I was going to post the third and final part of ‘An American Abroad’ this week, but then stumbled across something so weird that it set me off on a different train of thought. Don’t worry, though, my relative John D Lewis’s bemused take on early 1950s Britain will return next week (unless something more pressing crops up in the meantime).
I was doing a bit of not-terribly-serious research for my book about the Stepney family (previous posts, passim) by trawling through that superb resource, the British Newspaper Archive, and came across an absolutely miniscule news story from July 1877. According to this, former President Ulysses S Grant, then in the early stages of a world tour soon after leaving office, was in Heidelberg at exactly the same time as – wait for it – Richard Wagner. An eager US consul apparently arranged a meeting between them, but this didn’t go well, as Grant spoke no German and Wagner no English. But at least they met.
Now, I’ve always been a bit of a fan of the ‘chance meeting’, although if it’s deployed in fiction – especially my own – I sometimes think ‘that’s much too far-fetched’. But I suspect I’m in a minority in thinking that, and if you can’t beat them, join them. Such encounters undoubtedly provide brilliant material for books and movies; just think of the number of entries in that little-studied sub-genre, ‘Sherlock Holmes solves baffling case with unlikely accomplice X’, or the entire time travel genre (I mean, what’s the point of travelling to Victorian London if you don’t meet Charles Dickens, or to 1740s Scotland if you don’t encounter Bonnie Prince Charlie?) Another classic example of this irresistible compulsion to bring together two towering personalities is the case of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Boring historical reality klaxon – these two cousins, the one intent on taking the throne of the other, never, ever, met. But from Schiller onwards (if not before), writers of what a friend of mine jocularly terms ‘pretending stories’ have been unable to resist the hypothesis that they just might have done, perhaps most notably in the 1971 film Mary Queen of Scots, where Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary and Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth I have a memorable, but completely fictitious, meeting. I wonder if the new film of the same title will do the same…but even if it doesn’t, it’ll be worth watching just to see David Tennant as John Knox.
Let’s face it, though, we all know that real life is much stranger than fiction, and over the years/decades/centuries, many seriously weird encounters have taken place. A few of them have already been flagged on the interweb-thing (Elvis and Nixon? Orson Welles and Hitler?? Oh yes.) But there are many others, and as you’d probably expect, my favourite has to be the one and only time that Nelson and the Duke of Wellington met each other. Here’s the duke’s own account, from a conversation he had at Walmer Castle on 1 October 1834.
I only saw him once in my life, and for, perhaps, an hour. It was soon after I returned from India. I went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, and there I was shown into the little waiting room on the right hand, where I found, also waiting to see the Secretary of State, a gentleman, whom from his likeness to the pictures and the loss of an arm, I immediately recognised as Lord Nelson. He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself, and in, really, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose that something I happened to say made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and of the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman. The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don’t know if I ever had a conversation that interested me more.
The phrase ‘oh to have been a fly on the wall’ springs to mind.
And in the runners-up slots?
Well, seventeenth century diarists did a pretty good job of engineering some truly odd encounters…
Samuel Pepys and Queen Catherine de Valois – By rights, of course, there was no way that Pepys (born 1633) could have met the wife of King Henry V and mother of Henry VI, who died in 1437. But hey, our Sam wasn’t a man to let decomposition get in the way of a good snog. On 23 February 1669, Pepys went to view the tombs in Westminster Abbey: ‘and here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Catherine de Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.’ Nice.
John Evelyn’s garden and Tsar Peter the Great – OK, Evelyn didn’t actually get to meet the Emperor of All the Russias, but Peter and his entourage trashed his home, Sayes Court in Deptford (which they’d sublet from Admiral Benbow, of Treasure Island fame), wreaking particular havoc in the garden, Evelyn’s pride and joy. Oh, those Russians.
And one final one…
Admiral Togo and Some Welsh People – Bizarrely, Admiral Togo, victor of the battle of Tsushima and the ‘Nelson of Japan’, lived briefly in Wales. This was in 1878, when he was a lieutenant on the Hiei, a corvette built at Pembroke Dock (at a private shipyard, not the royal dockyard). According to local legend, Togo planted a tree in the garden of the master shipwright’s house, which flourishes to this day, and which I was once shown by the house’s former owner.
Of course, we’ve all had completely random encounters with Famous Person X or Y, maybe if they’re on the same flight or staying at the same hotel (or, in my case, if they’re somewhere in the back row of your History class, long before going on to celeb status). But it’s also possible to come across such ‘meetings’, in the sense of unexpected coincidental connections, during the course of one’s research. Let me give you one delicious little example, which brings us back full circle. One of the characters lurking on the fringes of my book about the Stepney family is Edward Sartoris, a businessman of French descent. He married Adelaide Kemble, one of the great opera singers of the early nineteenth century, and a member of the famous Kemble dynasty – she was a daughter of Charles, a niece of Sarah Siddons, and the sister of Fanny. In the 1840s, Sartoris and Adelaide lived at Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire, which they rented from the Gulstons, who were cousins of the Stepneys, and Sartoris subsequently inherited the Llangennech estate near Llanelli, which had previously been owned by the family. In 1868, he was the Liberal candidate for the county of Carmarthenshire, standing alongside, and thus sharing many a platform with, the party’s nominee for the borough seat, Colonel (later Sir) John Stepney Cowell Stepney, one of the central characters of my book – a staggeringly eccentric individual who rejoiced in the nickname ‘Old Whalebone’. But all that is by way of preamble to my main point. In 1874, Sartoris’s son got married. The wedding took place in the East Room of the White House, and the bride was the daughter of…yes, Ulysses S Grant, President of the United States.