Maria Glenn’s story is not well known. How and where did you find her?
I was rooting around in the British Newspaper Archive, which has to be my favourite occupation, looking for stuff about the area in London where I live and came across a bizarre story about a young man who received an anonymous letter telling him that an heiress was willing to marry him if only he would only rescue her from a large house on the Clapham Road in south London, where she was being treated cruelly by her uncle. It turned out that the occupier of the house had also received an anonymous letter. It was a hoax. That set me thinking about elopement in the Georgian era – and how some people were happy to marry anyone, even a stranger, as long as they had money.
I started hunting down other elopement stories in the newspapers, thinking a collection of the more notable ones would make a good read. Many of them turned out to be horrible cases of stalking or actual abductions. In lots of them the female had very little control over what happened to her.
Maria’s story stood out because of the extent of the coverage of the trial of her alleged abductors and the number of years the dispute between the two parties went on. It was clear to me that because they told such different versions of events, one side had to be lying.
Tell us about the research you did for the book. How difficult was it to get to the facts?
I tracked down as much material in the British Newspaper Archive but I was very lucky in that a collection of letters between Maria’s uncle’s solicitor and his wife had been donated to Somerset Archives, and there were also letters about the case in the Dorset Archives.
The internet was absolutely crucial to the research. One pamphlet was only available at the Library of Congress, so I paid for it to be digitized, and it was sent to me as a PDF for a very reasonable $25.
I also had a massive stroke of luck with Ancestry through which I was able to contact Maria’s descendants who gave me copies of some family letters and a photograph.
Otherwise, it was trips to the National Archive and the British Library – I’ve always felt lucky to live in London, and this project made me even more grateful!
What qualifies you to tell Maria’s story? You say you’ve only got a rusty old history degree…
As a student, I never once handled an original source and I was made to write essays that only covered political history. Real people were entirely missing and no women featured. I don’t know how I got through it. But I always loved hearing about people’s stories so I just kept reading. In 2010 I self-published a book about the men on our local World War One memorial – and that whetted my appetite for a new project.
What style did you use to write Maria’s story?
I’ve put the narrative at the heart of it. I was very keen for it not to be a history essay. My reviewers will have to tell me if I’ve been successful. It’s fully footnoted but I have also written some imagined scenes, one to kick off each of three acts.
What would you say to others wanting to do something similar, especially those who have deferred writing for publication until later in life?
It’s never too late! I have just turned 58. Writing this kind of book is what I always wanted to do, and now I have done it. For years, I tried to write autobiographical fiction – until I realised that that was not my natural genre. But those attempts meant that I was practicing my skill.
You must have thought about your next project. What have we to look forward to?
I am deep in research into the women who were sent to the gallows in England and Wales between 1797 and 1837. Executions of women were not common, but there are some really fascinating – and utterly heart-breaking – stories there. I wanted to find out why they died, and whether their gender played a part in the decision to kill them.