The profession or the jobs of your character does plays a major role in making your novel a hit.
That’s because a character’s profession affects the entire story.
A job or profession gives an indication of personality, class, wealth and motivation. You can use it as a stereotype or as a short-hand description or develop the character with it.
Just think for a moment. What character attributes would you give to a teacher?
Perhaps the teacher in your imagination is a dotty old professor. A man dressed in tweed with patches on his elbows, a mop of thick grey hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. He teaches classics and quotes passages from Cesar’s Gallic Wars.
Alternatively, the teacher of your imagination may be a young ambitious woman of Anglo-Caribbean descent who teaches physics. She wears a smart white lab coat and red, five-inch heel stilettos. She’s sassy. She drives a sports car and the boys in the class don’t know where to look when she comes into the lab.
Muriel Spark’s character Jean Brodie from the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a highly idealistic character with an exaggerated romantic view of the world. The phrases Spark gives her character are now clichés in the English language. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” “These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the years of one’s prime, always remember that.” ‘I am a teacher! First, last, always!’ Spark gives the character the name of the historical Jean Brodie the common law wife or mistress of Deacon Willie Brodie. Brodie was an Edinburgh cabinet maker and thief hanged from a gallows of his own design. The fictional Jean is doomed like her namesake whose husband was the was the inspiration for the gothic novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Now think about a taxidermist? Somehow there is always something a bit creepy about this job. Is it the association with dead things, the dismembering of bodies or the macabre nature of the results of their work – an animal that looks alive but is dead? The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Moss is a story in which ghosts and ghoulish patriarchal secrets, estranged female psyches, and tumultuous bird-life. All these elements coexist in a compulsively readable yarn.The novel is a cabinet of curiosities, a tale of sexual predation and female revenge. The protagonist Connie is bright, beautiful, determined, and has a very strong stomach. She’s a victim of traumatic memory loss. The plot involves her mind’s recuperation from obscene events 10 years ago. A crime opens the story. A woman’s corpse is found outside Blackthorn House, where Connie is attempting to stuff a jackdaw. The woman has been garrotted with taxidermist’s wire.
These examples show that giving your character a profession enables you to start building that character and the character, in turn, helps you to build the story. In my novel Sinclair, which is set in the late 18th century, Sinclair is a man of the Enlightenment who has rejected religion. This leaves him isolated from his family and much of society. He is a dedicated doctor who wants to heal people.
If the story is a realistic fiction, it’s best to avoid ridiculous characters and professions that don’t exist in the real world.On the other hand, if you are writing a general fiction story, an absurd and unrealistic profession is perfectly acceptable as long as you stick to the descriptions you have given about that character and his or her profession. For example, if you plan on writing a fantasy fiction, your character will probably include mythical creatures such as goblins, trolls, giants, or unicorns. The main character will possibly possess magical powers again consistency is the key here – what can your character do with magic and what are their limitations? Limitations are often the making of a character.
Even in Sci-fi, the best characters have jobs: Ship’s captain, the General of an invading army, the pilot or navigator of a space of underwater cruiser. Phillip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction novel describing humanity’s struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear war has irradiated the Earth, forcing humans to create a separate colony on Mars. Character Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who is about to have one bad day.
Unlike the bounty hunters of the Wild West, this space age cowboy will, within the space of twenty-four hours, have to kill six state-of-the-art androids, have an inter-galactic corporation mess with his mind, meet a metaphysical god twice, and discover an extinct animal.
Rick clearly lacks empathy for androids, his electric sheep, and for his wife which, in an ironic twist, is the very fault androids are accused of and as a result, they must be killed. Rick is a hypocrite, in a way he represents the hypocrisy of mankind. He punishes androids for lacking empathy when he’s the least empathetic person on the planet.
Some authors and screenwriters choose to write an ironic character that doesn’t match their profession. Other times, a profession can be used to create a twist in the plot. This is usually true for novels with a dramatic theme. A character could be shown doing something they don’t enjoy at all. They are bored of their ordinary life and their ordinary profession.
Take “Fight Club”, a book by Chuck Palahniuk for example; in this novel, his protagonist who is never named is a man who works as a product recall specialist. Our protagonist hates his job and his lifestyle. In this anti-capitalist story, the narrator attempts to treat his depression and insomnia through obsessive consumerism and knowledge of brands.
On a flight home from a business trip, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman with whom he begins to converse after noticing the two share the same kind of designer briefcase. After the flight, the Narrator returns home to find that his apartment has been destroyed by an explosion.
With no one else to contact, he calls Tyler and Tyler invite the Narrator to stay at his place but requests that the Narrator hit him first, which escalates into a minor fistfight. The Narrator then moves into Tyler’s home, a large dilapidated house in an industrial area of their city and begins assisting with Tyler’s handmade soap business. They have further fights outside the bar on subsequent nights, and these fights attract growing crowds of men.
The fighting eventually moves to the bar’s basement where the men form a structured club (“Fight Club”) which routinely meets to provide an opportunity for disaffected local men to fight safely for recreation. Ultimately, the story degenerates into a stop the bad guy destroying capitalism movie but the initial idea is interesting.
See also: 10 Things that can turn a character bad.
About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide in print or as an Ebook. Go to Amazon to find out more.
Sinclair Extracts -This scene was almost entirely edited out of the final version of the book. I enjoyed writing it as I was developing the characters of Sinclair and Greenwood. In these scenes, the men emerged as they appear in the final novel. The scene is based very loosely on the events surrounding the sinking of the East Indiaman, Halsewell in 1786 which was one of Britain’s greatest maritime disasters. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Once again he made his excuses early and retired to his cabin and as he lay on his bed thinking about the other passengers his attention was suddenly aroused by voices coming from below. He strained to hear what was going on. He was sure something was not right. He put on his greatcoat and his hat and set out to find out what was happening. With his lantern in hand he climbed the narrow flight of steps to the Saloon and opened the door but there was no sign of the Captain or the ship’s officers so he went on to the upper deck. The light from the Saloon skylights illuminated the ship’s deck. All was quiet on deck as he knocked on the Captain’s door. He waited then knocked again but still, there was no reply. A passing midshipman came to his aid. “I’m looking for Captain Richards,” he said holding the lantern up to see the man’s face.
“He’s down below, Sir,” replied the seaman. “We’re taking on too much water, see. There’s five feet of water in the ‘old. T’aint good if you ask me, sir, t’aint good. Refitted, she’s supposed to be an’ as good as new; t’aint good,” he muttered blowing out clouds of white breath into the freezing night air.
“Thank you,” said Sinclair hesitating not knowing the man’s name.
“Franklin, sir; my name’s Franklin,” the man said removing his hat and bowing. “The captain will have everything ship shape when ‘es got the pumps going. No need to worry sir, no need to worry.”
“Aye, well, thank you, Franklin, thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” replied the man as he disappeared into the shadows.
Unsure what to do next Sinclair returned to his cabin to find the commotion below replaced by the rhythmic thud of pumps and the unwelcome smell of stinking bilge water in the air. Above him, he could hear the muffled sounds of the women’s conversation as they prepared to settle down for the night. He lay in his cot thinking about what had happened and what Franklin had said and wondered if the ship was in danger. Then he heard the ship’s officers making their way to their beds. They made no mention of the commotion or the water in the hold so he told himself that everything was alright. He took out his pocket watch to check the hour; it was past 10 o’clock and time to be turning in for the night himself. As he lay in his cold and uncomfortable cot his thoughts began to wander as he recalled Franklin’s words. Taking on too much water was a serious thing, should he go back to the Captain and demand an explanation or should he leave things alone now that everything seemed to be under control? He held the thought in his mind for a moment then he decided on the latter course of action and pulled his coat over him to get warm. The lack of sleep from the previous night, the fresh sea air and the excitement of everything was taking its toll on him, he was exhausted. He closed his eyes and soon he was fast asleep.
He woke cold and to the sound of pumping in the hold. He washed and dressed quickly without shaving wondering if he should grow a beard then pulling his coat over his shoulders he made his way to the Saloon where his fellow passengers were already up and warming themselves on a barely adequate brass charcoal brazier. When he had taken tea and a bowl of porridge he made his way onto the deck again. The sunshine of the day before had been replaced with a blanket of thick grey cloud and a fine drizzle of snow was filling the crevices in the deck planking as he walked the length of the ship. Above him, the great sails were hanging stiff and motionless covered in a thick coat of ice and salt and the ship was motionless, becalmed in a flat grey sea that seamlessly merged with the sky in whatever direction he looked.
As the morning progressed the snow became heavier and Captain Richards was forced to order his men to clear the decks with brooms. In the Saloon, the women chatted and sewed while Sinclair read his book. The room was warm and steamy, the skylights, obscured by a lace of dense condensation that dripped intermittently onto the dining table provide a feeble grey light. As the snow fell on the outside it silently slid down the panes forming icy drifts at the bottom. The day’s light faded and the wind began to fill the sails again. This time it was coming from the south and much to everyone’s delight the ship began to move again.
At supper, Sinclair fell into conversation with the handsome Captain Greenwood a young man like himself intent on forging a successful career in the East. He was a retired British Army officer who like so many others had been let go after the defeat in America. Greenwood, much to Sinclair’s chagrin, was admired by both the men and the women on board. His good looks and easy temperament seemed to smooth all his social interactions. He was gracious, charming and good company. He spoke eloquently of his experience in the American War telling Sinclair that he had had a mainly diplomatic role and had not seen much in the way of fighting. His main role had been in organising the evacuation of New York in 1783; he told Sinclair that he had sailed from Nova Scotia up the mighty Hudson River with his commanding officer Sir Guy Carleton the last British Army and Royal Navy commander in British North America to a conference with General Washington at Orangetown to discuss how what was left of the British Army and the thousands of ordinary people who had remained loyal to the Crown were to be removed from the new and Independent country of America.
Greenwood recalled the animated discussion between Washington and his commander of the subject of Negroes, a subject he understood well as his family owned a good many of them on what he called their small Jamaican plantation, and how Carleton had refused to return those men of colour he considered to be free saying that they could go anywhere they wanted which had incensed Washington and the Americans much to Carlton’s delight but that it was something his father would have been furious about too because slaves were a man’s property and jolly expensive too. Then he told him how he and a group of fellow officers had removed the cleats and greased the flagpole of the fort in New York so that the victorious Americans could not remove the Union Jack without chopping the flagpole down as their parting gift to the victors. How they had howled with laughter he said. They drank a bottle of claret and played a game of chess after supper and Sinclair found himself feeling quite jealous of this man of easy conversation and conscience. Greenwood it seemed had no moral qualms about slavery and seemed to accept the world as he found it. For him what was moral was what most people accepted as normal, he was comfortable in the world and saw no reason to change it. After their game, they made their way to their cabins and said good night both feeling happy and relaxed for the first time.
The next morning Sinclair was woken abruptly by the sound of his books falling on the floor. The ship’s rafters were creaking and the wind was whistling through the leaky wooden hatch covering his porthole. The ship was listing at a good 20 degrees making it difficult to get about and impossible to shave so he dressed quickly and headed to the Saloon for breakfast. This was the first time he had really needed his sea legs. The ship was being buffeted by the wind and ploughing at speed through wall after wall of white-topped waves. He made his usual sortie onto the deck and met Mr. Hodge doing the same.
“Bracing isn’t it?” said Hodge holding onto his hat.
“Aye, you could say that,” replied Sinclair. “It’s a wee bit rough for my liking,” he said looking out at the rows of white horses prancing on top of the ocean.
“Ah, this is nothing laddie, wait till we get to the Cape. You’ll know what a rough sea is when you’ve been through that.”
“I look forward to it,” he shouted against the wind. His teeth were already chattering and he was holding onto his hat. “I don’t think I’ll be out here long.”
“Come on then laddie, once round the deck then back inside,” Hodge shouted back and headed off towards the bow. Sinclair followed but when Hodge suggested that they do it again he declined and went below to lash his furniture to the floor and walls with a strong rope given to him by Franklin. He did the same for Greenwood but found that the ship’s officers had already done their own. By lunchtime, the wind was gusting into a gale and the ship was pitching and crashing through a battery of ten-foot waves.
Like the other passengers, he felt sick; he craved distraction from the fear that was welling up in his belly. The usually chatty women and girls were quiet. In one corner of the room Miss Morris was trying to sew, in the other, the Richards girls were trying to read, and perched on the lockers he could see Mrs. Evans and her daughters who were trying to distract themselves by knitting but they were physically shuddering at every creak and crack in the ship’s wooden hull as it lumbered through the barrage of waves. Sinclair was unable to read so he spent the afternoon playing whist with his fellow Scot, Mrs. Campbell. From his position at the table, he noticed that the wind now contained squalls of snow. With each gust, the skylights were covered with a thick layer of it which then slid down the panes forming little drifts that were washed away each time a wave broke over the gunwales. Mrs. Campbell looked over the top of her half-moon spectacles and tapped the table. “I can’t go. It’s your turn, Dr. Sinclair.” He looked at his cards, his hand was all hearts, he was going to win without much effort but he knew that he would not enjoy his victory.
In the hold, Captain Greenwood was with his men. They were all young and inexperienced, boys from farms and small towns unaccustomed to the confines of a ship. The lack of air in the hold coupled with the motion of the ship and the stink from the bilge was making them fatigued, disoriented and now as the ship pitched up and down they were vomiting freely across the deck and in their hammocks. Anything not tied down slewed across the stinking planks rattling backward and forwards through the pools of vomit and piss. For Greenwood and his men, the ship’s hold was beginning to feel like a condemned cell, a prison from which the only escape route was death.
As the afternoon went on Greenwood found himself having to assert his authority in disputes between his frightened men. On the one hand, he found himself quietening down spats between the more aggressive men and on the other reassuring those who were whimpering for their mothers in their hammocks. He was doing his best to maintain morale and keep his men under control but he was as seasick and as frightened as they were.
The afternoon drifted into the evening and the atmosphere in the ship was as tight as a drum skin. The ship lurched to starboard with a mighty crack. In the Saloon Sinclair found himself being flung to the floor. The table stayed in place but the chairs slewed across the floor crashing into the women passengers as they piled into the wall lockers on the starboard side and the plates and glassware crashed and smashed around inside them. He looked up and saw the hot coals from the upturned brazier searing the wooden lockers at the far end of the room. He pulled himself up and staggered towards the brazier and kicked the hot coals back into the pan.
The women slowly steadied themselves; their faces dazed and white with fright. They looked at each other and at the room; the chandelier was hanging at forty-five degrees and above them, they could hear the waves smashing into the deck. As they silently wondered what would happen next the ship suddenly righted itself sending them and all furniture hurtling back to the other side of the room. It was dark, the candles had gone out but the women picked themselves up again and started to search for the lights.
Mrs. Evans was the first to light one of the fallen candles using the hot coals in the brazier. In the gloom, Sinclair could see the young girls rubbing their bruised limbs and holding each other while Mrs. Campbell was scrabbling around of the floor looking for her spectacles and Miss Morris was searching for her shoes. The Richards girls who were crying and Mrs. Evans was reassuring her daughters. Sinclair pulled himself up from the floor and finished scraping up the scattered coals with the dustpan and the sole of his boot. Then a strange calm came over him. He mentally moved from passenger to doctor and found himself attending to each little group of women asking them about their injuries, checking their bumps and bruises and assuring them that they were no longer in danger. Much to his surprise, the women seemed to accept his reassurances and once he was sure that they were calm enough to be left he went to find out what had happened.
He climbed the narrow steps up to the door that led onto the deck and forced it open. Immediately he was blinded by a blast of snow-laden wind that stung his eyes and face. He put his hand up to protect his eyes and was able to make out a party of men struggling to tie down what was left of the mizzen mast at the back of the ship, this was the short mast that helped with steering and it had snapped in two and that he thought accounted for the awful crack they had heard in the Saloon. He stepped forward to ask what was happening but was immediately told to get back inside by Mr. Allsop. Reluctantly Sinclair obeyed and returned to the Saloon where he told the women that a small mast had snapped and that everything was now under control. He did not mention that without this small mast steering the ship would be more difficult as there was absolutely no point in alarming them further.
He sat down and took out his pocket watch, he rolled it in his hand and flipped the case open to check the hour, it was six o’clock and the wind was still screaming like a demonic choir outside. He felt isolated and alone as the exhausted women huddled together to comfort each other. Mrs. Campbell pulled a small prayer book from her bag and began to pray, “Thou O Lord, who stillest the raging of the sea, hear us, and save us, that we perish not. O blessed Saviour, who didst save thy disciples ready to perish in a storm, hear us, and save us, we beseech thee. Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. O Lord, hear us. O Christ, hear us.”
As he watched the group of praying women his thoughts turned to Voltaire again. He could see that in the face of overwhelming fear a belief if a supernatural father who would rescue them was an undeniable comfort, indeed as Voltaire himself had written, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” in other words “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” But for him, the act of prayer was one of self-delusion. How could the words of man alter the course of nature? His knowledge of science told him that it needed much more than words to do that. And then he thought about his own father and how he had spent his life attending to the needs of this tyrannical God trying to placate him with his prayers whilst ignoring or ridiculing his own child’s needs and fears and treating them as weaknesses that were to be beaten out of him. How could he believe in a god that would have such followers?
Just as he and the women passengers were beginning to get used to regular thumps of the vicious waves again, the ship rolled on its side again sending them and all the furniture flying like gaming counters against the cabin walls once more. The shock was just as great as the first time it had happened and they were all stunned into silence and fear seized their hearts and their tongues. They were in the dark again. He fumbled around in the pile of furniture and frocks searching for a candle. He found one and took a tinderbox from his pocket and lit it. When the ship had stopped moving Sinclair looked up to see the women sprawled across the lockers once again with their petticoats and stockings on full display and the saloon chairs jammed hard against them. They lay there waiting for the ship to right itself like it did before but this time there was no correcting movement, the ship simply sat in the water being battered by the waves listing at a horrifying 45 degrees.
He scrambled to his knees again steadying himself on the storage lockers while the women re-arranged their dresses and huddled together for comfort. A feeling of overwhelming loneliness flooded over him and he was unsure what to do. Fear was pulsing through his veins but he did not want to join the women in their prayers. He knew that if he was going to survive it would be due to Captain Richards’ seamanship or his own wits or a combination of both.
His suppressed panic was broken by the sound of an ear-splitting crack followed by a thunderous crash. His heart leaped and he let out a low groan, surely this was it, he was going to die! His mind was racing, the ship was breaking up and in moments he would be on his way to a cold watery grave. He felt the whole ship shudder from bow to stern then in one swift motion it righted itself again throwing him and the women around the Saloon. When the ship was the right way up again he scrambled to his feet. He was still holding the candle and found that by some miracle it was still alight. The Evans girls were screaming on the saloon floor refusing to stand up but before he could get to them the Captain’s daughters Eliza and Mary-Ann got to them and took them in their arms and started to comfort them. Their mother was helping Mrs. Campbell up to her feet and searching around on the floor for her spectacles again and Miss Morris was like Sinclair already on her feet and assessing the situation.
“What’s happening, Mr. Sinclair?” cried Mrs. Evans.
Sinclair looked to Miss Morris unsure what to say.
“I think the Captain has cut down the mast,” she replied for him.
“What!” exclaimed Mrs. Campbell smoothing down her clothes to regain some composure and putting her spectacles back on again.
“My uncle is trying to save the ship,” asserted the ashen-faced Miss Morris rubbing away the pain in her sprained wrist. “Now could you help me get these coals back in the brazier before we are on fire to boot?”
Sinclair was in the process of scooping up the coals with Miss Morris when Lieutenant Merrick opened the door to the saloon. “Good evening ladies, I know that you have had a dreadful fright but please be assured everything is under control now. The Captain will be along to see you shortly but as you can imagine he is somewhat occupied at the moment. Dr. Sinclair, would you please come with me, Mr. Hodge needs you.”
Sinclair looked around the room, “Is anyone injured?” he asked. The women shook their heads signalling that apart from more bumps and bruises they were well. “In that case, I will gladly come, Mr. Merrick,” he said and he followed the officer out of the room leaving the women to comfort each other.
I loved Mary Wesley’s books. I think I read them all in the 1980s and 1990’s before my children were born. I really enjoyed the TV adaptations too. Her work was refreshing, vivid and bittersweet, her style was effortless. She is a great influence on me still.
Mary Wesley, died aged 90. She amazed the literary world by having her first novel published when she was 70, in 1983.
She went on to write nine more (three of which were filmed for TV), figured regularly in the bestseller lists and was appointed CBE in 1995. A remarkably good-looking woman, she had a commanding presence and could appear reserved when meeting people she did not know. But she was much less confident than she seemed and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She was also a generous friend.
She often claimed that her novels were not autobiographical, but aspects of her life are reflected in the themes that run through them. A typical Wesley heroine is a young woman, damaged by parental dislike or neglect, who ties herself to a conventional man who does not understand her, only to find happiness later with an eccentric, tender lover, who values in her all the qualities no one else has recognised.
The third child of Colonel Harold Mynors Farmar and his wife, Violet, Mary Aline was born at Englefield Green, Windsor Great Park. She grew up hardly knowing her father and believing that her mother preferred her elder sister.
It was assumed that she would never have to work for her living and so she was not sent to school, which added to her isolation. Her beloved nanny was sacked when she was three and her minimal education was left to a series of foreign governesses.
Regretting this, in the 1930s she attended lectures on international politics and anthropology at the London School of Economics (60 years later she was awarded an honorary fellowship there).
She was presented at court and married Lord Swinfen in 1937. Having given birth to two sons, she had fulfilled her parents’ expectations, only to scandalise them when she left her husband. They were divorced in 1945. The second world war, which was to form the background to many of her novels, changed everything for her.
Like so many well-bred young women, she found work in intelligence. She once told an interviewer that the war years gave her generation a very good time: “an atmosphere of terror and exhilaration and parties, parties, parties”.
It was in 1944, dining at the Ritz, that she met Eric Siepmann, the Winchester and Oxford-educated playwright, and journalist. Siepmann’s father was German and his mother Irish. Her family strongly disapproved.
They lived together until his second wife could be persuaded to divorce him and then married in 1952, settling in Devon. Ten years after their first meeting he wrote in his autobiography, Confessions Of A Nihilist, that she was “somebody whom I really loved, who believed in God and who thought that loving meant what you give and not what you take”.
Their years together were so happy that Siepmann’s death in 1970 devastated Wesley. She felt as though she had been cut in half, “like a carcass at the butcher’s”. Siepmann had changed jobs frequently and never accumulated any capital, and his death left her bereft and without an income. Wesley sold her jewellery and knitted for whatever her customers could pay.
She had been writing for years but had no confidence in what she produced, in spite of her husband’s encouragement, and threw most of it away. Her first published works, in 1968, were two children’s books, and a third followed in 1983. It was only after Siepmann’s death that she found her voice.
Then, in Jumping The Queue, she wrote about a woman who could not bear to go on living after her beloved but eccentric husband’s death and planned a suicidal picnic.
This quirky, sad and very funny novel was quite unlike anything else that was being published in the early 1980s. Had it not been for the intervention of her friend Antonia White, it might have followed its predecessors into the bin. With White’s encouragement, Wesley began to submit the manuscript to publishers.
Several companies turned down Jumping The Queue on the grounds that there was no interest in “that kind of book”, but when her then agent Tessa Sayle sent the book to James Hale of Macmillan, he confounded his rivals. Her work soon found a wide public and was admired by critics.
Much was made of the fact that the novels are full of illicit sex and that the characters are free with the sort of four-letter words that few women of Wesley’s age and class would use. Perhaps more interesting, although it was less remarked at the time, is the hate and violence beneath the surface. Several of her heroines kill, from Mathilda in Jumping The Queue to Sophie, the unloved but deeply lovable child of The Camomile Lawn (1984, and filmed for TV in 1992).
It is the violent expression of long-buried anger and distress, quite as much as the frank sexuality of her heroines, that makes her work so different. Her novels are suffused not only with her humour but also with the emotions she preferred not to discuss, and they are inimitable. A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part Of The Scenery, was published in 2001.
She had always dressed elegantly, even when she couldn’t afford a railway ticket to London. She enjoyed success, the strange circus of book launches and the excitement of planning the film of a book (even if she tended to dislike the films that emerged). Book promotion tours made her feel she was earning her living and doing something for her publishers in return. She delighted in good reviews and was stung when she was attacked, especially since she avoided reviewing books which she did not like.
She really enjoyed writing, and that quality of pleasure is in everything she wrote. She complained bitterly when a plot got stuck, but she was desolate and lonely when a book was completed and had been handed over.
Her best-known book, The Camomile Lawn, set on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, was turned into a television series and is an account of the intertwining lives of three families in rural England during World War II. After The Camomile Lawn (1984) came Harnessing Peacocks (1985 and as a TV film in 1992), The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986 and filmed in 1995), Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Second Fiddle (1988), A Sensible Life (1990), A Dubious Legacy (1992), An Imaginative Experience (1994) and Part of the Furniture(1997). A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part of the Scenery, was published in 2001. Asked why she had stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, she replied: “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.”
Her take on life reveals a sharp and critical eye which neatly dissects the idiosyncrasies of genteel England with humour, compassion, and irony, detailing in particular sexual and emotional values. Her style has been described as “arsenic without the old lace”. Others have described it as “Jane Austen plus sex”, a description Wesley herself thought ridiculous. As a woman who was liberated before her time Mary Wesley challenged social assumptions about the old, confessed to bad behaviour and recommended sex. In doing so she smashed the stereotype of the disapproving, judgemental, past-it, old person. This delighted the old and intrigued the young.
Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jan/01/guardianobituaries.books1, Wikipedia
Princess Sophia, aged 5 in 1782 by Thomas Gainsborough. The Royal Collection.
This is the sad story of Princess Sophia. An unworldly and shy woman who was seduced by a man 33 years her senior, gave birth to his illegitimate child and was blackmailed by her son to pay his father’s debts.
According to biographer Christopher Hibbert, in her young adulthood Princess Sophia, the 5th daughter of King George III, was a “delightful though moody girl, pretty, delicate and passionate.” She was devoted to her father, though she occasionally found him exasperating. She wrote that “the dear King is all kindness to me, and I cannot say how grateful I feel for it.”
The King had told his daughters he would take them to Hanover and find them suitable husbands despite misgivings concerning marriage; he was well aware of his sisters’ experience. His eldest sister, Augusta had never fully adapted to life in Brunswick after her marriage to Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. She did not like the German court and they did not like her. Her situation was made worse by the fact that her eldest sons were born with disabilities.
George’s sister Caroline had suffered a far worse fate; at the age of 15, she was married to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark in 1766. A year later her husband abandoned her for his mistress Støvlet-Cathrine publicly declaring that he could not love Caroline because it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”. Caroline was left neglected and unhappy as her young husband sank into a mental stupor of paranoia, self-mutilation, and hallucinations.
A Royal Affair is a 2012 historical drama film directed by Nikolaj Arcel, starring Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, and Mikkel Følsgaard.
She took comfort with her husband’s doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, and Enlightenment man who ran Denmark with the half-crazed King introducing widespread reforms. The affair between Caroline and Struensee resulted in Caroline giving birth to his child, her divorce, and Struensee’s execution in 1772. Caroline, retaining her title but not her children, eventually left Denmark and passed her remaining days in exile at Celle Castle in Hanover. She died there of scarlet fever on 10 May 1775, at the age of 23.
George was unable to keep his promise due to his own ill health but when Sophia was born the King went to Parliament to negotiate allowances for his daughter and his younger sons. Like her siblings, Sophia was to receive an allowance of £6,000 a year either upon her marriages or the king’s death. This would have made her an attractive marriage prospect but Sophia ruined what prospects she had when she met and fell in love with one of her father’s equerries, Colonel, Thomas Garth, a man thirty-three years her senior.
Garth had a large purple birthmark on his face, causing Sophia’s sister Mary to refer to him as “the purple light of love.” Courtier and diarist Charles Greville, on the other hand, described him as a “hideous old devil,” and one of her ladies-in-waiting wrote, “the princess was so violently in love with him that everyone saw it. She could not contain herself in his presence.”
Princess Sophia, 1792 by Sir William Beechey. The Royal Collection.
Sophia’s downfall came when she found herself pregnant with Garth’s child. Although there has been much debate amongst historians as to whether the child was Garth’s or her uncle’s, the Duke of Cumberland’s, Thomas Garth adopted the child, educated him and brought him into his regiment calling him his nephew.
Sophia never married and remained at court until her mother Queen Charlotte died. After the queen’s death, Sophia lived in Kensington Palace next to her niece Princess Victoria of Kent, the future Queen Victoria. Like her sister-in-law the Duchess of Kent, Sophia fell under the spell of Victoria’s comptroller Sir John Conroy and let him manage her money. The lonely and unworldly Sophia fell under Conroy’s spell and he used her affection to rob her.
Her son, Tommy Garth of the 15th Hussars (1800-1873), learned of his true heritage when his father thought he was on his deathbed in 1828. With the family deep in debt, he tried to blackmail the royal family with evidence of his mother’s true identity. As historian Flora Fraser writes, all parties played unfairly. The royal family offered young Garth £3,000 for his box of evidence; they took the box but did not pay him so he went to the papers. The press dug up the gossip concerning the possibility of the Duke of Cumberland being his true father making the latter part of Sophia’s life very difficult.
Princess Sophia, 1825 by Thomas Lawrence in The Royal Collection.
Charles Greville summed Sophia up with he wrote in his diary in May 1848, shortly after she died: “Princess Sophia died a few days ago, while the Queen [Victoria] was holding the Drawing-room for her Birthday. She [Sophia] was blind, helpless, and suffered martyrdom; a very clever, well-informed woman, but who never lived in the world.”
Fraser, Flora (2004). Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6109-4.
Hibbert, Christopher (2000). George III: A Personal History. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02724-5.
Hibbert, Christopher (2001). Queen Victoria: A Personal History. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81085-9.
Anne Milbanke, (Annabella) Byron’s wife
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42
Born in London in 1788, the poet George Gordon Byron, or Lord Byron as we know him, spent his life collecting sensations and courting controversy.
While a student at Cambridge, for example, he kept a tame bear as a pet, taking it for walks as one would a dog. During his acrimonious and very public divorce in 1816, Byron was rumoured to be having a sexual relationship with his half-sister, an allegation he denied in public but less adamantly in his private letters.
His passionate support for the freedom of the Greeks in their War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire was likewise a ‘keenly felt pursuit’ that ultimately proved deadly.
Suffering from a fever and infection contracted while awaiting battle in Greece, Byron died in 1824 at the age of 36. Lord Byron was infamous for putting it about as they say. His short and chaotic life of sexual deviance resulted in three daughters, none of whom he ever cared for.
Ada was born just before Christmas in 1815 to his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke. Mother and child left Byron’s house when Ada was one month old and Ada never met or knew her father, the infamous Lord Byron, he died when she was eight years old. Anne Milbanke was a highly educated and strictly religious woman, she seemed an unlikely match for the amoral and agnostic poet, and their marriage soon ended in acrimony.
Lady Byron’s reminiscences, published after her death by Harriet Beecher Stowe, revealed her fears about an alleged incest Lord Byron had with his half-sister. The scandal about Lady Byron’s suspicions accelerated Byron’s intentions to leave England and return to the Mediterranean where he had lived in 1810.
Byron made no attempt to claim his parental rights to Ada but did request that his sister keep him informed of Ada’s welfare. On 21 April Byron signed the Deed of Separation, although very reluctantly, and left England for good a few days later. Aside from an acrimonious separation, Annabella continually made allegations about Byron’s immoral behaviour throughout her life.
Ada’s mother could not have been more different to Claire Clairmont. Anne hated the product of her union with Byron. She left Ada with her grandmother Judith, Hon. Lady Milbanke who doted on her. To protect herself from any possibility of Byron one day claiming his daughter she did, however, write to her mother presenting herself as a caring mother with a cover note advising her mother to keep the letters as proof of her affection for the child. In one letter to Lady Milbanke, she referred to Ada as “it”: “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”
In her teenage years, several of her mother’s close friends watched Ada for any sign of moral deviation worried that her father’s unnatural behaviour was in the blood. Ada dubbed these observers the “Furies” and later complained they exaggerated and invented stories about her.
Ada was often ill, beginning in early childhood. At the age of eight, she experienced headaches that obscured her vision. In June 1829, she was paralysed after a bout of measles. She was subjected to continuous bed rest for nearly a year, which may have extended her period of disability.
By 1831, she was able to walk with crutches. Despite being ill Ada developed her mathematical and technological skills. At age 12 this future “Lady Fairy”, as Charles Babbage affectionately called her, decided she wanted to fly. Ada went about the project methodically, thoughtfully, with imagination and passion. Her first step, in February 1828, was to construct wings. She investigated different material and sizes. She considered various materials for the wings: paper, oilsilk, wires, and feathers. To determine the right proportion between the wings and the body she examined the anatomy of birds. Then she decided to write a book, Flyology, illustrating, with plates, some of her findings.
In 1833 she tried to elope with her tutor but was found out and the incident was covered up to prevent a scandal. The same year she became close friends with her tutor Mary Somerville, who introduced her to Charles Babbage. On 8 July 1835, she married William, 8th Baron King, becoming Lady King. They had three homes: Ockham Park, Surrey, a Scottish estate on Loch Torridon in Ross-shire, and a house in London. They had three children: Byron (born 12 May 1836); Anne Isabella (called Annabella; born 22 September 1837); and Ralph Gordon (born 2 July 1839).
A year after the birth of Ralph Charles Babbage helped Ada begin mathematical studies with Augustus de Moyan in 1840 at the University of London. During a nine-month period in 1842–43, Lovelace translated the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s article on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. Explaining the Analytical Engine’s function was a difficult task, as even many other scientists did not really grasp the concept and the British establishment was uninterested in it. Lovelace’s notes even had to explain how the Analytical Engine differed from the original Difference Engine.Her work was well received at the time; the scientist Michael Faraday described himself as a supporter of her writing. The notes are around three times longer than the article itself and include a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which could have run correctly had Babbage’s Analytical Engine been built. (Only his Difference Engine has been built, completed in London in 2002.) Based on this work Lovelace is now widely considered the first computer programmer.
Unknowingly Ada developed an addiction to prescribed drugs including laudanum, opium and morphine, and displayed classic mood swings and withdrawal symptoms. She took up gambling and lost most of her fortune. She was suspected of an affair with a gambling comrade. In 1852, Ada died of uterine cancer. She was buried next to her famous father. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense settled on the name “Ada” for a new standardized computer language, named in honour of Byron’s daughter.
Allegra was born in Bath in January 1817. Her mother was Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley.Clairmont had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.” When the child was born, Byron was in Venice and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”
Claire Clairmont (1798-1879) Newstead Abbey, Amelia Curran,
Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.
None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity toward Claire was passed on to his child.
Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from legitimate Ada and renamed her Allegra. The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Healthy – noisy – & capricious.” Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and she was passed between various carers. At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.
He sent her to a convent and in 1822, when her mother asked to see her he sent Allegra to another convent further away to prevent her from seeing the child. Clairmont was so desperate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England. Sadly, her plans came to nothing and that summer Allegra became ill and died.
Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England. A ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it gave expression to just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be.
In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. Her funeral was a lavish affair. Her father knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid.
“There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the churchyard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.”
Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.” But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy as the reason and so poor little Allegra was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.
Elizabeth Medora Leigh
Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister with whom he had Elizabeth Medora Leigh
Elizabeth Medora Leigh (15 April 1814 – 28 August 1849) was the third daughter of Augusta Leigh. It is widely speculated that she was fathered by her mother’s half-brother Lord Byron, although her mother’s husband Colonel George Leigh was her official father.
Byron’s relationship with his half-sister Augusta as well as reports of his sexual depravity forced the Lord to leave Britain shortly after their love child Elizabeth Medora Leigh was born.
Three days after her birth, Byron visited Augusta and the baby. He later wrote to a friend, Lady Melbourne: “Oh! but it is ‘worthwhile’ – I can’t tell you why – and it is not an Ape and it is – that must be my fault.” There was a folk belief, common in the 19th century, that a child born of incest would be an ape.
Medora Leigh’s life was a troubled one. As a teenager, she had an affair with her older sister Georgiana’s husband Henry Trevanion and ran away with him.
They went to Normandy, where the child she was carrying was stillborn.
The runaway pair set up home in a tumble-down chateau near Morlaix where they passed themselves off as brother and sister. They then moved to Brittany where Medora became a Catholic and declared her intention of entering a convent.
However, she got pregnant again by Henry. The Abbess was tolerant and found Medora lodgings outside the convent, where a living child was born on 19 May 1834; she was baptised Marie Violette Trevanion on 21 May 1834.
Due to poverty and illness, the pair eventually had to beg their families for money. Henry’s father, Major John Purnell Bettesworth Trevanion of Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, thought Medora was to blame for the situation. He sent one of Henry’s uncles to Brittany to persuade Henry to return to England. Henry refused to leave. Her mother Augusta was now keeping her other daughter Georgiana’s three children by Henry, but sent what money she could to Medora.
Augusta eventually lost touch with Medora, who had become ill in Brittany after a series of miscarriages.
In 1838, Henry Trevanion and Medora Leigh finally parted permanently.
In an autobiography, Medora later wrote of Henry that he “gave himself up to religion and shooting”. Henry died in 1855 in Brittany, France.
Elizabeth Medora Leigh
Medora left for the south of France with her daughter where she entered into an affair with a French officer who later abandoned her.
She ultimately ended up with his servant, a former sergeant called Jean-Louis Taillefer with whom she had another child a son. Medora h married Taillefer on 23 August 1848. Both of her children chose to enter the Church, her daughter became a nun and her son a priest.
Eisler, Benita (1999). Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame.
Moore, Doris Langley-Levy. Countess of Lovelace: Byron’s Legitimate Daughter.
Toole, Betty A. and Ada King Lovelace. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age. 1998.
Woolley, Benjamin. The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter. 2000.
Wade, Mary Dodson. Ada Byron Lovelace: the Lady and the Computer. 1994.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
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