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Lady of Ashes

A Victorian undertaker enjoys the patronage of the Royal House of Hanover, even while withstanding betrayal, treachery, and recklessness by those closest to her.  But can she survive when a crazed killer sets sights on her for uncovering a buried secret?

Read an excerpt here

Read the backstory

See Reader Discussion Questions here or print here

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backstory

The inspiration for this book came from an unusual place: my writer friend, Mary Oldham.  Sitting together at a writing conference one day, I was musing about what kind of profession my next heroine would have.  I was considering something in the Victorian era.  Mary said to me, quite casually, “Do you know what I’ve always wanted to read about?  A Victorian undertaker.”
Wow.

After I got over the shock of that idea, my mind went crazy with possibilities, and the end result will be LADY OF ASHES.  Until the book’s release, I thought I’d share with you some of the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking I’ve discovered.

Coffin vs. Casket, what’s the difference?  A coffin is a burial container in which it widens at the shoulders to accommodate a person’s shoulders.  Think old Dracula movies and anything produced for Halloween.  A casket, however, is the modern burial container Americans generally use today, made of steel or wood, that is designed as an even rectangle with a rounded top.

Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead?   In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.

Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead?  They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground. 

Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals?  Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies.  While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.

First class or coach?  The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down.  In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status.  For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top.  Were you just middle class?  Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes.  For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.

What’s a professional mourner?   Depending on your social status, your undertaker might hire professional mourners to walk alongside your funeral car.  Dressed in black, the number of them helped demonstrate how important or wealthy you were.  The same is true for the number of horses pulling your funeral car, the number of ostrich plumes adorning the horses’ heads and your funeral car, and in what part of the cemetery you were buried.

Parade routes aren’t just for floats.  In America, the hearse (or, in Victorian parlance, funeral carriage) drives from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery.  In Victorian England, the funeral carriage went from the home of the deceased to the cemetery’s chapel. Except, it didn’t always go directly there.  For society people, the funeral procession would frequently detour through busy or fashionable streets, so that everyone could get a glimpse of what important person had died.

Fascinating, isn’t it? 

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excerpt

Chapter One

July 1861

Violet Morgan often wondered why she was so skilled at dressing a corpse, yet was embarrassingly incompetent in the simplest household task, such as selecting draperies or hiring housemaids.

If only they hadn’t moved to fancier lodgings in a more elegant section of London, she wouldn’t be burdened with having to learn a myriad of proper rules for keeping a home.  Surely her domestic mismanagement was the source of her husband’s current displeasure.  How else could Graham have become so morose and embittered these past few months?

She picked through her tray of mourning brooches, organizing them neatly for the next customer who wished to make a purchase.

Violet slid the tray of jet pins into the display case and reached for the pile of papers Graham must have carelessly thrown there.  It was a mix of invoices, newspapers, and advertising leaflets.  A recent copy of The Illustrated London News caught her eye.  Graham had circled headlines regarding events in the United States, and scribbled in his own comments beside them.  Her husband was avidly following current events transpiring across the Atlantic.

One article opined on the expected duration of the conflict raging there.  The Americans had engaged in a civil war in April, after years of southern states bickering with those in the north.  How the citizens of the United States enjoyed doing battle.  Each side proclaimed the skirmish would last just a few months, and the newspaper agreed, but Violet knew that was foolish optimism.  England’s own civil war had gone on for almost a decade, and nearly destroyed the country.

And to what end?  The Roundheads eliminated the monarchy with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, and by 1660 the monarchy was back with his son, Charles II.

Nothing changed, but thousands of lives lost and a king beheaded.  Surely the Americans would end up with a fallen leader, too.

Another article, which Graham had not only circled, but drawn brackets around, focused on the South’s hunger for recognition.  During the past few months, the southern states had pressed Britain to recognize their burgeoning nation.  The poor fools thought they had Britain in a state of helplessness because they controlled much of the world’s cotton, so necessary for England’s cloth mills.  They didn’t realize that England had been storing cotton for some time and was flush with it.  What they did need was wheat.

Wheat was produced by the northern states.

The crafty British politicians, though, were willing to host a confederate delegation in London and let it press its suit for diplomatic recognition, thus not publicly rejecting the south in case they should actually win the war.

Violet sighed as she separated the pile of papers into related stacks before removing another tray to straighten, this one full of glass-domed mourning brooches.  Buyers could weave the hair of the deceased into a fanciful pattern and place it under the glass to create an everlasting keepsake to be pinned to one’s breast.

To think of all those American soldiers who would die ignominious deaths, heaped into mass graves, without the distinction of a proper funeral and burial.  How could her husband, a man whose profession was to bring dignity to death, wish for mass slaughter?

She replaced the second tray.  The display case looked much better now that it was tidied up inside and out. She moved over to the linen closet, its door discreetly hidden in the wallpaper at the back of room.  Inside were shelves stacked with bolts of black crape for mourning dresses, black Chantilly lace for mourning shawls, and fine cambric cotton for winding sheets.  Except there was no cambric left.  Had they really used so much lately?  Impossible.

This was the second time she’d noticed their stock depleting at an unusual pace.

“Graham?” she called out.  “Did you remove the cambric from storage?”  Only when there were no customers at Morgan Undertakers would she dare raise her voice above the gentlest of tones.

“For what reason would I have taken it?” he replied from the shop’s reception area.

She had no idea, but it certainly wasn’t in its usual spot.

Violet glanced at the mantle clock over the fireplace.  Nearly ten o’clock in the morning, time to visit the Stanley family.  She gathered up her cavernous undertaker’s bag, filled with embalming fluids, tinted skin creams, cutting tools, syringes, fabric swatches, and her book of compiled drawings of coffins, mourning fashions, flowers, and memorial stones.  Going to the display case, she pulled out a selection of mourning jewelry and added the pieces to her bag.

Violet lifted her undertaker’s bonnet from its stand and tied the sash under chin.  The extra long, flowing tails of black crape were a symbol of her trade.  Graham wore his own hat adorned with black crape when meeting with customers, as well.  She peered into a mirror she kept next to the hat stand, pinched her cheeks to bring some color into them, and tucked an errant stand of hair under the brim of her hat.  In his more jovial days, Graham used to tease her that one day he’d be rich because he’d cut off and sell her long hair, which he deemed the color of newly-minted bronze halfpennies and of even more value in its beauty.

With a quick farewell to her husband, she left the premises and boarded a green, horse-drawn omnibus for Belgravia.  Graham always insisted that they hire private cabs for transport to meetings with grieving families, contending it was more representative of the Morgans’ socially elevated state, but Violet was still uncomfortable with their new entry into higher circles, and usually ignored his demand.  She wasn’t quite sure their income supported the luxuries Graham contended were their due.  The omnibus, London’s horse-drawn public transport, cost a mere threepence to travel to most places through central London, and only sixpence to travel further out.

She exited the omnibus a few blocks from the address she had been given, and walked the rest of the way.

The Stanleys lived in an up and coming neighborhood on the outer edges of Belgravia, an area known for its stately, wealthy, and usually aristocratic residents.    The Stanleys’ townhome wasn’t quite as stately as the residences nearby, being situated in a long row of recently-built units that reflected the construction craze in London right now.

Nevertheless, this district was a few steps up from the London locale where she and Graham had settled after inheriting his father’s undertaking shop.  Graham’s ambition was to eventually move up to Mayfair, maybe even Park Lane, yet Violet was just as happy in St. John’s Wood.

There was no black crape festooned under the windows or above the doors.  Violet made a mental note of it as she pressed the “Visitors” bell.  Some debate existed as to whether or not an undertaker should be using the “Servants” bell, but in Violet’s opinion, anyone assisting the family with a proper departure from their earthly existence was certainly entitled the rank of Visitor.

A maid with swollen eyes and dressed in black opened the door.  Immediately recognizing who Violet must be by her garb and large black bag, the young woman silently led Violet to the front parlor and closed the door before going to seek out her mistress.

The Stanleys were far wealthier than she and Graham were.  A new parlor organ, grand and imposing, and polished within an inch of its ivory-keyed life, stood as a testament to fashion along one wall.  The windows were draped in three separate layers of material, a sign that the Stanleys took current trends very seriously.  The papered walls proudly displayed paintings and bric-a-brac, while the wood floors were covered with bright, intricately designed carpets.  Violet’s own attempts at interior decoration fell far short of the Stanleys’ remarkable expressions of taste.

Here was a family that would demand a funeral of nearly aristocratic proportions.

The same maid opened the door to the room again, and a middle-aged woman, haggard beyond her years and dressed head-to-toe in black, entered.  Violet nodded her head solemnly.

The other woman spoke first.  “Mrs. Morgan?  I’m Adelaide Stanley.  Thank you for coming to attend to my Edward.”  The woman brought an extravagantly laced handkerchief to her eyes.  “I can hardly believe he’s gone.  Such a good husband he was.  I don’t know how we’ll manage.”  Mrs. Stanley twisted the soaked handkerchief in her hands.

“God finds a way to help us manage,” Violet said, pulling a spare cloth from her sleeve and discreetly handing it to the woman, who accepted it with a fresh flow of tears.  “Where is Mr. Stanley?”

“Upstairs in his bedroom.  So calm and peaceful he was when he passed.  Like an angel, despite the torture he endured from pneumonia.  Do you wish to see him now?”

Violet considered.  Mrs. Stanley was truly grieving, but was relatively composed, unlike some of the hysterical relatives Violet had encountered, so it might be best to address practical matters first in case her customer should later collapse.

“Why don’t we discuss Mr. Stanley’s ceremony first?” she suggested.

“Of course, as you wish.”  Mrs. Stanley rang a bell, and gave instructions for tea to another maid who appeared, dressed much like the first one.  Violet and her customer sat in deeply plushed, heavily carved chairs and chatted innocuously until the maid returned. After steaming cups had been poured, the maid withdrew, and Violet pressed into the delicacy of arranging a proper funeral.

“I saw immediately upon approaching your elegant front door that Mr. Stanley was a man of some importance, is that not so?”

“Indeed.  Edward made us quite comfortable through investment in the London and Birmingham line back in the forties.  Once it merged with Grand Junction and the Manchester and Birmingham Railways, well, Edward had proven himself to be a very astute investor.  He had many influential friends.”

“Quite so.  And this parlor tells me you are a woman of impeccable taste.  Your extensive blue-and-white china collection is to be commended.”

Mrs. Stanley was no longer crying.  “You are kind to notice, Mrs. Morgan.  Mr. Stanley and I strove to present the right sort of furnishings befitting our station.  The china is all antique, you know, none of those newly manufactured pieces that have become so popular with the masses.”

Violet shifted uncomfortably in her chair.  Graham had ordered several new blue-and-white vases and jardinières to ornament their home.

“Of course,” she replied, opening her bag which lay at her feet.  “Mr. Stanley wasn’t part of a burial club, was he?” Violet withdrew her undertaker’s book.

“My, no.  We never expected him to go so soon.  We never had any thought of it.”

“Actually, I applaud the fact that you never did this.  Many burial clubs are operated by unscrupulous undertakers who tell grieving widows that they cannot pay out the money until the club’s committee meets in three months’ time.  Naturally, since the burial must be completed quickly, she cannot wait, and the undertaker offers to loan her the money, and charges an exorbitant sum for the funeral.

“My husband and I would never engage in such a practice.  I’m simply relieved that we don’t have to try and wrest your money from such a club.  You and your husband were very wise not to have been deceived by one of these dishonest groups.”

Violet reached over and patted Mrs. Stanley’s hand, and received a grateful smile in return.  She continued.  “There is much you can do to ensure Mr. Stanley’s status is properly recognized at his funeral.  Let me show you.”  Laying the book open in her lap so that Mrs. Stanley could see it, Violet flipped through sections marked “Poor,” “Working Class,” and “Tradesman,” stopping just sort of “Titled” to the section marked “Society.”

“Most people of your position opt for a hearse with four horses, two mourning coaches, each with pairs, nineteen plumes of ostrich feathers as well as velvet coverings for the horses, eleven men as pages, coachmen with truncheons and wands, and an attendant wearing a silk hat-band.”

Mrs. Stanley’s eyes grew wide.  “Oh my.  Is all of that necessary?”

Violet flipped backward in the book to the section marked Tradesman.  “Please be assured, we can assist you at a variety of levels.  We could pare down to hearse with a pair and just one mourning coach, and reduce the mourning company to just eight pages and coachmen.”

“And that is the standard for what those in the trades do?”

“Yes, madam.  For a tradesman such as a railway officer or a solicitor.  The cost of such a funeral is around fourteen pounds sterling.”

Mrs. Stanley frowned.  “And for the other one?  With all of the horses and mourners?”

“A bit more, at twenty-three pounds, ten shillings.”

“I see.  That is certainly well within our abilities.  It wouldn’t do for my husband to have a funeral that wasn’t worthy of him.”

“No, madam.”

“Tell me, what sort of cof—resting place—would my husband have?”

“An exceptional one, made of inch-thick elm, covered in black; a tufted mattress lined and ruffled with linen; a cambric winding sheet for your husband; and the finest brass and lead fittings on the coffin.  Its quality would be nearly that of an aristocrat’s.  See here.”  Violet flipped to a page containing a line drawing representing the coffin she was suggesting.

Mrs. Stanley nodded.  “A beautiful resting place for my Edward.”

“Very elegant, I agree.  Now, Mrs. Stanley, do the Stanleys have a plot or mausoleum?”

“Yes, his family has a crypt in Kensal Green.”

“Perfect.  A lovely garden cemetery.”  It truly was.  It had attracted many prestigious families and even some royalty.  Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex, as well as Princess Sophia, uncle and aunt to Queen Victoria, were both buried there.  The princess rested in a magnificent sarcophagus.

Violet steeled herself for the next question she must ask.  “Mrs. Stanley, tell me, do you wish to have your husband embalmed?”

The look of horror that passed over Mrs. Stanley’s face was a familiar sight.  “Heavens me, no!  What an un-Christian like thing to suggest,” the widow said, a hand across her heart.

“My apologies, I have no wish to offend.  It’s just that Mr. Stanley would be…available…longer if he was embalmed, and you could therefore have more visitors.”

Violet hardly had the words out of her mouth before Mrs. Stanley was emphatically shaking her head.  “Absolutely not.  My husband will be buried naturally, as all respectable people are.”

Embalming was a new concept in England.  The Americans Graham despised so much were already making use of it for their battlefield dead, and the French had written extensively on the merits of the practice, but, thus far, Morgan Undertakers had only performed this practice on a handful of corpses.  Most people were still suspicious of doing something so unnatural to the body that would then be committed to the ground.

Violet, in particular, ran into difficulties with families who found it unseemly that a woman would be desecrating a newly deceased person by making cuts, injecting fluids, and sealing off orifices to prolong the freshness of the corpse.  Putrefaction typically started within twenty-four hours of death, requiring profusions of flowers and candles around the casket during visitation, as well as a quick interment.

Violet jotted notes in a small ledger tucked at the rear of the book.  “Very good, madam.  We have a cooling table that we can place under the casket to keep him comfortably set during visitation.  I’ll arrange for your husband’s placement, and will direct the procession there personally.  And may I make a few suggestions regarding other accoutrements that might aid you during this difficult time?”

For the next hour, the women discussed further purchases, including black crape for draping across the front of the house, photography of Mr. Stanley in repose, memorial cards, and mourning stationery.

Finally, Violet pulled out her tray of mourning jewelry, made mostly from jet, a popular material derived from driftwood that had been subjected to heat, pressure, and chemical action while resting on the ocean floor.  “These pieces are made in one of the finest workshops in Whitby, Yorkshire, Mrs. Stanley.  You’ll find no better than what I have here.”

The new widow picked out a glittering necklace and earrings for herself, both intricately carved, as well as simpler pieces for her two adult daughters who would be arriving from Surrey in time for the funeral.  Violet noted the purchases in her ledger.

Shutting the ledger and putting everything away, Violet addressed their final matter.  “I would like to see Mr. Stanley now.”

Fresh tears welled up in his wife’s eyes.  “Yes, of course, this way, please.”

Clutching her bag, Violet followed Mrs. Stanley up a wide staircase in the center hall of their townhome to the next floor of the four-story home.  From the top of the landing they walked to the rear of the townhome to a shut door.  Mrs. Stanley took a deep breath before opening it and entering, with Violet at her heels.

The room did not yet even have a musty odor to it, indicating that Mr. Stanley must have only died less than twenty-four hours hours ago.

Violet waited near a window while Mrs. Stanley went to her husband, who appeared to be sleeping quite peacefully under a coverlet, kissed his brow, and said, “My dear, the lady undertaker is here.  I called for her because I thought she would be most tender with you.  I hope you aren’t angry with me for not hiring a gentleman undertaker.”

She kissed her husband on the cheek this time and patted his chest, then nodded silently to Violet as she slipped out of the room, still teary-eyed, and let the door gently click shut behind her.

This was the part Violet both revered and dreaded, for her almost indescribably heavy responsibility towards both the deceased and his family.

She approached the body and set her bag down on the large night table next to the bed.  “Good Afternoon, Mr. Stanley, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said, opening the bag once again and pulling out an array of bottles and a wooden box containing her tools.  She put the bag on the floor and arranged her supplies in the order they would be used.

Transferring the box of tools to the bed, she pressed the latch to open it.  In what would have been seen as a bizarre gesture to the outside world, Graham had given her this set of Sheffield-made tools to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary two years ago.  Each time she opened the box now, she was reminded of how glorious their married life had initially been.

Graham and his brother, Fletcher, had been trained by their father to take over the family undertaking business, which had been established by their grandfather in 1816. But Fletcher had a taste for the sea, and eventually set himself up as a trader, taking tea to Jamaica, picking up sugar from that country, selling it in Boston to be made into rum, and returning with barrels of finished rum for sale to the Englishmen who craved it.

When old Mr. Morgan died, therefore, Fletcher was happy to let Graham buy out his share of the business.  Violet met Graham at a church social, and was immediately fascinated by the work he did.

For his part, Graham seemed fascinated by a woman who was not repulsed by an undertaker.

Their relationship developed amid explanations of coffin ornaments, funeral hospitality, and the care of the dead.  Within a year, twenty year old Violet Sinclair and twenty three year old Graham Morgan were married, and took up residence with his mother, who remained in her own home even after her son and daughter-in-law eventually moved to their more upscale lodgings.  Together Graham and Violet rode in each day to their working premises just south of Highgate cemetery, joyful in their death profession as only two young people in love could possibly be.

Violet sighed as she took out several jars of Kalon Cream.  If only her life had remained so happy.

“Now, Mr. Stanley, this might look a bit frightening, but let me assure you that it won’t hurt a bit.  I promise to be gentle, and to fix everything so that your wife will hardly notice that I have had to muddle about with you.”  Graham had taught her that talking to the deceased helped wash away the dread of working with a dead body. Many customers also talked to the deceased, and those who did, like Mrs. Stanley, seemed to adjust better to their loss.

She examined the contents of each jar, finally deciding that “light flesh” was the right shade.  She scooped out some of the cosmetic, a dense covering cream that she rubbed into Mr. Stanley’s face and hands.  A corpse naturally paled as blood pooled downwards, so cosmetic massage creams helped bring a more lifelike appearance back to the body.

After wiping her hands on a cloth, she used a paintbrush to apply a pale rouge to the man’s cheeks and lips, thus further enhancing a living appearance.  Once she was satisfied with his visage, she unrolled a length of narrow tan cloth and snipped off about a foot of it.  She threaded a special needle, then sewed one end of the cloth to the skin behind one ear.  Next, she pulled the cloth tightly under his chin, then sewed the other end behind his other ear.

The cloth would prevent Mr. Stanley’s mouth from dropping open accidentally during his visitation and frightening dear Aunt Mollie as she was bent over whispering last words to him.

“All finished, Mr. Stanley.  I trust it wasn’t too uncomfortable for you.  We’ll need to get you arranged in the parlor for visitation, then you’ll have a journey of great fanfare to the cemetery.  But first we must get you properly attired.”

She’d forgotten to ask Mrs. Stanley to provide her with burial clothes.  Well, there was no help for it, she couldn’t possibly ask the woman back in here now, with her husband in such condition.  Violet went to the enormous mahogany armoire that loomed in one corner of the room and searched until she found what she assumed were Mr. Stanley’s finest set of clothes.  She selected a shirt with the highest collar possible to cover the jaw cloth.

Because the deceased had been dead for about a day, rigor mortis was dissipating, much to her relief.   Else she’d need to return the following day to finish her preparations, creating undue anxiety for his widow.

Once he was re-dressed and his hands positioned decorously on his chest, Violet packed up her bag and straightened out the bedclothes, ensuring no evidence of her work was left behind.  That was something else Graham had taught her.  An undertaker must be like a housemaid:  all work performed invisibly and with as little inconvenience to the family as possible.

She returned to the parlor, where Mrs. Stanley was pacing back and forth, worrying the handkerchief Violet had given her between her fingers.  “How is my Edward?”

“Resting quite comfortably, Mrs. Stanley.  I think he would be quite pleased with how you’ve provided for him.”

Violet assured Mrs. Stanley that she would accompany the coffin, along with a bier, for setup in the parlor the following day.   “May I recommend that you perhaps go visiting tomorrow and allow me to escort Mr. Stanley to the parlor privately with our assistant?”

“Yes, yes, of course.  Whatever you say. You’ll be careful with my husband, won’t you?”

“Madam, I will treat him as if he were my own husband.”

Perhaps she should quit using that turn of phrase, since lately Graham’s behavior would have made her more than happy to see him trade places with Mr. Stanley.

Violet dropped her card-de-visite, which offered her compliments on one side, and the Morgan Undertakers address on the other, on the silver salver in the hallway on her way out, pleased with how this customer visit had transpired, and anxious over what mood Graham might be in when she returned.

 

Unedited contracted excerpt, Copyright 2011 Christine Trent.

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Discussion Questions
Click here for print copy

1.    The Victorian era was a period of rapidly changing technology and social hierarchies.  What evidence do you find of this in the book?
 
 2.    Although every profession has its bad apples, undertaking was a particularly reviled industry in the Victoria era.  Why do you think this was so?
 

 3.    How did Victorian undertaking practices in England differ from what is done now?  Are there Victorian practices that you would like to see performed once again?
 
 4.    In Victorian England, it was considered important to journal the final days of a loved one as a memorial and keepsake for posterity.  Why do you think this was considered important?  Why do you think this has fallen out of favor today?
 
 5.    Graham was determined to become a part of society, one of the new “self-made” men who came to enjoy substantial prosperity in Victorian England.  Was this a realistic goal to achieve?  What were some of the ways Graham sought to rise in society that we still embrace today? 
 
 6.    How would you describe Violet’s and Graham’s marriage?  Would you say it was more or less typical than most marriages of the time?  What were some of the challenges Violet faced as she struggled to keep her marriage together? 

 
 7.    Conversely, consider the marriage between Albert and Victoria.  What do you admire about it?  What weaknesses lay between them?
 

 8.    The workhouse was one of the ways in which the Victorians attempted to address the needs of England’s poor.  Compare and contrast the workhouse to some of today’s social programs.  In what ways was the workhouse better or worse?
 
 9.    What was your reaction when you read that Violet brought Susanna home to live without first consulting Graham? 
 
 10.   What surprised you the most about British attitudes and involvement toward the U.S. Civil War?
 
 11.  Was the British government right to be outraged by the taking of two Confederate diplomats, Mason and Slidell, from RMS Trent?  Was their insistence on neutrality in all waters at all times realistic and/or enforceable?
 
 12.  After Albert’s death, Victoria remained in mourning for the rest of her life, even choosing to be buried in her wedding veil.  Yet she later developed a special attachment for a servant by the name of John Brown, with whom many people claim she had an affair.  Do you think Victoria had an affair or was this purely a platonic relationship?