1860: four lives intertwine. Chrissy Hogarth is arrested in St Dunstan's church while a blizzard blows outside. Lokim – a gentle herdsman – is attacked by a lion in central Africa. James Stewart – a medical student – tutors the children of the great David Livingstone, while in Dundee Mina Stephen – daughter of a rich shipbuilder – nurses a growing social conscience. Before they meet, Chrissy must remember a traumatic event and Lokim will suffer the privations of a terrible journey. James must face the realities of life and death on the Zambezi and Mina learns a dark secret concealed within her privileged family home.
Thank you Tony for giving me the opportunity to write a guest blog on your website. It’s generous of you to support other authors as you do. I’d like to take the opportunity to explain why I wrote Dappled Light in the way that I did.
I’d no intention of writing historical fiction until I discovered a batch of letters from the 1860s in an ancestor’s wicker box. My two previous books - the first a romance, the second a crime-based dissection of middle-class life - had been contemporary novels.
Reading my family letters, I found a compelling story of allegations and intrigue. My grandfather x3 – a wealthy Scottish shipbuilder called Alexander Stephen – had been blackmailed by one of his sons. I learned more about Alexander, and discovered that his youngest daughter Mina was married at just 18. She then travelled to rural Southern Africa with her husband, a medical missionary called James Stewart who was rumoured to have had an affair with Mary Livingstone, wife of the explorer. At a time when slavery was still commonplace, James Stewart ran a settlement called Lovedale with one over-arching rule; no distinction between individuals was allowed on the basis of ‘race, colour or sect’.
I wanted to tell the Stewarts’ remarkable story, but how best to approach it? There are so many different ways to present historical fiction, from largely sticking to actual events - as Robert Harris does in his book about Dreyfus, An Officer and a Gentleman – to the creation of whimsical fancy, like Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhatten.
Whatever path I chose, I knew that I’d have to treat the subject sensitively. Because of its worst aspects, there has been a corporate rejection of British Imperialism so that it feels almost subversive to affirm that anything good ever came of Victorian expeditions to ‘the colonies’. But James Stewart did do good. He helped put an end to slavery by opening up Lake Malawi to legitimate trade, he founded the Victoria hospital in Alice, and he campaigned for the creation of the University of Fort Hare, where Nelson Mandela was later educated.
I tried using the voice of a narrator to provide historical perspective, but the story lacked immediacy. I started again, this time choosing the present tense. I wrote from interleaved viewpoints, using contemporary letters and journals to explore the personalities of James and Mina and the challenges they overcame. The published version of Dappled Light has two additional characters – a seamstress called Chrissy Hogarth and a herdsman called Lokim whose gentle pastoral existence is abruptly interrupted when he is sold into slavery.
Lokim is fictional, but his sufferings are based on accounts from David Livingstone’s writings and also on the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a black American abolitionist who influenced Abraham Lincoln. An African viewpoint gives some balance to the book, and by contrasting the appalling nature of the slave trade in the interior of the continent with the harmonious inter-racial relationships at Lovedale, I’ve illustrated how progressive the Stewarts were in their thinking.
James Stewart is a man who has largely disappeared from history, but he deserves to be remembered. He was charming, funny and kind. He was also gifted and hard-working; he was a botanist, a cartographer, an engineer, a linguist, and a teacher as well as a doctor and minister of the Church. I wanted Dappled Light to celebrate his life in a fact-based novel that is compelling and easy to follow, and I hope I’ve succeeded in this aim.
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About the Author
Jessica Markwell was born in Ghana, then left Africa and moved to England as a child. She knew she wanted to be a writer when at ten she was asked to read out her story about a witch who turned her three companions into frogspawn. Having graduated from Manchester University with a degree in Medieval Studies, Jessica became a nurse at St George’s Hospital in South London, then trained as a midwife in Winchester. She travelled to Uganda as an aid worker with Save the Children Fund, and went to Australia. Back in Kent, Jessica became a health visitor and married the doctor who had treated her when I returned from Africa, ill with hepatitis. She took an MA in fiction writing at the University of Middlesex and now lives in the countryside of Powys, Mid Wales. Find out more at Jessica's website jessicamarkwell.com and find her on Twitter @JessicaMarkwel1