Most of us have come to the end of a favorite book and felt very sorry to say goodbye to the characters. We’ve lived alongside them as we read, we’ve been a part of their lives. Lady Mary Curzon was a real historical person whose story is woven together with fiction, in my historical novel. So I’ve spent years getting to know know her as I write and had to chance to understand her even better on a visit to England’s Kedleston Hall.
With the opportunity to visit Derby England, and the Curzon ancestral estate, came a strange sort of nervous excitement. For me travel is simply thrilling – I’m not usually nervous. This was different.
an American Becomes Vicereine of India
Mary Leiter was a young American who married a British aristocrat and three years later became the Vicereine of India.
As part of my research, I’ve read a book of her letters, written to her family while in India. She wrote of her thoughts and feelings, and how desperately she missed America and her friends and family. I feel like I know her, so I suppose I should have expected my visit to Kedleston Hall to be emotional.
We arrived by train from London and took a taxi through the quiet streets of Derby, a notable contrast to April 1895, when the church bells rang out and thousands lined the route to welcome Lady Mary Curzon and her husband, Lord George Curzon, to Kedleston Hall, his family’s estate.
The Curzon’s had just arrived from America after being married at Mary’s family home in Washington. When they reached Kedleston Hall, they were greeted by tenants on horseback who escorted their carriage down the drive.
We traveled the same serpentine drive which turns to reveal a triple-arched bridge and the Palladian-style mansion which manages to look both palatial and serene. We walked to the north entrance, where the family picture was taken with George’s father, Lord Scarsdale and his eight brothers and sisters.
I was struck at how little seemed to have changed since Mary was here. She was greeted by George’s eight siblings and his father, Lord Scarsdale. (George’s mother had died when he was 16.) A band played while photographs were taken; it was a stately welcome and a portent of things to come. George would be appointed Viceroy of India three years later.
I imagined how Mary felt on that day. I knew she was thrilled to have finally married George after a secret engagement. Two years earlier they had found themselves in Paris at the same time, by complete coincidence. They had dinner together with her parents and afterward, George proposed, surprising himself as well as Mary. He asked that she not tell anyone of their engagement as he was leaving for an extended tour of Central Asia – research for a book for the Royal Geographical Society.
Mary had been madly in love with him for several years so accepted the proposal and his request and returned to America where she had to put off several keen suitors while keeping the engagement a secret, even from her own family. After all that, to finally marry George, say goodbye to her beloved family and friends; to cross the Atlantic and arrive at one of the finest estates in England, must have been equal parts thrilling and overwhelming.
Lord Curzon's Memorial to Lady Curzon
After touring the house, I walked across the courtyard to the North Chapel which George had built as a memorial for Mary after she died suddenly at age 36.
My family and I looked around and took some pictures. They went back outside and I remained alone in the chapel. A wave of emotion washed over me as I gazed at the marble tomb. I thought of the tragic loss of Mary and her three little girls left without a mother. I thought of the heartbreaking letter George wrote to Mary’s mother, with the news of her death, and the fact that Mary never returned to America, as she had desperately hoped to.
These people lived more than a hundred years ago; they were strangers to me. But it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps that feeling of familiarity is inevitable when you spend your writing days in the heads of your characters, imagining what they thought and how they felt.
Lady Mary Curzon feels like my friend. And I suppose there are worse things than imaginary friends, when you are a writer. The better you feel you know your characters, the better able you are to see the world as they did and to tell their story.