About The Author
Clare Clark graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge with a double first in History and now lives in London with her husband and two children. She is a writer of historical fiction, much praised for the authenticity of the periods she recreates and described by Hilary Mantel as "'one of those writers who can see into the past and help us feel its texture."
Her first novel, The Great Stink, was published 2005. It saw a Crimean War survivor land a job helping Joseph Bazalgette in his grand project to create a sewer network for London, only to become entangled in intrigue and corruption that eventually leads to murder. The book was longlisted for the Orange Prize.
Her second book, The Nature of Monsters, was published in 2007 and followed a headstrong fifteen-year-old girl from a parish near Newcastle as she travelled to London in a bid to escape the shame of a love affair gone wrong, only to fall into the clutches of a maleficent apothecary.
Savage Lands followed in 2010 and again saw Clark make the Orange Prize longlist. As France fights to hold onto the last of its American colonies is Louisiana, twenty-three women are sent out from Paris to marry men they have never met. Elisabeth Savaret is surprised to find herself falling in love with her new husband, but it becomes apparent that his loyalties are not what they seem.
Her latest novel is Beautiful Lies, which returns to the fertile territory of London. It is 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and the beautiful, bohemian wife of a politician is determined to begin making her own mark upon the world. But her husband's outspoken views have already won him many enemies and Meribel has secrets that could bring disgrace to both of them, as one newspaper editor with a nose for scandal is aware.
In this exclusive piece for Foyles, Clare reveals the glamorous true-life inspiration behind Beautiful Lies, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham, the scandals in which she and her radical husband became embroiled and the secrets which folowed her to the grave.
The Author At Foyles
Beautiful Lies was inspired by the true-life story of Gabriela Cunninghame Graham. Gabriela was the wife of the aristocratic writer and Radical Liberal MP, Robert Cunninghame Graham, who was notorious in the 1880s for his hardline Socialist politics and for his dandyish taste in clothes. He would later found the Scottish Labour Party, the forerunner of the current Labour Party, with Keir Hardie.
Like her husband, Gabriela was a glamorous figure; beautiful and artistic, she was friends with the likes of Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats and the American painter Rex Whistler. She had, she claimed, grown up in Chile, the daughter of a Frenchman, Francisco Jose de la Balmondière, and his Spanish wife, so that her accent was neither French nor Spanish but something of a mix of the two. Friedrich Engels gave the affectionate nickname of 'la Espanola'.
When Gabriela was twelve both her parents died in an accident and Gabriela was sent to Paris to live with an aunt. It was there, aged 17, that she met Robert. The story of their whirlwind romance was famous among their friends. Robert's unruly horse had almost knocked Gabriela off her feet in the Tuileries Gardens; as soon as he dismounted to apologise he fell head over heels in love. The couple were married in London six weeks later. Gabriela's parents were named on their marriage certificate.
For the 28 years of their marriage no one ever questioned Robert and Gabriela's version of events. Robert's first two biographers, both of whom knew him personally, faithfully repeated both Gabriela's claimed ancestry and the story of their first encounter. Gabriela died in 1906, Robert some thirty years later.
It was not until 1985 that papers discovered in the attic of the family house revealed the truth behind Gabriela's story. She was not Chilean at all, nor was she called Gabriela. Her accent was a complete fake. She had even lied about her age. Her real name was Carrie Horsfall and she was the second daughter of Henry Horsfall, a Yorkshire doctor from Masham, in the Yorkshire Ridings. Most astonishingly of all, she had continued through her life to keep in touch with her mother, writing to her regularly and sending her presents to distribute among her nephews and nieces.
The reason for her deception was simple. Carrie had always longed to be an actress but her parents forbade it. Determined to defy them, at the age of fifteen she ran away from home to London. No one knows exactly what happened to her over the next three years. There is no indication that her ambition to go on the stage was ever fulfilled. She had no means of support and the family letters hint at a scandal, so it is reasonable to guess that she might have been a rich man's mistress, most probably in South America or Spain as it was during this time that she learned to speak the language.
Alternatively she may have become a prostitute. It is quite possible that this is where she and her husband actually met. Cunninghame Graham was described in 1963 as 'probably as knowledgeable a connoisseur of courtesans as horses', and, according to one of his editors, 'wrote a good deal, on the whole too sentimentally, about prostitutes'. He was an unusually enlightened man for his time and a fierce critic of hypocrisy; it is fair to imagine that he would not have held his wife's history against her. But though we can speculate we can't know what really happened. It is this that makes Gabriela such an irresistible inspiration for a novel.
The letters do, however, reveal a constant anxiety about her exposure. This increased after Robert was suspended from the House for swearing and then, even more notoriously, jailed for several weeks for his part in a bloody Socialist demonstration in 1887. If the truth about Gabriela had been uncovered then, the resulting scandal would not only have brought a decisive end to Robert's political career but ruined both of their reputations. Both of their families would have suffered from the fallout.
It remains unclear why the truth never came out. It would have been a simple matter to prove that the aunt in Paris was an invention, and from there to unravel the whole sorry tale. As it was, it would appear that no one ever tried. Although the tabloid newspapers as we know them had just begun to flex their muscles in London - they were to bring to an ignominious end the Parliamentary career of the great Irish politician Parnell only two years later with stories of his adultery - they never fixed upon Gabriela Cunninghame Graham as a potential target. One hundred years later we can only imagine what really happened, and how it must have felt to have carried so great a secret to the grave.
© 2012 Clare Clark
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