Wednesday, 24 October 2018

How much was true?

Spoiler alert - leave this page to the end if you don't want to find out the answers too soon!

Several people have asked me whether Merelina Jermyn, the maker of the casket, was a real person, and the answer is - yes, she was.

Ever since I had the idea for the dual time-lines in the book, before I began writing, I resolved that the Jermyns and their house, Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, should feature in it.  There's a reason for this.  Rushbrooke is very much part of my family's history, I know a great deal about it, and I've been interested in Merelina and her sisters for many years.  This is how it all came about ...

My grandfather, Maurice Wilkinson, was the headmaster of a boys' school in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and at the onset of the First World War, decided that it would be a good idea to move his staff and pupils from their seafront location to a safer place inland.  Accordingly, he rented Rushbrooke Hall, near Bury St. Edmunds, for the duration.  It was a wonderful red brick Elizabethan mansion, large enough to house everyone, with land enough for playing fields, and surrounded by a moat.  It had been modernised and had heating and up-to-date plumbing.  At the time of the move my grandmother was heavily pregnant with her youngest child, my mother, and stayed behind in Aldeburgh until the birth.  For the next four years, the school inhabited Rushbrooke, and my mother's earliest memories were of dark panelling and long corridors.  There were peacocks and formal gardens, the boys fished out of the dormitory windows, and the house was reputed to be haunted.  The school magazines at the time are full of stories and photographs.  My grandmother loved the place, and tried to persuade my grandfather to stay there, but for various reasons which have never been quite clear, he preferred to go back to Aldeburgh when the war ended.

                My grandmother, and later also my mother, always took a keen interest in Rushbrooke.  They were delighted when it was bought by the Rothschild family in 1937, as they thought their wealth would mean that it was safe from dereliction or demolition.  Unfortunately, they were wrong.  As far as I know, it was never lived in again.  When my mother and grandmother went to have a look at it in 1952, it was being used as a grain store.  Later, valuable panelling, fireplaces and even the porch were removed and, so I was told, sold to America.  Eventually the house burned down in 1961, allegedly accidentally, while being demolished.  Nothing remains of it but the moated site, and the bridge across it.  Neither my grandmother nor my mother ever forgave the Rothschilds for their vandalism.

                A few years later, I think in 1965 when I was 13, my mother took me to see the site.  I can remember how upset I was at the loss of such a beautiful house, and I resolved then and there to write about a similar house, and the family who lived in it.  It was a way of bringing Rushbrooke back to life.  I started writing the story which later became known to my family as 'The Epic', and later still became my first novel, 'The Moon in the Water', and its sequel, 'The Chains of Fate'.  To help me, I had family stories and memories, and an old book inherited from my grandmother, a transcript of the Rushbrooke parish registers with a detailed history of the house and the Jermyns attached.  It was therefore quite logical, when I was thinking about who the maker of Jenna's casket might be, to choose one of the five daughters of Thomas, Lord Jermyn, and Merelina, the youngest, born in 1673 was the one who most appealed.

                All the details of her life are as accurate as I can make them.  There are quite a few books about the histories of the villages round Bury St Edmunds, and the gentry families who lived in them and who all intermarried - Gages, D'Ewes, Jermyns, Blagges, Herveys.  I even wrote a dissertation about their activities during the English Civil War and after, when I was at university.  Many of the books quote letters and papers which shine a brief but vivid light on some personalities or events.  This, for example, is the report of Merelina's daughter Molly's wedding (spelling modernised):

                    Mr. Symonds was married to the gay, the admired Molly Spring last week ;

they are yet at Hengrave, are expected to spend some time at his mother's [in East-

gate St.] before they go to housekeeping ; if so we must do ourselves the honour to

visit these great people, hut I'm determined not to go to see 'em at Horringer till I've

a coach, you may guess when that will be. Her first suit a pink satin lined with

silver tissue, the next a silk lin'd with white tabby, and so on, have hired six

servants, 3 men in liveries, a Berlin and four horses; they must have a great deal of

economy to support this figure with their fortune.

                Or a poem about Merelina's daughters when they lived at Hengrave:

                                'Commend me then in short to all

                                 Who live and laugh at Hengrave Hall

                                 From little Dilly, sly and sleek,

                                 To Molly with her dimpled cheek.' 

                Or a brief glimpse of four of the Jermyn sisters in 1697, as they visited the Hervey town house in Bury:

                    The four sisters have been here this afternoon, and (as they never come unattended) brought with them Mr. Gage , Mr. Downing, and Mr. Bond . Part of them stayed and played at whist till this moment, which is past eleven o' clock, tho' they are to hunt tomorrow morning.

                Of course, there is no record of Merelina Jermyn ever having made a casket like the one I describe - which is an amalgam of several beautiful examples in museums, including the V&A, and in collections such as the Queen's.  But they were still fashionable when she was a girl - though shortly to be outmoded - and it's perfectly possible that she did make one, or something similar, which has not survived the intervening 350 years.

                All the other details of her family life are true, including the terrible freak accident which claimed the life of her young brother Thomas, sole heir to Rushbrooke, when he was only 15.  At the age of 18, she married Sir Thomas Spring, a baronet who was the same age.  The young couple lived at Pakenham, another village within a few miles of Bury St. Edmunds, and they and their children are buried in the church, where their memorial tablets on the floor of the chancel may still be seen.  Their descendants for the next five generations are real, including the Leheups of Hessett, whose monuments are in the church there.  Thereafter, beginning with the fictional Maria Merelina Rogers, they're entirely my invention.

                I've had a lot of fun revisiting 17th and early 18th century Suffolk, and the glories of Rushbrooke and Hengrave (which still exists in all its loveliness, and is now a wedding venue).  I'll finish this note by adding some pictures.  The colour photographs of Rushbrooke were taken by an American officer stationed in Suffolk in World War Two, and I bought them on Ebay some years ago.  The portrait is of Merelina Jermyn, and used to be in Hunston House in Suffolk, presumably brought there when one of her granddaughters married the owner.  As Jenna noted, it gives a delightful impression of her character.

Sunday, 21 October 2018


I know my time is almost done.  I can see it in the physician's face as he bends over me, and the tears in the eyes of my daughters as they sit beside the bed.  I am suffering from a wasting sickness, which came over me so slowly and insidiously that I did not notice, until Molly pointed it out when she visited, that all my gowns hung over my thin shoulders as if on a stick.  I do not think that anything could have been done to avert it, even if I had realised earlier.  Mercifully, I feel little pain, just a great tiredness, a longing for sleep, and I know, without being told, that one day soon I will close my eyes and never wake.

                And so I will leave this world, leave my lovely girls and my fine son and my little grandchild, leave them to the mercies of fate without my guidance.  I do fear for them.  Will is tall and handsome, and could have his pick of a dozen eager girls of good fortune and family, but he shows no inclination to marry, to continue his line.  Merelina, or Merry as we call her, likewise seems doomed to remain a spinster, though I know she has a partiality for a man who seems not to notice her.  Harriet and Dilly are still giddy girls, though they are both nearer thirty than twenty, and they lack discretion and spend their lives in merriment and pleasure.  They too show no sign of wishing to marry, indeed Dilly has many times spoken against it, avowing that she would rather live her present life and be happy, than submit to the rule of a husband and the trials and cares of being a mother.  And really I cannot blame her, for I have seen how a woman can make the wrong choice, through infatuation or inexperience, and find herself trapped in a cage of misery and suffering.  I was so fortunate in both my husbands, much more fortunate than many women.

                Only Molly, who had seemed the most giddy of all, seems truly happy and settled.  She has her baby, Jermyn, though he is a frail child who always seems to be ill, and she is expecting another next year, which I will not live to see.  She and her husband display great affection for each other, which is a pleasure to witness, and she has taken to the humdrum existence of a parson's wife with enthusiasm, though I fear some of the older and more hidebound residents of the parish have been a little shocked by the arrival of this bright exotic flower in their midst.  She is the only one of my children whose future I can see, a smooth and shining path.  God grant that I am right.

                I have disposed of most of my possessions.  The process of my dying has been long, and it has given me ample time to set my affairs in order.  I have bestowed small gifts and keepsakes amongst my servants, and my girls know who is to have various items of jewellery.  There is one possession I have not yet allocated, because I cannot decide which of my daughters shall have my casket, on which I embroidered my beloved home and family, into which I have put so much of my life, whether happy or sad, good or ill.

                If Merelina were married, it would be easy.  She is my eldest surviving child, she loves it as I do, she will tend it and cherish it as I have done.  But she is not married, and she may never be married, and so might not have children of her own, to whom she can bequeath it.  For more than anything I wish that my casket may be passed down through the generations of my descendents, an heirloom as precious as any jewel, for I fancy it contains my soul.  You may say that is sinful vanity, that when we die we are as dust on the wind on this earth, for our souls go to God - but I wish to be remembered by my children, and their children, and their children's children, and so on down the ages, and remembered not for my name, unusual though it is, for it was made new-minted just for me, nor for my piety nor my devotion to my two very different but beloved husbands or my love for my children - though those are worthy things - but for the skill and delight with which I made my casket, and the joy of its creation.

                Molly is married, and has one child and another due, and in the opinion of most of my friends and family, she would be the most appropriate recipient of the casket.  But she cares little for it, she would not look after it - she would take its box to use for a tea caddy or her jewellery or some such frivolity, and leave it unprotected in the sunlight until the threads had grown feeble and the colours faded away to nothing, and then it would be chopped up for kindling.  I love my Molly dearly, but I know her nature, and despite her marriage and her new responsibilities, she can still be careless and she lacks her elder sister's thoughtfulness and sense.

                Dilly and Harriet I can barely consider, for they are neither married nor sensible nor thoughtful, and if Molly would not be a suitable person to take charge of such a precious thing, they certainly would not.  No, it must be Merelina's, and if she does not marry, perhaps Molly will produce a daughter to whom she can leave it, who can cherish the casket and hand it on down the years.

                Much relieved by this decision, I summon my eldest daughter to my chamber.  She comes quickly and quietly, as is her habit, and I wonder again that no man has offered for her, since she has a simple beauty of face and expression that to my eyes is very attractive, but that air of firm confidence, that comes from knowing her own mind, might be less alluring to a young man than her sister Molly's brilliance and dash.  "Yes, Mama?  Are you feeling better?" she asks, with hope in her eyes.

                "No better, no worse," I say, with perfect truth.  "Merry, I have something to give you."  And I nod to my maid Sarah, who has been with me for some years now, and knows what I wish her to do, almost before I wish it myself.  She goes over to the chest in the window bay, and lifts out the gleaming box which contains my casket. 

                Merry's eyes follow her, and widen with sudden joy.  "Mama - do you mean to give me the casket?  But will not Molly want it for her daughter, when she has one?"

                "You will have a daughter," I tell her, with such absolute conviction that I can see she believes me.  "You will marry the man you wish, in the fullness of time, and you will have a daughter, perhaps two, and you can pass it to them, and tell them the stories that I have embroidered into it.  I love your sisters dearly, but I know them, they have no interest in the casket, and they will not cherish it as you will.  I have made sure to give them a little more of my jewellery than I am giving to you, so they will not feel slighted."

                "They will not," says Merry firmly, and I know she is right, for though my daughters have not always got on together, they are neither greedy nor spiteful.  "Mama, thank you so much.  I will take the greatest care of it, and teach any daughter of mine to do the same."  She bends to kiss me, and I see that her eyes are wet - as indeed are my own.  And I think again of how I have been blessed with my children, that whatever might befall them, whatever their flaws and foibles, they are kind, generous and good-natured people, whom it has been a pleasure to know and to love.

                "May I look at it?" she asks a little later.  I am holding her hand, so Sarah comes forward and opens the box and brings it out very gently, and puts it on the bed beside us.  She helps me sit up so that I am more comfortable, and I lift the lid to reveal the garden, though the effort is almost beyond my strength now.  Once more, as so often, I talk about how I made it, and the people depicted on it, now all departed, though I know that I will meet them again very soon, in a better place than this.

                "And I love the little treasures you have kept," Merry says softly, as I begin to open the doors and drawers.  "Especially those tiny silver things from your baby house - the plates and candlesticks, that lovely little coffee pot and the skillets and a warming pan, so beautifully made, that you let me play with when I was a little girl.  And letters too - are they from Papa?"

                "Of course - I have bound them in blue ribbon.  You may read them if you wish, they speak only of joy and love."

                "And this?"  She lifts out a folded scrap of paper, and I smile, thinking of when it was written, so long, long ago.  "Yes, that is also from your Papa.  It is a little poem, hardly more than doggerel, that was composed by him when first we knew each other, when we were little more than children.  I kept it because it reminds me so much of him, and also of my sisters who were so beloved, though, like you and your sisters, we did not always agree."

                Merry reads it, and laughs.  "Was it true?  I know it is true of you, Mama, but what of your sisters?"

                "Oh, very true," I say, and laugh with her, though mine soon turns into a cough, and Sarah brings watered wine for me, and another dose of the foul draught that the physician will insist I take, though both he and I know that it is futile.

                Much later, when the girls and Will are all dining downstairs, I lie back on my pillows, feeling my breath falter, for even Merry's brief visit has left me exhausted.  Sarah is making up the fire, though it is August, and later she will close the windows against the night.  I close my eyes and listen to the sounds she makes, and to the birds singing in the garden, and the tuneful whistle of someone in the court below, and further away, the wind in the trees and a dog barking far off.  Soon I will be gone, and I will greet again those whom I have loved - my mother and father, my lovely, lively sisters, the little girl I lost when she was a delightful moppet of seven years old, my second husband, so unexpectedly dear.   There will also be that bright, heedless boy whom we loved so much, perhaps too much, who had five elder sisters to spoil him, and yet was not spoilt: the little boy who forever runs with his dog on the side of my casket, immortalised in silks and threads.   And above all my own Tom, the love of my life, the father of my children, taken from us too soon, and remembered with joy and sadness mingled.

                I do not need to look again at the paper on which he wrote his little verse, for I have known it by heart all these years.  But as the room grows darker, and the sounds fade, I recite it to myself with a last smile.

                'Mary, quiet, sweet and kind

                 Harriet ever speaks her mind

                 Dilly argues night is day

                 Pen insists on her own way

                 And Merry, without guile or art

                 Will always love with her whole heart.'


                Jenna had wondered if Saskia would rise to the bait, but to her delight she accepted the invitation with alacrity.  "Why not?  It only takes a couple of hours to get to you, darling, and I haven't got anything on tomorrow that can't wait.  Is it OK if I bring Jon with me?"
                "Of course it is.  Lunch at Fran's, then, after which I'll present my findings."
                "That sounds very official."
                "Oh, I'm going to set it all out properly.  After all, when I lend the casket to the V&A, I want them to have the results of my research as well.  And if I can prove, as I think I can, who made it, that makes it even more remarkable.  How's Indy?"
                "On the mend, but still feeling sorry for herself.  She might be up to a car journey, though, if it's OK for her to come along?"
                "Of course it is, Rosie told me to ask her."
                "Good.  She needs a bit of distraction.  Now, darling, do spill the beans.  What exactly has been going on with your Scotsman's runaway daughter?  I've been following the saga on Twitter.  Is the mother really the worst parent since Medea?"
                "No!  It's all been blown up out of all proportion.  She's not a bad mother, she genuinely thought that she was doing the right thing for Flora, but Flora disagreed.  So did Fran and I, but because Krystal had custody, we didn't want to start a fight."
                "So the kid took matters into her own hands.  Good for her.  And how did it all get on social media?"
                "That was Rosie.  When Flora disappeared she alerted the neighbourhood via Facebook.  It was emphatically the right thing to do, we'd no idea she'd hidden in the woods, but someone must have thought it was a juicy titbit to pass on.  Now it's gone viral, Krystal has been trolled on Twitter, and I think a big part of the reason she changed her mind was because her agent probably told her it'd damage her career if she didn't."
                "So what's she really like?"
                Jenna thought for a moment, visualising again that small, fierce woman perched on the edge of Fran's sofa.  "Well, she's not Medea.  But she's tough, stubborn and opinionated, and I'd guess her real priority is her career, rather than Flora."
                "Poor kid.  So how old is she?"
                "Krystal?  At a guess, late thirties, but it's hard to tell."
                "Oh, by that age, darling, they've all had work done.  Even if they were perfect to start with, they've had work done.  And she's probably well aware that in another ten years she'll be reduced to character parts and voice over, so she's maximising her potential now.  I can't say I blame her - but it's hard on Flora.  At least she's seen sense at last."
                "It's just a shame it took something so drastic to make her listen.  Anyway, it's all arranged, Flora stays here with Fran - "
                "And with you?"
                "And with me.  She'll go to normal schools here, and spend the summer holidays in California, or wherever, and perhaps Christmas or Easter too.  She's utterly cock-a-hoop.  The last few weeks, she's been really moody and difficult, which isn't like Flora at all.  Now, she's a different child.  Amazing what happiness and relief can do."
                "Good.  I'm glad that's all sorted.  Has her mother gone back to the US yet?"
                "She's probably at Heathrow as we speak - she's catching an evening flight." 
                "Let's hope she doesn't change her mind at the last minute.  Now, gotta go, darling, I'm in the shop and one of my best customers has just walked through the door.  See you tomorrow!"
                Tomorrow was bright, mild, fresh with the promise of a delightful spring.  Jenna had caught up with her sleep, and she felt rested and invigorated.  To judge by Rosie's glowing face, she was the same.  They had bacon and eggs for breakfast, and then took Sammy for a walk up to the castle, calling in at the shop on the way back.  The Sunday papers were laid out on a rack, and the shrieking headline on one of the tabloids caught Jenna's eye.  'BABE IN THE WOOD - ACTRESS'S DAUGHTER FOUND SAFE AFTER FLIGHT INTO FOREST!'
                                Rosie saw her looking, and followed her gaze.  She flushed a deeper red and turned away.  Jenna picked the paper up and scanned the piece.  It skated a zig zag path between truth, snide innuendo and the libel laws, and there was no doubt that it was hostile to Krystal.  For the first time, she felt acute sympathy for Flora's mother.  She'd only done what she thought was right, after all, and been vilified for it.
                Her own daughter, too, had only done what she thought was right.  Rosie had gone out of the shop and was bending over Sammy, who was tied up to a convenient ring outside.  Jenna put the paper back and went out to join her.  She said, "Don't beat yourself up about this.  Those headlines really aren't your fault."
                "It feels as though they are," Rosie said sadly.  "If I hadn't put that message on Facebook - "
                "You put that message on Facebook because you thought it would be the best way to help find Flora.  And if she'd done the sensible thing and gone to one of her friends, it would have found her.  You didn't intend or foresee that it'd go viral, and you certainly didn't mean the news to be leaked to the national press.   So please, lovey, don't blame yourself, because it wasn't your fault."
                "OK," said Rosie, after a long pause.  "But I just hope that it hasn't made trouble for Krystal.  Or Fran."
                "It won't.  Krystal should be back in the States by now, and Fran can cope with whatever gets thrown at him.  In any case, the press can't be too intrusive, because a child's involved and there are laws against it."  She wasn't quite sure of her ground here, but if saying this would help Rosie, she didn't care.  "Shall we go back now?  It's twenty past eleven and I said we'd be at Fran's by twelve."
                Half an hour later, they drove up to the cottage in the wood, just ahead of Saskia's Audi, which hooted as it pulled in behind them.  The door flew open and Flora ran out to meet them, while Fran followed more slowly.  There was a great deal of hugging, exclamations and happy greetings, before they all walked inside, to be met by a delicious aroma of roasting lamb.  The big table had been laid for seven - probably by Flora, since the arrangement of the knives and forks was a little idiosyncratic, to say the least - and there was a big bunch of yellow and red fringed tulips in a vase in the middle.
                "Smells good," said Saskia.  She'd linked her arm proprietorially with Jon's, and to Jenna's observant eye she looked different, somehow softer and less edgy.  It seemed that, against all the odds, Jon was making her happy.  And if he ever stopped making her happy, Jenna felt that she'd be tempted to strangle him with her bare hands.
                "Do you like the tulips?" Flora demanded, indicating them with a flourish.  "Dad says they're parrot tulips but I call them flamenco tulips because they look like those swirly skirts.  They had them in Sainsburys."
                The tulips were duly admired, and while Fran checked the leg of lamb and put the roast potatoes in, Flora distributed an assortment of nibbles.  There was time to catch up with news, though by mutual and tacit consent, the events of the previous day were ignored.  The lamb was delicious, and even India managed a generous portion.  No-one had much room for anything other than small helpings of the apple crumble which followed it, and which Flora proudly confessed to have made.  Everyone helped to clear the table, and Rosie wiped it clean of crumbs and gravy with especial care, while Fran made coffee.  Only then did Jenna go outside to her car, and lift the wooden box that contained her precious casket out of the boot, while her daughter brought in the notebook and papers which contained her research.
                Everyone clustered round as Jenna put the box on the table and pulled the cotton gloves out of her pocket.  India, of course, was the only one who hadn't seen it before, but such was the eagerness that it was as if this was the first time for all of them.  She lifted the lid, drew the casket out of its container, and set it down in the centre.
                For once, Jon seemed lost for words: he just gazed at it.  Flora uttered a little squeak of delight, and Rosie grinned at her.  India gasped, and Saskia said, with no trace of her usual cynical drawl, "I'd forgotten how amazing it is."
                The casket seemed to glow in the spring sunshine which fell across the table.  It glinted on the gold and silver threads, and cast shadows behind the raised figures - the man and woman, the lion, the child and the dog.  Most of all, it seemed to emphasise the initials on the lid.
                "MJ," Fran said.  "So you've found her?"
                "Are you sure?"  That was Jon, ever the sceptical academic.  Saskia cast him a reproving glance, which he pretended not to notice.
                "I'm a hundred per cent sure," Jenna said.  "And in a minute, I'll tell you what I've discovered, and how I did it.  But first, I want to show you everything about it.  And while you're admiring, bear this in mind - most if not all of these caskets were made by girls very little older than Flora.  The one in the V&A was made by Martha Edlin when she was eleven."
                "Wow," Flora said.  "It must have taken forever!"
                "There weren't so many distractions then," Fran pointed out.  "No TV, no computers, no social media, no radio, and probably not so many books either."
                "Exactly," said Jenna.  "If your house did have books - and the girls who made these were from wealthy families, so it probably did - then they weren't specially written for children, there wouldn't be a lot of pictures, and your main reading matter would certainly have been the Bible."
                Flora made an expressive grimace.  "I'm glad I didn't live then."
                Jenna was opening the lid to reveal the garden.  Even Saskia, who'd seen it several times, leaned forward for a better look.  India said in wonder, "A unicorn!"
                "A lady and a unicorn, by a pool.  It's tarnished now, but it would have been a brilliant silver mirror when it was new.  I think that'll be one of the things the V&A will restore, when I loan it to them."
                "So that is what you've decided?" Saskia asked.
                "Yes.  I've talked about it with Rosie, who'll inherit it after me, and we've agreed.  It's very precious, and very special, and it belongs to everyone, not just us.   Besides, it should be kept safe and it's not safe, not really, at the back of my wardrobe."
                "Especially now you've told us all where you keep it, darling," Saskia said, and raised a general laugh.
                Jenna demonstrated the drawers, and the secret compartment.  India blew her nose and asked, "So what sort of things would MJ have kept in her casket?  Jewellery and stuff like that?"
                "I think so.  It's got a lock - though the key's missing - so it would have been rings, necklaces, anything valuable.  And keepsakes, like locks of hair, or love letters.  It's a real shame that there's nothing left."  Jenna thought, with a pang, of her hopes that a note from Nanna May, telling her the truth about her father, might be hidden within the lining, or some secret compartment.   Then she put her feelings to one side and told them briefly about the stumpwork embroidery, when it was fashionable and how it was done.
                "I remember you saying a while ago, that the expert who looked at it thought that the house and the people were real, not just stock figures," Rosie pointed out.  "And if that's true, that's almost better than having the contents."
                "I think it is true," Jenna said, and saw, looking round the table, something of her own excitement mirrored in the eager, interested faces.  "But we'll come to that in shortly.  Shall I take you through my boring ancestry first?  Because that's what will clinch the identity of MJ - tracing the inheritance of the casket back through the generations.  We can speculate all we like about who, if anyone, is embroidered on it, but this is the proof."  She opened her notebook, in which she had set down everything she'd discovered, and showed them the first page.  "This is my grandmother - Nanna May, who left me the casket.  She told me it had always been passed down through the female line, mother to daughter."
                "So why did she leave it to you, and not to your mother?" Jon queried.
                "Because she knew that my mother would sell it straight away, and she didn't want that.  She knew I loved it and would hang on to it, or lend it to a museum.  As you can imagine, my mother wasn't best pleased, but there wasn't a lot she could do about it."
                "Jenna comes from a long line of very strong-minded women, darling," Saskia informed him.  "As indeed do I."
                "I'd noticed," said Jon, with a grin.
                Jenna, amused and reassured by their banter, continued.  "Nanna May was the daughter of John Goodwin, who had a shop in Leyton, in north-east London.  And from her birth certificate, I found that her mother was called Winifred Emily Merelina, my great great grandmother, who was born in 1890.  Winifred presumably because they liked it, Emily was her mother's name, but I had no idea where 'Merelina' came from."
                "I remember we Googled it," Rosie said.  "And according to Wiki, it was the name of some species of tiny sea snails."
                "Not a likely source," said Fran drily.
                "Hardly.  I asked my mother, and she had no idea what the significance of it might be - if there was any significance, of course.  Anyway, I looked next for Winifred's mother, and her name was plain Emily Taylor.  And as you can imagine, there were rather a lot of them in the 19th century."
                "So how did you track down the right one?"  That was Saskia.
                "It was fairly easy in the end.  I found when and where Winifred's parents were married, and ordered the certificate.  And Emily Taylor's father was - " she checked her notes - "Joseph Ezekiel Taylor."
                "There can't be too many of those about," Jon said.
                "Quite right, there weren't - in fact, he was unique.  He was born in 1839, just after the centralisation of birth, marriage and death records.  And, even better, guess what his wife's name was?"
                "Merelina?" Flora suggested.  She was sitting next to Fran, her chin propped on her hands.
                "Nearly right.  She rejoiced in the name of Emily Maria Merielina Tydeman, so I knew two things from that - firstly, that I was on the right track, and secondly, that Merelina, or Merielina, had nothing to do with sea snails and must be a family name."
                "I come from a long line of women who were called Sybil," Saskia said, with feeling.  "Fortunately, my mother - Julia Sybil - decided to break with tradition, or I'd have had the initials S.S.  Merelina is a bit of a mouthful, isn't it, darling?  No wonder your great grandmother was the last one."
                "She won't be," Rosie said unexpectedly.  "If I ever have a daughter, one of her names will be Merelina."
                "Poor kid," said Indy, grinning at her.
                "Well, you once told me that if you ever had a daughter, you'd call her Hermione."
                "That was when I was twelve and into Harry Potter."
                "Children, children," said Saskia reprovingly.  "Let Jenna get a word in."
                "You started it," Jenna told her.  "Now, where was I?  Emily Maria Merielina Tydeman.  I got her birth certificate - she was born in 1840, and her parents were Maria Merielina Rogers and William Tydeman.  He was a doctor in Bury St. Edmunds, and they married at St. Ethelbert's church in Hesset  in 1836."
                "Hesset?" Jon asked.
                "It's a village not far from Bury.  Maria Merielina was the parson's daughter.  She's my ... four greats grandmother.  Anyway, a couple of months ago I thought I'd go to Bury to do some research in the archives there, and when I saw a sign pointing to Hessett, I thought it was worth a look in case there was anything of interest in the church.  And I'm really glad I did, because it saved me from at least one wild goose chase."
                "How so?" enquired Saskia.
                "Well, I found Maria Merielina's parents, on her mother's memorial tablet - she died when she was only 25, in 1816, and her maiden name was Merielina Agnes Leheup."
                "Leheup?  That's a weird name," said India.
                "Mum says that if there hadn't been so many weird names, she'd never have found MJ," Rosie told her.
                "I think it's a Huguenot name," said Jenna, and then added, when India looked blank, "The Huguenots were Protestants in Catholic France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but Louis IV booted them out and a lot of them came to England and did very well."
                "OK," said India, still looking confused.  "I did history for GCSE and I've never heard of them, but then we only really studied the rise of Nazi Germany and World War Two."
                "Really, I don't know what they teach in schools these days," Jon said, grinning.               
                Jenna continued.  "The Leheups obviously lived in Hessett, because there were loads of memorials to them going back several generations.  Merielina Agnes was the daughter of Michael Leheup and his wife Mary, and that's where the stroke of luck came in, because his parents' memorial had the names of his father Michael, and his mother - who was called Merelina."  She paused expectantly.
                Fran was the first to get it.  "So it wasn't passed down entirely through the female line.  Presumably the first Merelina Leheup had no daughters."
                "It seems not.  I like to think she might have left it to her grandaughter - she and her husband died within a week of each other, when Merielina Agnes was a small child.  Anyway, that was where I got stuck for a while - sometimes real life has a habit of getting in the way.  But a couple of days ago, Rosie persuaded me to go for it, and I Googled Merelina Leheup - the one who died in 1792, and who was my seven greats grandmother."
                "And?  Don't leave us in suspense, darling!"
                "It turned out that her maiden name was another weird one - Discipline.  And after that it was easy.  She was born in 1734, and her parents were Thomas Discipline, who lived in Bury, and Merelina Spring.  Merelina Spring was quite posh, her family lived in Pakenham, another village near Bury, and her father was a baronet, Sir Thomas Spring, who'd died young when she was a child.  Her mother was even posher, her father was a lord, and her name was Merelina too.  She was born in 1673, and I'm 95 per cent sure that she was MJ and made the casket."
                "So come on, who was she?  Merelina what?"
                "She was Merelina Jermyn, and her family lived at Rushbrooke Hall, just east of Bury."
                "Do you think that's the house on the casket?" Jon asked.
                "I don't know, but it certainly could be.  Rushbrooke was demolished in the 1960s, I looked it up - absolutely criminal, it was a glorious Elizabethan mansion.  Apparently all that's left of it is the moat.  It had those corner towers, just like the house on the casket."
                "What a shame," Rosie said. 
                "So what about her family?" Jon asked.  "You said you thought she'd embroidered them too."
                "She was the youngest of five sisters - they were called Mary, Henrietta Maria, Delariviere - I don't know where that name came from - and Penelope, and then there was a younger brother Thomas, who was the only surviving son.  He was tragically killed when he was a teenager, and that was the end of the Jermyns at Rushbrooke.  There's a book about them which is in the Google library, I looked it up online.  The eldest daughter Mary married a man called Davers and inherited the house, and the other sisters made good marriages.  Anyway, if you look on the casket, you can see a man, perhaps her father, Lord Jermyn, and five women who could be her mother and sisters, and a little boy with a dog.  And I think that's her brother."
                "Wow," said India, looking at the small, lovingly detailed figures.  "But we'll never know if it's really true."
                "No, we won't, but I'd like to think it is.  And two things I do know for sure - Merelina Jermyn is my nine greats grandmother, and there are no other candidates for the maker of the casket."
                "So where did the name Merelina come from?" Fran asked.
                "Her mother's maiden name was Merry, so maybe the name was invented specially for her."  Jenna looked through the loose sheets of paper tucked into her notebook, and drew out two photographs.  "I found these online.  This is Rushbrooke." 

           The house was large, built of brick with two projecting wings, and a stone porch forming the middle bar of the conventional Elizabethan 'E' shape.  At each of the four corners stood a slender turret, exactly like those on the house on the casket.   
                "And this is Merelina Jermyn."

                At first sight, it was a conventional early 18th century portrait of a middle-aged woman in a loose informal gown, her dark hair drawn back from her face and a ringlet curled over her shoulder.  But there was warmth and humour in the sideways glance she bestowed on the viewer, giving a real sense of the personality of the sitter, and when she'd first seen it, Jenna had felt an instant connection.  I would have liked her, she'd thought, gazing at her ancestor.  We would have chatted over a dish of tea, and talked about the casket and how she'd made it, exchanged family news, and had a laugh over something absurd.
                While the two pictures were being passed round and examined and discussed, she sat back, suddenly bereft.  Now that the hunt for MJ was over, she felt an acute sense of loss.  It wouldn't take long to fill the gap, of course, with Fran and Flora, with her new family in Australia, with planning her trip there.  But she couldn't help a little sadness, just as she'd known she would.  It was one reason why she had put off the final research for so long.   
                Much later, when Jon and Saskia and India had left, and Rosie and Flora had gone out into the April dusk to see if there were any bats, she snuggled up to Fran on the sofa.
                "That was brilliant," he said, kissing her.  "I'm really glad you've found her.  She was a wonderfully talented needlewoman."
                "Yes, and she had an original and creative mind.  That's obvious from the casket, how different it is from most similar ones - the woman at the auction house pointed that out.  She probably had a wonderful childhood, with all those sisters, they seem to have been a close and loving family, but there were tragedies in her later life."
                "Her brother?"
                "Yes, that was awful, but then she lost her husband when he was still young - only thirty two.  Her first three children all died as babies, and - this is weird - after that, she had the same family as her parents.  Five daughters called Mary, Merelina, Henrietta, Delariviere and Penelope, and a single son.  Penelope died when she was six or seven, but the rest all lived to grow up.   Some years after her husband died, Merelina married again, a much older man, Sir William Gage - he's the person that greengages are named after, he was a keen amateur gardener.  He lived at Hengrave Hall, near Bury, it's a lovely house, I've seen photos of it.  Apparently her daughters were very pretty, and people wrote poems to them, they were the talk of the neighbourhood, but only the eldest two, Mary and Merelina, ever married.  Her husband died of a fall from his horse when he was in his seventies, and she died too, not long after.  And presumably she left the casket to her daughter Merelina."
                "And she to her daughter, and her daughter to hers, all the way down the generations to you.  I wonder whether she ever imagined that it would survive and be cherished by her descendants, for nearly three hundred years."
                "Perhaps she did.  I like to think so.  By the way, tell you what I'd like to do next weekend."
                "What's that, hen?"
                "I'd like to go to Pakenham, where she's buried, and put some flowers on her grave.  I think she deserves them, don't you?"
                "Indeed she does.  She must have been quite a remarkable woman."
                "And like so many women of strength and character, she's invisible.  We only know about her because I went looking for her.  And I'm sure all the other women in my line were just as remarkable and talented and yet almost all the details of their lives have vanished.  Mostly we just know the bare bones, birth, marriage, children, death.  Merelina and her sisters and daughters are rare because just occasionally we get a glimpse of them.  Like her daughter Molly who broke so many hearts when she got married in pink satin and silver tissue and drove away from the church in a carriage and four, or Merelina and her sisters riding to a friend's house and playing whist till eleven o'clock at night, even though they were going hunting in the morning."  Jenna realised she was wriggling with excitement like a child.  "And it's all been such fun, I've loved every minute, and I don't know what I'm going to do with myself now I've finished."
                "Oh, I've got a few ideas," Fran said, and kissed her again.


Dear Mrs Johnson,
Thank you for booking your flights with us.  We can confirm that Mrs. Jennifer Johnson, Miss Rosie Johnson, Mr. Francis McNeil and Miss Flora McNeil will be flying from London Heathrow to Sydney, Australia, on 28th August, and from Sydney, Australia to London Heathrow on 7th September.  We hope you enjoy your holiday.


From the family announcement page of the Hertfordshire Herald, 15th July:
                The wedding took place quietly on 8th July, between Mrs. Patricia Clarke and Mr. Stuart Blanchard.  The bride wore a grey silk suit with matching hat, and was attended by her friend, Mrs. Lorna Beckwith.  The couple, who have both been married before, met on a Caribbean cruise, and will honeymoon on a cruise around the western Mediterranean, taking in Mallorca, Sardinia, Sicily and Naples, before returning to live at the groom's residence in Tring.

Press Release, Victoria and Albert Museum, 24th July
The Curator of Textiles is delighted to announce the acquisition, on indefinite loan, of an exceptional example of a Stuart stump-work casket.  Research by its present owner shows that it was made by Merelina Jermyn, of Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, probably in the 1680s when she was a young girl.  The casket is very finely worked and it is thought that many of the people embroidered on it represent the maker's own family.  An additional feature is the exquisite garden inside the lid, with figures of a lady and a unicorn beside a pond, amidst a wealth of embroidered flowers and plants.   The casket, which has been passed down from mother to daughter through nine generations, is in generally excellent condition, probably thanks to the fact that it has always been kept in its wooden carrying box.  After conservation, it will be put on display to the public in the 17th Century gallery.