An Inconvenient Wife


By Megan Chance

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An Inconvenient Wife is a rich blend of suspense, social history (America in the 1880s), and passion. Chance delivers a powerfully written page-turner about a woman’s struggle to escape the confines of her time, class, and gender. Literary historical fiction is an extremely popular genre, as demonstrated by such bestsellers as Matthew Pearl’s AThe Dante Club and Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Megan Chance is the author of Susannah Morrow, which captured the extraordinary drama of the Salem witch trials; as well as the historical romance novels A Season in Eden, The Gentleman Caller, The Way Home, and Fall from Grace.


Copyright © 2004 by Megan Chance

All rights reserved.

Warner Books

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

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ISBN: 978-0-446-56015-3

First eBook Edition: April 2009

Also by Megan Chance:


For Maggie and Cleo


As always, I must thank Kristin Hannah for her invaluable insight, Jamie Raab and Frances Jalet-Miller for their care and dedication in pointing the way, Marcy Posner for her unwavering support, Elizabeth DeMatteo, Melinda McRae, Jena McPherson, Liz Osborne, and Sharon Thomas for fifteen years of Thursday nights, and of course, my husband, Kany, for his belief, love, and insight.

"Love" is an elastic concept that stretches from heaven to hell and combines in itself good and evil, high and low.

Two Essays on Analytical Psychology
"The Anxious Young Woman and the Retired Businessman"

Survival of the fittest does not always mean survival of the best . . . it means only the survival of that which is best suited to the circumstances, good or bad, in which it is placed—the survival of a savage in a savage social medium, of a rogue among rogues, of a parasite where a parasite alone can live.

Body and Will


New York City

Autumn 1884

An asylum!" William said. "Is there nothing else we can try? Nothing at all?"

My husband balanced on the edge of his chair. The electric light shone on his high forehead, glinting in the gray threading through his dark hair. He was only thirty-five. The aging was due to his profession, he said. Brokering was a hard business. But I knew it was not that at all. I knew it was because of me.

"You don't want surgery." Dr. Little adjusted his round spectacles. The myriad certificates that dotted the brown toile wallpaper framed him nicely, as if deliberately placed to give weight to his earnestness.

"But if you think it's best . . ." I said.

Dr. Little turned his mild, thoughtful gaze to me. "An ovariotomy is not always successful. Your husband feels the risk is too great."

"You could die, Lucy," William said.

"But there's the chance it would work."

Dr. Little nodded. "Yes, of course. We've made great gains with surgery of this type, but I would not be so anxious to try it—not when there is another option. Beechwood Grove is an excellent institution, Mrs. Carelton. We've had good results with hysterics and neurasthenics. A few months of enforced rest may be effective."

"A few months," William said in a low voice. "You've said six months, at least. It would encompass the entire season. What would we tell people?"

Dr. Little shrugged. "Perhaps you could suggest that Mrs. Carelton has taken an extended tour abroad."

"Lucy has always hated Europe," my husband said.

"Something else, then," Dr. Little said impatiently.

William exhaled. "I don't know. An asylum . . ."

"A private asylum," Dr. Little corrected. "You must believe me when I say this is nothing like the horror houses you've heard about, Mr. Carelton. At Beechwood Grove, all of our patients are from excellent families. We make it as homelike as possible. Mrs. Carelton would even be permitted to have many of her own things."

I looked down, unable to meet the doctor's gaze. "Perhaps it's best, William. . . ."

"No." He said it so violently that I looked up in surprise. "No. I refuse to believe this is the only way. An asylum, for God's sake. That's a place for the insane."

"Mr. Carelton, you came to me for advice; you said you had lost hope. I'm saying there is hope to be found, but it requires a great sacrifice on your part—"

"What you're saying is that Lucy belongs with madmen and criminals," William said coldly.

"There are no criminals in Beechwood Grove."

"Only madmen."

"Madwomen. We do not accept men there."

"Madwomen, then. You would put my wife with them?"

Dr. Little looked at William, and I read the meaning in his glance. Your wife is a madwoman. It's time to acknowledge it. It's time to send her away. . . .

I could not bear to look. I felt the start of tears, and I dug my nails into my palm.

William got to his feet and pulled me to mine. "I appreciate your time and your advice, Doctor, but the season is just starting—"

"You may regret this," Dr. Little said. "Mrs. Carelton has been unable to meet the demands of society before."

"This year will be different. We still hope that there will be a child."

Dr. Little pressed his hands together. "A child. Mr. Carelton, I'm quite sure Mrs. Carelton could not care for a child. Not in her present state."

"Perhaps a child is just what she needs," William said hopefully.

"A good long rest is what she needs. An asylum, with round-the-clock care, is what she needs. I'm sorry, Mr. Carelton, but I see no other option for your wife."

William hesitated, and then he nodded. "Again, we thank you, Doctor. Now we must wish you good day." His fingers squeezed my arm; together we turned and left the doctor's office. When we were outside, into the growing chill that sharpened the air, standing amid the noise of carriages rattling down the street, the constant movement of the city, he turned to me. "Well." He sighed. "I'm sorry to have put you through that, darling."

I was cold; I could not feel my fingers at all. "He could be right, William."

"You would prefer to be locked away?"

"No, of course not, but—"

"There must be something else. Another way. Something we've overlooked."

"Dr. Little says there's nothing."

William ignored me. "Perhaps we should not have returned to the city so quickly. Perhaps . . . a short trip to the country? What do you think, Lucy? Do you think they would miss us?"

I did not say what I thought—that our friends would be relieved. "No," I said, and though I tried to smile, I could not manage it. "A trip to the country would be fine."


New York City

Early January, 1885

Chapter 1

The supper had gone splendidly. The gaslight glittered on the gold-rimmed plates and the gold of the palm-adorned epergne that held oranges and tiny kumquats and blushing yellow tea roses and greenery spilling over in artful disarray. The conversation was sparkling; everyone kept saying so. I wondered if perhaps their words were only talismans against the dark—how could an evening be boring when all kept remarking that it was not? Or was it merely that I was the only one who noticed the way the gaslight wavered restlessly across the china, as if it could not wait to be gone, as if other voices beckoned it?

"It seems your visit to the country has done you both good," Millicent Wallace said. She and William traded a quick look, and I felt myself grow hot as she reached idly for a pear from the tray.

I spoke quickly. "Yes."

"The country is so restful," William said.

Thomas Sykes nodded. "For a time. I must admit that after a few days, I find rest anything but restful."

William smiled. "The market waits for no man."

"It was good of William to take time away," I said quietly. "Especially for such a long while."

"Thomas would have sent me on alone," Elizabeth Sykes said with a laugh.

Thomas said, "I'm surprised you could make such a sacrifice of time yourself, William, with things still so unstable after last year."

"William would not hear of me going alone," I said.

"How good is your concern, William," Millie said. "How lucky you are, Lucy."

William shoved back his chair suddenly. It was unlike him, graceless and loud. When I glanced up in surprise, I saw his pointed gaze, and I realized my hand had gone to my temple. With effort, I forced it to my lap.

There was an uncomfortable silence, a sense of waiting, and I struggled to find words to fill it.

William said gently, pointedly, "Ladies, I'm sure you'd prefer the parlor to our cigars."

They had been waiting for me to signal the end of supper. I was horrified at my lapse, and humiliated. I had forgotten, yet it was such a simple thing, something I'd done so many times before.

I stumbled to my feet, jarring the table, sending a kumquat rolling from the centerpiece. "Yes, of course. Shall we have tea?"

Millicent and Elizabeth followed me to the parlor, with its pale blue walls and heavy gold drapes, to the little gilded table and the elaborate crystal decanters upon it—wedding gifts from a faraway cousin. I pretended there was nothing wrong, nothing odd about pouring sherry into a glass—only a very small glass, only a small amount of sherry—but I was nervous, and I poured too much. It spilled onto the Aubusson carpet, and I blotted the stain into a woven rose with the toe of my shoe, pretending not to see it.

I turned and smiled and held up my glass. "Tea? Or something stronger?"

Millicent stood by the hearth, her skirts brushing the stiff brass feathers of the peacock fire screen, her expression impassive. "Tea, I think."

Elizabeth shook her blond head. Her plain pearl eardrops shivered against her jaw. "No thank you. I doubt I could manage another sip." Then, as I went to ring the bell for Moira, Elizabeth said, "William is doing so well. Thomas speaks of him often."

"William will be glad to hear that," I said.

They both looked at me as if I'd said something strange, and I took a sip of the sherry and wished the warmth of it would speed through my veins, though I could hardly taste it.

"Are you not well, Lucy?" Millie asked, narrowing her dark eyes as if studying some particularly intricate tapestry stitch. "You seem pale."

"I'm just a little . . . tired." The sherry was not helping, and the room seemed at once too small and overwhelming—so many things: the faint scents of gas and flowers and the lamb we'd had for supper, mirrors and gilt and those heavy, massive curtains closing out the light and the air. . . .

You must not. William will be so angry, I reminded myself.

I got up from the settee, meaning to go to the curtains and pull them aside, but I caught my toe on the delicate table, rocking the Chinese urn and the pretty jeweled birdcage and the coils of the gas line that fed the Tiffany lamp.

Millicent rushed to my side as if I'd slipped hard on ice, and she took my arm. Her hands were warm through the figured velvet of my sleeve, and I realized how cold I was—but then I was often too cold or too warm now. William said I was like a hothouse flower.

"It was nothing," I said, pushing her away again. "These new shoes . . ."

She glanced down at them but said nothing, only gave me a look that shamed me. I forgot about the window and went to the bell.

"Where is the tea?" I asked. I twisted the bell more viciously than I meant. "Where is Moira? She should have been here by now—" I twisted the bell again.

"Lucy, I think I won't have any tea after all," Millicent said.

"Where is she?" I twisted the knob once more. When Moira didn't appear, I went to the doorway and leaned into the hall. "Moira!" My voice disappeared into the heaviness of the dark flocked wallpaper, and the deep tapestried curtains that hid the servants' stairs at the end of the hall, and the patterned carpets unworn by the footsteps of children, because only one child had ever played in this house, only me. "Moira!" I raised my voice, and this time it seemed shrill. "Moira! Where are you? Can't you hear the bell! Moira!" I was angry, and I felt that anger slipping beyond me, and though a part of me urged caution and tried to stop, another part just kept screaming, "Moira! Moira!" even though Millicent and Elizabeth were calling to me from the parlor. I heard the men come from the dining room, and William—"Darling, what's the noise?"—in that calm and soothing voice I hated, as if he were approaching a dangerous animal.


The maid rushed through the curtains, her face pale, her light eyes wide with fear. "Yes ma'am," she said, curtsying quickly before me. "I'm sorry, ma'am—"

"Where have you been?" I asked her. "How often must I ring a bell before you come? I won't tolerate this, I tell you. I cannot tolerate this—"

"Lucy, darling." William had my arm. He pulled me against him, whispering sternly in my ear, "Contain yourself," and then in the next moment, louder, "My dear, my dear. It's all right. Moira had gone to get a package from Charles's carriage."

I pulled loose from my husband. "I don't care where she was. She should have come. I rang three times. They are prostrate with thirst—how long must we wait for tea?" Such a shrill voice, but I couldn't call it back. I couldn't make it stop.

"Perhaps you should rest, darling," William said. He tried to pull me to one of the fringed horsehair chairs in the hall.

"I don't want to rest. I want obedience from my servants. Is that too much to ask?"

"No, no, of course not," William said. He glanced at our guests, who were standing at the edges of the hall, haunting the doorways, looking disturbed and embarrassed. "She's overwrought," he said. "The journey home . . ."

Millie reached past William to touch my arm. "Lucy, why don't we go upstairs? I haven't yet seen your new gown."

"My gown?" Her words confused me, coming as they did through my anger.

"Yes. The green one." She moved behind me, and I felt her gentle push, and then I was going with her down the hall, past Moira and my husband to the stairs, and my indignation fled as abruptly as it had come. I felt weak; I did not think my legs could hold me. My temples were throbbing. The gaslight left heavy shadows on the stairs, so I could barely see what had been until that moment a familiar passage.

Millicent took my hand as if I were a child. She led me to the bedroom, with its familiar scents of lavender and rose sachets, and paused. I heard the strike of a match, then the gaslight went bright, bursting painfully before my eyes. I threw my hand up as a shield.

"Hush," Millicent said, and the hiss of gas weakened as she turned it down. "There now. You'll feel better soon."

She was right; already I felt better. There, in the sanctity of my bedroom, I was calm again, my nervousness gone—not for long, I knew. It was never gone for long.

The pain behind my eyes abated. I sagged onto the chair flanking the fireplace. My bustle jammed hard against my spine, but I was too tired even to relieve that irritation. I passed my hand over my eyes. "I cannot think," I whispered.

"Then don't think," Millie said. Her presence was soft and comforting. "William said you were doing so well."

"I was. I was."

"What did the doctor say?"

"Which one?"

"Did you see one in the country? No, I suppose you didn't. What about the last one you said William was taking you to?" Millicent hesitated delicately. "The one here in the city?"

I closed my eyes. I thought of Dr. Little's thinning hair, his probing fingers, his hopelessness. I thought of the one before him, who'd prescribed laudanum, and then still another, who'd thought chloral would be best, and the first: There is a mass, he'd told William. An ovariotomy is the best course.

Millicent rushed on, obviously embarrassed. "I don't mean to probe, Lucy, you know I don't. But I . . . have you considered going back to Elmira? The water cure seemed to do you good."

"No," I said. "It made no difference."

"William would send you again if you wanted it. He would do anything for you."

As if William's generosity was a benefit. I had begun to think of my husband's solicitude as the cold wrap at the water cure: tightly wrapped in cold sheets, water constantly running over my skin, wet and cold and warmth, constant touch, air and motion, always there, always hovering, never still. I wanted stillness. I wanted time to stop, motion to end. I wanted to sit for hours in this room, to watch the ceaseless waver of light trying to escape from the lily-shaped globe near my bed. I understand, I wanted to say to it. I know you want to run. What I don't know is why you must go, or where you will escape.

Millicent went to the rose brocade drapes and pulled them aside. "It's starting to snow again," she said, and then, as if that thought led logically to the next, "There are weeks left in the season, Lucy. How will you bear it?"

I could not help myself; I laughed. "It's not I who must bear it, Millie, but you and William and everyone else. You tell me, can you bear to be around me? Or will you withdraw too, as the others have?"

"They are all there for you, Lucy. All you have to do is call them back."

I laughed again. "Oh yes. No doubt that's true. Especially after that little scene with Caroline Astor last spring."

Millicent looked uncomfortable. She let the curtain fall. "William explained that you were not yourself."

"Not myself." Even the dim light was too bright, and the hiss of the gas made a ceaseless buzz in my head, the smell of roses nauseating. I wished for darkness and peace. "I am perpetually not myself."

"Perhaps . . ." Millicent paused. "Perhaps . . . another doctor could help. If there were a child—"

"Yes, yes, yes. If only there were. Millie, there's a bottle on my dressing table. A brown one. Will you bring it to me?"

I heard the swish of her skirts as she moved over the carpet, then the clink of glass as she lifted the bottle from the perfumes and powders and lotions there. I heard the little pop of the cork, her sniff.

"It calms my nerves," I explained. To my tired, aching eyes, Millicent was a blur of burgundy and gold fringe, ghostly skin and hair that disappeared in the shadows around her. She did not look quite real. "Please, Millie, bring it to me."

"There must be a spoon—"

I waved the words away and took the bottle. "I know how much," I said, and I brought it to my mouth, taking a whiff of the medicinal, faintly spicy scent before I sipped it. It rolled over my tongue, cinnamony-sweet, leaving bitterness behind as it went down my throat. I corked the bottle and handed it back to her, and then I rose and went to my bed. "I must leave you now, Millie," I told her. "I will be quite blurry soon."

She looked worried but said nothing, just sighed and set the laudanum back on my dressing table. By the time she reached the door, I was already languishing in anticipation of my shattered nerves dulling, my restlessness puddling into drowsiness.

"I'll tell William you're better," she said, and I could not keep from chuckling.

"Yes, tell him I'm better," I said. "Tell him to come kiss his princess good night."

I did not hear her answer.

When I came to myself again, I was not sure how long it had been, only that the lights were put out and I was undressed and in bed, though I had no memory of how this had come about, and no real concern—it was not unusual. The sound of my door opening had awakened me. William came inside. He carried a candle for a soft light, and it haloed and shadowed his face so that he looked like a demon. He was still dressed, and the smell of cigar smoke came with him, filling the room. I turned away.

"I'm tired," I said.

I heard him set the candleholder down, and then I felt the mattress giving way beneath his weight, his warmth as he sat beside me. "How much laudanum did you take?"

I spoke into my pillow. "Enough."

He was quiet for a moment. Then, "What did I tell you about making a scene tonight? Thomas Sykes could be very important to me—to us. It took me an hour to reassure him."

"I find it hard to believe he's never seen a woman scolding her servants before."

He took that overly patient tone again. "I doubt he's ever seen it done quite that way."

"Tell him who my father is. That's placated them well enough before."

"He knows who your father is."

Of course Thomas Sykes knew. That he was a newcomer to New York City meant he was probably more aware of it than the people who had watched me grow up in the shadow of my father's wealth and position. But they too were all old families with Dutch names, as secure in their place as I was in mine. Thomas Sykes and people like him needed us: our influence, our money, our social position. It was, I suspected, at least half the reason William had married me.

"I'm tired," I said again. "Please leave me, William."

But he did not go. Then I felt his hand, large and warm, on my back, through my nightgown, his fingers curving against my spine, a soft caress that nonetheless had me stiffening.

"No," I whispered.

He didn't stop. ''Perhaps we should try again. To have some hope . . . I should think it would soothe you." He leaned toward me, whispering, so I felt his warm, moist breath against my hair. "Think of it, Lucy. A child of your own."

I felt his hand as a steady pressure, moving me, pulling me toward him, a familiar and irresistible force. I closed my eyes and listened to him unfasten his trousers, the soft snap of buttons, the sssshhhh of fabric as it fell to the floor, and then he was crawling into bed beside me, pushing up my nightgown, his hands rough and steady, unassailable.

I let him have his way. I had fought him only once, on our wedding night, when he came to me and I had not known what for. I had been afraid, and naive, and when it was over I lay there in terror, humiliated beyond bearing. But now I knew what to expect. Now I knew my duty. Now there was the hope of a child to sustain me. So I lay still, revolted and tense, passive as he forced apart my legs and entered me. I felt the rush of his breath against my throat, the grip of his fingers on my hips, and I turned my head to look at the wavering candle and waited impatiently for him to spend himself.

It did not take long. He collapsed on me, and I pushed him off and pulled my nightgown down again to cover myself.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, as he always did. He leaned over and blew out the candle, then hurried from the bed to hastily dress. "I'm sorry, Lucy, to inflict such brutishness on you. You know I am. If it wasn't necessary . . ."

I made no reply.

"You're an angel," he whispered. "My sweet angel." He kissed me chastely on my forehead and was gone.

I grabbed the laudanum bottle in my shaking hands and took another sip, lying alone in the darkness until the blessed drowsiness overtook me.

Chapter 2

To say I remember when I first saw William would be not quite true. It is more true to say I remember the constant presence of him. One day he was not there, and the next he was, and always thereafter. I can't remember when I first thought him compelling, when it was that his laugh first arrested me, when I first took note of how beautiful his voice was as he accompanied me at the piano. That winter is like a blur around me, with him never far away, adjusting my wrap as it fell from my shoulders at the opera, murmuring in my ear, standing at the hearth with his elbow knocking the ruddy pears and yew set to decorate the mantel at Christmastime.


  • [A] wholly absorbing historical novel... Chance's straightforward prose and over-the-top plotting effectively combine in this diabolically clever, thoroughly entertaining take on women's liberation."

On Sale
May 30, 2009
Page Count
432 pages

Megan Chance

About the Author

Megan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. calls her “a writer of extraordinary talent.” Her books have been chosen by Amazon’s Book of the Month, Borders Original Voices and IndieBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Visit her at

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