An exclusive author interview with Katharine Tiernan

Added about 7 months ago by Katharine Tiernan

Novelist Katharine Tiernan gives us an exclusive insight into the her latest work, Star of the Sea.

Sacristy Press: What made you decide to write about your family?

Katharine Tiernan: One of the first things I had to get used to as a child were the family portraits that hung on the walls of the house I grew up in, in Northumberland. Whenever I went up or down the stairs, into my bedroom, along the corridors, there they were, their eyes following my every move. They were always there, in their stiff clothes and gilt frames, always watching, always judging. I took to running downstairs very fast.

Now, in adult life, I decided it was time to return their gaze. Time to stop running and look back at my family, to find out about the lives behind the portraits.

SP: How did you decide which portraits to focus on? 

KT:  Many of them date from the nineteenth century. We know quite a lot about the family during Victorian times, so that might have been the smart option. But it felt a bit too close to me. A bit too familiar. Looking further back, to the eighteenth century, there were rumours of Jacobites in the family, a legend of a Rebel Ring, still held by a descendant. So I chose to focus on three eighteenth century portraits, in particular a full length one of Elizabeth Cresswell.

SP: Tell us how you went about researching their history.

KT:  I was very fortunate that the basic task of constructing the family tree had already been done for me, and its authors generously gave me access to it. But although the names were there, next to nothing was known about those people during the period. I had to embark on a wider search, deciphering wills and documents, discovering the miracle of the National Archive, newspaper archives and much more.

I also had to bring myself up to speed on the eighteenth century, and the world my family were living in.

SP: It was quite a crucial time in our history, wasn’t it.

KT: It certainly was. The eighteenth century was where it all began, where colonial wars and explorations shaped the nascent British Empire and trade started to transform everyday life.

SP: As we become more aware of the legacy of the UK’s colonial past, many people are looking back to find out what their eighteenth-century ancestors were up to, in particular uncovering connections to the slave trade.

KT: Yes, and it was a relief to discover that the slave trade did not feature directly in the Cresswell story. Although one could argue that all commerce of the later eighteenth century was stained indirectly with the same association.

What did seem clear to me, as I learned more about the century, was that what I was discovering about the history of my ancestors, as well as personal stories of love and tragedy, was in a real way a microcosm of the social history of the time. And I hope that this gives the novel a resonance beyond the bounds of personal, family interest.

SP: So, tell us something about the Cresswell family.

KT: The Cresswells of the eighteenth century were minor gentry with an estate and an ancient pele tower. If you don’t know it, Cresswell is a small seaside village near Ashington in the south of Northumberland. The estate has gone but the pele tower is still there!

The Cresswells’ main claim to fame was their longevity. They were part of the Norman land grab that took place in the north of England in the twelfth century and could claim to have been in residence ever since. One of them married an illegitimate daughter of Edward IV, so they were able to bask in a distant connection to royalty.

By the eighteenth century, however, the family name was coming perilously close to extinction. They managed to survive their involvement with the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and demolished the family chapel to erase all traces of Papism from their record. But later in the eighteenth century the longed-for son and heir came close to gambling the estate away on the racetrack. Having eloped with a penniless curate’s daughter, he died young, leaving twin daughters. What was to become of them, and how was the family name to continue?

SP: Well, you’re here today, so clearly it did!

KT: Yes, though no thanks to the Cresswells of the time. The unexpected saviour of the Cresswells turned out to be the man who married our heroine, Elizabeth. He was called John Addison.

He was no gentleman. John Addison was a contemporary of James Cook, and like Cook, started out as an apprentice on the Whitby colliers, shipping Newcastle coal to London.  

When he finished his apprenticeship John Addison started to buy shares in ships. From there his career took a more unconventional turn.

SP: Was this something you discovered in your research?

KT: I had suspicions. They were finally confirmed when I tracked down a vital document in the Admiralty records. During the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763) the Admiralty issued Letters of Marque licensing merchant ships to attack and capture enemy shipping for their own profit. It was regulated – shipmasters had to notify the Admiralty of their captures and have them certified as enemy shipping. But after that, all the profit was theirs. It was licensed piracy, otherwise known as privateering. And on a memorable day for a history nerd, there it was, in front of me, John Addison’s Letter of Marque, listing his ship, Friends Desire with a burden of 400 tons, his 80 crew members, and the names of his ship’s officers.   

It was one of those moments that make you forget all the fruitless hours ploughing through old documents.

SP: So John Addison was a pirate?

KT: Yes, and a very good one. At the end of the Seven Years War he bought himself the Manor of Appleton le Street, not far from Castle Howard, with his profits. He was in a position to look for a wife, and Elizabeth Cresswell was the woman he chose. She was twenty-eight and prepared to overlook his humble origins for the sake of escaping spinsterhood.

SP: Do we know why John Addison chose Elizabeth?

KT: For John Addison, marrying into a gentry family like the Cresswells opened the doors to patronage. With Elizabeth at his side, he formed a relationship with the noble Mulgrave family, lords of Mulgrave Castle outside Whitby. The Mulgraves provided capital and commissions for John Addison’s shipping business. During the American war, Lord Mulgrave was Paymaster General for the Armed Forces. Both sides made a fortune from shipping and naval supplying. Patronage was not disgraceful in the eighteenth century. It was how things worked.

SP:  So John Addison made his fortune. But, apart from marrying Elizabeth, what was his role in the Cresswell fortunes?

KT: John and Elizabeth’s was a successful marriage, in all but one respect. They were childless. Ever resourceful, John Addison turned to the Cresswell family in his search for posterity. He found ways to make it his own, from paying off the debts on the estate to an arranged marriage between his nephew and the Cresswell heiress. The family continued  – through the female line.

SP:  Tell us more about that - about the women’s side of the story.

KT: Part of that relates to a well-known ghostly legend associated with Cresswell tower, of a woman in white who haunts the shore. In the novel, Elizabeth Cresswell becomes aware of the spirit’s presence early in her childhood. Like the old statue of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, in the church nearby, it supports her through the hard knocks of her life. The nurturing feminine presence in the novel represents a counterpoint to the violence of the struggle for wealth and power that so preoccupied our eighteenth-century ancestors – or, to be more precise, our male ancestors.

SP: It wasn’t an easy time to be a woman.

KT: No. Eighteenth century women were excluded from property ownership and politics, from business and the professions. Marriage was the only route to an independent life. Many women spent their adult lives struggling with childbirth and enduring the shockingly high rates of infant and child mortality that haunted the nursery. Grace Cresswell, Elizabeth’s mother, buried six sons in infancy. It was just as dangerous for the mothers, irrespective of class. Two of the women who feature in the story died in their first confinement. The novel seeks to tell their story as well.

SP: So how does the story end for your heroine?

KT: Well, there is a postscript to Elizabeth’s story. For her, the relationship with the Mulgraves was never just about business. The first hint of a more romantic connection comes in a codicil to her will. It refers to a diamond edged miniature portrait of Constantine John, Lord Mulgrave, which she bequeathed to his daughter. I was intrigued. What was going on here? Why was his portrait so special to her? The clues came from another will – the will of Lord Mulgrave himself. Constantine John was a fascinating man in his own right, a close friend of Joseph Banks who led a voyage of exploration to the North Pole, a distinguished naval commander and a leading politician. But he was forced to resign his government positions due to a prolonged wasting disease, which was probably TB. He died in Spa, near Liege, where he would have been seeking a cure. His death was clearly unexpected, as the will is a rushed affair. It is witnessed by two local attorneys, his man-servant Louis Catt – and by Elizabeth Addison.

My suspicions of a liaison, later in life when both she and Constantine had been widowed, seemed to be confirmed. It must have been her great adventure, travelling to France with Constantine – and how tragic for her to lose him. In his will he left her five thousand pounds, in gratitude for her ‘unexampled goodness.’ It was a poignant moment of discovery.

SP: What happened to her after his death?

KT: Elizabeth returned to England and ended her days at Cresswell. There is a memorial to her in Woodhorn Church. It was erected by her great-nephew, Addison John Cresswell, in remembrance of her’ unbounded kindness’ to him.

Elizabeth’s portrait is one of those hanging on the stairs inside my childhood home. It is a full-length portrait of her taken in later life, in dowager grey silk. It gives her a grim look. I was scared of her as a child. It’s been an extraordinary and moving experience to make the acquaintance of the woman behind the portrait, this woman of unexampled goodness and unbounded kindness.

SP: Thank you Katharine, and I’m looking forward to reading the novel!

Katharine Tiernan’s novel Star of the Sea is out now in paperback and e-book. 


Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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