You might expect a thriller to give you the shivers. But when Alexandra Walsh was writing her latest novel, The Wind Chime, she discovered some parallels between her fictional story and her own family history that were unexpected – even uncanny.
The Wind Chime is a timeshift thriller set in the present day and the Victorian era. In the present, my main character, Amelia Prentice, is sent on a quest by her dying mother, Joan. Tidying the attic of their family home before she makes any decisions about selling it, Amelia discovers a box of Victorian photographs with a hand-drawn family tree. The annotations on the back of the images names them as the Attwater family from Cliffside in Pembrokeshire.
Amelia has never heard this name before but she is intrigued by the family and is drawn to the youngest daughter, Osyth Attwater. When she discovers Osyth’s journal among her mother’s papers, she feels compelled to visit the real Cliffside and find out more.
At night the Attwater family of old would gather on their veranda, listening to the wind chime and watching the sun set into the roaring ocean. They told each other stories and Osyth revelled in the tales her Uncle Noah wove around them, using them as a guide to her life. They were a vast family who loved each other deeply and were prepared to protect each other and their secrets, no matter what the cost.
The Attwater family arrived in my life under strange circumstances but their story was not simply one of me thinking of an idea. As they developed from a vague outline to a complete novel, they began to overlap into my life in other ways.
One November morning in 1996, I awoke from the strangest dream with these words, running around my head: “It was the sound of the wind chime that indicated the change. Every summer we waited for the soft tinkling of the seashells to lose their harmonious song and crash together discordantly. It signalled the end of another long, lazy summer. A return to reality and the cold, winter days when our family would once more scatter themselves around the world. Exploring their way through their lives, living their hopes, chasing their dreams, and waiting, watching, for the first hint of summer when we would find ourselves inexorably drawn back to the house on the cliff.”
It was startling and exciting. Firing up my Mac Classic, I began to write and, three hours later, the Attwater family, the house on the cliff, the boats they built and the story of Eudora’s illness was on the page in the briefest outline. Osyth was setting out on her quest, while Frederick chased her heart. Kieran brooded from the corner, watching as Katherine and Blaise fell in love and the rest of the family went about their lives. These people and their boat business had appeared from nowhere but I liked them and they felt real.
A few years later, I wrote a complete version of this outline but, despite sending it out, it was never accepted anywhere, and in my heart, I knew it was because it was not quite right. However, I could not work out the way to rectify it.
In its original form, The Wind Chime was a contemporary drama. The idea of historical fiction was not something I had considered and the manuscript languished in a drawer. Yet the family never left me and, whenever I thought about it, goosebumps shivered up my arms.
Fast forward several years and, thanks to my maternal uncle, I began researching our family tree. My mother produced a family Bible, which rather stunned me, as I had no idea we owned one.
Inside was a brief family tree. Using this, I was able to search the census records and discovered my first family secret: my great-great grandparents, Charles Beasley and Laura Jacobs of Clewer, Windsor, were step-brother and step-sister before they married. Laura was four months pregnant when they finally made it up the aisle. This was a revelation; but there were more surprises awaiting.
Laura’s family, the Jacobs, owned boats and were descended from another family of boat-builders, the Tolladays. Not only did the Jacobs and the Tolladays build the boats, they had a royal warrant to make punts. The larger boats in the fleet were used for pleasure cruises along the Thames at Windsor. I even discovered one of the eyots is known locally as Jacobs’ Island, named for Laura’s brother, Arthur Jacobs, who was a famous swimmer and renowned for saving many people from drowning in the river.
The boats still exist and operate on the Thames at Windsor, although my family no longer has a connection with them. Our link to boats and boat builders was an unknown detail when those words tumbled from my mind on that November morning many years earlier.
However, the oddest thing that day was my unexpected discovery of an ancestor named Eudora. It’s an uncommon name and I had chosen it because Eudora was a Greek sea goddess whose name meant ‘good gift’, which seemed appropriate for the character.
To discover this unusual name in the part of my family which had built and owned boats was exceptionally odd. There were fewer documents online back then and, despite my best efforts, the information I managed to discover about the real Eudora was limited, adding to her enigma.
Many things happened, new ideas formed, I wrote another book – which languished – until The Marquess House Saga arrived in my mind. Years of research followed but so did my exploration of the historical fiction genre. When the first three books of The Marquess House Saga were finished, the subject of what to do next arose.
For the last few months of writing The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy, the Attwater family and The Wind Chime had become vivid in my mind. It was strange because this was not a manuscript I had considered for a long time. Eventually, the siren call of the house on the cliff became too much for me and I began browsing through it again.
Suddenly, I realised why this tale had never worked. These characters were not contemporary, they were Victorian. Amelia Prentice then tumbled into my mind, accompanied by her friends, and her tale began to entwine itself around the Attwaters. Finally, I knew how to finish The Wind Chime.
Then I made another very unusual discovery.
While doing my research it seemed appropriate to look again for Eudora. And with a greater number of records online, I discovered more about her. Eudora moved from Clewer to Aberystwyth, where she married Thomas Cimatti. It was with real sadness that I discovered she had lived into my lifetime, yet we never met.
Then I discovered her death certificate. At this point, my overactive imagination went into complete overdrive – because the real Eudora died in November 1996, the month this story and her name arrived in mind.
Even writing these words sends a shiver down my spine. Read into it what you will but I do wonder if the real Eudora found me and inspired a magical story of boats and fairies and family. If she did, then I would like to say “thank you”.
Alexandra Walsh was a journalist for over 25 years and published her debut novel, The Catherine Howard Conspiracy, (The Marquess House Saga part 1) in 2019. This was followed by The Elizabeth Tudor Conspiracy, The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy and the short story, The Weeping Lady Conspiracy. The Wind Chime is the first in a series of timeshift novels set in the present day and the Victorian era. It is followed by The Music Makers in November 2021.
Photo of a shell windchime: supplied by the author
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Pwllgwaelod and Fishguard by Hogyn Lleol: Wikimedia
Ship-building, Gloucester Harbor by Winslow Homer, 1873: Boston Public Library
The Windsor Belle, one of Arthur Jacobs’s boats, on the Thames at Windsor by Snapshooter46: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Tyche (Eudora’s sister) of Antioch, Vatican Museums: Wikimedia