Arabella Strange learns to bake when her husband is at war.
But, no, that's not precisely true. She learns to bake at home, eating cupcakes with her brother, but she only starts baking when Jonathan is gone. It's something to do with her hands. It's a way to work out her worries. She can't just write letter after letter. She can't sit there and draw and erase and draw and erase. But she can pound her frustrations out in dough.
So she makes bread and cakes and biscuits and some of it gets sent to Jonathan, but more of it gets passed around the neighborhood. Catherine down the block comes by and shows Arabella how to enchant the eggshells to always break in one piece and how to make her chocolate always look perfect. Arabella bakes and she learns how to pipe correctly and how to get yeast to obey her will, even without Catherine's spells.
When Jonathan comes home, three years gone, he is older and more filled with magic than ever before. He doesn't know how to speak about what he's seen, what he's done, who he's killed. But he eats her experiments and he gives his opinions on her pies and when she tries out for Bake Off, she knows that a spell of luck follows her like a bird into the audition.
Emma Pole bakes because she hates baking. She hates that things can go wrong. She hates that the world -- that baking -- that things don't listen to her. She has spent her life being ignored, the sick rich girl in the corner, good enough for getting married to but never good enough to be listened to. Emma Pole bakes because her husband is in politics and needs a wife who is a hostess. Emma Pole bakes because they have servants to do it instead of her. Emma Pole bakes because she hates feeling like a failure as a woman, as a wife, as a human being. Emma Pole bakes because she hates her husband, hates her mother, hates her world for making her feel this way.
When she tries out for Bake Off, Walter offers to pull a few strings to have her get on the show. She tells him if he did that, she would leave him. She means it.
Making it to Bake Off is the first thing Emma has done in her life that she feels that she has earned completely herself. And she is going to win, no matter what it takes.
Bake Off auditions are full of them, Emma quickly learns: the women who have men. They have fathers they cook for, they have husbands who can't feed themselves, they have children who need to be mothered. One of them, the youngster this year, Flora Greysteel, is calm and level-headed. She also goes home to a physician father and an executive aunt who talk about her to their friends and show off her baking. Flora feels like a show pony. But she is a steady baker, with a clear head and good plans for her bakes. She has done well in school, but her baking is what will make her famous.
Emma envies her, to still be so young as to be able to think about what your life could be. Flora could make a career out of baking. When she leaves the show, she'll probably get invited to audition for schools or scholarships or whatever happens when you get to leave the amateur world and become a professional. Emma, out of a terror she will never admit to, has never looked into it. Has never looked into what she could do if she left Walter, if she ventured out on her own. Her life has never been her own. Her mother ignored her and married her off. Her husband dotes on her, in his own way, but Emma is tired of being spoken to like an ornament, like a child.
And when the final contestants are assembled, Emma is surprised to see Stephen. When she had known him, he had not been a baker. When she had known him -- when she had known him, he had been the only one to look through the curse and see her. He had been the only one to try to break it. He had been the only one to succeed. And in return, he had become a king. She had not heard from him since, and they nod to each other across the tent, and Emma wonders, wonders if this means she is meant to be here. Wonders if everything in her life has been building to this moment. Wonders if this is just part of the curse being broken. Part of her becoming free.
Arabella is the magician's wife from the first moment of Bake Off. The producers have spoken to her about the magic. They understand, they say warily, that some magic just cannot be helped. But not all the contestants are able to do magic, or are willing to show the country the magic they can do, and so no magic can go on in the tent. The tent isn't warded this year; they had Jonathan's friend, the insufferable Norrell, come by and tell the refrigerators to work better. Arabella privately thinks it would do better to tell the producers not to plan challenges that could melt when the tent is notoriously hot and the freezers notoriously bad, but she supposes it is easier to change an appliance's nature than a person's.
She takes the ban on magic with aplomb; it's useful, but it has never been a part of her baking the way it is for Catherine or like it must be for the Faerie king contestant Stephen Black. She's not like Jonathan, she doesn't do magic when she intends to simply turn off a light. Magic isn't a part of her, merely a part of her life.
But when she talks to the other bakers, there certainly is a divide between the ones who use magic and the ones who don't. Stephen Black learned to bake from his Faerie subjects and his techniques are like nothing Arabella has seen before. And then there's Emma Pole, the striking woman who doesn't take any shit from Paul, who loves magical history and disdains practical magic. A political opponent of her husband's, the papers had reported, had once gotten a fairy to put a spell on her as a way of attacking Sir Walter. It had taken her husband more than five years to notice.
Arabella was frankly shocked that Emma hadn't divorced him on the spot, but she supposes things are different in a public marriage. Arabella gets a glimpse of it sometimes when Jonathan's students come round. It's the pressure of performing. It's the pressure of expectations. It's the pressure of always being seen as one part of a couple, and the unimportant part at that. It's the pain of not being taken seriously, of wondering if they're right and you aren't worth being taken seriously.
But that's why they're here, that's why it's Bake Off, and that's why Arabella is sweating in the tent, her apron spotted with flour, as she rushes through the last five minutes to make these Newcastle tarts absolutely perfect.
It gets harder as it goes on. Emma excels during bread week and wins star baker, but she is always near the bottom in the technical and nearly goes twice, the first for burning the flared narcissus in the king's futknotes and the second for an dairy-free croissant disaster.
The sixth week is the worst one. Everyone gets sick, and they bring medical magicians in to test the air until the doctors all shrug and say it's just a cold going around. Five of the fairy bridges during the technical collapse between the end of the challenge and Paul and Mary walking in. Emma goes home a wreck and spends two hours on the phone with Arabella complaining about her preparations for next week, and when she hangs up the phone, she feels strangely better. She hasn't had a friend like Arabella before. She hasn't had a friend before who understood.
Arabella understands her, and for the first time, Emma bakes because she wants to make someone happy. She sends Arabella the test scones she's making for the signature, and Arabella sends her some pecan muffins she's making because she's working on flavor combinations. One of Arabella's neighbors works a path for them through the King's Roads and soon they are visiting each other nearly every hour, and Emma thinks: if nothing else, Bake Off has given me this. It's a moment of happiness, and she wraps it in a napkin. Some of it she bakes into an eclair, but some of it she saves for later. She's going to want to remember this when it's gone.
And then somehow it's the semi-final. Arabella packs for the weekend with slightly more care than usual. Jonathan tears himself away from his book to say goodbye to her and wish her well, and then, she knows, he will go back to the book and not look up until she comes back on Sunday night. There are many times she wishes he had become a lawyer instead of a magician, but, she suspects, if Jonathan wished to ignore her, he could do that just as easily with a law degree as with a magical practice.
With so few bakers remaining, some of the conversations at the hotel are stilted. Arabella wishes for Tom Levy and Clara Redruth so she could discuss her latest attempts at yeasted Col Tom Blues with them. She and Stephen are the only two magic users left -- although Flora has expressed interest in learning it -- but Stephen has not yet arrived from Faerie, and he is still not there in the morning. When Arabella walks in to the green room an hour before the bus is to come to take them to the tent, she sees Sue talking quietly to Stephen, who is standing by a mirror. No, Arabella realizes, standing inside a mirror.
"I have been unexpectedly delayed in my kingdom," Stephen is saying, "but I will return in time for the signature bake."
Sue looks worried. "Stephen, remember, if you don't make it back in time, you forfeit."
"I understand," Stephen says. He bows and disappears. But, to Arabella's great relief, he is waiting for them by the tent when they arrive. His macaron tower show-stopper tastes of heartbreak and strawberries and he wins star baker.
And Arabella goes home.
At home, Arabella doesn't know what to do with herself. She doesn't bake, she doesn't cook, Jonathan flutters around and treats her like she's spun sugar, like he's worried that she's lost something he can never give back to her. He wasn't like this even when he was dating her. He worries, Arabella realizes. He worries that Arabella will tire of the life of a magician's wife, of being Jonathan's wife. He left her for three years and she learned to bake. She left him for weekends to bake and he's... well, he's worried like she's dying. He's worried like he'll lose her if he takes his eyes off of her.
She talks to Emma a lot, listening to her plans for the final, and Arabella laughs at herself, at her panic about what she's going to do this weekend now that she doesn't have Bake Off. But of course she's going back to Bake Off this weekend anyway. It's the final, it's the party. Arabella will be there to see Emma or Stephen or Flora crowned the winner and given a ceremonial cake stand.
Emma is complaining about her husband again and Arabella's husband has been hovering something terrible, and so Arabella says, "Listen. On Monday, let's go away somewhere, just you and me. We deserve a holiday."
And then Emma is suddenly silent and then she says, "that sounds lovely." Arabella exhales and Emma says, "Let's go to Venice."
Emma Pole almost died before her wedding and since then, she has utterly loathed big occasions. She doesn't like a fuss and she doesn't like parties.
But it's the final of the Great British Bake Off, and Emma will do anything to win. She will stay up all night covered in flour, she will go find a chicken and hunt it down for its eggs, she will peel potatoes until her hands ache. And then she will do it all again, just to win this.
Flora's chances collapse with her swiss roll during the signature bake and no one says it, but they all know she's out of the running. The technical is a nail-biter and Emma wishes she had just a little of Arabella's magic so she could figure out what Mary was thinking when she wrote these instructions for babka. And then it's the show-stopper and it's the party and all the other bakers are there, and Emma's husband is there, chatting comfortably with Jonathan Strange, and when Emma sees Arabella, she almost bursts out crying. Because her nuts weren't perfectly toasted, and she thinks her egg whites weren't stiff enough, and she knows slices of Stephen's sunshine and raspberry centerpiece wedding cake are practically flying off of the plates.
Emma hates to lose. She had not considered that she might be losing in front of the entire country, in front of her husband.
In the end, Mary tells her later, it is a very close call. Stephen's flavors are bold and original and his techniques are a wonderful blend of English and Fae. He shows the true spirit of the Raven King's unification of our worlds, one of the reviewers had gushed. Emma's merely a good home baker, very ambitious, very detailed, and a cut-throat competitor. On any other day, Mary reassures her. On any other day.
But it isn't any other day and Emma goes home with flowers and no victory, to a husband who pats her arm and tells her that she did her best. He probably never expected her to win, Emma thinks viciously. He probably never thought she could.
She can't face Walter's kindness, she can't face the disinterest she always suspects lurks behind his concerned face. Oh, perhaps he cares. Perhaps the man who wanted a political wife and made a political match, perhaps he cares. He never spoke to her before the day they were married, but what of that? Plenty of couples face arranged marriages together with a sense of friendship and camaraderie. Maybe there's something wrong with Emma that she's always looked at the man who is twenty years her senior and married her for her money and thought: I should have done better. I should have refused. I should have run away.
But of course she could not have run away, what a foolish thought. It would have done her no good. It might have ruined the match with Walter, but her mother would have found someone else, maybe someone worse. Walter has always been somewhat intimidated by her. He is a kind man, she will allow. But he is not the man she would have chosen to marry, and right now, the fact that she did not choose him is intolerable.
And so she packs her bags for Venice and she meets Arabella -- who she did choose -- at the mirror in the morning and so they depart.
Venice is beautiful. Venice is wonderful. Venice is not a tent on a lawn and that makes it absolutely perfect. Emma had told Mary she would keep baking. Arabella had said she wanted to learn something new. Neither had promised to get over the experience easily. The only thing Emma had decided was that she would not be writing a ruddy cookbook to commemorate the experience.
After a couple days, a couple days of being with Arabella and not being home, Emma finds herself glad for Stephen. He hadn't been a baker when she had known him, so she hadn't considered him real competition, which had been short-sighted. He'd learned from his subjects and learned well. He had admitted, one night when it had been pouring down rain outside, to stress-bake when matters of state grew too great.
Emma decides, Stephen will make a good Bake Off champion. Better him than Emma, because Emma would have spent the rest of her life wondering if Walter had ignored her and actually had pulled strings back stage. She would rather lose on her own terms than win on someone else's. That is the peace she has made with herself.
Arabella is a proper tourist in Venice, interested in everything, delighting in everything. She walks into bakeries and talks to the bakers about their techniques and their recipes. She walks away with tips and ideas and she starts scribbling down ideas for things to try when she gets home. Emma doesn't want to think about going home. Bake Off hasn't started airing yet, but all her husband's friends know she was on it. They will be watching. She will have to return. She will have to take their comments and sly remarks. She will have to rise above and endure.
They were told that it would be about two months between filming the final and the first episode airing, and Emma and Arabella expected to be back home well before then. But Arabella has a chat with Jonathan, who has fallen into a book of magic and has barely noticed she's gone. "Yes, he does that," Arabella sighs, and Emma is too polite to ask if Jonathan meant that literally or metaphorically. With magic, it could be either. And Emma used to love magic, used to long for it, but that was before. That was before a politician had made a fairy servant out of a fairy king, that was before the spell, that was before magic was really real to her.
So there's no rush on Arabella going home just to be ignored by her husband, and there's never any rush on Emma going back to Walter. Especially now. Especially now that she'd go home and look at him and wonder what she's supposed to do now. She knows she's too young to feel this trapped, this future-less. Bird and book, she was the third youngest on the show, she's still two years away from thirty. She's too young to be this old.
They meet up with Flora in Florence, because Flora likes a joke. She has been on a grand tour, documenting her adventures on Twitter as #GBBOorGTFO. She's been making the most of her post-Bake Off holiday, and Flora makes Emma feel maternal. No, Flora makes her feel protective. Flora has her life ahead of her, a life she gets to choose. She is going to be famous before she is nineteen, and all the possibilities of the world are going to be open to her. And Emma is really too young to be feeling this old, but she's not going to let anyone else turn out like her. She won't let anyone else be trapped.
"But what if I never do anything better with my life than Bake Off?" Flora asks. They are sitting in a cafe, eating pastry, and Emma thinks of what Paul would say about the dough. Emma thinks that everyone in that tent could have made better pastry than this. It should put it all into perspective: that talent doesn't mean everything, that skill only means so much. Someone opened a cafe, someone bakes for it, but being professional doesn't mean you're the best; it means someone is paying you to do it. But money, Emma knows well, is not any indication of quality.
"You will do great things with your life, Flora," Arabella reassures her.
"Maybe I've peaked at eighteen," Flora says. Bits of pastry flake off and Arabella moves them around with magic until they are dancing in the air, making Flora laugh.
"Nonsense, you are going to university and you are going to rule the world," Emma declares. "Or Faerie. But you are going to do exactly what you want to do." No one is going to marry Flora off if Emma can help it, but no one was ever going to marry Flora off. Flora worries about following her father and aunt around for the rest of her life, Flora worries about not meeting their standards. Flora doesn't worry about being a disposable young heiress, good only for the contents of her purse, and always ill and always kept on too tight a leash to really enjoy life at all.
Emma's not ill any more and not under a magical compulsion. She's still rich, she's still young. Arabella keeps telling her: "my dear, you can get divorced." And, "please stop thinking that you have no more choices left in your life." If the idea of being married to Sir Walter is too stifling, well, there's a cure for that in the legal system. And if she feels responsible for Walter's political life, if she feels he would lose too much by losing her, and if that's unacceptable, they can still lead perfectly independent lives and remain married.
And Emma, for the first time, thinks it might be possible.
If Bake Off has taught her anything, it is: you are not too old, it is not too late.
Bake Off will change your life, if you let it, if you want it. They'd been told: once the show starts airing, offers will start pouring in. They'd been told: if you want to take advantage, you might want to get an agent. Flora has an agent, "just to see". She has an idea of what she wants to do, but she's willing to change her mind. She wants to see what's out there. Her world is full of possibilities. She may not seize them, but she wants to know she can.
Arabella doesn't know. And Emma can't say she's not tempted. But -- but she doesn't know.
By the time the show finishes airing, Arabella has signed the paperwork to start a magical baking school with John Segundus, Flora has a travel cooking show on YouTube, and Emma--
Emma has started divorce proceedings.