A Similar Devotion
by Susan Bell
Sacristy Press, February 1, 2014 £11.99
In the North East of England at the dawn of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, two women face tragedy and challenges.
Set within the compelling political landscape of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, and the complications and frustrations of the digital age, this dual romantic narrative shows that upheaval and revolution are no match for the constancies of love.
Alternately tense, dramatic and joyful, A Similar Devotion follows two women separated in time, but united in their determination to overcome the obstacles they face throughout the events and relationships that colour their lives.
The intertwining stories reveal that despite the contrasting worlds in which they live, love has a power to heal and bring happiness that neither woman expected.
Susan Bell encapsulates the romantic past with the same vigour as the vibrant present.
I am young again, remembering the pleasures of bare feet on dewy grass, the salty scent of the sea, thundering waves dissolving into lacy foam that fans across the wide sands, the plaintive cries of gulls and the moan of the wind in my ears. My senses drink in the splendour of the land and seascape before me and flood my body with contentment. How I savour the joy of being in this place once more!
To my left across a reflective ribbon of sea, Lindisfarne, the Holy Isle: the isle of St Cuthbert and St Aidan, the island castle perched on a sheer outcrop near the southern tip. Further out to sea, southwards, the rocky Farne Islands, surrounded by fishing boats and weighed down by innumerable birds. To the right, across the swelling and often turbulent waters of the North Sea to the soft golden sand, our castle of Bamburgh, standing tall above all else, clinging proudly to the towering mass of craggy cliff as if it grew there long ago. Closer to me, a scattering of houses, our manor house and the church of St Aidan.
Leaning against this rough stone wall, the coarse grass beyond dipping and rolling toward the sea, I smile in remembrance. So familiar is the unchanged scene that the past is but a moment away; a setting to momentous events of which we were a part.
The grey, granite walls of the church stir memories of the souls that filled its hallowed halls and are now no more—where Thomas and I sat as first family of the parish, above all others in our places in St Aidan’s chancel, unexpectedly raised to this lofty position through successive and untimely deaths in the Bamburgh branch of the Forster family. We sat even above our father, stepmother, and the Catholic Radcliffes who shared our services.
All this was ours, mine and Thomas’s, for but a short time.
Many have misjudged and blamed Thomas unfairly for what he did in the so-called Rebellion. They were not there, and those present had reason to find a scapegoat. He did what he thought right and should be remembered for his refusal to make cowardly excuses and for his unwavering loyalty to his friends and our King over the water.
I have no regret for what I did. There was anxiety, fear, thrilling highs and dreadful lows, but also excitement never matched since and a love that comforts me still. Life presents its opportunities. I shudder even now at the thought I might have left to others, what only I could have done.
The Beach at Bamburgh
I sat down, plunged my hand into the soft sand and let the golden grains pour through my fingers. The sea was unusually calm and I watched as the placid waves broke gently into curved ripples, revealing darkened sand as they retreated. I looked to the horizon and wished I was on one of the misty Farne islands, beyond the reach of everyone and everything that demanded so much of me.
My wayward hair, at that hour in the morning not yet confined by ribbon or bonnet, hung loosely about my shoulders. A sudden breeze caught my locks and briefly blotted out the islands from my vision. I tossed my head and felt, rather than saw, the brooding presence of the dark, crumbling castle standing on the cliff that towered above the beach to my left. It was part of the vast wealth and lands that branches of my family had owned and squandered. My more recent ancestors had lived with no apparent thought of preserving the inheritance for future heirs. Thomas and I soon realised that he had inherited debts too great to repay and the only answer was to sell the inheritance we had so joyfully thought was his. Life could have been pleasant and leisurely, ours to determine its course, but now was dependent on the kindness of our uncle, Lord Crewe Prince Bishop of Durham.
I stood up and pulled my shawl about me. I climbed up and down the sand hills until I reached the path that would take me round the land side of the castle.
I had to accept that my time merely managing the household accounts and finding ways of curbing Thomas’s spending was over. There was a great deal more to think about than simple matters of money. The moment had come when decisions had to be made and action taken which might have momentous consequences. Thomas’s news had both excited and frightened me. I had needed time to mull over the bare bones of what he felt able to tell me, about an enterprise so long in coming and yet suddenly too close not to inspire apprehension as well as excitement.
I had left the manor house just after dawn, as I often did. I walked down to the sea and along the beach past the castle, high on the massive rocky cliff, and climbed up into the sand hills beyond. I ran down the dunes as I had once done as a child with my nurse holding my hand. I sighed. Such carefree days were gone.
I reassured myself that I at least had the satisfaction of knowing that my uncle was happy with my accounts and the decisions I had made to economise. It was hard for Thomas to change the life he had led so long. Hunting, shooting, gambling and drinking with his many friends were his ways of passing his time when not at Parliament in London or about the business of his constituency.
That was the life he considered his right, when the last of our uncles died so tragically in a duel outside an inn in Newcastle. I shuddered, remembering the hanging of John Fenwick on the spot where my uncle died. He was condemned, it was said, because of his unsporting actions, running my uncle through while he was picking up the sword he’d dropped on the cobbles.
In 1701, at the age of eighteen, Thomas was informed that he would share the inheritance of the Forster family’s Bamburgh branch with our Aunt Dorothy, sister to our late, beloved mother Frances, who had died shortly after my brother John was born. I remembered the moment three years later, when Thomas came fully into his inheritance at twenty-one and asked if I would come and live with him in Bamburgh. Though only eighteen, I accepted joyfully and was happy to leave Adderstone Manor. I knew I would miss my father and my brother John, but I was thankful that Thomas was willing to take me away from the step-mother we both disliked. For many years I had ridden there from Adderstone and galloped along the sands, or trotted through its streets. I felt it would be a delight to live in Bamburgh, close to the castle I had always admired. We talked of restoring parts of the castle to its former glory. But it was not to be. Only the keep was now habitable and made so by our uncle.
It was agreed that Thomas and I should live in the Bamburgh Forsters’ splendid stone-built manor house that still stands next to St Aidan’s Church. Aunt Dorothy did, however, caution us to live moderately and keep strict accounts of all our expenditure. Thomas scorned her miserly instructions, and although I was happy to use my arithmetical abilities to help him with the book-keeping, I inquired why such economies were needed. Aunt Dorothy did not explain, so there was no way we could have known the truth. The shock of finding out the true state of the Bamburgh Forsters’ legacy made Thomas sullen and angry. Not long after he came of age, creditors petitioned Chancery to order the sale of the estates and a decree was issued. Thomas would not at first accept the unwelcome truth. In the end his only choice was to agree with Aunt Dorothy that her wealthy husband should buy up all the lands, farms, manors and townships that Thomas and she owned in Northumberland and Durham. And, more painful for me, he was to lose the manor of Blanchland and my beloved manor and castle of Bamburgh.
In all, Uncle Crewe paid more than twenty thousand pounds to the Crown to save the family honour. We knew it was all done for the sake of our aunt whom he adored. Over time it became clear that there was barely £1,000 to be shared between Thomas and Aunt Dorothy. Thomas owned lead mines in Northumberland and County Durham from his Adderstone Forster family inheritance, and this quarterly revenue, and a small allowance from our Aunt, was now all we had to live on.
I doggedly stuck to my duties and tried to make Thomas more aware of our income’s limitations, but he always pointed out that he would one day inherit the lands and properties of our father’s estate in Adderstone. He had a generous and friendly nature and a desire to share with all his friends what he still saw as his comparative good fortune. Although reduced to an income of about six hundred pounds a year, he continued to keep a good stable of horses and took part in hunting, fishing, cock fighting and hawking. Much of it was done to find food for the table, but he always expected to entertain his friends with food and drink when they returned.
It was just as well that, young as I was, I realised that the servants could not be relied upon to rein in such lavish generosity, however experienced they might be. For almost eleven years I gradually made myself responsible for scolding, cajoling and managing Thomas’s excesses in a way that kept our easy and affectionate relationship intact.
I learned how to prepare conserves, jellies and wines. I made many of my own clothes and perfumes and saw to it that the servants made roasts, pies, cakes, biscuits and puddings without waste or excessive enthusiasm. I knew that my aunt and uncle relied on my ability to prevent our financial position from worsening.
They had spent most of that year in London or at my uncle’s seat at Stene in Northamptonshire, so on receiving a message that they would be in Durham a short while, I hastily prepared myself and my maid, Jenny Lee, to visit them to report on the last twelve months. Aunt Dorothy seemed happy with my accounts. “My Lord Crewe admires the firm way you handle Thomas too,” she confided one evening, “He only wishes Thomas had profited from his education as much as you have.”
I felt anxious at this criticism of Thomas, but tried to disguise my resentment of my aunt’s words. “I believe there were many things to distract him from his studies, Aunt.”
Aunt Dorothy looked sternly at me. “Ha! Like drinking and gambling! Even at the tender age of fifteen he was already beyond the pale.”
I kept my face expressionless. “I cannot argue with you, Aunt; I was preoccupied with my own studies. But life with our housekeeper was very difficult to bear. He kicked against being constantly scolded by that woman. It was impossible for him to stay at home with her constant tales against us and always making our father’s life a misery. Margaret and I escaped into our books; John was absorbed in his own little world of make-believe. Thomas escaped to his friends. Mrs Lawes had such power even before she persuaded father to marry her. She restricted Thomas’s income to such an extent that he got into debt.”
My aunt snorted, “Aye, and he added to the financial worries, no doubt. He most certainly wasted his time at Cambridge. What a missed opportunity! I know you’ve always been loyal to your brother, Dorothy, but take care he doesn’t ruin your life as he seems to be intent on doing his own. It’s he who should have a firm hold of the household management, not you. You should be married with a family of your own.”
Controlling my anger at this unwaveringly harsh judgement of Thomas, I continued quietly, “He does help when he is able, but his work as a member of Parliament takes up a great deal of his time.”
“Hem . . . when it suits him.” Aunt Dorothy’s face was set in a look of disapproval. I lowered my eyes and held my tongue. I knew too well my aunt’s opinion of my brother and I also knew that nothing good could come of a serious disagreement with her. Thomas and I relied on the continued patronage of the Bishop, and Aunt Dorothy was his most trusted advisor, as well as his wife. Inwardly, I raged at our prodigal ancestors, but knew I must be grateful to the Bishop that he allowed us to live without paying rent for the manor houses in Bamburgh and Blanchland and merely required us to look after his interests.
My aunt, though obviously pleased to see me and full of praise for my management of the estates, was strangely subdued a good deal of the time and later begged me to find a husband, and encourage John to marry to secure the continuation of the family line. She said she’d given up any hopes of Thomas settling down. He was too fond of high living to take on the responsibilities of wife and family.
She confided her long held sorrow that she’d been unable to give her beloved Nathaniel a son. “My only regret is that I turned him down when he first asked me to become his wife. I thought that at only nineteen and him fifty-seven, the gap was too great and I too young to help him in such an important and lofty position. Now I think I could at least have given him children then.”
“But my dear Aunt Dorothy, you were near my age when you did marry him. Why should you blame yourself? You were not quite twenty-nine; he was sixty-seven. Perhaps it was too late for him.”
My aunt cast her eyes to the ground. “Even so, it was my fault for waiting.” She raised her head and fixed me with her pale, watery eyes. “Have you no young man calling on you?”
I shook my head. “Those that call are seeking Thomas to go hunting or hawking and others that come to socialise often have their wives in tow.”
I kept from her my thoughts that I had long since given up hope of finding a husband. Had I not already found a place at my brother’s side? I knew he would not be inclined to relinquish my post to a wife who would expect more than he was able to provide. And I knew of no unmarried young man willing to take on a woman like myself who had the position but not the wealth to be a good match.
About the Author:
Susan Bell trained as a teacher at St Hild’s College, Durham, followed by a Masters Degree in Education from Cardiff University. After teaching for two years, she left to have the first of three sons. As they grew older she resumed teaching, taking a certificate and then a Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language. With her husband John, Susan moved to Botswana in 1994 and taught English, followed by a move to Zimbabwe where she continued to teach English part-time to slow and second language learners, and researched and wrote stories in her spare time.
On returning to the UK, Susan took up the position of Librarian at Durham School for 18 months, leaving in 2003 to concentrate on her writing. In 2007 Susan and John moved to China, staying for three years. During this time she continued to write, and finished a second novel whilst also tutoring English and taking part in a project to improve English in tourist areas, restaurants and information signs in Xi’an. The third year was spent in Nanjing where Susan concentrated on revising and editing her two novels whilst John continued to teach Physics. They returned to Durham in September 2010 and has continued to write and revise her novels. Susan’s husband John sadly died in 2013, just as her first novel, A Similar Devotion, was being prepared for publication.