In my last post I wrote about some literary coincidences. However, I forgot to mention the strangest one that ever happened to me – an omission I intend to make good now. There is no moral to this story, but it still makes me blink whenever I think what the chances are of this happening.
After my father Thomas died a few years I started going through his papers: writers are nosy like that. Amongst them was a small book, Nearly a Hundred Years Ago, written by his great aunt, Annie Robina Butler. Annie Robina was a children’s writer, and founder of the Children’s Medical Mission, with many titles such as Little Kathleen, or Sunny Memories of a Child-Worker (1890) to her name. This book, though, was a privately printed memoir of her own father, also Thomas, who at the time she wrote it in 1907 had just died, in his nineties. As a young man Thomas had lived at 6 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where his father and grandfather had run a classical school (Isambard Kingdom Brunel had been amongst the pupils). That was where Annie had spent her childhood too, until the age of 13, and her book had plentiful details of what it was like to grow up in the house’s lofty, oak-panelled splendour in the 1840s and '50s.
Annie Robina’s book was a fascinating find for me, of course, full of family information, paintings and photographs, and strange excursions. But the truly weird part of this story comes a few weeks later. I was at a lunch for Scattered Authors, and found myself sitting next to Linda Newbery. We chatted, and she told me about a set of books she was writing with Adele Geras and Ann Turnbull, known as the Historical House series. All the stories were to be set in the same London house at different periods of history – each with a young girl as the main character. “Where exactly in London is the house going to be?” I asked her. She told me it was to be in Chelsea, and that although they’d made up a street name, Chelsea Walk, it was very firmly based on Cheyne Walk. The hairs on my neck started to prickle. “Do you happen to remember the house number?”
Of course, it was number 6 – the same house my family had occupied from around 1783 to 1854, and which Annie Robina had described in the memoir I’d just read.
What are the chances?
Naturally I wanted to know if any of the Historical House books were set at the time my family had lived there. I got pretty close: Adele Geras’s Lizzie’s Wish was set in 1857, just three years after the Butlers had left. (In real life, Thomas Butler had sold the house to the Chapel Royal Choir School.) Lizzie’s Wish is an engaging story, which tells of young Lizzie Frazer’s time in the rather grand and formal house of her London relatives, where she offsets loneliness by nursing a wish to plant a walnut tree from her country home. Lizzie and Annie Robina would, in fact, have been almost the same age.
It was fascinating, laying the childhoods of the fictional Lizzie and the real-life Annie side by side. Their lives were very different, even if they lived in the same house at more or less the same time. In the fictional 1850s lonely Lizzie longs to stand on the Chelsea Embankment and watch the shipping. In Annie’s real-life childhood there was no Embankment yet. When the Thames flooded, as it occasionally did, she and the other children reacted with “extreme delight”, and “ran on improvised bridges and sailed their paper boats down the long passages, and fancied themselves in Venice.” (“But Annie Robina,” I cry, “the Thames in your period is a running sewer! Have you no fear of the cholera?” Alas, the miasma theory of cholera transmission is still in vogue, and no one is listening.) In the fictional 6 Chelsea Walk, the ambition of one of Lizzie’s cousins to become a nurse á la Florence Nightingale is at first squished by her class-conscious grandmother. In the real 6 Cheyne Walk Annie’s sister became a medical missionary, dying in Kashmir, and was regarded by her family virtually as a martyr. In the fictional 1850s, Lizzie’s longing to plant her tree is discouraged by her snobbish cousin, who says that London people prefer their flowers in paintings, samplers and vases. In reality, when the classical school failed in the 1820s Thomas Butler and his brother turned the school playground into a lush garden, which was the delight of Annie’s generation. The soil was poor, she admits, and she spent much of her time digging up bricks from the demolished baths of Dr Dominicetti, a hydropath who’d owned the house in the eighteenth century;* but she’s as lyrical as any fictional heroine when she remembers the “hedges of cabbage roses and thicket of many-tinted lilacs”, the wallflower that “sowed itself in the mellow brickwork boundaries, and stonecrop that ran over the wall”, the “jessamine, southernwood, and lavender that breathed their sweetness through the walks.” Immense sunflowers and peonies, double dahlias, Aaron’s rod, giant rhubarb and cat’s head apple trees were amongst the other treasures there.
In general, and with the significant exception of religion (but that’s another story), Victorian reality seems to have been a good deal more unbuttoned and informal, and altogether less – how shall I put it? - Victorian than Victorian fiction, at least in this case. Perhaps there is a moral there, after all?
But – 6 Cheyne Walk, 6 Chelsea Walk. Mirror worlds of fact and fiction. I ask again – what are the chances?
* Dr Dominicetti was scoffed at by Samuel Johnson, but I think he was ahead of his time. How much would you pay for a weekend at a place like this today? “On the right side of the garden, and communicating with the house, was erected an elegant brick building, a hundred feet long, and sixteen wide; in which were the baths and fumigating stones; adjoining to which were four sweating bed-chambers, to be directed to any degree of heat, and the water of the bath, and vaporous effluvia of the stove impregnated with such herbs and plants as might be most efficacious to the case.” An Historical and Topographical Description of Chelsea and Its Environs, Thomas Faulkner, 1810.