With the recent Black Lives Matter protests I wanted to look to a different part of untold history. I found this article where Montaz March talked about her dissertation on the unexamined history of black people in the UK. I was particularly interested in her discussion of black women and how they often fail to turn up in the history books because of their desire to assimilate completely into society. It’s so easy to assume that skin colour has always been a way of judging others, but I was fascinated to read that, for many years, your social and religious status was far more important than any ideas about race. I’ve often read the idea that race is nothing but a construction and I wanted to explore this in a historical era of the UK before race became as much of a defining factor. I was also interested to read here about a single, independent black woman living in the UK. Inspired by these things I created a fictional account of what her life might have been like. I hope you enjoy it.
The church was decked out for the occasion. June had crept into the fields and brought the hollyhocks with it. Orange and red, they spilled over the edge of the font, a few petals floating in the water. No sign of the vicar yet. He always walked slow from the vicarage, waiting until the last moment to burden himself with the layers of fabric.
The younger ladies wore a flower on their hats. Those who had suffered through many a summer service had them on their dresses, close enough for the nose to snoop and sniff when the smell got too bad. Mrs. Lockton, who had ideas about herself, wore a delicate pink rose from her private garden.
It was all smiles, of course. Some said Agnes had the King’s Touch but it would be terrible form to mention it under a holy roof. Instead the women nodded heads with their neighbours and tutted at the terrible lack of rain. The men stood, a slight incline of the head to those they recognised, as if anything more would dampen their dry demeanours.
DIDO ELIZABETH BELLE AND HER COUSIN ELIZABETH MURRAY, JOHANN ZOFFANY, 1778, OIL ON CANVAS
Edna rushed in and took a spot next to Mrs. Lockton, cheeks flushed and flower askew.
“Not like you to be late.” Mrs. Lockton smiled at those she found tolerable.
“Been dipping the chickens feet in dung so they don’t get the mange.” Edna examined her hands. There was still some under her nails but, they said it warded off the scrofula.
“Oh.” Mrs. Lockton dipped her nose down to find a better smell.
“Here they are.” Edna straightened her dress. In her haste she hadn’t had time to think of a better reason for her lateness. Not everyone had someone else to dip their chickens for them.
The women walked in. Three of them godmothers, Polly had to have a dress made special with her being so big. Last two hadn’t lasted the year. Six was a lucky one, everyone knew that. Then Mary. Edna heard tell she went all the way up to Gloucester to get that hat. You could almost think she was someone from the manor with the peak of the bonnet staying up like that. Lovely with all that dark hair.
“Her cow must be doing well.” Edna said it without thinking.
“She won’t know the Lord’s prayer. Cow or no.” Mrs. Lockton had one of them noses like a drip was always hanging off it.
“Now, Jane.” Edna risked the use of her first name. “Not that girl’s fault your cow got the Rinderpest.”
“They don’t teach it where she’s from. Don’t even speak the King’s English.”
“Come now, she’s being baptised.” You could see the ladies nodding as she approached the font. The vicar came out, face pink already.
“Took long enough.” It had been quite the scandal, having a lady in the village with no baptism. Of course there were some that sneered at her skin. So foreign and unseemly. Edna couldn’t see the trouble, the peasants got almost as dark out in the fields. But not having a holy blessing, now that were different. She spoke with one of those accents you heard up the city, had taken up tea drinking with the best of them and made a lovely scone. Not possible someone like that hadn’t had her head dipped.
They all hushed when it come the time to say the words. No doubt all the others were thinking the same as Mrs. Lockton. Even Polly stilled from rubbing that huge belly for a moment, cocked an ear over to the girl.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…” A little sigh after she got over that first line. Every word clear and true.
“Right Christian and proper.” A voice behind Edna. She turned to see the clerk scribbling away, the entry twice as long as it usually was for a baptism. Quite the occasion indeed.
ELISABETH, SARAH AND EDWARD, CHILDREN OF EDWARD HOLDEN CRUTTENDEN (WITH BLACK NURSEMAID), JOSHUA REYNOLDS, C 1763, OIL ON CANVAS
August had wilted the flowers when he came to ask for her hand. Mary had spent the morning churning, a thick pad of skin on her palm from turning the handle.
“Mary, please accept my apologies.” Arnold had his hands behind his back, staring out over the threefold field. It would have been unseemly to meet in private. “I would have said these words to you before, only you had to be baptised.” He had a full suit on, despite the heat. Finally turned his head to look at her, brow creased in earnest. “Would you do me the honour of being my wife?”
She looked away, covered her face. All the socially acceptable things to do. Now she could talk around the subject a little while she decided how she felt about all this. He was certainly the most well-positioned man to have yet asked her.
“What do your family think?” A safe topic. Important to start with the family.
“They were surprised, I think. It was a strange day when you arrived in our town but of course you were not the first.” Everyone had seen the tradesman from Libya with his fine jewels at the town meeting. “Mother had thought Harriet a fine match for me, but I did say that she had four sisters and barely a thing to her name. To marry you would be a better prospect for us all.” Her status had surprised them, at first. The women had been frank with their questions at the well. A woman without a husband was always a scandal, even if she was lodging with a well-to-do widow.
“I see.” Caring for the cow, keeping the house, managing her business. It was tiring. Her back ached at night. Helen would rub linament into the twisted parts sometimes. She couldn’t rely on the old woman forever. Arnold could help. He would work. There would be someone to rub her back. A soft child to hold. It would be an ease of sorts, would it not?
“I am not sure I am of the right age.” She had to be sure he was serious in his prospects. Twenty-five was hardly an appealing age.
“We are of a civilised class.” He smiled. “Our age need not be foreshortened like those who toil the fields.”
“You speak well.” Of course he did. She remembered the little boys in her household gathering books and rushing off to school, trousers buttoned at the ankle. How the squiggle of lines between book covers remained a mystery until her mistress separated them out into shapes. Mary’s careful lines in her ledger took hours but she refused any help with it.
“I assure you our house would be a place of comfort.” He coloured at the use of ‘our.’ Brave lad, staying it out when others had scurried off at the first sign of difference. How she’d used long-remembered words from her mother’s tongue to scare one of them off.
“You flatter me with your attention.” Would it be so terrible, to be married to this delicate man?
“Our children would be well cared for.” She’d seen Polly at the baptism. So weighed down. Five children and only two of them alive. The constant presence of small people at her heels when she came for milk and butter. How she walked slow with her swollen ankles during each confinement.
“You are most kind.” All those years of serving others, the thick skin on her fingers from needlework. With each turn of the churn handle she glowed. Aching back or no, the things she grasped were her own. She had no need to share with a husband.
“If I may be so bold, what is your will?” He stepped closer, the flowers shaking in his hand.
The day her mistress died and the money passed to her it was though a burden she hadn’t felt had been lifted. She sometimes lay on the rug she’d bought in town, touching the fabric. The hours of work that lay under her hands, belonging to her.
“Arnold.” She looked up, met his eyes. “What you ask me is a great honour, but I cannot accept.”
“I don’t understand.” He looked genuinely baffled. The flowers fell from his hand.
“If I were to marry, it would be you.” She smiled in what she hoped was a supportive way. “But I have come from a different life to yours. I cannot tie myself to a man, to his children, for fear it would be my undoing.” She bent down and picked up a fallen flower. “I will always think of you fondly.”
Not wishing to lengthen his embarrassment, she gave a courteous nod and turned away. Regret nagged at her skirts. What a fine man to marry, the fine things she would have had in her house. But with each step the hold loosened. Even to her grave, no-one else could lay claim on her life. It was her own.