Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post ~ The Jewel Garden, by Marilyn Pemberton

23 July 2018

Special Guest Post ~ The Jewel Garden, by Marilyn Pemberton

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It was a time when women were starting to rebel against Victorian conventions and to strive for their independence. This is a story of Hannah Russell’s physical, emotional and artistic journey from the back streets of the East End of London to the noisy souks and sandy wastes of Egypt; from the labyrinthine canals of Venice to the lonely corridors of Russell Hall in Kent. Hannah thinks she has found love with Mary De Morgan, a writer of fairy tales and one of William Morris’s circle of friends. But where there is devotion there can also be deceit and where there is hope there also dwells despair.

I became somewhat obsessed with Mary De Morgan (1850 - 1907), having “discovered” her whilst working on my PhD. I went on to write her biography, Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan, but despite significant research there were still huge gaps in my knowledge that really bothered me. I decided to write a novel and fill in the gaps with my imagination, the result being The Jewel Garden.

The story is told in the first person by a fictional character, Hannah Russell, who has a lonely childhood with an uncaring father, who has never got over the death of his wife during child birth. When her father dies Hannah moves to London and meets Mary, and so begins a relationship that lasts for decades.

I have included real family members in the book, such as Mary’s father Augustus, who was an eminent mathematician, Mary’s mother Sophia, who was a renowned spiritualist and social reformer and Mary’s brother William, who  made beautiful tiles, which are still collectible today.

Mary wrote the most wonderful fairy tales (I encourage everyone to read them) and each chapter in The Jewel Garden starts with an extract. However, she was far more than a writer, and my novel has Hannah sharing the experiences that Mary actually had: being invited to a Jewish wedding; visiting poor families in the East End of London; attending a meeting of the Fabian Society and listening to Annie Besant; holidaying in Lynton in North Devon and being entertained by William Morris.

At over fifty years old Mary travelled to Egypt, for reasons unknown, and in a very short time became the directress of a girls’ reformatory. How on earth did this happen? I have never been able to find out the sequence of events, all I know is that she held this position for a couple of years and then died of phthisis (tuberculosis) and is buried in Cairo. This part of the story is where I let my imagination run absolute riot because I know nothing, so imagine everything.

Another fact that is important to the story is that Mary’s mother was an ardent spiritualist and Mary herself was considered to be a “seer.” The jewel garden in the title of the book refers to a notebook Mary’s mother kept in which she recorded the dreams of her six-year-old daughter. One of the jottings is entitled “Mary’s walk in the jewel garden,” and it tells of Mary playing with her sister Alice, who had died three years earlier. The novel starts and ends in the jewel garden.

Although there is much truth in the book, it is a novel and Hannah’s relationship with Mary is pure fiction. Although Mary was the trigger to writing this book and her life provides many of the events, it is actually Hannah’s story. It tells of a young, naive woman, who falls in love with an older woman, who suffers terrible grief when her love dies, and even more grief when she discovers a dreadful truth.

Marilyn Pemberton
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About the author

Marilyn Pemberton has always worked in IT and is still a full-time project manager. However, at the age of forty (over two decades ago!) she decided she wanted to exercise the right side of her brain and so commenced a part-time BA in English literature at Warwick University. This progressed to an MA and then to a PhD on the utopian & dystopian aspects of Victorian fairy tales. Her debut novel, The Jewel Garden, was published in February 2018 by Williams & Whiting. Marilyn is a member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists, the Historical Novel Society and The Society of Authors. Marilyn is currently working on a new historical novel, set in 18th century Italy that tells of two young boys who are bought from their families by a wealthy count, castrated and then trained to be singers. This was something that was actually done at the time, though this story is purely fictional. It follows the boys as one becomes a successful singer and the other who does not.

Find out more at Marilyn's website
and blog and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @mapemberton54


  1. This sounds fascinating. I have not heard of Mary before.

  2. Me neither and I agree with Robbie. Thanks, Tony and Marilyn.


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