Secrets and lies

Last autumn I started giving an illustrated talk which, I now realise, has been waiting more than six decades for its moment. The subject is my great-great-uncle, the writer, politician, horseman and adventurer, RB Cunninghame Graham, about whom I’ve written here before.

It came about through Donald Smith, who is the director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre. He is also an admirer of Cunninghame Graham who, though fêted in literary and political circles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is now largely overlooked. Donald knows that I have spent most of my life avoiding him. He was my mother’s lifelong project and copious servings of Don Roberto, as he was popularly known, were an often indigestible feature of my childhood.

But round about the time of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum I began to grow interested in him because he was, among many other things, the founding president of the Scottish National Party and I found myself wondering what he would have made of it all. He also had a strong connection with South America, having spent six adventurous years there as a young man. So when a Latin American theme was announced for last year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival, Donald was quick to persuade me that it was time to get over myself, so to speak, and start giving Don Roberto’s story a fresh airing.

It is, I have to admit, a great story to tell and an astonishing one by any standards. Don Roberto couldn’t exist today and it would be impossible to make him up. Among the many tales told about and by him, one of the strangest is the story of his wife’s identity. In his late twenties, while in Paris, he met and fell in love with a young woman who described herself as a Chilean actress and poet, and went by the name of Gabrielle de la Balmondiere. They married and were inseparable for the next 28 years, until she died of pleurisy, aged 48.

That was in 1906. Much was subsequently written about Don Roberto’s life, in which the exotic, deeply religious, chain-smoking Gabrielle was always present at his side. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when my mother was researching her own biography of him, that she came across an overgrown trail which led her to the truth: Gabrielle was in fact Caroline, or Carrie, Horsfall, the daughter of a surgeon from Masham, Yorkshire.

So why the pretence? And why was it maintained throughout her lifetime? Why did no one rumble her? Her formidable and socially sensitive mother-in-law, Robert’s mother, would have been alert to the slightest irregularity in pedigree; while Gabrielle herself spent time in the company of some of the most enquiring minds of her age—Wilde, Yeats, Engels, Rothenstein to name a few.

Her life on the stage in Paris, for which she had apparently run away from home as a teenager, would certainly have been scandalous enough for a young, single Englishwoman. And if actress was a euphemism for something murkier, more demi-mondaine, as has been suggested, the effect of disclosure on both her family’s name and her husband’s career in public life would have been devastating. So perhaps there was collusion in some quarters.

My mother now is sadly past the stage where she can bring any clarity to the story. But she made light of it in her own book, Gaucho Laird, a romanticised, semi-fictional rendering of her great-uncle’s life. She tells the story according to her own sensibilities; which of course is what we all tend to do. Sometimes the resulting omissions are of little consequence. Sometimes they can be devastating. Among the stories shared last weekend during one of our The Stories We Tell workshops, we heard about the power that family secrets and silences can exert, and the appalling effects they can have on those who come after.

Don Roberto and Gabrielle had no children. Their secret, as far as I know, has had no direct repercussions on anyone. Other families are not so lucky.

I will be presenting Tales of Don Roberto at a number of book festivals and literary events over the coming summer and autumn. I’ll post dates as they are confirmed.

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