Searching for My Ancestor
Image: Lady Nelson Memorial, Littleham Church, UK.
Discovering the Devotion behind the Myth of a Cold-Heart
Despite the hero in our family history, no one spoke of the Nelsons when I was growing up. Desperate to know more, the first person outside the family I asked about my ancestor Fanny Nelson was the guide on the Victory. “Cold-hearted b***h,” he muttered. I didn’t pursue it any further.
My father had a different view. “Poor Lady Nelson,” he said with a sigh, “she loved him to the very end.” But he refused to elaborate. Needless to say, I was dissatisfied with this, feeling there was some shame attached to the matter. My curiosity for the truth behind Fanny and Nelson’s relationship started young. It was there when I attended my first writing course at the New School in Greenwich Village New York in 1971, but I had no idea then what a key role it would play in my search as a writer for a story yearning to be told.
My family connection is through my Grandmother, Bertha Eccles, who I recall as reserved, beautiful and strong.
When I asked my grandmother about Horatio she was loathe to say anything despite the pleas of a young boy eager to hear all about my hero’s exploits and his fame. I soon learned that the topic was off limits.
She was an Edwardian through and through. Her father was a very prominent doctor with a fine house in the centre of Plymouth overlooking the Sound where Nelson would have anchored his battleship to take on supplies, before heading for the Mediterranean. Bertha’s mother, Francis, was the great granddaughter of Fanny. I never met her, of course, but I knew her daughters Patricia, Ursula, Letitia and Bertha. They were members of a strict Christian family and, like many women of similar social background, their education concluded with finishing school in Switzerland.
Fanny’s inside story again called out to be told when I inherited a famous miniature of her, painted when she was in middle age. Most of Fanny’s possessions passed to her daughter in law’s family and her descendants who include the Meade family and the Humphrey-Davy family. But Bertha inherited some of the memorabilia and she passed it on to her daughter, my favourite aunty; Hope Purdom who lived in St Andrews in Scotland. When Hope died without children of her own she bequeathed everything to my siblings and to me. The painting was reproduced in a book that I also inherited; Nelson’s Wife the only biography of Fanny – until recently - by E.M Keate, a daughter of the Head Master of Eton.
One passage caught my attention:
“(Horatio) often declared, and so did many of his friends, that his marriage (to Fanny) was of equal service to his character to any naval exploit he had achieved. While he was near her no step was ever taken, not any letter despatched, without being submitted to the opinion of his highly esteemed counsellor with her sound judgement and cultivated understanding.”
This was a Fanny I had never been told about. This book answered many of my questions but not why a capable woman respected in the 17th century went on to be treated appallingly by the man she loved who was worshipped as a hero by modern society.
Interestingly the book, published in 1939, attracted considerable favourable opinion. A launch party in Kensington given by one of Fanny’s descendants, J Nelson Humphrey-Davy, included among those present; Earl Nelson, the great, great, nephew of the Admiral as well as the descendants of Nelson’s Captains like Sir Sydney Freemantle as well as many serving Admirals and Commander Percy Nisbet and Miss Nisbet, “representing Josiah Nisbet.” Interestingly “Count and Countess Tolstoy”, no doubt a power couple of the day, were also present.
The answer to the mystery of her character was finally clearly revealed in 2005 with the publication of Nelson, the New Letters by Colin White and later by Martyn Downer who discovered Nelson’s Prize agent’s letters in the attic of a Scottish Manor House. Long lost letters proved that rather than being a cold-hearted shrew – which supporters of Nelson’s mistress then second wife Emma had purveyed – Fanny was a warm-hearted, loving wife who loved her faithless man to the end.
Uncovering the Nuances
The writer within me turned to fiction to further explore the story in a way less limiting than a historical biography. My research continued, but I was not close to my grandmother’s cold, aristocratic family and was busy connecting with my Irish family and even more by my Icelandic family – my father being Irish and my mother Icelandic. I mentally assigned the project to a time in my life when I could spend time developing the story and uncovering its nuances. That time is now. . I hope you enjoy the characters, battles, politics and revelations in my debut novel: Nelson’s Folly, with the adventure to continue through Josiah’s story.
Image: Viscountess Frances Nelson was buried in the parish churchyard of Littleham, near Exmouth, in 1831 - 26 years after Nelson's death in 1805. The local community restored her gravesite in 2005. Image with thanks to Exmouth History UK. https://exmouthhistory.co.uk/258/lady-nelson/