So often when we’re reading a book or article, it resonates with us on some level, echoing pieces of our lives in the spaces between the words. It’s mostly because authors imbue the words they write with pieces of themselves and, after all, we are all human. Our stories are familiar because they are universal. Most of the time it’s the experience of the mundane that colours our prose with a sense of tangible reality, but every now and then something truly spectacular or profound happens in an author’s life and it’s hard to encompass that in a way that gives depth and meaning to the book that they write.
It’s approaching the release date for my latest book, Saltire Rising (pre-order here for delivery on 31/10/16), and this was one such book. It’s been sat on my hard drive for the best part of two years while I struggled with it, trying to put into fiction something that altered me at every level. Whether I succeeded or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide, but I thought it was important to also explain the story behind the story because it’s worthy of a novel in its own right.
In August of 2014 I had an idea for a book. It was going to be a gritty novel about human trafficking, inspired by an article I’d read about container ships. Realising how very little I knew about the shipping industry, I wrote to Maersk and asked them if anyone there would be able to answer a few questions, not really expecting anyone to respond. To my surprise, I entered into correspondence with a man called Brian (thereafter known as “the lovely Brian”) who patiently answered my questions.
On the 19th September 2014 he responded to one of my emails and when his reply arrived, I happened to be sitting at my mother’s kitchen table in Wales where I was visiting for my annual holiday. My phone pinged and when I saw whence the message came, my enthusiasm must have been evident because my mother asked who I was so excited to be hearing from. When I explained who Brian was and why we were corresponding, she gave me a strange look and asked if I was aware that my grandfather, Anthony (Tony) Pearson, had been one of the pioneers of containerisation and had written treatises on the subject.
I was stunned. I’d had absolutely no idea. I’d known he was involved in shipping somehow, but he and my mother had fallen out when she was a teenager and he died when I was 13 without ever having reconciled with my mum. I never met him. I knew nothing of his family, other than that they were from South Africa. I’d always assumed that my creativity came from my dad, but as my mum opened up about her family for the first time I began to question that assumption. It turned out that her aunt Dione, my great aunt, had also been a prolific author. The family were aware that she published romance novels under a pen name but she took that name to her grave. The only book of hers I have been able to find is a book of natural remedies she compiled, but I have written to the publisher to ask if they have any records that may help me find her other works.
It struck me that there was a whole side of my family history that I was completely ignorant of, so I set the book aside and began tracing my family tree. Thus began an obsession that I expect I’ll pursue for the remainder of my life.
Almost immediately I hit a dead end. My grandfather’s mother Maude, my great-grandmother, had been shipped out to the Cape Colony as a baby to keep her a secret because she was the illegitimate child of someone in the aristocracy.
Her entire childhood, Maude had believed that Ellen and Reginald Jackson were her real parents. It’s even listed on her marriage certificate that she was born in the Cape Colony. It wasn’t until she started a family of her own that they sat her down and explained that they had in fact been paid to take her away to keep her a secret because she was illegitimate. They told her who her father was and that she had in fact been born in Dartmouth in England. Unfortunately they didn’t know who her mother was, just that she had been a seamstress.
With hindsight, there was an amount of circumstantial evidence that the couple had been sponsored by someone powerful and wealthy to take her to the Cape. Reginald had worked as a skilled labourer in the UK and Ellen had not worked at all. The 1901 census shows him as a carpenter and the couple were living in a working community. When they arrived in South Africa, he had enough money to purchase a factory. They also sent Maude to a very expensive, very exclusive Catholic school run by nuns. That in itself was unusual, given that the vast majority of the region at that time was Dutch Reform Church. When I wrote to the school to ask if they had any records from that time, they were initially very excited to assist me and then, when I sent them Maude’s details, they cut off all contact with me and refused to respond to any further messages. The departure of the Jacksons from the UK was not registered on any shipping manifest at the time. They simply vanish from UK record after 1901.
Maude was devastated by the revelation. For 40 years she searched for a clue to her mother’s identity, but it was in vain. She died in 1960 without ever learning her mother’s name.
It took me six months to learn her father’s identity and I found it in some documents drafted by Maude’s daughter directly from her mother’s verbal account that had been shipped over from South Africa, wending their way through several members of the family across two generations as various relatives tried to unravel the mystery.
Maude’s father, according to the couple that adopted her, was none other than Sir William Milbourne James, who would later go on to be an Admiral in the British Navy. His naval training took place in Portsmouth, near Dartmouth, and he was confirmed to have been in that area at the time Maude was born. His military career was extraordinary, including becoming the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander in Chief of Portsmouth and Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Later in life, after WW2, he became involved with politics and, the thing that means the most to me, he became a prolific author. The family resemblance between Maude and her father, and indeed between both my mother and my aunt and the Admiral, is striking.
He was perhaps most famous, though, for being ‘Bubbles’ from the Pears Soap adverts.
It turns out that his grandfather was one of the founding members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, John Everett Millais, who was married to Effie Gray. Theirs was a love story that utterly scandalised Victorian Britain and was extraordinary for its day. As well as John’s art and Effie’s modelling for him, both of them were also authors.
This relationship was integral to the actions that were taken after Maude’s birth. The scandal surrounding Effie’s annulment from John Ruskin and subsequent marriage to Millais had caused them to be banned from any event at which Queen Victoria was present. It put them in a difficult place in society and the Queen did not relent until Millais was dying in 1896. While Effie died in 1897, it’s not unreasonable to think that an illegitimate child fathered by her grandson on a servant less than 5 years after the family had been forgiven by the Queen and brought back into the fold of society might have provoked a strong response to protect the family’s reputation.
I searched for Maude’s mother for months, even going so far as taking a DNA test, but I had no luck. Expanding the family tree outwards found a relative on my grandmother’s side who had married into Scottish royalty, allowing me to trace that part of my tree all the way back through Robert the Bruce to the 12th Century. As exciting as that was, I had my heart set on finding Maude’s mother.
Eventually I set it aside and went back to working on the book. After all I had been through, I couldn’t bring myself to write the human trafficking story, so instead I pulled together all the strands of my family history and began to write a love story that spanned 300 years and set it around Scotland, my home and the country of my roots. It’s the backdrop for every grand love affair in my family’s past and the words flowed easily, pouring out in a great stream. I set it around the women, as my story was focused around Effie, Maude and me. Caitriona MacDonald, the laird’s daughter. Grace Rushforth, the disgraced aristocrat. Marsaili Cameron, the data indexer.
When it was done and I was waiting for beta readers to get back to me, I returned to the puzzle of my family and decided that I was part of an extraordinary legacy. I come from a long line of celebrated authors and it occurred to me that a family library would be a remarkable heirloom to pass on to any of my nephews or nieces that displayed a spark of creativity. To that end, I ordered a couple of books written by my great-great-grandfather Bubbles, one of which was The Order of Release – a collection of love letters between Effie Gray and John Everett Millais.
To my deep and abiding astonishment, Bubbles had written in the foreword a throwaway comment that he had spent his shore leave at the family house in Perth where he had happy memories of spending time with his grandmother. With shaking hands, I logged straight onto the genealogy database and searched for the house in the census records. Less than two minutes later, it was on my screen and there she was. The seamstress.
After more than a century and 3 generations of women trying to understand where they came from, I finally had the answer. I cried like a child because I couldn’t help but feel desperately sad for Maude and for her daughters that had died without ever knowing their mother and grandmother, despite all their efforts.
In a bizarre twist to the tale, her name was Grace MacDonald. Call it fate, call it synchronicity, call it what you want…in my heart, I believe that I was destined to find her.
I am still seeking the final documents that confirm the proof beyond all doubt, but the extraordinary lack of them speaks volumes in itself. Grace MacDonald has a record right up until 1901, the year before Maude is born, and then she simply vanishes from the face of the earth. No birth, marriage, death or census records. She simply disappears, exactly the same way that Maude, Reginald and Ellen Jackson did. Make of that what you will.
So there you have it. The story behind the story. The weight of the ages has settled on me in a blanket of expectation, profoundly altering who I am as a woman and as an artist. The echoes between the words and hopes of generations have filled me and I hope that, one day, the echoes between my words will resonate so loudly within someone’s humanity that they are inspired to go on a journey of discovery as incredible as mine.