FOLDED IN PARCHMENT and enclosed in a small leather frame on a table in the drawing room of my family home in Lancashire is a lock of hair. The parchment bears the legend “my cousin Franck Towneley’s haire, who suffered for his prince August 10th 1746.” The prince was Bonnie Prince Charlie, and it was for supporting him against the Hanoverian King George II that Frank Towneley, my five-times great uncle, was hung drawn and quartered. A miserable end, certainly, although it’s said that he joked his way up to the gallows. Miserable or not, had his execution been the end of the matter, the hair in the parchment might have given me the shivers and nothing more. But it wasn’t the end.
After execution, Uncle Frank’s dismembered body was buried in St. Pancras churchyard, but his head, minus the clipped lock, was dipped in pitch and spiked on Temple Bar, the monumental gateway marking the boundary between the City of London (the financial sector) and the palaces of Whitehall and Westminster (the seats of government). For several decades, Uncle Frank’s head greeted those who passed beneath Temple Bar, but eventually, whoever decides these things decided enough was enough and his head began a series of peregrinations which included a spell in the Towneley house in London and a trip home to Towneley Hall in Burnley. At Towneley, so my great, great aunt, Lady O’Hagan remembered, he was kept in a basket set on the dining room sideboard, and when that grew too unpleasant, he was hidden behind the panelling in the family chapel. The advent of central heating necessitated another move, so Uncle Frank was popped into a hatbox and returned to London for storage at Drummonds Bank. He had to wait until the 1950s to travel home again for final burial in Burnley’s St. Peter’s Church.
And still that wasn’t quite it. In 1978, a plaque was erected in St. Peter’s to commemorate Uncle Frank’s seditious heroism. My mother, curious to see Uncle Frank in the flesh, as it were, used the occasion to open the tomb. Peering in, she found Frank still recognizable: pitch is a magnificent preservative. But to her great surprise, Uncle Frank was not alone. Another head lay beside his, and nobody seemed to know to whom this second head belonged. Before the tomb was closed, she shifted the heads so they could converse eternally.
It’s a splendid story – even more splendid for me when I realized I could make it mine. This realization may seem obvious: it’s a story, I’m an author. But the notion of “mine” in my family is a tricky one. Bear with me.
I’m the third of seven children – six girls and one boy. According to one historian, our “early roots” can be traced to 871, although it’s not until 1200 that our name is first mentioned. Our ancestral home Towneley Hall dates from 1400 and is now a museum and art gallery. We are a recusant family. In other words, we refused to give up our Catholic faith during the Reformation, for which we were labelled by an exasperated Lord Burley, Treasurer to Elizabeth 1st, as a family of “more than usual perversity.”
We are also a family that believes in male primogeniture, i.e. that everything should be passed down from father to eldest son. At least my father and brother believe this. My sisters and I have never been asked. It’s simply assumed that the sorority, as we collectively call ourselves, agree that what remains of the Towneley estates should pass directly to my brother (my parents’ fourth child), with us girls entitled to zero, zilch, the back end of nothing. If we were to object, we would be ignored. Though my sisters and I have as much family blood coursing through us as our brother, we simply don’t count. Not a jot. Not a tittle. In family terms, we might as well not exist.
Setting aside the arguments against inherited wealth in general, such a particularly misogynistic state of affairs is guaranteed to have feminists reaching for their revolvers – or perhaps their claymores (Scottish longswords) in the case of Lady Liza Campbell, second daughter of the 6th Earl of Cawdor, who may be practised at such things since, in an infamous act of revenge and treachery, her ancestors massacred the MacDonalds at Glencoe. The massacre took place in 1692 but in Scotland that’s as yesterday. Today, Liza is actively campaigning in favor of the Equality (Titles) legislation as it wends its way through the UK parliament. Closer to home, my own aunt-by-marriage, Lady Lucinda Lambton, is not just campaigning. She and a selection of sisters have actively joined battle, albeit with lawyers not longswords, against their brother, the 7th Earl of Durham. Their quarrel is over property rather than titles. Why should he snaffle the entire Durham estate?
There are, of course, practical arguments adduced in favor of male primogeniture: it prevents estates fragmenting, and since, in some men’s eyes, land and money are far more important than women, reinforcing female inferiority is a small price to pay. Nevertheless, the royal family, perhaps mindful of Lady Liza’s claymore and the Lambton legal bills, have recently changed their rules so that an eldest child, not an eldest boy, will inherit the throne. But my family ain’t budging. Not likely. Come what may, the boy is all. Never mind a bloody claymore, it’s a bloody scandal.
Naturally, as a child, I didn’t realise it was a scandal of any kind, let alone a bloody one. The manifest unfairness of a system which is based on lucky order and a chromosome (the first xy = jackpot; xx, or a subsequent xy = empty pot) was just the way things were. It took a long growing up to realize that girl or not, inferior or not, debarred from inheritance or not, I was at least as entitled as any man to my family’s stories. A rather belated epiphany! But once I did realize, I didn’t bother with revolver or claymore, I just seized Uncle Frank and, in How the Hangman Lost His Heart laid my claim.
This seizing was a very small act of sedition and not very brave since, unlike Uncle Frank, I didn’t face a grisly retribution for my story-theft. Nevertheless, even a smidgeon of sedition is seductive. Another idea took hold, of writing about girls turning the tables. This would not be a fictional account of my sisters and I turning the tables on my all-inheriting brother – too predictable, and anyway, I’m fond of my brother. My idea was a turning of the tables in a rather less predictable way.
So it was that armed with Uncle Frank’s example and a slight sense of girl-power, I began to write Sedition (Virago, UK, January 2014, Henry Holt, US, April 2014). Set in 1794, its theme is domestic subversion in London at a time of revolutionary fervour in France. Banish from your mind any thoughts of the Scarlet Pimpernel: Sedition’s heroines are not the daughters of valiant aristocrats or landed Lancashire families, they’re the daughters of City speculators for whom “liberty, equality, fraternity” are as nothing compared to the profit and loss account. Since these City men have no sons, their daughters’ marriages are a prime concern. Harriet Frogmorton, Georgiana Brass, Alathea Sawneyford and sisters Marianne and Everina Drigg must marry well. A plan is made: the girls will learn the new-fangled pianoforte, and when they are ready to perform, suitable candidates for marriage will be invited to a concert. After the concert, these candidates will bid for the girls. Speculation in its way. However, though the girls understand the value of speculation, one of them, Alathea Sawneyford, understands other things too, namely (as the Virago cover says) beauty and perversion, insurrection and seduction, rage and desire. For various reasons, she’s willing to share her knowledge with the others, so that whilst doing exactly what they are told, the girls are contriving to do exactly the opposite.
So enviable! Had we known anybody like Alathea, who knows where my sisters and I might be now…. Better stress, though, given the nature of the book, that Alathea Sawneyford’s experiences and my own are in no way comparable. I am not her. She is not me. I’m just an author whose family history, upbringing and very ungreat expectations made sedition engineered by girls very attractive.
Social upheaval begins with small acts of non-acceptance. It’s perfectly true that the plight of disinherited siblings like Liza Campbell, the Lambton sisters and the Towneley sorority is a flea-bite in a world full of whale-sized injustice. But it’s our flea-bite. In Sedition I give the bite a scratch. Uncle Frank, of course, did more than scratch and his cause – restoring the Catholic Stuarts to the English and Scottish thrones from which they had been ejected by Protestant William III in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – was rather less domestic. It was also rather more hopeless. Frank’s Manchester Regiment comprised only 300 men, and for all their Highland plaids and white cockades, in their moment of need, the Scots, who might have been pivotal, did not rise to join them. It seems that the Young Pretender – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s nickname – had fooled himself. Few people wanted an influx of Stuarts. My “gay and volatile” Uncle Frank had backed a loser and those “damned Hanoverians,” as he called them, kept their bottoms on the throne of Great Britain until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
Since his public legacy was little more than a romantic farce, Uncle Frank might have wondered what his personal legacy might be. He must have hoped it would be more than a story of wandering body-parts, a fate, incidentally, he shared with his mentor, since although Bonnie Prince Charlie died intact in Rome, his heart was removed and left in Frascati Cathedral when the rest of him was shuffled into the crypt of St. Peter’s. In body-part respect, I haven’t done Uncle Frank a favor. But all is not lost. Perhaps it would be enough for Frank to know that, headless or not, he’s more famous than his oldest brother, and that in his act of sedition, his five times great niece found the inspiration to generate some Sedition of her own.