“The first division of this continent towards the west is Iberia, as we before stated. The greater part of this country is but little fitted for habitation; consisting chiefly of mountains, woods, and plains covered with a light meagre soil, the irrigation of which is likewise uncertain. The part next the north, which borders on the ocean, is extremely cold, and besides its rugged character, has no communication or intercourse with other [countries], and thus to dwell there is attended with peculiar hardship.” Strabo, Geography Book III, Chapter I
Bilbao at that time was not the most obvious destination for a young guy in search of adventure; but it was the one place I’d been offered on that exchange program. The center of the Basque region, the city was depressed; shipyards and steelworks struggling to compete with the Far East. There was an anarchic despair to the place deepened by the local team’s catastrophic defeat by Juventus that summer. Although Bilbao was not as unfit for habitation as Strabo’s text implied, it was still a relief every time the sun lit up its gray Atlantic walls.
I’d arrived in Spain less than two years after Franco’s death; a period of great political change. There were crucial elections that June which gave folk hope of a second, hopefully democratic, revolution. But there was also a strong local separatist movement. That cocktail was exciting enough for a young man in search of adventure. I experienced it first-hand when the riot-police fired gas on a crowd I was drinking with.
I met Françoise during a visit to the local Gallery Lazarus. A young artist called Mikel Díez Alaba was exhibiting his Japanese-inspired paintings and causing quite a stir in the local press. I’d been recommended to see the exhibit by my Spanish friends. Reluctantly I did. As I’ve said, I was somewhat stunned when that gorgeous woman accepted my cheesy pick-up line. I panicked about where to take her. But luckily she knew…
MFA167775 Green Summer, 1864 (gouache on paper) by Burne-Jones, Sir Edward (1833-98) gouache on paper 29×48.5 Private Collection English, out of copyright
One of the themes of my novel Love in Lindfield is the possible identity of the woman that Charles Eamer Kempe once tried to propose to. He remained a bachelor but it’s said that in proposing once, his stammer was so bad, the lady finished his sentence in a different way and he never dared try again. One of my long-shots is Georgie Macdonald or Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones as she is better known, later the wife of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She was one of four sisters born to a Birmingham Methodist family; the others married the painter Edward Poynter, the future PM Baldwin and a certain Mr Kipling (not Rudyard, but his father). She is pictured above in two images by her husband, one a portrait, one with her sisters and below as the model in the picture King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid. She first met Charles Kempe when he was assisting Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti on the Oxford Union mural.
Georgie was the rock right at the heart of the pre-Raphaelite movement, but she was an accomplished artist in her own right too, and a Trustee of the South London Gallery and was one of the first women to be elected to a parish Council: Rottingdean, near Brighton in Sussex, the village next to Ovingdean where Kempe was born. There’s a story that I love about her concerning when a mob surrounded her house in Rottingdean at the time of the siege of Mafeking and she had to be rescued by her nephew Rudyard after she’d put out a feisty protest banner: “We have killed and also take possession.”
There’s speculation about whether she had an affair with William Morris, he was certainly a great admirer, and her husband something of a philanderer. But Georgie, herself, seems to me to have been very much her own woman. My speculation about the early meeting with Kempe is just that, although she does write favourably about the impression he made on her. Somehow, I think she might have been just what he needed in a wife but her heart was by then already taken.
Grace King wrote “The past is our only possession in life”. She was born in New Orleans in 1851. Her family had an aristocratic background but was impoverished by the American Civil War. Grace King eventually found her living in writing; among her subjects were other women who had been put in the same situation. Her first novel Monsieur Motte (1888), brought her to the attention of the Hartford Literary set including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). I am in her debt as she provided the link between Twain and Frederic Church the painter. Her descriptions of her visit to the Clemenses in Hartford: “Life with them followed the simplest and most practical lines. Worldly deviations and social complications were ignored…the two daughters [Susy and Clara Clemens] were the more entrancing of characters I have ever met in my life. They were both beautiful in every way;” and later her visit with them to the Church’s mansion in the Catskills in 1892: “Could anything in nature be more beautiful;” form a key part of my story. After her visit to “Orlana” as she called it, she set off to explore Europe. I also included a description of her visit to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris in a later chapter and sneaked a reference to her visit to Warwick Castle into Death in Leamington as well! Thank you Grace King.
Aldeburgh in Suffolk, the setting for my first novel Searching for Amber, is also the backdrop to Benjamin Britten’s tragic opera Peter Grimes. I’ve woven many of the elements into my story, including use of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia to mark the passage of time in the book.
Peter Grimes’s libretto was adapted by Montagu Slater from the narrative poem, “Peter Grimes,” in George Crabbe’s book The Borough. The “borough” of the opera is a fictional village which shares some similarities with Crabbe’s, and later Britten’s, own home town.
It was first performed at Sadler’s Wells in London on 7 June 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall, and was the first of Britten’s operas to be a critical and popular success. It is still widely performed, both in the UK and internationally, and is considered part of the standard repertoire. In addition, the Four Sea Interludes were published separately (as Op. 33a) and are frequently performed as an orchestral suite. The Passacaglia was also published separately (as Op. 33b), and is also often performed, either together with the Sea Interludes or by itself.
The Greek scholar Strabo lived at the time of Augustus/Tiberius and is often known as the Father of Geography thanks to his major work The Geographica. He originated from Amasya, now in North East Turkey. Although this major work was extremely comprehensive and based on both his own travels and those of many others, it was rarely used until Latin and then Greek editions were made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The first English translations appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.
It’s a copy of the first 1854 Hamilton edition, owned by Frederic Church the American painter, that inspires Finn, our protagonist, to make his own journey around the Mediterranean. On a visit to Olana, Church’s amazing Moorish palace in the Catskills, the archivist Eve shows Finn the copy given to Church by his wife for Christmas in 1879. It’s a reference in this volume to Olane: “one of the treasure storehouses on the Araxes river,” that inspired the original choice of the name Olana for the Churches’ home. Eve’s letters to Finn during his travels: her Letters to Strabo, form the spine of the ensuing love story. In a way, I guess they might also have been called her Letters from Olana. Given ensuing events, Strabo certainly had a lot to answer for…
Elephants play a thematic role in my second novel Death in Leamington. The death of businessman Arish Nariman who grew up watching these beasts in the timber jungles of Sri Lanka leads to a full-blown murder investigation. The location of the “elephant wash” where the circus owner Sam Lockhart reputedly bathed his elephant troupe in the River Leam is a further link. And the gruesome fate of Nariman’s murderer is a final reminder to the reader that “elephants never forget”.
Love in Lindfield is based on the life of Charles Eamer Kempe, the Victorian stained glass painter, who lived in our village. He never married but suffered from a debilitating stammer. There’s a great story in his biography that Kempe confided to his disciple, John Lisle, “that there had been only one woman in his life, but that, stuttering out his declaration , the lady had kindly helped him out — with quite the wrong interpretation of this intention — he never had the pluck to try again.”
I took this as a challenge to identify the various women he knew that this might have referred to. One of my favourite candidates is Frances Wolseley, pictured above. She was an amazing woman in her own right, starting a school for lady gardeners near Lewes. Although they were separated by a generation, they spent a lot of time together and even if the relationship never matured they were certainly soul-mates. You’ll have to read the book to find out who the other candidates were!
One of the inspirations for Finn’s journey around the Med in Letters to Strabo is Mark Twain’s first commercially successful novel: The Innocents Abroad. I use it with quotes to track Finn’s progress. It’s amusing and well-worth reading. But as I explored this connection further I discovered that the tragedies of Samuel Clemens’s (Twain’s) later life had meaning also for Finn’s own life-journey. The photo above of Samuel with his beloved wife Livy and his three daughters Susie, Clara and Jean (and their cute dog Hash) was taken in the last days of their childhood innocence. Clara on the left, whom he called ‘the sasmill’ because of her unruly spirit outlived Twain by 50 years and secured his reputation. Finn rediscovers her story in Zurich. Susie the eldest died young but the tale of her experiences at Bryn Mawr has an unexpected and disturbing effect on Eve’s friend Eve when they visit Twain’s house in Hartford. And Jean, the brave animal-lover who struggled with epilepsy is an inspiration to him and Eve for her sheer determination and love of life.
The opening of my new novel Letters to Strabo is set at this wonderful house. The protagonist, Finn, is inspired by his visit to Frederic Church’s house called Olana in the Catskills. Travelling in Mark Twain’s footsteps, he falls for the archivist called Eve he meets there…”I won’t try to describe the sunset to you, but it felt like we should be staring at it on our knees.”
Eve to Finn: “I thought of you again today as I was passing Picnic Point. Do you remember that beautiful day?”
One of my challenges when writing Searching For Amber was how to link the two main locations: Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast and Coggeshall in Essex. Amber’s flight from the clutches of the villain Sam Crow was the solution. In researching this I came across the unusual depiction of this crocodile in stained glass half way along the route. Do you know where this is?