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  • Pamela Belle

How Much Was True?

Several people have asked me whether MJ, 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 Jermyn 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, just as Jenna saw them. 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.









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