Character Profile: Elspeth Urmstone

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FULL NAME: Elspeth Lily Urmstone (née Hawthcourt)

BORN: 15 June 1758, Berylford St. Barbara, Hampshire (aged 35-36 in Lust & Liberty; 56-57 in Sin & Secrecy)

EYE COLOUR: Brown

HAIR COLOUR: Dark

FAMILY: The Hon. Juvelia Ullswell (née Hawthcourt) (sister); Edmund Urmstone (husband, deceased); The Hon. Marcus Hawthcourt (father, deceased); Beatrix McLaer (mother, deceased); Duncan McLaer (cousin); The Hon. Farquhar Hawthcourt (grandfather, deceased)

ALLIES: Judith-Ann Haffisidge, Lady Oliviera Vyrrington, Julia Osborne, Agnes Gwynne, Juvelia Ullswell

ENEMIES: Jesse Blameford, Mr Jackdawe

OCCUPATION: Socialite; town gossip

PERSONALITY: Fiery, nosy, recalcitrant, interfering, domineering, querulous, fastidious, snobbish, defiant, stubborn

POLITICS: Conservative

FAITH: Catholic

 

Who is Elspeth Urmstone?

In a tale that is largely melodramatic and themed around death and domestic drama, there needs to be some form of comic relief. And The Berylford Scandals' answer to that is Elspeth Urmstone, in my opinion. While fulfilling the town gossip archetype, I needed to explore beyond that and make her prone to accidental ridicule. And to say things she does not quite mean. All this is harnessed in her conservatism, which applies to everything she does in her life. In her style of dress, in her social attitudes, all the way to the food she eats. In many ways, she is a tribute to all well-meaning women who come off as not especially nice people. We all know a Mrs Urmstone in some way, I think. You cannot hate her totally, for she is staunchly loyal to the friends she has - Lady Vyrrington and Mrs Haffisidge - almost to a fault. She will not tolerate a word against either of them, even in the face of scandal.

Some of my favourite moments of Mrs Urmstone take place in narrative that I ultimately had to remove from Lust & Liberty. Indeed, in the original novel, we meet her at the same time as Lady Vyrrington, Lord Wilson, Abel Stirkwhistle and other pivotal characters, as they attend a party. She is with their hostess, Lady Riva Bært-Styridge and her sister Juvelia, at odds with the Scandinavian food on offer...

from the original Chapter I of The Berylford Scandals: Lust & Liberty

Food was laid out at liberty to be taken by the guests on a table in the large drawing room.  At least half of this table was filled with delicacies native to Norway and Denmark. Such delicacies included raskekako: dumplings filled with bacon; sursild: a type of pickled herring that was served with rye bread; and, on a sweeter note, pikekyss: a baked meringue. There were also slices of fish, which were slightly odd in appearance in the opinion of the fastidious Miss Elspeth Hawthcourt who, much to the embarrassment of her much better–composed sister Juvelia, questioned Lady Riva on the dish.

“It is klippfisk, Miss Elspeth,” replied Lady Riva, “Cod.”

She spoke in the most sophisticated and elegantly–presented English, yet maintained her smooth and – to an extent – deep contralto Norwegian accent. Some of her sounds were embellished with a refined trill of her tongue. With the words native to her own language, her voice seemed to deepen even further, yet managed to add to the refinement of her pronunciation and intonation.

“It looks rather unfortunate to be cod,” returned Miss Elspeth, “Has something tragic occurred to it?”

Lady Riva chuckled, as did Miss Juvelia, the latter nervously in response to her sister’s incredulous questions.

“It is a dish that originated by accident, you could say, Miss Elspeth,” Lady Riva said, “the legend is that: a fire was started in the house of a poor family who were eating cod that night. They, of course, fled the house which collapsed in the fire, and ash covered the fish. A subsequent rainstorm caused the ash to seep into the fish meat. When uncovering the remains, the family found it and they were certainly in no position to dispose of the food. And thusly, that is how klippfisk came about.”

Miss Elspeth grimaced, diverting her hand from the platter on which the klippfisk was being served.

“Perhaps... I will decline this time, Lady Riva,” she said.

“Of course, Miss Elspeth. Admittedly, it most certainly is an acquired taste. Instead, I can recommend the cheeses that we Norwegians offer.”

“Cheeses?” Miss Elspeth remarked excitedly, as she was only too partial to it, “I was not aware cheese was available in Norway.”

“But of course there is cheese, Miss Elspeth. I can thoroughly recommend to you the gammelost,” said Lady Riva, pointing at a waxy–looking cheese.

Miss Elspeth observed it, again grimacing at what the Countess had suggested to her. It was of a most pungent aroma.

“Might I ask how much one is recommended to slice?” she said.

“I would recommend you have a care with how much you slice. Gammelost is a rare cheese. Very difficult to find nowadays.” She slanted a sideways glance at Miss Juvelia.

Miss Elspeth took up one of the many cheese knives that lay beside the plate on which the gammelost, as well as all the other cheeses that were there with it, was set.

Very hesitantly, she cut herself a very thin slice of the gammelost, and an equally–thin piece of bread. Placing the two together and pressing them between her fingers and thumb, she held them to her lips, squinting at the tanginess of the cheese’s smell.

Miss Juvelia and the Countess watched her as she hindered herself in taking the cheese. She diverted her eyes from her food and smiled nervously at them both. The Countess of Styridge’s eyes widened as if to press Miss Elspeth to continue. Taking this hint, and giving another reluctant half–smile, Miss Elspeth opened her mouth, screwing her eyes shut and biting at thin strip of the bread and the gammelost at the same time, and immediately shutting her mouth, opening one eye slightly to see if the Countess and her sister were still watching her, which they were. In order to keep up appearances – a principle only too important to Miss Elspeth – she smiled and kept her eyes shut as she chewed what she had taken.

As she chewed, Lady Riva turned her back to Miss Elspeth and whispered to Miss Juvelia:

“Gammelost, in English, is literal for old cheese.”

Miss Elspeth did not chew for long, and swallowed the cheese in order to rid herself of the flavour, which resembled that of sour milk. She grimaced once again as soon as she had swallowed, and then opened her eyes slowly, smiling as she saw that Lady Riva and Miss Juvelia were still watching her.

“Definitely... an acquired taste, Your Ladyship,” she said, maintaining her false smile.

Origins & Basis

Despite now being one of the main characters of The Berylford Scandals series, Mrs Urmstone was originally a background character that only appeared in one short scene in the original novel. It was the subsequent revisions that took this interfering and shrill old bat and reworked her into a socialite of the same rank as Lady Vyrrington, not to mention one of her closest friends. And then we gave her a dead husband, plus a Scottish heritage that associated with royalty back in the day. This was to give her some vulnerability - Mrs Urmstone is somewhat ashamed that, despite marrying the Lord Mayor of the town she loves, she has not earned a title or any substantial fortune, unlike her sister Juvelia.

Literary Inspiration

Mrs Urmstone fills the archetypal town gossip role, most notably Miss Octavia Pole from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. Another woman who is so committed to nosing into others' business that she does not come off as particularly nice to know, but loyal to a fault. Mrs Urmstone's eccentricity and waspish words are also in part inspired by Betsey Trotwood from Dickens' David Copperfield. If ever she were to retire to the seaside, I wouldn't put it past her to oust all unwelcome visitors (and donkeys) off of her property.

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