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‘Nothing else is spoken of’

In October 1825 a report appeared in the London Morning Chronicle, headed

Matrimonial separation

Guernsey, OCT. 4. – You can easily conceive what a sensation, in a small place like this, the arrest and committal to prison of an English lady, the wife of a clergyman, and evidently of rank and fashion, must create. Nothing else is spoken of. I transmit to you the few imperfect particulars I can collect of a story involved in doubt and mystery. The lady is the wife of the Rev. Mr. Horne of Chiswick …, and daughter to the celebrated Zoffany, the painter. It appears that she and her husband, after living together for many years, and rearing a fine family, separated in 1822, in consequence of some unhappy misunderstanding. The lady was allowed to take her daughters, and a maintenance of £300 assigned her. Mrs. Horne lived since that time in France, and latterly in the neighbouring island of Jersey, with her children, one of whom is a very fine and accomplished young lady of 18, and the other, about whom the mother is now involved, a girl of ten years of age. The Rev. Mr. Horne having heard that his wife was guilty of some irregularity of conduct (the truth or falsehood of which I have no means of ascertaining), determined to have his children from her care, and applied to her to give them up; but Mrs. Horne, who, it seems, has ever been exemplary in her conduct as a mother, if not as a wife, and much attached to her children, refused to surrender either of them. …

The case has puzzled all the wisdom of the Court Royale, which is not yet decided in which way its fury is to be directed against this strange and dauntless woman.

This is how readers were introduced to the marital problems of Cecilia and the Reverend Thomas Horne. Such stories at the time were not unusual – after all, the malodorous relationship between the Prince of Wales and his late wife Princess Caroline, had been public property for decades.

But several aspects of this case made it remarkable: first, it involved a clergyman, part of whose job was to uphold the marriage institution rather than help subvert it; second, his wife, as well as being the daughter of a famous father, was well known in fashionable circles, and was reputed to have been a great beauty; third, the contretemps involved the custody of a child; and most astonishing, the wife had the audacity to challenge what everyone at the time assumed or knew – that a child was the property of its father. And contrary to everything that might be expected of a woman, especially an English lady ‘of rank and fashion’, she was prepared to fight to keep her child even to the point of going to prison. Whatever readers at the time might think of the rights or wrongs of her challenge, they could scarcely avoid the conclusion that no good would come of it.

I too first encountered the story of Cecilia and Thomas Horne through a newspaper – to be precise, a clipping identical to the Morning Chronicle report, but cut out from an Edinburgh broadsheet. It was located in a large family archive, in a file of other clippings, letters and papers, none of which bore any apparent relationship to it. The report seemed irrelevant to the research I was then pursuing – yet I paused, intrigued by a narrative that appeared at once remote and familiar. Indeed, stories about child custody disputes today seem all too familiar, so much so that most readers of this book probably know of one or more custody battles among their own circle of family and friends; at the least, they will know of cases that, for one reason or another, have entered the public domain, sometimes becoming causes célèbres.

The anonymous writer in the Morning Chronicle described a story shrouded in doubt and mystery. Perhaps the location added to the mystery. The small island of Guernsey in 1825, while owing allegiance to the British sovereign, enjoyed a distinctive culture, heritage and legal system; and most of its natives spoke their own dialect, based on Norman French. Cecilia Horne arrived there as a stranger, bringing with her legal and moral issues that most islanders had never confronted, and stood her ground in ways that few could have imagined. Little wonder she became the talk of the town.

This book is an attempt to unravel and tell the story – of Cecilia, the ‘strange and dauntless woman’; of her elder daughter, Clementina, witness to almost all that eventuated, and my chosen storyteller; and of little Laura, the object of her parents’ contention, whom we first meet dressed as a boy. It also tells something of those who judged Cecilia and those who tried to help her, or pretended to try to help her – for, as another newspaper remarked, the story is associated with ‘a little treachery’.

It is also a story about history and how it is told.