Roisin Campbell is the third daughter in an Irish farming family in the 1880s. She is the lucky one in the family sent to America to make her life. She is very pretty. Her cousin gets her a place at a boarding house near the docks and then a live-in position as a maid in an well-off Irish house. The Geherties made their money in finance and investments during the Civil War. The master is fond of speculating. But the lady of the house fears she will be too tempting for her husband and dismisses her. She gives RC a recommendation, but also a list of houses not to apply to. They are all of the Irish houses in New York City.
Before RC can find another place, she returns to the boarding house. On a warm summer night she drapes her arm around the woman, another Irishwoman, who shares her bed. The other moves RC’s down and RC rubs her finger so the other woman comes quietly. And she returns the favor. They do this each night they are together.
RC manages to get a new job as a maid in an English house, more upscale than the Irish one. She is doing well, but Mary, the eldest daughter from house 1, sees her and accused her of trying to seduce her brothers and her father. She is dismissed, now blackballed from maid service in any fancy home.
Trying to find a job in a store or office, she is on the street in her poor Irish neighborhood—which is not as poor as the Italian and Jewish parts—when a carriage crashes. She helps the victims, an upscale man and women—married but not to one another—to a clinic where she helps care for them. Blood everywhere. The woman recognizes her as a “whore” but the doctor says “you can lose your arm or let the ‘filthy whore’ help you.”
The woman recovers and the doctor hires her and she moves to become a nurse. She proves competent. She grew up on a farm, and is used to blood and gore and the like. (The smells and gore of the period will be included.) She settles in, living in a room above the clinic. The clinic is dependent on charity from the Irish community, including via the NYC political system. About six months later, there is another carriage crash and two victims, again a man and a woman, are brought in. The man was riding recklessly and crashed and the woman is his fiancé. Unbeknownst to RC, the woman is Elizabeth Geherty, the second sister of the first, Irish house. Her sister called RC a whore, but Eliz was away and RC never saw her.
Eliz realizes her fiancé is an ass, but needs must. It is an arranged marriage with another banker. Her sister, Mary, who we met at the Reynolds’s ball when she outed RC, is unhappily married to another member of the Irish merchant/banking set.
Eliz’s fiancé is very badly injured. “Mangled” is the word. While the doctor is with him, RC and Eliz sit together. Eliz was born in New York and wants to hear about the “old country.” RC disillusions her about the romance of the poor Irish countryside. Forcing all but the first born male, who’ll inherit the farm, and the first born female, who’ll marry a first born male who’ll inherit his farm. RC’s other siblings are in England. She was sent to America.
The fiancé’s parents come to collect him, with Eliz, and take him to a “proper hospital.” One with “real doctors.” The father writes a large check and flings it at the doctor as he leaves with his son, begrudgingly saying “thank you.” Eliz lingers before saying goodbye to RC. Oh, and the doctor.
Eliz’s fiancé is sent to Europe for proper convalescence, but Eliz refuses to go. She tells her parents that she’d like to help the Irish poor, and her parents, the Geherties, write a check for the clinic. Eliz truly wants to help, a bit of the Florence Nightingale syndrome. She is driven by a carriage to the Lower East Side—I’ll need to get my neighborhoods straight—and is picked up at the end of each day.
After some months—and much interaction between Eliz and the doctor but especially with RC (nothing societally inappropriate)—her parents insist on going with her to see the wonderful doctor. Eliz’s fiancé is, at least for the time, forgotten. Note that the book begins with Mrs. Geherity saying to RC, “your beauty will be your curse,” said while RC was being dismissed.
When the three Geherties arrive, RC, of course, is running errands. When see returns the doctor introduces her and she, of course, is recognized. Mrs. Geherty, though, is not the heartless bitch she may have appeared to be when she dismissed RC. She truly feared her husband would lust after the young woman. She knew her sons and their friends were, but she was a good enough judge of character to know RC would not do anything inappropriate, by either trying to becomes the mistress for a well-to-do son or getting pregnant (in which case the son would have nothing to do with her though she could become a complication, showing up at the door with the baby and all).
Moreover, Eliz is not like her siblings. Her brothers are spoiled and her sister in the loveless sink of a marriage, her husband caring for nothing but her production of an heir and, perhaps, a spare. She’s had several miscarriages already, and her husband is getting frustrated, looking for a younger, more fertile wife. At least on the side. Though he probably already has one or two mistresses on the side.
As do Eliz’s brothers, both wishing that RC was one of them. They are fools. Neither Eliz nor RC are. Nor, for that matter, is Mrs. Geherty. Who realizes Eliz’s fiancé is one. Before a decision can be taken about what would happen when he returns to the States, Mr. Geherty finds he speculated once too often. In some Bolivian railroad venture. All Is Lost! While a number of other Irish, and English, families are wiped out, enough are not so that there is tea, sympathy, and ostracism. Not to mention the burden of a big, elegant house.
The family can skulk away to a house in the Berkshires. (It’s a county in western Massachusetts by the New York border. I’ve set a number of stories there, including a proposal and a wedding plus an encounter that gave a woman the confidence to fall in love, but that’s for another time. Suffice it to say that other than the fact that Edith Wharton’s house The Mount is there, it was a popular summer getaway place for wealthy New Yorkers.)
Eliz, of course, this being a romance, decides to stay in New York to continue to work at the clinic. She stays with a friend. For a while. (Wink! Wink!) Alas, she frequently must work late and it is dangerous for a girl to be out alone at night so, as I say, needs must, she starts spending the night with RC.
As to her sister and her brothers, they’ll all likely suffer some horrible fates. Forced to move to Canada, say. Though probably not that bad. New Jersey? I must look at the issue of one or both becoming doctors in some way. Learning Italian to speak to patients. In any case they become lovers, although fade-to-black. There will be other family issues and haughty society-type issues. Perhaps touch on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. (146 people, mostly newly-arrived Italian and Jewish immigrant women, were killed in Greenwich Village, near where NYU is.)
I must be careful about time periods and do a fair amount of research, including with Henry James. But there’s a synopsis. More or less.