I’m very excited that we are getting close to publication date for my new novel, Star of the Sea. It will be available from June 15th, and there’ll be a launch on June 10th at Preston Tower. Get in touch if you live locally!
Although, like the Cuthbert novels, it is set in the northeast – with some distant echoes of that Anglo-Saxon world – the focus is on a very different time, the eighteenth century. It is the story of my family of long ago.
I grew up in a Northumbrian country house where the portraits of my ancestors were hanging on the stairs and round unexpected corners. The artists had the knack of making it seem that the eyes of their subjects were always following one, and not always with the friendliest expressions. They watched me every time I ran up or downstairs, along corridors, outside my bedroom. I watched them back, staring at their old-fashioned clothes and stiff gilt frames, and wondered who they were.
Much later in life, that curiosity returned to me. I felt it was time to find out about my family, about where I had come from and how, if at all, it affected my life today. I decided to go as far back as I could, in terms of available records. The nineteenth century felt too close, too familiar. But there had always been a whiff of eighteenth century Jacobitism in the family, a story of a rebel ring that was still held by a descendent. It sounded intriguing. I would start there, I decided.
I soon learned that I had given myself not one, but two tasks. There was researching all I could find about the family in terms of wills and documents, losing myself for days on end in the impenetrable obfuscation of eighteenth-century legal language. At the same time I had to bring myself up to speed on the history of the eighteenth century. I soon became as gripped by it as I was by my family research. Why had I never understood how extraordinary a time it was? How its colonial wars shaped the nascent British empire, how new opportunities transformed society and changed what people ate and thought?
Of course, I was coming late to the party. As we become more aware of the legacy of the UK’s colonial past, many families are looking back to find out what their eighteenth-century ancestors were up to, and more particularly, to find out where their money came from. It has become part of the contemporary zeitgeist. It was a relief to discover that the slave trade did not feature in the Cresswell story, although it is true that all commerce of the later eighteenth century was stained indirectly with the same culpability.
I felt that what I discovered in the history of my ancestors, as well as personal stories of love and tragedy, was a microcosm of the social history of the time.
The Cresswells of the time were minor gentry with an estate and an ancient pele tower. Their main claim to fame was their longevity – they could claim to have been in residence since the thirteenth century at least and probably earlier. One of them married an illegitimate daughter of Edward IV, allowing them to bask in a distant connection to royalty.
In the eighteenth century, however, the family came perilously close to extinction. They managed to survive an involvement with the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and demolished the family chapel to erase all traces of Papism from their record. Only a few decades later, however, the longed-for son and heir came close to gambling the estate away on the racetrack before dying young. It was saved by the man who married the novel’s heroine, Elizabeth – one of eight Cresswell sisters. He had few pretensions to gentility.
He was called John Addison. Like his contemporary, James Cook, he served as an apprentice at 12 years old on the Whitby colliers, shipping Newcastle coal to London. When Cook finished his apprenticeship he joined the navy. John Addison started to buy shares in ships. For both men, the new age of sail offered a completely new route to wealth and social status. Cook was the son of an agricultural labourer; he became a naval captain and explorer. John Addison became a privateer and ended up as a shipping magnate with property in Yorkshire, Northumberland and London.
For John Addison, marrying into a gentry family like the Cresswells opened the doors to patronage. John and Elizabeth formed a relationship with the Mulgrave family, lords of Mulgrave Castle outside Whitby. The Mulgraves provided capital and commissions for John Addison’s business. Both sides made a fortune from shipping and naval supplying.
For Elizabeth, the relationship with the Mulgraves was never just about business. In later life it was to develop into romance, with heart-breaking consequences. But in the meantime, John Addison had made the Cresswell family his own, paying off the debts and marrying his nephew to the orphaned Cresswell heiress. The nephew, Francis Easterby, would change his name to Cresswell. The family continued – through the female line.
Which takes us to another thread in the novel; the female side of the story. There is a ghostly legend associated with the ancient tower. Long ago, the daughter of the house fell in love with a Danish prince rescued from a shipwreck. When the prince returned to claim her hand, her brothers fell upon him and murdered him for his gold. She leapt from the top of the tower to die in his arms. Whenever stormy weather is blowing, the legend goes, the white lady of the tower can be seen on the beach, running to and fro, calling for her lover.
In the novel, Elizabeth becomes aware of the spirit’s presence early in her childhood. Like the old statue of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, in the church nearby, it supports her through the losses of her life. The nurturing and enduring feminine presence both represent is counterpointed against the violence of the struggle for wealth and power that so preoccupied our eighteenth-century ancestors – or, to be more precise, our male ancestors. Eighteenth century women were excluded from property ownership and politics, from business and the professions. Marriage was the only route to an independent life. Many of them spent their adult lives struggling with childbirth and enduring the shockingly high rates of infant and child mortality that haunted the nursery. Smallpox and typhoid were common killers. Grace Cresswell, Elizabeth’s mother, buried six sons in infancy. It was just as dangerous for the mothers. Two of the women who feature in the story died in their first confinement. The novel seeks to tell their story as well.
Writing the novel has certainly changed my understanding of where I came from. It is a gripping story; I hope that you’ll enjoy it too!