Reclaim Jane (February 2022)

With thanks to Natalie Pithers of the Curious Descendants Club for giving me the confidence and the push to do this. 

Thanks must also go to the judge who gave me feedback on a piece of writing I did (that came second!), saying ‘it did feel at times as though [the entry] was intended for an academic audience via a journal’…well then, challenge accepted!

It has taken me a long time to publish this for various reasons. Among those reasons is how close to home the story is (although I have been given the blessing of family to publish it), and how unconfident I am with this kind of writing. Everything is based on newspaper articles and other records, but how much can those really tell us about what happened?

Whether or not it is an enjoyable read, I have learnt a lot from trying something new.

Edward was drunk at the wedding.

He stumbled as I walked down the aisle; grabbed a backrest to regain his balance. As my father determinedly walked me toward the registrar, I saw my mother involuntarily shooting a look of disgust in Edward’s direction. I stared steadfastly ahead. If I was having second thoughts, they were years too late.

A stranger might not have realised his intoxication. Edward’s sight was impaired, and he had trouble with balance sometimes. If you ask me, his eyesight was better or worse as it suited him. No one on this Earth bar him could tell you how much he could see. I knew he was drunk as soon as I saw him waiting for me, just as my mother did; the acrid tang of his breath as I reached his side was confirmation I didn’t need.

It was the 16th of April 1912. I’d returned to my parents’ hometown to be married. On balance, they felt my marrying after a baby was better than not marrying at all – even if they thought my betrothed was a cad.

I did it for William. My bonnie boy was three by then. He’d had a chaotic start in life as the child of an unconventional relationship. A child, to the outside world, born to an upstart servant and a loveable dandy who’d been dealt a cruel hand but made the best of it.

As the son of a married couple, I thought, perhaps William could have a different future. We could register his birth again under the legitimacy act. He would have more opportunities if he weren’t legally a bastard. A legitimate claim to anything his father might one day leave behind. If he didn’t drink it first.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

I’d expected to go into service in the city for only a short time. Just as my mother had before her marriage. Just as I would watch my sister do before hers. I suppose I thought I’d return to Suffolk after a year or two, marry a tradesman, and raise a clutch of ruddy-cheeked children. Just as my mother had. Just as my sister would.

In early 1908, I found myself housekeeper to a recently widowed ‘gentleman’ with inherited income. While he may have been correctly described as a young widower, Edward was still nearly 20 years my senior. He was 37; I was just 18. The other servants in the street told me his first wife died from drink without giving him a child. I initially thought them jealous of my position with an enigmatic master in a beautiful double-fronted Georgian home with river views.

That was then. I should have heeded their warnings.

Edward’s income came from illustrious grandparents, the balance undamaged by the demands of parents that died so young from diseases not discussed in polite society. Edward was raised in boarding schools and must barely have known those parents. His only surviving sister turned her back on decadence and excess and left to be a missionary in 1900, never to return.

Despite his lack of close family, Edward could rely on generous cousins when he got into trouble. He had no real need to earn money and certainly wasn’t driven to do so by his own ambition. Instead, he lived on the bounty of his bloodlines and his connections.

But truth be told, that bounty was running out.

Edward thought himself grand, but by 1908, he could only afford one servant – me. I waited on him, cleaned his house, did his laundry. My sore hands and feet were testament to the hard labour I put in from dawn to dusk. He relied on me to clear up after the gambling parties and late-night drinks and turn a blind eye to whatever went on behind his front door after he and his friends made their way from their pleasure boats to his parlour. I could be trusted to keep his confidences then. After all, I knew nobody when I arrived; Edward’s class hired maids from the country on purpose: we were fit, hardworking, and most importantly, had no connections or influence.

At first, I assumed Edward could and would remarry. I imagined he’d find an heiress if he hadn’t already, a girl from a good family to provide him with new money and a legitimate heir. But within weeks, I realised his eyes were upon me. I was initially in awe of him; I’d never met anybody as self-assured and glamorous. So, I didn’t protest. I was dazzled by him and entirely in his power.

William was born on Boxing Day 1908. I was 19.

Edward came with me to register the birth. We didn’t pretend we were married; my name appears correctly, occupation housekeeper. Edward declared himself a marine engineer. I thought that was rich, but I suppose he did have a boat. Our son was given all of Edward’s surnames.

We continued to cohabit at our river house and sometimes aboard his yacht between Kingston on Thames and Oulton Broad, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Edward called himself ‘Captain’ and lorded himself about along the quay while I cared for William. He and his companions were regular faces at Henley Regatta and other events of that kind. The drinks always flowed, and I started to enjoy them too. It helped, I suppose; I could close my mind to what my mother would say.

Edward existed in a world of privilege, alcohol and few responsibilities, but his charmed life was unravelling. By 1912, he realised his reputation was too far gone to find a wealthy second wife. His best option was to marry me and legitimise the son he already had.

And so, we married, exchanging vows in front of a small congregation in Suffolk: my parents, my brother and a sister. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the wedding set a pattern for the months ahead.

It would be an understatement to say we had a stormy marriage. Disappointed at the way his life had turned out and how his assets and eyesight were dwindling, Edward directed his anger at the person closest to him: me.

I may have been a country servant with few connections, but I was not a submissive well-bred lady. Edward and I had blazing rows. He would accuse me of tricking him into marriage, and in retaliation, I would declare that I had only ever married him for his money, and now he didn’t even have that! One night, things took a turn for the worse, and verbal abuse turned into physical violence. Angry at me for failing to cook his supper correctly, he snatched up his plate and hurled it across the table at my face. Despite his poor eyesight, his aim was true. The plate broke on impact, and a sharp edge split open the soft skin of my bottom lip. Blood bloomed from the wound and dribbled down my chin and onto my dress.

I became aware of his other woman within a year of our marriage. She lived about eight miles away in a one-bedroom flat, further from the river and in a less glamorous part of town. Within weeks of my realisation, the furniture started to disappear. I knew it was going to his mistress’ flat – and him with it.

One afternoon, I entertained my sister. Emboldened by drink and my sister’s revulsion at Edward’s actions, I confronted him about his mistress. He stared at me for a moment, then scowled, picking up a hammer from the tool bag he’d brought with him from his yacht. Terror flooded through me as he raised the hammer and smashed it into the cupboard door to his left. My scream mingled with my sister’s as we pelted out of the parlour into the kitchen, slamming the door behind us, bolting it, and cowering in the adjoining pantry in horror.

Seconds ticked by, but if we’d hoped he wouldn’t follow us, we were disappointed. Edward stamped and ranted as he approached, and then, with a sickening thud followed by a splintering, his hammer slammed into the kitchen door.

I still thank God he turned around and walked out that day. After that, he made a habit of going off to his boat when his temper rose and he needed to get away.

Is it any wonder that I drank, too? After the wedding, Edward found the money to pay a local girl to watch William. I had the time and opportunity to reach for the decanter. As our marriage deteriorated and Edward spent more time with his lover, our arguments moved beyond our front door.

One Sunday evening in 1914, leaving William safely with the nurse girl, I went to a friend’s to continue drinking. As I left, I noticed Edward walking down the street towards me (from, I presumed, his woman’s house). Both worse for wear, we yelled across at each other. The barbs quickly escalated. A crowd assembled as we flung increasingly vile insults. I grabbed him and screeched in his face. From there, the argument became a physical struggle.  

The gathered rabble simultaneously egged us on and demanded we let each other go. Inevitably, the tussle brought a policeman to the scene, but neither of us was in the mood to stand down.

We were both arrested.

In court, Edward’s representation declared him very popular in the local area. They said he would normally be the first to assist the police…! But tellingly, it was also admitted that, and I quote, “when in drink he always gives a lot of trouble”. We were bound over for six months, and Edward paid the costs.

That night, I felt a long way from Suffolk. Edward could do what he wanted, and he would always have the support of the most powerful in our Borough. Me? I was just a jumped-up domestic servant that had tricked her way into marriage.

We lived together on paper after that, but not in practice. I had an income because Edward had made a settlement on William in 1909, and I received a little money for his keep. But that regular support stopped when I acquired an order of separation and maintenance in April 1915.

That same year, Edward made several newspapers when he was fined for impersonating a naval officer. His ‘Captain’ pretence had caught up with him when a real Naval Captain greeted him, and Edward gave an inappropriate response. In the papers, he was described as eccentric and enthusiastic; a regretful yachtsman hauled up for wearing fancy dress. By then, he’d changed his surname to his mother’s, celebrating her maritime heritage. His first name was different to boot, but I don’t know where that came from.

It took almost two years to bring Edward back to court in an endeavour to get what William and I were owed in maintenance. He was ordered to pay arrears of £8. Even threats of imprisonment didn’t seem to sway him to provide it. I didn’t know whether he even had it by then.

And so it continued. Edward ‘lodged’ with his widow. I did my best to bring William up on what was left of the settlement money I’d saved and by taking in lodgers to make ends meet. Some days I was angry; others, I fell into a pit of despair. I wasn’t free. I wasn’t in control.

I wanted a divorce, but the odds were stacked against me. At that time, there was one divorce for every 450 marriages. Then the war got in the way, although thankfully, William was still only six. Edward was never in danger of being called up, of course. As the war ended, I had to try again to end the marriage. It was not enough to accuse Edward of adultery: I would have to prove violence, too.

In 1919, my persistence paid off. I hoped those who doubted my courage could see me taking a stand. I would do almost anything to sever connections with Edward and start a new life for my son.

The divorce proceedings weren’t without personal cost. My story became public property and our arguments were splashed across local papers. Edward accused me of making all the arrangements for the wedding, implying that I had planned the whole thing and lured him into wedlock. He wanted to convince the court that he was blind and vulnerable to my callous plotting.

As the case wore on, Edward’s counsel accused me of throwing a gramophone at Edward in a fit of temper on Christmas Day 1912. Do I look capable of lifting such a bulky piece of furniture and hurling it at my husband’s head?

We did have a gramophone, of course. It was a Christmas present from Edward’s cousin. We’d spent the day sniping at each other. I was standing at the door as Edward started to rant again that evening, and when I saw him move to pick up another piece of crockery, as he had before, I took swift action, hefting the gramophone before my face in self-defence. The missile never came, but I fumbled under the gramophone’s weight, and it fell to the floor.

Back to court, and Edward’s representative said that I’d turned him out of the house so that he had to seek shelter in the yacht. If I’m honest, I would’ve done it if I could’ve done. But the house wasn’t mine. I won’t deny, though, that I felt relief every time he did sleep it off on the boat.

Edward brazenly declared to the court that he and his lover had been merely lodger and landlady for six years. She only has one bedroom! He says I’m the violent one, that he’s never been cruel except in self-defence.

I shouldn’t have expected better of the court. His Lordship said there was ‘no cruelty he could act upon’ and accepted the statement that Edward was only a lodger. As such, my petition was dismissed, and, as a consequence, so was my bid for escape.

I wasn’t surprised in the least when Edward still refused to pay my allowance. I appealed, oh God, I appealed more than once, but the law of the land favoured my upper-class husband.

If I couldn’t be free in law, I had to be free in body. It took time, but eventually, I found an opportunity to take William away. I returned to East Anglia, a Norfolk farm where I found a position as a housekeeper. In a way, I went full circle, beginning again as a servant for a widower.

It’s summer 1932 now and I write from that farm, sitting at the well-scrubbed kitchen table. Looking out the open door, I can see the breeze fluttering clothes on the line while chickens scratch underneath.

I’m free of the spectre of Edward stumbling to my door to yell obscenities. I’m free of drink and the community who pushed me to indulge in it. I might still be married, but the rest of the village believes me to be a widow who needs honest work to get by.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but despite what has passed, William is thriving now.

He’s an adult, an insurance agent. Sometimes I wonder how he grew to be such a responsible and intelligent man, given the domestic chaos of his early life. I may not have had the life my mother might have chosen, nor the one I might have planned for myself, yet I have successfully raised a son that I love to distraction.

William doesn’t see his father now. He won’t ever see his father again. That’s because William understands our life is built on secrets, that we’re both better off closing the door on our past and finding the power to move forward anew.

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Reclaim Jane (February 2022)

What happens if you cast aside the carefully referenced report and try and fill the gaps left by the records? Reclaim Jane is an attempt to find the woman behind the snippets of archival evidence.

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