If you have been reading along with #HardTimes2020 at https://hardtimesreadalong.wordpress.com/ you will note that I am getting a bit over-invested in Dickens’s portrayal of Stephen Blackpool, his martyr. And having a bit of time to spare I thought I might try seeing him from another point of view: his wife’s. Here is my Dickens fanfic, which I have written for fun without too much thought. Bonus points for spotting the Dickensian phrases I have borrowed. I am already 4000 words in (seriously, why can’t academic writing happen that quickly?). Do I continue on, or let the mystery of Stephen Blackpool’s wife go?
Profligate. Drunk. Whore.
They’ve called me all those things. Worse names, too, truth be told.
I suppose, with the things I’ve done, I have earnt some of the names they call me. A drunk? I like my drink well enough, that much is true. I’m not ashamed to own it. I am a drunk, at least some of the time. And you would be too if you’d endured what I did. The drink is the only thing that makes life bearable sometimes, and no matter what he says, I am not the devil he makes me out to be.
I know what they all think of me. I see it in their eyes as I make my way back to his bed under the cover of darkness, shrouding my faded beauty under a shawl so that they cannot see what a wretch I have become. I know they condemn me. He has proclaimed my fecklessness to all who know him so that I am made a scandal in my own hometown.
And she, that woman with her foolish eyes full of love for him, she lets everyone think the worst of me too. Not through what she says, because Lord knows she would never let a poisonous word cross her sacred lips no matter what she was thinking. No, they all think the worst of me because when they look at her, they see an angel. And then, they look at me, and they see a hellish wraith that haunts his very soul until he is made miserable.
But why should he be happy? Why does he deserve anything after what he put me through? Why is my happiness as nothing, and his misery becomes the sorrow of the whole town? They pity him as much as they despise me. They would see me dead; I know that much to be true. Because my death would buy his freedom. But I’ve spent half my life playing his games, being the reason he can never be happy. Why should I make things easy for him now? Oh no. I plan on living.
Doesn’t mean I don’t wish the best for him and all that. It’s not like I want him dead, even if I do think about that now and then. Sometimes, the thought of him lying with his cold, dead eyes fixed to the heavens fills me with something akin to the longing you can get to have a man sink inside you. Still, I know well enough that it’s good for me if he prospers. Truth be told, I need him to keep plodding one heavy foot in front of the other, putting in his shifts, and bringing home some coin. That way, there’s something in it for me if I ever need something. Makes it more worthwhile to slip back into his bed.
Maybe I am the whore he says I am.
Mind you, not sure how you can whore yourself to your own husband. He takes what is his by right, and I take what I’m owed in return. Fair transaction, wouldn’t you say, seeing that it’s sanctioned by the law and the church and all that?
But sometimes I think about being free of him, same way he talks of getting shot of me. I heard tell he’d been to his gaffer to try and find some way of cutting himself free from his marriage to me. But he made those vows willing enough. No one forced him into it, no matter what he might say now, and he was the one who broke them first. But no one sees that when they look at me. He broke his vows, and he broke me, and yet they all blame me for what he made me. He did it. It was always him. And still all the folk in town are full of pity for him, condemning me for my wicked and shameless ways.
Because that’s what I am, when it comes down to it. Wicked and shameless. I am those names they call me. But, if they knew why I am all those things, they might find a little more pity in their hearts for me. I am more than the withered wretch he made me. But that’s the problem when people only stop to listen to one side of the tale. They don’t see the whole picture. My picture ain’t that pretty. I was beautiful once, though you wouldn’t know it to look at me now. I had my heart full of hope too when I wed that man. What a stupid fool I was. Just a silly girl who couldn’t see what was there right in front of her.
Look at me, look at what I am made. Look at what marriage to that man made me. His wife. His misfortune. The millstone chained around his neck, holding him back from a life full of happiness with his fawning angel. If they give me a name, it is only his. Mrs Blackpool, that unfortunate wife of Stephen Blackpool. Stephen Blackpool, that nothing of a man, devoid of spine, just another hand toiling in the mills in the smoky nest that is Coketown. I have my own name, not that I expect anyone cares much now, not when they can call me profligate, drunk or whore. My name is Catherine. But that was always far too grand a name for the likes of one such as me. My Pa called me Kit.