her own. Once they were in Lord Curzon announced, “Miss Kolyakonova, I am sure that you are tired from your long journey. Please retire to your room with Perkins here and take a rest for a few hours. We have dinner at six and afterwards we shall discuss the course of the next few days. Goodbye.”
And with those words she followed one of the black and white maids up the stairs to an enormous bedroom equipped with a four-poster bed, an array of mirrors and an enormous wardrobe. More puzzling though, was a trapeze that hung from the ceiling that Ani assumed must be some sort of exercise tool, perhaps for building up the upper arm muscles, as she had seen something similar during her time in the Red Army Cadets’ training camps.
“Miss, shall I unlace and undress you?” asked Perkins.
“No that won’t be necessary, thanks…” she replied, remembering just in time not to add ‘Comrade’. And so the maid left and she sank into a deep and welcome sleep.
Ani woke up relaxed and refreshed. She had dreamt that she was back in the USSR, tramping through pine forests on a Young Pioneers Expedition and to find herself in a four-poster bed in London was quite a surprise. She glanced at the clock on the wall and seeing that it was half past five, realised that dinner was not long off and so freshened herself up and dressed – as Lord Curzon had commanded – in Soviet clothes before going down to eat.
The food was bland; some lamb with potatoes, carrots and gravy. She ate it sat at the end of a long table that could have fit around twenty diners at it. Lord Curzon sat at the other end and she had to almost shout to converse with him. Afterwards though they ‘retired’ to a drawing room with leather armchairs and a roaring fire. And it was in there that the real business of the day was attended to.
“You know really you shouldn’t be allowed in here,” Curzon had told her after they’d sat down. “Ladies are not allowed in drawing rooms as a rule, but I have to admit that dressed as you are I find it hard to think of you as female Mademoiselle Kolyakonova.” Ani looked at her dress; a white blouse and some grey trousers; quite usual for dinner in Moskva. With her bobbed hair she could see how it appeared a little masculine, particularly compared with the dresses that the English girls wore!
Of course, Anastasia had not seen much of the English female at this stage, but what she had seen had created quite an impression. All, without exception, wore dresses, huge floating things with many layers that covered a vast amount of floor space but then swooped into tiny, corseted waists. Yes, all girls were corseted, from servant to lady. Out of the car window she’d viewed a variety of women, from poor to rich and all had been laced, many – particularly those who appeared rich – quite tightly. One waist in fact seemed laced to such dimensions that she wouldn’t have believed that the human being could be so compressed and still stay alive. She guessed that the girl must be very red in the face and short of breath but when she looked up to see if her conjectures were correct she found that the girl’s head and face were obscured by an enormous bonnet with a thick veil across the front. Besides, by then the car had moved on and the girl just a silhouette in the distance. So, she would never know!
Bonnets though, were common in London. Outdoors all females wore some kind of headdress, most of them elaborate and extremely feminine bonnets with feathers, lace and all manner of frivolity. Such could be said of all the clothing in fact, ultra-feminine was definitely the order of the day and in her plain German dress Ani had felt most plain indeed.
“So,” Lord Curzon continued, “our first task will be to equip you with a suitable English wardrobe. That task we shall embark upon tomorrow and hopefully by the following day we shall have something adequate. I say adequate since English fashions are, as I am sure you have already noticed, somewhat more difficult to wear than Russian ones and indeed much training is required to become a true Lady of Leisure as you are destined to be, but still, the bare minimum – travelling dress, hair and what not – these we can achieve now. However, looking the part is one thing, being it is something else. Have you given much thought to your new life here, Anastasia?”
It was the first time that he had called her by her name. “No, sir, not really. After tatko… I mean ‘father’ died, well, my life has been…”
“Anastasia, I quite understand, it must have been a most traumatic time for you. However, whilst you have not been thinking, I have, for I must admit that your father’s death has placed us in a most delicate position indeed. You see Anastasia, as I mentioned in the car, under no circumstances must the particulars of your birth be made public, it would be disastrous not only for my wife, children and myself, but indeed also for you. As a child born out of wedlock, you will never be able to hold up your head in English society, let alone find a suitable match. Even with a dowry of several million pounds, no respectable gentleman would ever look at you and a governess or prostitute is the best that you could aspire to. No, such a course is unthinkable and thus it is that I have concocted the story that you are the child of my late brother and his Russian wife, (he was stationed in Moskva you see on Diplomatic Service), who passed away at your birth. You were raised by a Russian uncle, whose name you took out of respect but following his death, I have agreed to not only be your guardian, but also to provide your dowry. This story explains your accent and heritage but leaves your reputation completely in tact. It does however, leave a couple of loose ends that require tidying up. The first is your name. If you took your old guardian’s name out of respect, then it is only right that you do the same with the new. Therefore, tomorrow we shall be going to the registration office and changing your surname to ‘Curzon’. Furthermore, as you can appreciate, Anastasia is a most unsuitable name for an English lady and so your first name will be changed to ‘Anne’ after our great queen. Is that all understood… Anne?”
Ani wanted to scream, ‘No! No! I don’t want an English name, I am a Soviet citizen!’ but the sense of Curzon’s argument as well as his forceful presence made her meekly reply, “Yes, sir.”
“Good, so, let me see… clothes, hair, name… and… ah yes, religion. Russia is atheist is it not, and so I assume that you have not been baptised?”
“No, sir, never.”
“As I feared. Well, tomorrow afternoon we shall be attending the church of St. Martin-in-the-Field as I have arranged with Rev. Sneyd for your baptism. Two friends of mine will act as godparents, do not worry.”
“But I don’t believe in God, Lord Curzon?”
“Anne, that is immaterial. Here in Britain, one has to be baptised, you can’t not be. If you are not a member of the Church of England then you are require to be either Roman Catholic, Methodist or Jewish. Anything else and you must leave the country and only Anglicans get full rights. No, it is a matter of necessity, not faith.”
“Oh.” Ani was shocked; it seemed like her whole life, her very being was all changing before her eyes and there was nothing that she could do about it. “Sir, I am scared,” she said.
Lord Curzon smiled. “Anne, there is no need to be. You are embarking upon a very privileged life here in England, the life of a Lady of Leisure. Many would long to be in your shoes.”
“I suppose so, but…”
“No buts, off to bed girl, you’ll be having a busy day tomorrow…”
Never were any truer words spoken than those of Lord Curzon for the following day did prove to be very busy indeed. Ani was woken early by Perkins and dressed in her Soviet Army Cadets uniform.
When she questioned this, the maid informed her that Lord Curzon had decreed it as it best kept up the illusion that she was a visiting Russian military personage. Following breakfast she met up with her step-father and they caught the car into the city centre, stopping outside a very expensive-looking boutique indeed named ‘Monsieur Saint Laurent’s’. Lord Curzon led her inside where they were greeted by a fawning attendant in a very tight corset and flouncy dress who directed them to a private room at the back of the establishment. They were then served with tea and after a few moments Saint Laurent himself came to see them.
“So, this is the girl that you were telling me about, Robert, hmm? I can see that we will need to do a lot of work on her…”
Ani didn’t like – or understand fully – the designer’s words, but she had learnt enough now to keep quiet.
“Indeed, Yves, although I am sure that you are the man to achieve miracles,” replied Lord Robert.
“Non, non! ‘Miracles’ is too strong a word here. A lot of work is needed, yes, but she has potential. With the right clothing and training, she can become not only acceptable, but indeed even exemplary. She is lithe and should corset down well. But this hair, mon dieu! It is despicable!”
As he said this, he ran his fingers through Ani’s chestnut bob. She disliked the intrusion into her privacy intensely. “It is the fashion in Moskva, sir,” she remarked, defiantly.
He drew back immediately. “In Moskva yes, but Moskva is neither London nor Paris. Here we have refinement and class, there they have… how would you say it… égalité. What exactly do you have in mind for this Slavic belle, Robert?”
“A Lady of Leisure, naturally. She is a family member and shall attain the same status as the rest of us, regardless of flawed beginnings.”
“Naturellement, but a Lady of Leisure, it is a tall order for one so advanced in years. Training normally commences at twelve or thirteen…”
“But you yourself said that she is attractive and lithe.”
“Vraiment, it is true. But even so, it will be a challenge. However, that challenge is for her educator, not me. My challenge is the immediate days and the clothing of the longer term also. What do you have in mind, Robert?”
“Well, for London merely a travelling dress with accessories and a day dress. These will suffice until we reach Kedleston. By then several evening dresses, morning dresses and day dresses and another travelling dress. Also several fleurs de bouche and a muff. As for bonnets, suitably large and feminine and with veils, as I still want her presence to be a low-key as possible.”
“At this stage, no; they will come later at school.”
“Which establishment have you decided upon?”
“An excellent choice. But what of footwear? En-pointe is not achievable yet I fear, but a start should be made…”
“What do you suggest?”
Saint Laurent turned to Ani. “Mademoiselle, you have worn boots or shoes with heels before, non?”
“Not really, sir, only at a few parties.”
“And how high were those heels?”
“I don’t know, three or four centimetres maybe…?”
“Mon dieu! Si bas! Robert, we will have to start with only two and a half inches and even then she will struggle. As for at Kedleston, I shall prepare some with three and four inches. Any ground we can make will assist Mademoiselle Garner. I am thinking a pair of boots for now, but for later three pairs and one mules.”
“That sounds acceptable.”
“And now onto the important business, corsets. What do you desire?”
At this word Ani’s heart started. The corset that she’d bought in Germany had been uncomfortable enough, but from what she’d seen of English fashions so far, there was much worse to come!
“I propose just a day corset for London and then a day, training and night corset for Kedleston.”
“I shall leave that for Miss Garner to decide.”
“As you wish. Well Mademoiselle, we must get you measured and photographed, come, please remove your clothing!”
Ani was startled. Remove her clothes, in front of two men! It seemed wrong. “But…”
“Mademoiselle, do not protest, c’est normal. I am a man of fashion and I have seen so many female forms over the years that a new one does not shock me. As for Robert here, why, he is your guardian! Besides, we need to see you naked to measure you properly and photograph; all are necessary for my work.”
Gingerly Ani removed her uniform until she stood in her bra and pants. “All the way,” Saint Laurent said, gesturing for the underwear to be removed also. Lord Robert just looked on as if he was enjoying it all.
“Colette!” Saint Laurent shouted. After a second or two the assistant in the flouncy dress minced in carrying a tape measure and camera. Methodically the designer then measured every inch of her before finally taking the camera and photographing her naked form from every angle.
“She is to be enhanced?” he asked Lord Robert during the process.
“Naturally, but I will consult Miss Garner.”
“It is imperative that she is, as there are not sufficient curves here. Seins et derriere, both need work, lèvres also. This is my advice.”
At that moment, Ani wished dearly that she had studied French.
“And now replace your undergarments, mademoiselle.”
Ani was glad to, but was surprised when Saint Laurent photographed her wearing these. Finally she put on her uniform and she was snapped in this too. Then Lord Curzon made to leave.
“But Robert, the colours and the fabrics, we have not discussed them!”
“I leave them to your discretion, Yves.”
“I shall not disappoint, all shall be très charmant et haut mode. You may pick up the first items tomorrow afternoon. Au revoir monsieur, au revoir mademoiselle!”
And so they left, but only to cross the street and enter another establishment; this time one with the sign ‘Paul Mitchell Salon’. So, after the clothes, they were going to work on her hair!
“Good lord!” the proprietor exclaimed as they entered. “Is it a girl or a boy?!”
“I did warn you, Mr. Kent!”
“Indeed you did, but even so, I am surprised. Miss, please sit down here in this chair. So, I see that you are Russian, and evidently this is the style in Russia but I am afraid that English girls wear their hair a little different. Don’t worry though, we’ll put you right! I personally shall work on your hair whilst my assistant Mary here will attend to you eyebrows and nails. Please, put your head back, close your eyes and relax. You will be leaving here a new girl indeed!”
And so she did. For three whole hours she relaxed whilst her hair was washed and worked on and Mary massaged her face, plucked her eyebrows, fiddled with her lashes, painted her nails and then applied some make-up. When Mr. Kent declared it all finished and showed her her new look in the mirror, two things struck her immediately.
The first was the weight.
She lifted her head to see the mirror and found it very heavy, very heavy indeed. She looked quizzically at the stylist and he smiled. “It is the extensions, miss. In England no girl has hair less than waist length and now yours is the same. Do not worry, I have done it expertly, no one will be able to tell where the real hair ends and the false begins. I have left it straight for now because of your uniform but tomorrow when you have your new outfit you shall return and it will be styled.”
And the second shock came when she looked in the mirror. Gone was the Anastasia Kolyakonova that she knew so well and in her place a feminine, beautiful and somewhat surprised looking lady, with long lashes that obscured her view, bright red rosebud lips, rouged cheeks and high, arched brows. It was an altogether more English look but she was far from sure that she approved of it. Lord Curzon on the other hand, was delighted.
“Once again you have excelled yourself! At last my ward is beginning to look like a lady! Now Anne, we must go, we have your other appointment to make!”
Paul Kent took up her Red Army cap and placed it on top of her new mane and then slowly she left the salon, her head unsteady under the weight of all that hair.
And that last appointment was of course, the church. They got back in the car and drove to the bustling Trafalgar Square where Ani marvelled at all the grand buildings of grey stone. One of them was the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and inside was the priest and two smartly-dressed gentlemen whom Lord Robert greeted heartily. “Bertie! Richie! Great to see you! Here’s my ward, what do you think?”
“You’re a little ravisher, miss!” said the first whilst the other looked on quizzically and said, “But could do with some stays and heels!”
“Hello Miss Anne,” said the vicar, “and welcome to St. Martin’s. I am so pleased that you have decided to make this step and meet your Lord, and you’ll be please to know that you are not the first. I have hundreds, every year, desperate to love their Creator.”
Ani knew it of course, it was the latest craze amongst Soviet backpackers eager to discover themselves to get baptised and then have their baptismal name tattooed on their arm. People will do anything when they’re abroad.
“Well, let’s get started then.”
The service that followed was short and consisted of a candle, a splash of water and a vow to follow Christ. Ani found it quite moving in fact, though was still a little irked at having to go through with it. Anyhow, at the end she had a certificate with her new name.
Next they left and went to the Registrars where the Baptismal Certificate was presented and her new British identity registered. That was it. She was now ‘Anne Clare Curzon’. The finality and officialness of it all shocked her.