It’s been a while since I shared any of my own writing on my blog, so today I thought I would do just that. I wrote the story below for a magazine submission slot, the brief for which was to write a short piece of fiction in the voice of a female relation to a famous real or fictional person. My piece was not ultimately selected; nonetheless, I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
The female relative I chose was Elizabeth Ollive, estranged wife of the eighteenth century writer and radical, Thomas Paine. Paine has been a favourite of mine since my university days, when I pored over his political works and relished his involvement in both the American and French revolutions. It’s only in recent years that I have become more interested in his personal life, and have found that the scant information we have raises more questions than it answers. Paine was married twice, firstly to Mary Lambert who died in childbirth, and secondly to Elizabeth Ollive, from whom he ultimately separated for reasons unknown before emigrating to the American colonies in 1774, where his life as a man of fame and influence truly began.
For Elizabeth, this separation must have come at enormous personal cost – not only did she have to bear the shame and stigma of being an abandoned wife, but the wife of a renowned rabble-rouser and eventual outlaw. I wonder how she must have felt each time she heard news of him and his exploits, and how she bore her own lot, forced to leave Lewes for Cranbrook in Kent, where she lived with her brother and carved out a living as a dressmaker. Like so many women of the past, she is silent in the historical record, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine. I’d like to write more about her and about Paine, one day, but for now, I hope you enjoy this short story.
I almost prick her when she mentions him. Right on the soft skin of her shoulder, where I’m still adjusting that pretty floral cotton she’s chosen, forming a dress from it with folds and pins. I’m not normally so clumsy, but her question is a surprise. Most ladies prefer light conversation, and this one hadn’t seemed any different; running her fingers over the printed roses as though she might like to pick them, telling me that she’ll wear her new dress to such-and-such’s house for afternoon tea. Then she says his name, just like that. Asks me if I’ve heard the news from France.
I’ve heard the news – of course I have. I don’t say anything, though. I just nod and concentrate on pinning. I’m not about to make a mistake. I don’t want to start again.
She’s still admiring those flowers. Her husband told her at breakfast, she says. It’s been in all the papers. She hopes I’m able to bear it. It must be such a troubling reminder of the past.
Troubling – there’s a word for it. I turn my attention to the hem of her skirt, shrinking from the urge to reply. The sooner I finish, the sooner we can both move on. Cranbrook likes reminders, even after all these years. When I first arrived to live with my brother, I hoped to be Miss Ollive the dressmaker, to foster the presumption of my spinsterhood, of my blank and loveless past. But Cranbrook soon gathered up the pieces of my tale, and almost as adeptly as I can sew a gown, the town stitched it all together and found Mrs Paine – shunned wife of a rabble-rouser, a republican, a revolutionary. Cranbrook looked upon my dresses differently after that.
She keeps on talking about him. It seems the French lock up everyone, she says, even those so committed to their cause. I don’t want to think about him in prison; filthy, half-starved, trapped in the shadow of the guillotine. He doesn’t fare well in confinement; I know that better than most. Perhaps he will escape, just like he did before, when we lived together in Lewes and failed to pretend to be happy. Perhaps he will board a ship and sail for America again. I pray he does. He might well write that the world is his country, but it’s America which resists him the least.
She’s gone quiet, let her remarks fall away like the offcuts of material scattered on the floor. I’m glad. I don’t talk about Tom; I never have, not since we agreed to part ways, agreed to stay silent on all that had passed between us. Now the only words we have are in our letters; infrequent, but sincere and tenderly meant. This lady in her rose dress wouldn’t understand. Cranbrook wouldn’t understand. They’d say I was still his wife, but I haven’t been that for twenty years, if I ever truly was at all.