National Short Story Week is coming to a close, and with it all my good intentions to do some writing in honour of the event. Having a house full of builders isn’t conducive to creativity, even when they are charming, careful and considerate, which they are.
I did however make it to Spread the Word’s Genre writing day Guilty Pleasures last Saturday. This was enormous fun, and had I not put my notebook down somewhere I no longer recall, I would now be blogging in more detail about the event… it’s probably under a dust sheet somewhere, so the introduction of my new character, Peggy Marsh will have to wait until the builders go and I unearth her. (and at some point I might blog about the importance of stationery to the writing process – or not!) Peggy resulted from an excellent workshop on Historical Fiction run by Imogen Robertson. Imogen supplied us with packs of source material – letters, diaries, pictures from a century we were not already researching, and asked us to come up with a character study. I didn’t read them very carefully, a flick through was enough – Hogarth’s painting of his servants, Mary Granville recommending boiled snails for a cough, a passing reference to Dr Johnson, a snapshot atmosphere from the lighting of one of the paintings and the cacophony outside the musicians window in one of Hogarth’s prints; my own knowledge of Hogarth’s connections with Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital (a place chock full of stories) … and it worked, but I can’t find it, so that’s for another day.
In the spirit of that exercise however, another genealogy letter. This one stems from a memoir written by my partner’s great-great aunt Sarah, about her grandfather, John Cooper, who was a Baptist preacher in the southwest, and for a time kept a school, which ended in disaster. Sarah was something of a fantasist (her version of the family tree goes in an unbroken line to William the Conqueror, skipping three generations where she had nothing to rely on) but Cooper was a genuinely fascinating character who married three times and had nineteen children; more happened in his life than he can possibly have deserved, and one of these days, I will write a doorstop sized family saga about him and his prodigious family.
So this ‘letter’ is written by John Cooper after the second time his school has burnt down, and the culprit has been apprehended. I image him, sitting at the desk where he later wrote sermons, writing and re-writing this letter, aware that he has very little time, but must get the tone and the wording absolutely right, to mitigate the shock and distress of his message.
The Arsonist’s Demise
To await R- S- Esq., at the Bear Hotel, Devizes.
For his immediate and private attention.
23rd Sept. 1789
I beg you forgive me, I write in haste, being unable to bring you this terrible news in person, and concerned that you receive it away from the public regard. I wish I need not add to your already grievous woes, but I fear I must.
Sir, your Son is no more.
Being taken before the magistrate and committed to Devizes Prison upon his confefsion, he begged me to visit him in that dreary spot, with which, as his Friend, and ‘In Loco Parentis’, I complied most willingly, and lent him my kerchief against the chill in that place. To my great horror and regret I find myself the unwitting instrument of his demise. The child has strangled himself with the self-same kerchief, lent him, so I believed, as a comforter.
Whilst my distrefs cannot be compared to that of a grieving parent, nor to the anguish of the boy himself, believe me Sir, quite overcome at this dreadful turn of events. Although through your Son’s actions, I and Mr Williams are now quite without resource, and indeed Mr Williams and family without domicile, the child was dear to us both. I wish we had understood his wretchednefs sooner.
I pray for you and your wife, and for the poor boy’s unhappy Soul.
Yours, Sir, in any service I may do you.
J o. Cooper
copyright Cherry Potts 2010