From Jane Eyre to Matilda Windsor

I’ve been leading a walk through Jane Eyre territory for years but last month was the first time anyone asked me where Mr Rochester, the owner of Thornfield Hall, got his wealth from. I couldn’t remember what Charlotte Brontë tells us in the novel but assumed – as did the woman who asked the question – it was from slavery.

Liverpool has hosted the International Slavery Museum since 2007 but it took the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 for British complicity in the transatlantic slave trade to be more widely acknowledged. Individuals and institutions are tentatively waking up to the fact that some of our finest historic buildings have their foundations in these atrocities.

So I was disappointed to read recently that the managers of tour boats on England’s largest lake had banned their employees from mentioning that many of the mansions on its shores were financed from slavery. Apparently, passengers had complained.

Growing up near the Lake District, I visited frequently, although rarely for excursions that would cost more than the petrol. However, there’s a reel of old cine film somewhere showing the family enjoying a cruise on Windermere, my sister and me in our best dresses – polka dots on a sand-coloured background (my character, Matty, would approve).

I don’t recall any commentary but doubt it would have harmed my eight-year-old self to discover that powerful people once bought and sold human beings. It might have inspired a passion for history. It might have saved me from absorbing the racism of those times.

Decades later, I took the opportunity to fill some of those gaps in my knowledge when I set part of my novel, Lyrics for the Loved Ones, in Maryport, on the Cumbrian coast. In my teens, I had friends who lived in the town but knew nothing of its fascinating history.

In Roman times, it played a major part in the Western Sea Defences, with a large fort built on behalf of the Emperor Hadrian. But it didn’t become Maryport until the mid-eighteenth century when local landowner Humphrey Senhouse named it after his wife. The town prospered thanks to the coal and shipping industries before going into decline.

When I visited – actually looking for locations for my previous novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home – I was captivated by the Georgian houses, many neglected and rundown. I later learnt that these were built for the shipowners with the profits of slavery.

A mansion high on the hill, above the Roman Museum overlooking the sea, would be perfect for the care home in Lyrics for the Loved Ones, where Matty could discover its dark foundations. A surprise for her as much as it was a surprise for me.

Another surprise came when I was looking for a Cumbrian-based editor (because the novel draws on Cumbrian dialect). I was delighted when Maryport poet, Kelly Davis, agreed to take it on. It was great to find someone living in the same town as my character, Matty. It turned out that she lives in the area where I imagined the care home would be.

After half a century confined in a psychiatric hospital, Matty has moved to a care home on the Cumbrian coast. Next year, she’ll be a hundred, and she intends to celebrate in style. Yet, before she can make the arrangements, her ‘maid’ goes missing.

Irene, a care assistant, aims to surprise Matty with a birthday visit from the child she gave up for adoption as a young woman. But, when lockdown shuts the care-home doors, all plans are put on hold.

But Matty won’t be beaten. At least not until the Black Lives Matter protests burst her bubble and buried secrets come to light.

Will she survive to a hundred? Will she see her ‘maid’ again? Will she meet her long-lost child?

Rooted in injustice, balanced with humour, this is a bittersweet story of reckoning with hidden histories in cloistered times.

Follow this link to purchase a copy: