When I begin a story all I know about my characters is their back-stories.
In BURIED TREASURE my hero’s mother, Marietta (known as Tetta,) was the privileged only child of a titled family. She rebelled as teenager and, defying parental expectations, became involved with the punk-rock scene. Her marriage to a notorious singer-songwriter, Vernon Tyler, drove a final wedge between her and her family.
Now a widow, and an alcoholic, Tetta craves recognition for the status she turned her back on when she was young. If it proves impossible for her, then she wants her son to be acknowledged as the grandson of a baronet.
Quite far into the writing of BURIED TREASURE, I began to question why I had created this woman with such a complicated past? And why would such a rebel do a complete about-turn in her middle-age and want to reclaim her status as part of the establishment? Then it came to me. She is just like my grandmother! The knowledge was a gift. I could go back, accentuate elements of Tetta’s personality and flesh her out.
My father’s mother, Dorothy, was not from “high-society”, but she was born into an affluent and respected Victorian family. Her father, William Henry Ashton Smith, was a pearl broker, but he regarded work as an interruption from the real purpose of his life - sport. I won’t detail his various sporting accomplishments, but he eventually became president of Harlequins (rugby) football club.
His second wife, Margaret Kitchin, Dorothy’s mother, was a professional singer of coloratura.
Dorothy grew up during the hay-day of the Gaiety Girl and music hall. When she was a stage-struck sixteen-year-old, having apparently inherited her mother’s voice, she dyed her hair blonde and appeared on the boards for the first time. By the time she was 21 she was married to William Pettit (described in the wedding certificate as a professor of music, but in fact an actor and banjoist!). Only after Dorothy gave birth to my Aunt Joy was the marriage annulled. We don’t know on what grounds, but suspect William was a bigamist.
My grandfather, John Jamie Allan, was another theatrical - a ‘song and dance man’, known as Jamie Dallas - sadly injured in WW1. The appetite for music hall had begun to diminish after the war, and anyway, opportunities for someone who was now no longer acrobatic and able to do the prat-falls and dancing for which he was renowned, were fewer and farther between.
This is how my grandmother, the rebel from the rather grand family, fell on hard times. Now with three boys, as well as her daughter from her previous marriage, Dorothy was no longer able to perform much herself – much as she would have loved to. Living from hand-to-mouth, did not diminish her need to be noticed, to be the centre of attention. Once, after an altercation with her husband, she famously spent a whole afternoon having “fainted” on the back lawn until a neighbour enquired if she was all right.
My gran outlived her husband by seventeen years. And the more she aged, the more the rebel was forgotten in the face of authority’s failure to treat her with sufficient respect. Snubs and slights offended her dignity. Her need to prove that she was being under-estimated, that she was better than this, would frequently erupt in the toe-curling demand: “Do you know who I am?”
Her retort, to the inevitable “No!”, was, “The niece of the late Dean of Durham!” This became a running family joke. It was only in 2009, when we inherited my grandmother’s archive, that we discovered why she expected this announcement to humble her adversary.
Amongst the unsorted jumble was a sepia photograph of G W Kitchin, the Dean of Durham Cathedral. Only a small amount of research revealed him to be a very eminent Victorian. A notable scholar, and a friend of Ruskin and Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), he was Professor of Classics and History at Christchurch Oxford and he became its chancellor. Prior to his appointment to Durham Cathedral, he had been the Dean of Winchester, as well as being an author, a composer and the tutor to the crown prince of Denmark. The list goes on and on. But he wasn’t my grandmother’s uncle, he was her great uncle.