My new novel, based on the true story of Florence Martha "Florrie" Cox, will be published before the year is out. Here's the cover:
A bride has a secret that not even she understands
An obstacle to a marriage made in Heaven
Ignorance is not bliss
Some events have been combined or imagined for dramatic and interpretive purposes.
Of necessity, most of the dialogue is imagined, but the author believes it is consistent
with the personalities of the characters and events that took place in India and Australia.
Melbourne, Australia, November 1914
Florence Martha Cox, known to most of her family and friends as Florrie, sat on the swing made by her father 20 years before when she was a little girl. As she was still of slim build, she could fit in it comfortably, although her father had since raised the seat to accommodate her long adult legs.
The swing was in a wooden frame erected in the shade of a towering eucalypt that was planted in the corner of the large back garden when the nondescript three-bedroom wooden house with its corrugated tin roof was constructed in the late 1880s in Balwyn, then a sparsely populated outer suburb of Melbourne.
As Florrie moved gently back and forth on the swing, she read a hand-written letter and stroked Tiddles, the pet black-and white cat sitting on her lap.
It was the second time she had read the letter since its arrival from India in that morning’s post. It was from the Revd Paice, to whom she had become engaged on the eve of his departure by steamboat for Calcutta, then capital of India and the state of East Bengal, to take up his post as a missionary for the Baptist Church of Australia. Frank’s letters were of special importance as they were her only means of getting to know her intended husband a little better before their marriage.
There had been no intimacy of any sort before he had departed. It was an age when courting couples were rarely left alone during the pre-engagement period. Respectable families insisted on such couples being watched over by a chaperone to ensure that they never found themselves in a position where they could allow sexual desires to lead to heavy petting or, Heaven forbid, intercourse. Furthermore, the watchfulness of families left little opportunity for couples to engage in affectionate and revealing conversations.
There is abundant evidence that sexual intercourse did often take place outside marriage back then, despite the watchfulness of families and chaperones. This caused great scandal if a pregnancy were to result, though the scandal could be softene if the couple agreed to what was crudely called a hasty “shotgun marriage”.
In Frank and Florrie’s case, opportunities to indulge in any form of sexual activity, no matter how limited and restrained, were non-existent as both the Cox and Paice families were pillars of the Baptist Church and consequently deeply conservative Christians. Florrie’s mother, Amelia Cox, was particularly vigilant when it came to ensuring her three daughters reached the marriage altar sexually intact.
The letters that Frank and Florrie exchanged over their two-year engagement were mostly devoted to reporting day-to-day missionary and family events. They were rather formal and lacked expressions of passion. This was not surprising because the letters were often expected to be passed around for family and friends to read. Therefore, any expression of sexual desires, explicit or by innuendo, were carefully avoided.
As Florrie perused Frank’s latest letter, she broke off from time to time to admire the engagement ring on her left hand. It was pretty, though the diamond was quite small, but she accepted that it fairly reflected the modest funds available to Frank as he carried out his religious studies.
Much as Florrie looked forward to the wedding, she couldn’t but sometimes wonder if she had been Frank’s second choice. Before he had turned his attention to Florrie, he had been attentive towards her cousin, Maude Irene Sutton. Maude, universally known by her nickname Rena, who attended the same Baptist Church in the Melbourne suburb of Auburn, as did others in the Cox, Sutton and Paice families.
There were rumours that Frank had considered seeking Rena’s hand in marriage, but she was stricken down by tuberculosis and had died aged 22. Her autograph book was later found to include an entry by Frank. It was unusual for a single man to put an entry in a woman’s autograph book, unless they were related or very good friends.
Ironically, in view of what was to transpire in the coming years, Frank’s entry included this quote by the former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli: Circumstances are beyond the control of man. But his conduct is in his own power.
Florrie’s father, Arthur Cox Snr, had sounded a cautionary note about the engagement, wondering whether Frank’s unspoken motive might be an anxiety that he would not be able to find a suitable wife among the missionaries in Bengal. His reservations were swept aside by Amelia who was ecstatically proud to have a daughter marrying a clergyman, a Man of the Cloth, as they were often referred to. A social plus for Amelia was the fact that Frank’s elder brother, George, had also just been ordained as a Baptist clergyman and posted to Traralgon in Gippsland, Victoria.
Despite having turned 27, Florrie had not had any serious male friends before. Until Frank Paice came along, her mother had taken the view that the potential suitors who stepped forward were unsuitable and were effectively sent on their way before any emotional attachment could take place. Consequently, Florrie was not entirely sure what it felt like to be in love. All she knew was that she admired and liked Frank.
Much of the Cox back garden – or back yard, as most Australians referred to this patch of land – was taken over by vegetable plots and fruit trees, proudly cultivated by Florrie’s neatly-bearded father when he was not at work driving one of Melbourne’s cable car trams. Today was a day off for Arthur, so he was busy erecting frames for his climbing tomatoes and hoeing weeds around the neat rows of newly-sprouting beans and lettuces he had planted in the Spring. He was a man of action and few words, letting wife Amelia do most of the talking.
As Arthur busied himself, Amelia appeared at the back door and called to Florrie in a strong Australian accent. “C’mon, or we’ll be late for your appointment,” she shouted. “Coming, Mother,” replied Florrie in a softer accent that reflected her less forthright character.
Florrie stepped down from the swing and gently placed Tiddles on the ground. “I’m going to miss you,” she murmured. As she crossed the garden into the house, she exchanged a wave and a smile with her father. She was quite tall – taller by a couple of inches than anyone else in the family – and had dark hair and deep brown eyes inherited from the paternal side of the family. As was usual, she was wearing an ankle-length high-necked plain cotton dress with long sleeves, typical of conservative women at that time.
“Are you sure that I need to do this, Mother?” Florrie asked with a frown. “Yes, of course,” replied Amelia, “the Mission Society is insistent, so let’s just get it over with.”