May and Amy : A True Story of Family, Forbidden Love, and the Secret Lives of May Gaskell, Her Daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones
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At the start of her search, Josceline came across a cache of unpublished letters from Burne-Jones to her great-grandmother May Gaskell, Amy's mother.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.
Starred Review. The Victorian era's convoluted romances are famously entertaining: men and women, married (but not to each other), exchanging passionate letters and whispering endearments yet frequently remaining virtuous in their actions. May Gaskell, a proper British society woman at the turn of the 20th century, was no stranger to these fervent friendships. For six years, the unhappily married Gaskell corresponded romantically with Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite artist. Each promised to destroy the other's letters, but Gaskell, comforted by rereading them, preserved hers for "those who come after." These letters--as well as period novels, Burne-Jones's paintings and family photographs--reveal Gaskell family secrets and tragedies, including the strange death of Gaskell's daughter Amy ("all anyone seemed to have been told was that she had died young, 'of a broken heart' "). Cookbook author and food columnist Dimbleby became obsessed with unraveling the mysteries of May (her great-grandmother) and Amy, and she successfully draws readers into her dramatic search. The facts of daily late-Victorian life are captivating enough, but add to this Gaskell's circle of friends--including Henry James and Rudyard Kipling--and the intrigues surrounding Amy's love life (her younger sister married a man who pined for Amy), and this family memoir is riveting. Photos, drawings.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 27, 2006
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Excerpt from May and Amy by Josceline Dimbleby
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.