Saturday, 30 January 2016

My Cabinet of Curiosities: A Chestful of Treasures by Elizabeth Laird

Cassandra Winslow's chest

Miss Winslow was a well-to-do farmer's daughter in Oxfordshire, and this chest contained the trousseau she took into her marriage in around 1810. Remarkably, many items still remain: lawn caps, lengths of exquisite lace, a deep-fringed silk shawl, net mittens. They've been joined by later arrivals: baby vests, strips of embroidery brought back from China by an adventurous family member, a black taffeta apron with fancy tassels. All these items were carefully hoarded by Cassandra Winslow's daughters and granddaughters down the generation. I inherited the chest and its trove of contents from my mother-in-law, who had loved to look through it. It impressed me mightily, and I will always treasure it.

Some of the chest's contents

We are all, of course, made up of multiple strands of inheritance. And the more we travel around the globe, mixing and marrying all over the place, the more diverse our family histories become.

To my husband's family, Cassandra Winslow's chest meant femininity, domesticity and elegance. But it was originally a military chest, made for an officer in the army or navy, as the label still pasted into it shows. Whenever I look at it, I think of a very different thread of family story.

The label inside the chest

My grandmother's grandfather was a poor farm boy in Ulster, so unhappy in his foster home that at the age of nine he ran away. He was quickly pressed into the navy, where he became a powder monkey, one of that band of urchins whose job it was, when a battle was underway, to carry cartridges of gunpowder up from the magazine in the bowels of the ship to the sweating gunners on the gun decks, a job fraught with danger. His name was John Allan.

John Allan's adventures in the navy, the battles in which he fought, the thrilling rescue of the army at Corunna, his years as a French prisoner of war, his eventual emigration to New Zealand with his sturdy sons, and their new lives as pioneer farmers, were the stuff of legend to me as a child. There's only one thing to do with material as rich as that, and that's to turn it into fiction, and so I wrote Arcadia, the hardback cover of which featured a picture of my old linen chest, with the contents artistically draped over the edges. The novel is now sadly long out of print, but has, like so many other books, a shadowy afterlife thanks to and other such websites.

 Why did I never write another historical novel for adults? I'm not sure. I tried, but somehow the siren call of young fiction drew me back. Old John Allan and his thrilling naval adventures were also the inspiration for Secrets of the Fearless, my first historical novel for children. 

There's something especially heart-warming about history seen through the perspective of one's own ancestors' experiences. One feels a close connection, a blood tie, that makes the history come alive, and that feeling, one hopes, flows through the pen on to the paper and into the imagination of the reader. I am delighted that researching one's ancestors has now become such a popular activity in the UK. The many online archives make discoveries easy, and help people to connect with our history in a way that can only enhance their lives – and the culture of our whole nation.

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