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Poem: "A Duty to the Name" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "A Duty to the Name"

This poem is spillover from the April 1, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from kelkyag.  It also fills the "anniversary" square on my 3-30-14 card for the Cottoncandy Bingo fest.  This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette.  It belongs to The Steamsmith series.

A Duty to the Name

Maryam and her father John
spent a lovely Christmas together,
followed immediately by her birthday.

On the twenty-seventh of December,
John turned to Maryam and said,
"Congratulations on passing your
first anniversary as Baron Carrington."

"Thank you," Maryam replied,
lifting her glass of wine
in acknowledgement.

To be sure, the matter was
still tied up in the courts,
because Maryam was in no way
an ordinary heir; but even so,
the Lord's wishes prevailed
unless a ruling should gainsay him.

"I've given you a year to settle in
and get used to your new duties,"
John said, "and now there is
another matter which requires
our consideration."

Maryam stilled in her seat,
wondering what new obligation
she would have to deal with next.

"We have a duty to the name,"
her father said solemnly.

The words shivered over her
like a draft of cold air,
because nothing about it
was simple for her.

Maryam was female, half-black, and
born on the wrong side of the sheets.
If it had been only that -- only! --
there would have been trouble enough
in making any kind of decent marriage.

Yet Maryam was also
as much son as daughter,
given to wearing men's clothing
and taking a man's role in society.
This complicated matters all the more.

"I suppose I do,"
she said with a sigh.

"I said we,  not you,"
John corrected in a crisp tone.
"You will note that I have made
variance already in the selection of my heir.
I should like to consider now
whether we are likely to need another,
while we have ample time for planning.
This is not a thing best left for the last minute."

On that point, at least,
they were in complete agreement.
"Understood, sir," Maryam said quietly.

"It would not be proper of us
to leave the secession unattended,"
John said.  "An heir is therefore required.
Perhaps the first question to consider
is whether you wish to raise children,
cast about the family lines for a relative,
or attempt to adopt an outsider."

Those options were listed
in descending order of feasibility.

"I like children well enough," Maryam said.
"The challenge lies in begetting them."

John gave a mournful sigh.
"The Smiths have been
unlucky in childbed," he said.
"No one in this family would blame you
for not wishing to risk it.
Losing you would break my heart."

Again,  Maryam thought,
who had been born out of his grief
for a wife lost in just that way,
and his comfort in a serving maid.

"It is not only that," she said.
"A child needs two parents,
and I've no wish to put
the cart before the horse."

"Will you think of courting, then?"
John asked with a hopeful smile.

"I'm all the rage at the parties,"
Maryam said, "though to be sure
more with the ladies than the gentlemen.
It may be that I'll meet someone
willing to overlook the challenges
of associating with me."

John narrowed his eyes.
"I should hope you find someone
capable of appreciating your charms,"
he said tartly.  "You deserve happiness,
at least a congenial household partner
if not the sort of love that poets praise."

"I would enjoy that," Maryam said,
for she did not fancy living alone
with nothing but servants for company,
as much as she liked what she had.
"You said there was no rush.
Let us say that we are open
to possibilities, and see what
chances present themselves."

"Agreed," John said.  "I will help
if can, and if you would welcome it."

"Of course," Maryam said.
"I know you would not see me
married to any kind of fool."

"I want for you to be happy,
and for the holdings to be secure,"
John said firmly.  "I am not so fussy
about the manner of making that happen.
I've seen too many of my peers
make dreadful mistakes in pressuring
their children into unhappy unions
for the sake of getting an heir.
I'll not drop us into the same trap."

Maryam breathed a sigh of relief,
grateful again that her father
loved her more than land or titles.
After all, it was love -- not a name --
that truly made a family.

She raised her glass again.
"To the new year," she said,
"and to a new hope."

Her father's glass chimed brightly
against her own, and he said,
"I'll drink to that."

* * *


Victorian marriage was less about romance and more about business, particularly securing an heir.  Nevertheless, one ideal they did have was for a friendly household partnership, because domestic hostility could wreak havoc both on a professional and social level.

A succession crisis can result if there is not a clear legal heir when it comes time to pass along a title.  The heir is typically determined by the order of succession, especially primogeniture.  Exact details of succession within a family are customarily decided upon its creation as nobility.  However, inheritance and nobility laws are intricate, and the title holder may have leeway in declaring an heir -- especially if there is not a legitimate son available.

For the above reasons, nobles often resort to arranged marriage, a process fraught with tension.  This is especially true for people who have waited a while already, and need to produce an heir before the situation gets really dicey.

Maintaining a healthy relationship between parents and adult children requires a balance of love and respect.  There are tips for parents and adult children.  John Smith loves his daughter and values his family holdings, and he's not an idiot.  Therefore he broaches the topic delicately and seeks a solution that will meet everyone's needs.  After all the tales told about family disasters in this area, I thought it would be interesting to explore a saner alternative.

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8 comments or Leave a comment
From: technoshaman Date: April 8th, 2014 01:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, this should be interesting. I imagine Maryam is strongly sapiosexual; finding a Victorian *man* willing to court, or *be courted*, by a woman his intellectual roughly-equal will be.... *smiles* worthy of poetry.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 8th, 2014 05:56 pm (UTC) (Link)


>> Oh, this should be interesting. I imagine Maryam is strongly sapiosexual; <<

I would say that she finds intelligence attractive, but other things equally attractive. Metasexual, really, without a predetermined type.

>> finding a Victorian *man* willing to court, or *be courted*, by a woman his intellectual roughly-equal will be.... *smiles* worthy of poetry. <<

Yes, Maryam's love life has a great deal of potential.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: April 8th, 2014 05:12 pm (UTC) (Link)


Each time we met Maryam's father I like him more.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 8th, 2014 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: :-)

Yay! I enjoy writing about a real gentleman.
thnidu From: thnidu Date: April 9th, 2014 08:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yay!
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2014 08:02 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed this.
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: April 9th, 2014 08:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Victorian expectations rule out an awful lot of options. Well. What next?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2014 08:37 am (UTC) (Link)


Expectations create boundaries. It's power that opens doors. There are many kinds. Maryam has a lot working for and against her, which creates the plot tension. We've already listed the cons. The pros include money, her father's nobility, her own intelligence and steamsmithing, and let's not forget the rising regard of Her Majesty.
8 comments or Leave a comment