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Emilia Brown lives a quiet, frugal, small-town life. When the town’s grande dame dies, Mrs. Brown helps inventory her estate’s possessions and is captivated by one item, something serenely simple yet sophisticated that might allow Mrs. Brown to express who she really is and how she confronts the secret tragedy of her life. In My Mrs. Brown, fashion writer and social commentator William Norwich brings us a heroine not unlike Paul Gallico’s, in Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris, but with a social and emotional underpinning that are as timeless as they are current. Published this spring by Simon and Schuster, My Mrs. Brown can be purchased here and here. In this excerpted chapter, we join Mrs. Brown as she’s completing her inventory.
MRS. BROWN was dispatched to Mrs. Groton’s bedroom and dressing room upstairs.Here was yet another revelation to behold in this magical residence: a blue and white canopied king-size bed, a sitting room–office, and a large dressing room that was wall to wall, floor to ceiling, closets and shelves. In the center was a sitting area with two matching rose-pattern-chintz-covered chairs and a sofa.
Mrs. Wood was downstairs taking inventory of the things Delphine deemed unworthy for high auction.
“Ashville, Ashville, Ashville,” the auctioneer kept repeating as if she was counting odorous fish.
Mrs. Brown’s task, meanwhile, was to go through the various drawers and closets and count the trousers, tops, shoes, scarves, handkerchiefs, sunglasses, and more items that would be sent to the Ashville Thrift Shop.
The quantity, as well as the quality, of, say, the twenty-seven cotton-knit short-sleeved golfing shirts in various colors bemused her, as did a row of seven pairs of identical white cotton summer trousers. Fortunately, envy was not in Mrs. Brown’s nature. Even when she came upon a red cardigan sweater with a lush chinchilla collar, she felt only pure delight.
Mrs. Brown opened drawers—many filled with rose-scented or evergreen-scented sachets—counted items, and scribbled the tally on sheet after sheet of yellow legal paper. When she finished with the sweaters and lingerie in all the drawers, Mrs. Brown moved on to the closets.
The first closet she opened was empty, except for about a dozen fine wood clothing hangers. Rachel had said earlier that Mrs. Groton kept only a few dressy things in Ashville. These Mrs. Brown found in the next closet.
Two dresses: one was an orange-yellow floral silk caftan-style evening dress with bell-shaped long sleeves and a V-neck. But as beautiful as it was, the confection did not capture Mrs. Brown’s attention as much as the other dress did. This was a sleeveless black dress and a single-button jacket made of the finest quality wool crepe.
Its correctness was its allure. Suggesting endless possibilities and the certainty of positive outcomes if one wore this dress. The richness of the affect of this suit, its elegance and poise, was the work of a master.
It was the strangest thing, but even in her youth, never had a dress, or any other item of clothing, spoken to Mrs. Brown this way, a garment so regal—so “grown-up” she’d later explain in one of her letters to Mrs. Fox—so exquisitely tailored and, somehow, thoroughly reassuring.
Why wasn’t all of life designed so perfectly?
Lest there be any confusion, this was no “little black dress.” It was not a sibling in the family of frocks you see trotted out on fashion pages at least once a year, a cotillion of easy-breezy, channel-your-inner–Audrey Hepburn black shift dresses to wear from desk to dinner.
It was the queen of all little black dresses, the jewel in the crown. Mrs. Brown fell under its spell.
Reaching out to touch the dress, she stopped. Seeing how roughened and red her hands were from cleaning and housework, and aghast at the sight, she pulled them back.
Rachel, carrying a small pile of books, saw this.
“Isn’t that a wonderful dress? You’d never know, would you, that it is more than twenty years old; there’s not a thread out of place,” she said as she entered the dressing room from the hall.
“The style is one of Oscar de la Renta’s most popular. He always has it, or something very much like it, every season. In fact, it’s a style almost every First Lady in the past thirty years has owned.”
Excerpted from My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich, © 2016 William Norwich. Published by Simon and Schuster and excerpted with permission of the publisher.