‘Zoffany’s daughter’ by Stephen Foster


2017, 138 p & notes

It must be all those Dickens and Trolloppe BBC miniseries. When you’re reading 19th century colonial letters and newspapers, you’re often engulfed with a sense of deja vu. You’ve seen these dilemmas before; the characters feel familiar- you can even picture the the actor who’s going to depict them when it comes to television…

Except that this feeling of deja vu is an illusion. The past is not just “us in funny clothes” as Greg Dening once said. (Readings/Writings p. 209)  If we’re trying to make sense of people’s actions in the past, there is a whole web of constraints and sensibilities that are largely invisible to us if we’re just relying on imagination and common-feeling. Especially when we’re writing as historians, rather than novelists.

The historian’s methodological self-discipline is exemplified by Stephen Foster’s book Zoffany’s Daughter. As a historian, he encountered a newspaper article from 1825 about the Horne custody case on the Isle of Guernsey.  As he tells it:

 The report seemed irrelevant to the research I was then pursuing – yet I paused, intrigued by a narrative that appeared at once remote and familiar. …Indeed, stories about child custody disputes today seem all too familiar(p.2)

And it is an arresting little story.  After their marriage breakdown, the Rev. Thomas Horne agreed to his wife taking custody of two of his daughters, and paid their maintenance. However, he later changed his mind and demanded the return of his daughters. Cecilia Horne (nee Zoffany – hence the title) hid her youngest daughter Laura and refused to reveal her whereabouts.  This is the story of the case.

As Foster suggests in an epigraph “Most of this story is true.  So far as I know, none of it is false. Much of it is fiction”.  He’s right- if you counted up the pages, much of the book is turned over to the invented journal of Cecilia’s older daughter,  Clementina, who was not part of the court case because her father, after some consideration, allowed her to stay with her mother.  There was a Clementina Horne, but there was no journal. These pages are pure Foster, but as a historian, he operates within the constraints of those invisible sensibilities and the factual parameters of the time.

“Remote and familiar” is how the story appeared to him, and “remote and familiar” is the balance that a historian needs to keep. It’s a balance that Foster explores in reflective chapters that are interspersed throughout this book. In this regard, Foster is very much a present narrator. He strolls onto the stage in these reflective chapters in the first person to discuss various elements of the historiographical challenge.  These are discussed more as discursive, personal, writerly challenges, rather than academic ones. The nature of gossip and its influence on the written record, for example, makes no mention of Kirsten McKenzies’ Scandal in the Colonies, a highly pertinent resource. In his chapter ‘On history and pictures’ he discusses the attempts to find a likeness of Cecilia Zoffany within his self-portraits and portraits of his family.  His chapters ‘On the history of child custody’ and ‘On the rule of law’ explain the colonial law about divorce and custody in operation at the time, and the distinctiveness of Guernsey law.  Methodologically, the most important chapter is ‘On small history’ where he defends the use of microhistory to illuminate a broader picture, pointing to the well-known examples of Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (neither of which I have read, I must confess) and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s excellent Montaillou (which  I have read).

One of the things that Foster does very well was to capture the differences between Guernsey law and society, and the English context which we think we know through Trollope and Dickens.  The French influence was deep-seated, and anti-Catholicism was more nuanced. On the other hand, I don’t know whether Foster gave enough emphasis on the rarity of a situation where a father would grant not only custody but maintenance as well to his estranged wife.  Fathers – or their extended family – kept the children if they wanted them, full stop. Foster acknowledges that the court case split the small Guernsey community, but I think that his sympathies are rather too strongly with the mother, Cecilia.  However, he has the humility to leave judgments about the significance of the case, its lessons (if any) for modern custody cases and the effect on the child to the reader.  Perhaps this is the 21st writer speaking, rather than the historian.

This is a self-published volume, which is an interesting choice by an academic historian, although Foster has also published with Pier9 (a Murdoch company).  Certainly his thanks extend to other well-known historians (Michael McKernan, Alan Atkinson) and the blurb from Ann Curthoys, the author of Is History Fiction? is well-chosen.  I was delighted to find full colour plates interspersed throughout the text, capturing well the Guernsey location at the time, and emphasizing Mrs Cecilia Horne’s connection with her painter father Johan Zoffany.

I was also really pleased to find that the notes at the back made clear the sources and documentary basis of his work as a historian in the book.  I’m sometimes uneasy, I must admit, with ‘creative non-fiction’ and the blurring of lines between history and fiction.  I appreciated Foster’s straightforwardness about what was invented, and what was not.  For me, it’s only when the author has signalled their awareness of the distinction, that I can really relax. And relax I did, with this book, and I was genuinely interested to find out what happened in the end, and satisfied with the fidelity of the ending.

Source: review copy courtesy of the author

My rating: 8.5


2 responses to “‘Zoffany’s daughter’ by Stephen Foster

  1. I thought you would like this… and yes, I liked the way the difference between fiction and NF was so clearly signalled. A model for others to follow, I think!

  2. George Sand’s situation in 1830s France was similar. She left her husband and initially they shared custody of the two children by the modern expedient of only one parent at a time living with them on the family estate (but mostly the father). Eventually I think the kids went to Paris with Sand and the father paid an allowance – the estate was Sand’s but under the.marriage laws he had control of it – until she was able to sue for a divorce.

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