Historical Notes: On A Desert Shore

HISTORICAL NOTES: ON A DESERT SHORE

On this page you will find historical details, comments, and illustrations to help bring the world of Penelope Wolfe and John Chase to life. I will be adding content from time to time, so be sure to check back.


A view of the West India Docks by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson (from Rudolph Ackermann’s Microcosm of London, 1808-11). Constructed 1800-02 on the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London, these wet docks were essentially an armed fortress designed to prevent theft and safeguard the cargos of the ships trading between the sugar islands and London. A group of wealthy London merchants was responsible for the creation of the docks, among them George Hibbert. Hibbert has a lot in common with Hugo Garrod, my West India merchant, though they are by no means the same person. Garrod is influential in the West India Committee, a powerful lobbying group fighting to preserve slavery, and, like Hibbert, has a house with extensive gardens in Clapham, then a leafy suburb in south London.


Portrait of George Hibbert by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1811. Hibbert looks quite grand in this portrait now on display in the Museum of Docklands, London. He wears a red velvet suit and rests his hand on a chart mapping his commercial empire. Hanging next to his portrait is a modern “mirror” portrait of the 19th-century revolutionary and abolitionist Robert Wedderburn, a mixed-race Jamaican: both men in the same pose, both men standing proud. Next time I go to London, I intend to visit these portraits.


In On a Desert Shore Penelope Wolfe meets her friends Buckler and Chase at Vauxhall Gardens for what she believes will be an evening of pleasure. Unfortunately, these hopes are not fulfilled. Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames, was a famous gathering place, where crowds roamed to enjoy its verdant walks, fireworks, and concerts, as well as the famous whisper-thin ham and arrack punch.


This view of Clapham c. 1790 (engraving by Ravenhill) shows the matching Sister Houses, which stood on Clapham Common’s north side, as does the home of my character Hugo Garrod. Here bankers, merchants, and abolitionists built country homes to enjoy the pure air and rural scenery with easy access to the City of London only a few miles away.


Protea lacticolor or the Hottentot Sugar Bush, native to South Africa. Hugo Garrod has a large collection of Proteas in his hothouses. In Georgian England, wealthy horticulturalists sponsored expeditions to the Cape and other exotic lands to gather new specimens. The illustration is taken from The Paradisus Londinensis or Coloured Figures of Plants Cultivated in the Vicinity of the Metropolis, 1805.


The famous portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer. After Lindsay brought his daughter to England, she lived with the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, at Kenwood House in Hampstead. Mansfield issued the Somersett decision of 1772, which clarified English law in regard to slavery. The decision stated that slavery in England—as opposed to the colonies— had no legal basis (which meant that a slave owner could not force a slave to return to the West Indies once he had set foot on free soil). “The state of slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law,” said Mansfield in his judgment.

Much speculation has arisen in regard to this portrait, whose artist is uncertain. Is Belle poised to run an errand, her basket of fruits perched on her arm? Does her cousin restrain her playfully, or touch her with an affectionate hand? Why does Belle point at her own cheek in a curiously awkward gesture? Perhaps she calls attention to her contrasting complexion in order to suggest that the difference is, after all, only “skin deep.” Certainly, Belle occupied a privileged position in Mansfield’s household.

My character Marina Garrod is the daughter of a Jamaican planter and a slave on his plantation. This young woman becomes a pampered heiress in London society but discovers that she can’t leave her past behind. There were a number of these biracial children whose fathers sent them “home” to England, where they might hope to encounter less open prejudice and live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several decades more in the British Empire. And, shockingly, the government provided thousands of ordinary English people with financial compensation when they were forced to free their slaves.


John Everett Millais’ 1871 painting entitled The Somnambulist. Wilkie Collins’ gothic tale The Woman in White inspired Millais to create this work. The Woman in White is an early detective story and psychological thriller serialized in 1859-60. The book explores the identity of a ghostly woman, whom the hero first encounters at midnight on a lonely road. In On a Desert Shore, both night wandering and laudanum use play a prominent role, as they do in Collins’ classic novel.