London, 1934: it's a new day in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Decades of reforms have led to a country that is, in many ways, better than it has ever been in the past, in terms of protections for children, the elderly, and workers. Yes, they are in an economic depression, but the new unemployment benefits scheme brings some relief. Universal suffrage was granted five years ago, giving the vote to all, and there have been women in Parliament since 1919; some women are even wearing trousers and bobbing their hair and holding down jobs, even in the upper classes, where such a thing once would have been unheard of. Social inequality is still a very real problem, but there is change in the air. Yes, it is a whole new day in London.
And yet, Jane Banks, one of the aforementioned trouser-wearing, hair-bobbing, working women of London, finds herself, at this moment, very much in the grip of the past. And it's all because of the leerie in front of her, dressed up in his Sunday best, his heart on his sleeve, his face as bright as the lamps he lights.
And it's not even the question that he's asking that’s causing her so much turmoil; it's her reaction to it, and what that has taught her about herself in the last fifteen seconds.
Because the fact is, she would actually love to accept Jack's dinner invitation, thank you very much. It's been a long time she's gone out on a date, let alone a date with a man who looks at her like she hung the moon. And while she's only properly known Jack for a week, she's seen enough to know that he is kind, and gracious, and funny, and generous, and good, and handsome in his way. He makes her laugh. He gives of himself freely. And she can't remember the last time she found it so easy to talk to anyone so quickly after meeting them.
And she remembers, with a fluttery sort of feeling in her stomach, that the little boy who used to accompany Bert, the one who waved at her as she looked out of the nursery window, used to gaze at her with exactly the sort of undisguised admiration that still covers his face now that he's an adult. And she's thrilled and surprised by it, because she's not accustomed to that.
Because she's Jane Banks, practical but eccentric, just a bit radical with her social causes and her modern wardrobe, who giggles when society says she should be serious but is too serious when gentlemen want her to simper and flirt. At 33, she has long since given up on the idea of some handsome man sweeping her off her feet. So to find herself blushing and giddy as a schoolgirl when Jack attends one of her rallies or presses a kiss to her knuckles or dances with her as they float through the sky (that did really happen, by the way, didn't it?) . . . well, suffice to say, she wants very much to accept his dinner invitation.
But there is another part of her, very deep, very old, small but insistent, that insists on reminding her that Jack is . . . well, one doesn't like to remark on such things, but Jack is not her equal, socially or economically. Jane may work among the poor and unemployed, but she's never been one of them, not really. She has never labored her with her hands; she has never wondered how she will pay the rent. Her work for SPRUCE is funded by a wealthy benefactress—one of her mother's old suffragette friends, actually—and while it will never make her rich, she will never want. She might work in a soup kitchen, but she goes home to a stocked larder.
Her father may have insisted on treating all the hired help and tradesmen he encountered with dignity and respect, but he was never truly friends with any of them. Her mother may have welcomed women from all walks of life into her suffragette groups, but she never invited any of the working class women home for tea. Jane herself might live in reduced circumstances now, but that doesn't change the fact that she is the daughter of a respectable banker.
And Jack is nearly as far below her as it is possible to be: the lower rungs of the working class. Even if he kept a shop, that would be something—some amount of financial stability and respectability. But he is a lamplighter, and a former chimney sweep, and a thousand years of the English class system are pressuring her to refuse the invitation and send him on his way.
So maybe Jane isn't as forward-thinking as she'd like to believe, which is something she was not expecting to learn about herself today. Maybe, deep down, she’s a snob.
Because that voice that's telling her this is impossible is loud and hard to ignore, and for too long, she stands immobile and silent. Seconds tick by. Jack's smile dims a little, and then a little more. And then he takes a step back, understanding crossing his face. “Never mind,” he says.
And that’s the turning point for Jane. Because that lovely face should never look so resigned; it's as wrong as seeing Georgie cry. She can't bear being the source of his disappointment—not when she was so thrilled, just a few moments ago, to know she was the reason for the hope in his eyes. Besides, who, precisely, is she trying to please or impress by maintaining the separation of the classes?
“I was just thinking,” she blurts, “you bought me that balloon yesterday. I think it's my turn to pay for something. So why don't you let me buy you dinner?”
So maybe she’s not a snob after all.
His eyes rekindle, and his smile rivals the afternoon sun, and she feels young again: butterflies in her stomach and giddy hope in her chest. “How modern of you, Miss Banks.”
And Jane throws caution to the wind and climbs onto the front of Jack’s bicycle and laughs from the bottom of her lungs as he pedals away down Cherry Tree Lane. They get a few odd looks, and she knows they'll get more when they reach their destination: the labor organizer in her trousers and the lamplighter in his Sunday best, especially when she pays for his meal.
But she is determined not to mind. After all, it's a new day in London.