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A chance encounter at a summer party sent writer Josceline Dimbleby on a quest to uncover a mystery in her family’s past. After talking with Andrew Lloyd Webber about a beautiful, dark portrait in his art collection, she decided to find out more about the subject of the painting: her great-aunt Amy Gaskell. Dimbleby had always known her great-aunt’s face from this haunted portrait by the well-known Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, but beyond that and a family rumor that Amy had died young “of a broken heart,” Dimbleby knew little of her female forebears.
At the start of her search, Josceline came across a cache of unpublished letters from Burne-Jones to her great-grandmother May Gaskell, Amy’s mother. These letters turned out to be part of a passionate correspondence—adoring, intimate, sometimes up to five letters a day—which continued throughout the last six years of the painter’s life. As she read, more and more questions arose: Why did Burne-Jones feel he had to protect May from an overwhelming sadness? What was the deep secret she had confided to him? And what was the tragic truth behind Amy’s wayward, wandering life, her strange marriage, and her unexplained early death?
In piecing together the eventful life of her grandmother, Dimbleby takes us through a turbulent period in history that includes the Boer War, the Great War, and the Second World War and visits the most far-flung corners of the British Empire. The Souls—William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, and William Gladstone—all play a part in this sweeping, often funny, and sometimes tragic story. Above all, it is her infectious enthusiasm for a subject so close to home that makes May and Amy such a compelling and richly entertaining read.
From the Hardcover edition.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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Chapter one:Romance in Oxford
In 1840, two young irish sisters left their strict protestant home in County Down for the first time. Their father, Captain Samuel Hill, was agent to Lord Roden’s estates. Lord Roden was a staunch Orangeman, who had been made Grand Master of the Orange Order in 1837. Helen and Emma Hill crossed the Irish Sea and arrived in Oxford by coach to stay for six months with their uncle, who was a don at the university. They were unsophisticated but very pretty girls, sweet natured and musical. With well-trained, beautiful voices, they used to sing traditional Irish duets together. Both girls were petite, with delicate features; but Emma, the younger sister, had a striking combination of rich brown hair and eyes of the palest blue, made even more remarkable by a dark blue rim round the pupils. Her complexion was creamy smooth, her neck graceful, and her pretty figure and tiny feet were envied by other women, and admired by men.
It was not long before the Hill sisters were noticed in Oxford. One day their uncle took his nieces to a commemorative ceremony in one of the college halls. The girls wore new blue bonnets, which their mother had given them before they left Ireland. While they waited for the ceremony to begin, the rumbustious undergraduates in the upper gallery called out the names of young women they recognized in the hall below and then cheered or blew kisses as they felt inclined. Finally, a voice from the gallery called out, “The two blue bonnets,” which prompted a storm of applause. From then on the pair of sisters captivated many hearts in Oxford.
Decades later, this story was told to my great-grandmother, May Gaskell, by her mother, who had been the young Emma Hill. Emma had blushed as she remembered it. Shortly after the incident in the college hall, Emma told her daughter, she was taken to see the gardens of Worcester College.
“Look,” said her companion, “there is Long Melville rolling down the walk.”
Emma saw an extremely tall, thin man coming toward her, with dark brown, wavy hair, a high, strong brow and clear-cut features. “Who is Long Melville?” she asked.
“One of the most agreeable, charming and clever men in Oxford,” was the reply.
As he came nearer, Emma noticed Long Melville’s large gray eyes with heavy lids within deep eye sockets, and his distinguished aquiline nose. She remarked that his hands were “most beautiful” and that though his mouth was mobile, his chin remained firm when he talked. She would later tell May that he had “a brilliant and ever-changing expression.” His remarkably mellifluous voice made him all the more mesmerizing. Emma soon learned that David Melville was already known in Oxford as a stimulating speaker, with an entertaining and satirical view on men and events.
This notable man was to become May’s father.
David Melville had studied theology at Oxford on a scholarship to Brasenose College. After graduating, penniless due to his father’s bankruptcy, he was ordained as a clergyman and became a don at the university. He was tutor, among others, to Lord Ward, the young heir to the immense wealth of the industrialist Dudley family; it was said years later in an obituary of David Melville that Lord Ward had been “erratic, clever, wild, and fascinating.” William Humble Ward was charmed by his scintillating tutor and an intimate and lifelong friendship ensued between the two men. Later, as David Melville’s patron, William was to shape his life. And when David Melville’s first son was born, he named him William Ward.
During her time in Oxford, Emma Hill saw Long Melville regularly. They used to walk together through the historic streets and along the river. They must have looked an unlikely couple; at six foot three, Melville would, in those days, have seemed like a giant, and tiny Emma was barely five feet tall. To Emma, who had been brought up to be deeply religious, the fact that such a handsome, clever man was also an ordained clergyman must have made him irresistible. Apart from being attracted by Emma’s prettiness and gentle nature, David Melville was clearly struck by her “intellectual turn of mind” and wit, as May Gaskell recorded later when she wrote about her mother. But even after many weeks of friendship he had “said no words of love” to Emma.
Eventually, back in Ireland, Captain and Mrs. Hill heard reports of their daughters’ social success in Oxford. Anxious about the possibility of influences they would not approve of, they recalled them at once. So on a cold March morning the two Irish girls, who had made such an impression on the university circle, left Oxford by coach. David Melville was there to say good-bye, and wrapped little Emma Hill up in a fine tartan rug he had thoughtfully brought for her.
At first I had no photograph of Emma, so it was from May’s writings that I learned about her appearance: the delicacy of her features, the smoothness of her brown hair, and those clear eyes of baby blue with their dark outer rim. Then one day my brother produced four small, flat leather boxes which had been left to him. They were lined on one side with soft red velvet. On the opposite side, within a gold embossed mount, was a daguerreotype portrait. The Frenchman Louis Daguerre had perfected his secret process of taking photographic portraits in 1839. They were achieved by projecting light through a camera lens onto iodized silver plates. Color was added by scratching in powdered pigment and gold leaf.
Decades later, May Gaskell had inserted labels into the leather boxes, naming the sitters for future generations. There was Samuel Hill, Emma’s father, with a very stern expression; there was her sister Helen, who had traveled with her to Oxford; and there was a strong-looking dark beauty called Isabella Melville, who May told us was married to David Melville’s brother Beresford, a devastatingly handsome hero of the first Afghan War.
But one name was missing. “Do you know who this one is?” my brother Ben asked me, handing me the fourth leather box. The fragile-looking woman was at once familiar; and when I looked at her through a magnifying glass I was certain. There were the neat features, the sleek brown hair, and the creamy skin; but above all, there were those pale, clear blue eyes with their dark blue rim, painted on the metal with unbelievable precision. The gold of her necklace stood out in raised gold leaf and the pearls set on it were a glowing white. In this early mixture of photography and art, the young Emma Hill, as she was when David Melville fell in love with her, came alive for me.
Although no love had been declared, it was not long before David Melville set out for Bryansford, set in a beautiful mountainous area in the south of County Down, where the Hill family lived. A friend of Melville, another Oxford don, who had fallen in love with Emma’s older sister, Helen, accompanied him.
The purpose of David Melville’s visit was to ask Captain and Mrs. Hill for the hand of their daughter Emma in marriage. But he was to be disappointed. I learned from May’s writings that the two young dons found that the Hills believed in “the narrowest evangelical form of religion.” They disliked what they called the “worldly surroundings” of Oxford. They particularly distrusted the “brilliant, broadminded Mr. Melville,” with his intellect and life of strenuous work. They told him that although he was a clergyman, according to their beliefs “they could not look upon him as a converted Christian.” When he asked for Emma’s hand, they refused.
David Melville was a clear-thinking, fair man; he would never have followed Emma to Ireland if he had not been sure that it was the right thing to do. He was to be described in an obituary as a man of “exceedingly wise judgement.” Deeply wounded by the Hills’ reaction to his request, David Melville returned at once to Oxford and dropped all contact. Poor little Emma was “left to weep.”
Before long, a parcel arrived in Oxford addressed to David Melville. In it was the tartan rug he had given Emma when she left Oxford on that cold March morning. There was also a note; Emma wrote that she would “pray for his conversion”–which in modern terms would probably mean becoming “born again”–so that he could “cherish her devoted love.”
Five years passed, and David Melville’s life and career widened. He moved from Oxford to Durham, where he was instrumental in establishing a new theological college at the university, Bishop Hatfield Hall, and became its first principal. He was also primarily responsible for the rapid development of Durham as an active and popular center of higher education. His aim was to make it as well regarded as Oxford. In establishing Hatfield, David Melville conducted a social experiment that, with hindsight, was revolutionary. He was determined that less fortunate students should be able to benefit from high academic standards and arranged for Hatfield, as a residential college, to let its rooms for students fully furnished, to provide all their meals in Hall, and keep the fees fixed and affordable. Thus, at Durham in 1846, David Melville instigated what later became the norm in universities worldwide.
One of the young men from the country who applied for admission to the college was one William Griffiths, who remembered later: “I had been led to think of college dons as being almost superhuman; and he, the first I had ever seen, was so much taller than I had imagined even a don to be that I almost shook with awe. But he took me kindly into his room, setting me at ease with one of his little jocularities.” According to Griffiths, Melville was “a severe disciplinarian, but rigidly just, and withal full of tenderness.” Some students were, however, “hugely afraid of him,” particularly those who smoked, as he strongly disapproved of “that bad weed” and when he smelled “the odour of a recent cigar” on a student, he would say sternly, “Stand a little farther away, sir.”
When I rang Hatfield College to see if they had any records of David Melville, I met with an immediate and enthusiastic response.
“He’s still revered here,” said Arthur Moyes, who has written a history of Hatfield. “His portrait is the first thing you see in the main hall, and we have the Melville Room, so he’ll always be remembered.” In the 1960s, he explained, there was even a Melville Society, which consisted of a group of thirty men who met to wine, dine, and debate, wearing black tie and dress suit. “Not quite in keeping with David Melville’s philosophy,” commented Arthur Moyes, “but at least it was a tribute to him.”
I told Arthur about May Gaskell’s strength of character and determination in her later years, and he commented that it sounded as if she had inherited some of her father’s characteristics. May had also been known in London for her fashionable soirées. At Durham in the 1840s David Melville’s brilliant mind, exceptional social gifts, and witty conversation made him sought after both at the university and in country society. His striking good looks attracted women and men alike. When I saw the college portrait, painted when he was thirty-five, I could understand why. I wondered what May meant when she wrote later that at this time “many friendships with women and extended social relationships had come into his life.”
Years later, May’s father would reminisce to his daughter about those days at Durham, when “every canon had ten thousand pounds a year and the Dean not less than twenty or thirty thousand.” This was an absolute fortune by modern standards. Each canon in residence, David Melville told May, would have one hundred pounds a month for entertaining and the use of a gold-plate dinner service. When May returned to Durham in the early 1900s, she asked to see the gold-plate services she had heard about from her father. Only two or three pieces remained, she was told, the rest having mysteriously disappeared the year the ecclesiastical commissioners took the funds in hand.
It was while he was at Durham, working hard during the day but dining out night after night on “portentuous feasts,” that David Melville finally heard from Ireland again. Captain and Mrs. Hill wrote that “the strain of bearing the absence of the man she loved” had told on their daughter’s “simple, lovely mind and body” and that she had “utterly broken down in nerves.” May was later to write that she felt her mother Emma’s upbringing in the “hothouse, spiritual atmosphere” of the Hill household had accentuated her “naturally morbid mind” and “highly sensitive nervous system.” Emma’s worried parents now asked David Melville if he still cared for their daughter, as they felt her health depended upon his feelings for her. They would therefore withdraw their objections to the marriage, they added.
David Melville did not hesitate. He went straight to Ireland, wrote May, and “gave the pure and perfect heart he had won a faithful tenderness that remained to the end.” He and Emma were married on July 28, 1848, in the parish church of Kilcoo, near Emma’s home at Bryansford. The officiating priest was a friend of David Melville’s, the Reverend Thomas Claughton. Only Emma’s grandfather, John Hill, and her brother, Valentine, signed the register. Perhaps her parents had not felt able to attend because of their reservations about the marriage. But Emma never faltered. “My mother worshipped him to the last hour of her life with a most perfect love,” wrote May.
As I pursued my quest, I heard that another of my newly discovered relations had found a Victorian japanned tin box in his attic. It turned out to contain Irish and Flemish lace from Emma Hill’s trousseau, which she brought when she came back to England as David Melville’s bride. Her grandparents had been lace makers, and in the box I found little caps, inner bodices for low dresses, lace borders, embroidered lace scarves, fingerless long gloves of fine crochet work, and a lace cape worn by Emma at her wedding. The work was unbelievably fine; as I gently fingered it I felt sure that no machine could achieve anything like this nowadays. I unwrapped more and more tissue-paper bundles, labeled by May long after her mother had died. At the bottom there was an ancient lavender bag and underneath this a tiny envelope on which May had written, “Strip of lace which I found in Amy’s bag on the day she died.” I wonder still if Amy carried that little strip of Waterford lace about with her to remind her of her gentle Irish grandmother.
From the Hardcover edition.