The Idea for a Novel Comes From…

July 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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I was originally drawn to the real life character of Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon (seen with her son in a painting hanging in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) , because my aforementioned great- grandmother, Elfie McCullough–who lived to be 96–claimed that our McCulloughs from the Lowlands of Scotland were related to the Maxwells of Monreith through marriage a few generations before Jane Maxwell was born.  Later I came across an article about her life as the “Match-making Duchess” and was very intrigued that I might be related to such a fascinating historical figure. Sadly, after five years of research, I was never able to prove I was her direct descendant, but the odd thing is, we look rather alike: dark hair, hazel eyes, and a similar bone structure!

The more I researched her life, the more I believed that the extraordinary story of the Duchess of Gordon puts her right up there with the great ladies of Scotland. To my knowledge, no one has to date written a serious, full-length biography about Jane Maxwell, and as I began to delve into the facts of her life, I discovered she was much more than merely an ambitious mama for her seven children—six by the Duke of Gordon, certainly, but perhaps one child, a daughter, who was fathered by someone else.

Yes, she married her offspring to three dukes, a marquis and a baronet, but she was also an astute politician and a confidante of the Prime Minister and King George III and Queen Charlotte, as well as a rival of the famous Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire.  Not only that, Jane was the patroness of the poet Robert Burns (pictured at right in a 19th c. rather romanticized rendition) and championed the publication of his first book of poems.  

More remarkable, especially during the era of the French Revolution, the Duchess of Gordon was considered  a  heroine in the eyes of the crofters who rented lands from her husband and for whom she developed the weaving trade and other occupations that fed and clothed the poorest of the poor. Perhaps most compellingly for my story was the fact that she was virtually in love with two men over a span of three decades!  At her funeral, nearly the entire population of the Spey River Valley turned out to pay her homage, which is a great testament to what an important figure she had become.

There were rumors aplenty during her lifetime that she and the devilishly handsome “Rabbie” Burns were more to each other than patroness and poet, and this 18th century “gossip” became a pivotal point in the plot of my biographical novel Island of the Swans. From my examination of the record, by the way, I don’t believe a word of it, but it certainly made for some compelling fiction…

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