Returning home after almost four weeks away was a chance to re-set. I had just over a week to write my presentation for the York Library meeting and revisit the places I’d been to in Chennai, India. What I’d gained was a sense of the city today, its colour, energy and youthfulness, a million miles from the dusty days of the British Raj. I’d learned that Eliza Raine and her older sister, Jane, had been sent to England aboard the East India Company ship, the King George, aged 6 and 8. Their memories of the motherland would have become impressionistic over time.
The talk in York was well attended and Fox Lane Books sold my novels. I talked about how I’d come across Eliza when living in Osbaldwick, near York, when the local history group devised a historical walk. We learned that Eliza had been Anne Lister’s first love (of Gentleman Jack renown), had spent her last years in an asylum (now Stanley House) in the village, and that the doctor in charge lived in the adjoining house, accessible through an upstairs door. Eliza died in 1860 aged 68 and is buried in Osbaldwick cemetery.
Eliza and Anne Lister met as teenagers at the Manor House School in York, part of the medieval King’s Manor. Some of their letters were written in code (crypthand as Anne Lister called it) to protect the illicit nature of their relationship. I shared a copy of the code given to me at Halifax Archives when I visited in 2019. I’d become fascinated by Eliza’s story starting in distant Madras and wanted to know how she’d ended up in an asylum in York. Born to an Indian mother and East India Company surgeon, she was considered illegitimate. This shows up starkly in the Probate document, where she’s described as ‘a spinster and a bastard.’ No doubt this reflected the social norms of the time and the way she and her sister Jane would have been treated.
The talk finished with an interesting discussion about what Eliza’s life may have been like in her final years. There were two ‘mad houses’ and we know that between 10 and fifteen residents lived in each. An 1842 inspection reported that residents were in ‘Good bodily health. No one under restraint. Church attended and scriptures read daily. Occupation and amusement provided. Some of the ladies undertake needlework and the garden and exercising grounds are good.’ So a benign regime, one hopes. This was developed under an enlightened view of mental health led by Quaker, William Tuke, who founded the York Retreat in 1796.
What I’ve been Watching
The 2020 film, The Duke, with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren playing his beleaguered wife, is a wonderful David and Goliath story. It’s set in Newcastle in 1961 and tells the true story of Kempton Bunton. Self-educated and passionate about the rights of the common man, ‘he prefers Chekhov to Shakespeare, because the Bard wrote too many plays about kings.’ (Xan Brooks, five star Guardian review). He refuses to pay his TV licence as part of a campaign against pensioners having to pay this and goes to jail for his trouble. Later, he appears at the Old Bailey charged with stealing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington and pleads not guilty. He’d sent ransom notes to the government saying he’ll return the painting if pensioners don’t have to pay for their TV licences. Eventually the painting is restored to the National Gallery and in a barn storming performance in court, Kempton becomes a cause célèbre. There’s a touching backstory about the death of the couple’s daughter and a reconciliation with Dorothy, his long-suffering wife. She meets him at the prison gates after he’s served a three-month sentence for the theft of the frame of the painting, though acquitted for the theft of the painting itself. Enjoy!
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