It was a chance meeting. Our Wrexham MP Ian Lucas asking me if I’d ever thought of writing a story about local historical celebrity Elihu Yale. Yale has a fine and famous tomb in the grounds of St. Giles Parish Church and is taught to Wrexham school kids as the philanthropist who bequeathed some of his wealth, and his name, to help found one of the world’s most famous universities, in New Haven, Connecticut. But I knew enough about Yale to understand that, while he may have been the original nabob, he also made much of his wealth through the Indian slave trade – and thus he didn’t interest me much as a protagonist for a novel. But life’s never that simple and, out of respect for Ian’s own interest, I decided to dig a bit deeper.
It’s a curious thing, writing historical fiction. Definitely an element of karma about it at times and this was no exception, for I immediately, and almost by accident, then stumbled on a copy of Elihu Yale’s will, sent to me from the National Archives. And a remarkable document it turned out to be. This entry, a single line: To My Wicked Wife… And then? Nothing. No bequest. Not even her name. Simply a large blank space.
So who was she, this wife of Elihu Yale? And why so wicked?
In Elihu’s various biographies, Catherine gets barely a mention, and whenever she’s mentioned the facts are invariably wrong. It took me a long time to piece together her story so that I think I now know most of what we’ll ever really discover about Mistress Yale and, while I can’t be entirely certain why Elihu chose to brand her his “wicked wife”, I’m pretty certain we’re close to the truth. Enough, at least, to convince me that Ian Lucas might be right, that Elihu Yale’s story might indeed be worth telling – but through the eyes of his much-maligned and almost forgotten wife, Catherine. Not a novel though, but a trilogy, the first part of which hits the streets this coming April. It’s called The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale and here’s a short summary:
1721, and elderly Catherine Yale discovers that her second husband Elihu has left her nothing in his will except the slur of naming her a “wicked wife.” True, her private journals are filled with intimacies: her inner thoughts about life in Old Madras, where the East India Company’s intrigues are as complex as any in the Mughal Emperor’s court; about the conflicts she must endure as a mother to the additional children she has conceived with Elihu; about her role as a spy for the political factions determined to prevent a Catholic succession to the English crown; and about the realisation that she is now wed to a husband she is quickly coming to despise. Yet these past fifty years, since the early days of her short and tragic first marriage to darling Joseph, the diaries have been kept safe and secret. Or have they? Perhaps it’s time to read them afresh, to go back before the days when Elihu first betrayed her, before she was betrayed also by the East India Company women who should have stood at her side – before she wreaked her own special revenge on them all.
A lot of the story is pure invention but all Catherine’s family background is authentic. And that background has helped me to write this historical fiction in the way I like best. To bring some lesser-known but important periods and incidents to a wider public. In this case the story of nabob philanthropist Elihu Yale – yet a very different story from the one we think we know. Yale the Indian slave trader. Yale the philanderer. Yale the usurer.
The novel, my seventh, is due for publication on 8th April but it’s available to pre-order now through a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign – which is interesting in itself.
So why am I wanting to crowd fund for this novel when I've already published previously? Well, I'm an "indie" author so have to raise the costs of publishing the books myself before I can sell them and (hopefully) turn a profit. That's nothing new. It's exactly how writers like John Milton and Mark Twain (plus countless other authors between the 17th and 19th Centuries) always worked. They had to fund their own books, Paradise Lost and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, through ‘subscriptions’, taking pre-orders to cover the publication costs.
But apart from raising the publishing costs, crowd funding for authors like me has another serious advantage. It’s great to have people "invest" in the book by ordering copies in advance, because this is proper market-testing, proving that there’s real interest in the story. Apart from that, each crowd funding campaign I’ve run has opened up loads of new networking links that have helped me market the novels. And, just like the subscription books of old, those who help to see it published get the recognition they deserve by having their names listed in the acknowledgements section of the book itself.
The downsides? Crowd funding campaigns can’t succeed, first, unless the author’s got an existing and extensive social media presence; second, unless the campaign appeals both to crowd funding “investors” as well as simply to readers; third, unless the publication costs have been calculated properly, to include the value of the book copies or other goodies needed to fulfil the Rewards offered to subscribers; and, fourth, unless the author has sufficient reserves to make up any shortfall in the unlikely event that the campaign falls a bit short of its target because, as we all know, we should never embark on a campaign that we don’t know, with absolute certainty, we can win! Those things aside, there is the slight downside that taking pre-orders in this way diminishes, to some extent, the “buzz” and sales at the book’s actual publication date. But, for me, those are minor considerations, more than offset by the knowledge that the novel has “broken even” before it’s even launched.
So, if anybody’s inclined to look at the Kickstarter campaign in more detail, or maybe even to pre-order, here's the link...
The second novel in the trilogy, Wicked Mistress Yale, The Glorious Return is due for publication in late-autumn 2019, and picks up Catherine's story with her return to a London turned upside down in 1689, while the third part, Wicked Mistress Yale, The Parting Glass, is scheduled for release in mid-2020.
So, nothing else from me except to thank Helen for posting this. Good luck to all her followers.
You can discover more about David Ebsworth and his novels at the author's website...
Next week: Sexism in historical fiction - what's your view?