There is a doll in my family. She is made from wax, has rather scary blue eyes and ash-grey hair, and lives in a glass fronted cased with a wooden back and sides. She wears a long, slightly faded peach-coloured dress decorated with dotted white flocking. Keeping her company in the case to right and left are two white china poodles. We know she is two hundred and twenty six years old, comes from Paris, and that the little girl she was bought for, was born two hundred and thirty six years ago in 1775. Her name was Elizabeth Blount. We know all this because as well as the china poodles, the case contains a handwritten note saying: 'This doll was given to Elizabeth Blount by her uncle on the occasion of her 10th birthday in 1785, and at her death, she wishes it to be given to her daughter Elizabeth. It has been handed down through the family ever since then, from daughter to daughter and if there were no daughters, then through the sons until another daughter turned up. If there was more than one daughter in the family, it always went to the one called Elizabeth. The doll came down to me, and in my lifetime I have passed it onto my niece, although she is a Hannah, not an Elizabeth.
The original Elizabeth Blount did not marry until she was 29, and it was to a young man of 19 called Thomas Sykes who was a gardener by trade. They had 8 children, of whom 6 survived. Their daughter, Elizabeth inherited the doll, but not have any surviving offspring, but in her turn, passed the doll to her niece, Elizabeth Sykes, who then gave it to her daughter, Martha, my great grandmother, and so on down the generations. It’s not a particularly beautiful object; indeed it could well give you nightmares. I don’t have a photograph, for which I am kind of sorry and kind of glad! I don’t think it was ever played with, which perhaps accounts for its excellent state of preservation. My grandmother, Rhoda, who was born in 1899 and lived to be 94, always wondered if the doll concealed a stash of gold sovereigns under her skirt, but could never quite bring herself to open the case and have a look, so dolly remains intact.
Great granny Martha, who died before I was born, used to run a corner shop – a sort of Edwardian takeaway and it was firmly her own business. When I say takeaway, she used to make dinners for people to come and buy. They would arrive with their own dishes for a portion of her famous Lancashire meat and potato pie, or a roast with vegetables. It was arduous work in terms of hours, but it brought in money at a time when money was often short. She also sold biscuits and cakes in her shop, and I still have one of the old biscuit scoops in my flour jar. Again, there is no photo I’m afraid. She married my great grandfather, a velvet dyer, late in life – when she was 32 and he was 34, so they both had established jobs by then.
I do have a photograph of the top half of my great, great grandmother’s wedding dress. Sadly the bottom half is missing. My Gran was a terror for throwing things away or recycling them. So the Queen Anne balloon backed chairs became firewood on a cold winter’s day. The gorgeous baby christening robes were turned into dusters, great grandfather Edwin’s moustache cups went in the bin and her grandmother's wedding dress had the skirt cut up to make aprons! However, Gran did keep the bodice and we still have that to pass on. It was made in the days before white wedding dresses were de rigueur and I am sure would have been worn on other special occasions. The hand-stitching is boggling.
My son now has a little daughter called Esmé Elizabeth and in time she will become the custodian of the flour scoop and the dress top. I feel very privileged to have this connection with the women whose DNA I share but whom I have never known, except through a doll in a glass case, from the childhood of one, a biscuit scoop, from the working life of another, and the whaleboned bodice of a wedding dress of a third, that looks impossibly tiny to my well nourished 21st-century self. But when I see and touch these things, I can feel the connection, and I hope my granddaughter and my niece will value the heritage of these women as much as I do.
Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of 19 historical novels. She won a Betty Trask Award for her first novel The Wild Hunt and has just received the UK’s Romantic Novelists Association prize 2011 for Historical fiction with her novel To Defy A King.
More information can be found at her website www.elizabethchadwick.com She can also be contacted via Facebook or Twitter.
Note from Gillian: For pictures of the bodice, click here.