People I Keep Thinking About

I have just finished Rule! and launched it, with hopes for a happy voyage on the cold, gigantic ocean of self-published books. There, it will probably bob quietly, and will certainly never win a battle nor carry home a prize cargo. Fortunately, it’s probably not going to sink either, and the people who happen to find it will, I hope, be glad that they did.

I’m moving on to my next book, Promise, now. There are thoughts lingering about the characters of Rule! and A Perfect Plan. They are still very vivid in my mind, and I need to tuck them away and stop revisiting them for a while so I can start new stories. Here are my feelings about these characters.

Charlemagne (in Rule!, “The Decision”):  Building an empire is hard. Converting the people you’ve conquered is even harder. What a complex, overburdened man Charles I, King of the Franks must have been. An enlightened man in the Ninth Century, a truly unenlightened time, he believed in education, even for the women of his court. Though he was not raised to be literate, he took on the task of learning to read under Father Alcuin’s tutelage. He must have had such high hopes for his rule and his people, and we know he dealt with grave decisions and no doubt with great disappointments. I especially liked his younger sister, Gisela (Gisela, Abbess of Chelles), and want to believe she really did offer her brother some much-needed support as he contended with conflicting military and religious demands. From her known history, it’s clear she would have been capable of that. Father Alcuin (Alcuin of York), also another fascinating historic figure who has a role in this story.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (in Rule!, “Eleanor at Fontevraud”): Eleanor was a remarkable and powerful woman who indeed lived “enough life for ten old women” in an era that was unkind to almost everyone, and notably to women. When she “retired” to the remarkable convent of Fontevraud, she went directly from stomping the battlements of Mirabeau Castle directing troops against her own grandson to a cloistered and contemplative life. How did her few final years go? We don’t know, but I hope she was able to make peace with her life. I dreamt and wept my way through writing the last pages of this story.

Before I wrote “The Malcontents,” I didn’t know much about the Walpole family except that they figured in our family tree a long way back. I still don’t know very much – that notable family has a long, rich history. But, I tracked back the names I knew and looked them up, and in Burke’s Genealogical History of the Landed Gentry, there it was – Sir Henry de Walpole was seized by King John I and imprisoned for treason. What a stir that would have made at Walpole Manor, and how much his son, John de Walpole, would have had to suddenly do and understand. And, of course, that goes logically to their involvement with the Barons’ WarRunnymede, and Magna Carta, which should never, I now understand, be called the Magna Carta. (Rule!, “The Malcontents”)

The story of Marion Boyd, the first mistress of King James IV of Scotland is historically so dramatic that “Good Mistress” almost told itself. The involvement of the colorful Archibald “Bell the Cat” Douglas, the incredibly dramatic events of that time, and the contrast between life at court and at home provide an accurate backdrop for Marion’s very moving story. I came to love the characters and sturdy, beautiful Scotland of the late 14- and early 1500s. (Rule!, “Good Mistress”)

George Walker was an Anglican minister in Ulster, Ireland who at sixty-nine years of age became the mayor of a city under siege, a position which took him into several battles. I struggled with “Londonderry” because Walker was not very personal in his writing, which fits the style of the time. He also was not in Londonderry when the incident of the closing of the gates took place. So, just as I did in “Eleanor at Fontrevaud,” I created characters  — in this case, the apprentice Thomas Hallinen and his master, Monsieur Bayard — to give the story “eyes.” The history of the siege is accurate, though, from the wonderful story of the Londonderry apprentices taking over the city gates through the final breaching of the river barrier eight months later. This was a fascinating story to research, and the results of that research, unsurprisingly, support George Walker saying “People do terrible things to each other in the name of God.” (Rule!, “Londonderry”)

I wrote “New Land” to introduce the Davies line, to look at the difficulty of acquiring English land in the early 1800’s, and to re-visit Kitty (Catherine Nelson Matcham) and George Matcham of A Perfect Plan, who remain my absolute all-time favorite characters.  It also sets the direction of some of the Matcham family’s settling in Australia and Tasmania, demystifies the role of a “half-pay” lieutenant — that staple of Regency romance books — and introduces some nice new people. (Rule!, “New Land”)

“St. Helena” develops a puzzling, intriguing story that has bounced around our family history for a long time. It is said that Helena Adelaide Anderson (who married Horatio Nelson Davies) was named for St. Helena Island, where she was born after her family was shipwrecked there. I went looking through shipwreck records of 1820 – 1830 (which are abundant, but not complete by any means) to support the story. For months, I focused on routes around Africa, because that was the route from the East to Britain that was most familiar. I found nothing useful, though were many shipwrecks. Then, one semi-enlightened day, I looked up “clipper ships,” as that’s the type of ship we’d always heard about in this story. Lo and behold, such ships didn’t become common until later in the 19th Century. This took me to the heavier East Indiaman freighters that had preceded them, sort of the 18-wheelers of the early 1800s. And, this directed me westward to find the route. It’s interesting that one would head east from China  – “the East” – to get to “the West.” That’s what we get for living on a spherical planet! I found that East Indiamen regularly — and at considerable risk — rounded Cape Horn and passed through the Straits of Magellan at the bottom of South America on the “China” run to and from England. One of them, The Repulse, sort of fell off the record around 1829, and St. Helena Island was one of the (very!) few landfalls in the vast South Atlantic it could have neared after passing through the Straits. Suddenly, the old family story made some sense, and, bonus! I was able to write about a very interesting place, St. Helena Island, one of the most remote of the British colonies. It may illuminate this perspective of the Island to consider that for Napolean Bonaparte’s final exile by Britain, he was firmly tucked away on St. Helena, which is where he died. (Rule!, “St. Helena”)

“Lucknow” was the story I dreaded writing the most, even when it was only a concept. The Siege of Lucknow was terrible. Its horror grew out of the awful problems in Indian/British relations that accumulated during the long British involvement in India. These problems precipitated the violent 1857 rebellion of Indian soldiers (sepoys) against British rule. In his journal, Robert Patrick Anderson, who was the older brother of Helena Adelaide Anderson, wrote eloquently about the siege. It took place, literally, on his doorstep. Patrick’s house became an outpost under his command. I didn’t know how to approach Lucknow in a measured way but finally decided to present it through Patrick’s later effort at recovery, which gave me the chance to focus on his personality and on both sides’ grievances and also to stand away a bit from the combination of tedium, anger, fear, and horror that characterized daily life during that siege. I like Patrick — he was a witty and an interesting, deeply committed man, both as family man and soldier. I am grateful for the expert help I received for this story from friends and family, about PTSD and also about Indian attitudes toward the British occupation, the Raj. (Rule!, “Lucknow”)

The final story, “We Are the Raj,” is a chance to take a better look at Helena Adelaide Anderson Davies, “Addie,” and also at Major General Horatio Nelson Davies, as well as Robert Patrick Anderson. Frankly, when I first looked at the data I had about Addie I thought, “Holy cow! What a battle-axe!” But I’ve had to reconsider her as I put this book together. Addie was a very strong woman who believed in and adhered to the demanding standards set for Victorian matrons. These were exacerbated by the rather complicated and strangely restricted life British military wives lived in Asia in the 19th Century. As Addie says in the story: “…the officers’ wives had always to be poised, no matter what. We always had to look as if we were in control.” Addie had her share of pain and then some, and weathered it well, whatever it cost her. This story takes a peek at the incredible strain that sometimes lived behind that very substantial facade. It also wraps up the British Empire aspects of the book. We’ll see a little more of Addie in Promise. (Rule!, “We Are the Raj”)

‘Seduced and Abandoned’

… and I want to say something about Anne (who her family called Nancy) Nelson from A Perfect Plan. When I was writing this, my first book, I put out feelers, segments about the Nelson family, at an authors’ site. I was seeking feedback from other writers. I wasn’t surprised when a well-meaning writer said “Nancy’s story is ‘seduced and abandoned.’ So what? It’s old stuff – it’s not interesting.” I appreciated the feedback, but the comment stuck in my mind and I started reading through my sources from that perspective.

First of all, it is quite likely that Nancy was seduced and abandoned in London when she was an apprentice there. We know that she cut her apprenticeship short and came back home. We also know that she died when she was twenty-three, in Bath, and was buried there. That’s about all we hear about her. Researchers have ignored or been dismissive of her. The most telling, perhaps, is Mary Eyre Matcham’s thundering silence regarding Anne in her affectionate 1911 book The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe. Mary was writing from a Victorian cultural perspective. So, it seems likely that there was a scandal around Nancy.

In A Perfect Plan, I chose to represent Nancy as greatly weakened by her experience in London. It was not unusual during the 1700s for couples to already be parents or expectant parents at the time they married, however having a fatherless baby was a different matter — one that penalized the girl. I became irritated by the “So what?” attitude researchers show toward Nancy. “Seduced and abandoned” may be a cliché, but certainly has life-changing repercussions for the incipient mother, her family, and of course, often for the child.

Our hero Catherine Nelson (“Kitty”) was about thirteen years old when Nancy returned from London, and we know that for several years Kitty and Nancy made up a quiet little household with their father.  I see no question that her sister’s experience would have colored Kitty’s views of life and love. I also, frankly, wanted Nancy to have her place in the sun as a well-loved (this is documented through their father’s and brother’s letters) member of her family.

OK – I’ve said what I needed to about my people in Rule! and A Perfect Plan. Thanks for reading. Now, it’s on to writing Promise, which will tell some of the American family stories. Today, I start writing about Thomas Prater, who arrived at “Elizabeth Cities” (now Hampton, Virginia) in 1622. His descendant Martha Angelina Prather married James Harvey Atkinson. And… away we go!

Happy almost-summer!

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