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Authors: Winston Graham

The Ugly Sister

BOOK: The Ugly Sister
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hidden talent rediscovered

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Winston Graham
The Ugly Sister

Winston Mawdsley Graham OBE was an English novelist, best known for the series of historical novels about the Poldarks. Graham was born in Manchester in 1908, but moved to Perranporth, Cornwall when he was seventeen. His first novel,
The House with the Stained Glass Windows
was published in 1933. His first ‘Poldark' novel,
Ross Poldark
, was published in 1945, and was followed by eleven further titles, the last of which,
Bella Poldark
, came out in 2002. The novels were set in Cornwall, especially in and around Perranporth, where Graham spent much of his life, and were made into a BBC television series in the 1970s. It was so successful that vicars moved or cancelled church services rather than try to hold them when Poldark was showing.

Aside from the Poldark series, Graham's most successful work was
, a thriller which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1964. Hitchcock had originally hoped that Grace Kelly would return to films to play the lead and she had agreed in principle, but the plan failed when the principality of Monaco realised that the heroine was a thief and sexually repressed. The leads were eventually taken by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Five of Graham's other books were filmed, including
The Walking Stick
Night Without Stars
Take My Life
. Graham wrote a history of the Spanish Armadas and an historical novel,
The Grove of Eagles
, based in that period. He was also an accomplished writer of suspense novels. His autobiography,
Memoirs of a Private Man
, was published by Macmillan in 2003. He had completed work on it just weeks before he died. Graham was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1983 was honoured with the OBE.

Chapter One

born on 6 December 1812, the exact day, my uncle once told me, when the remnants of Napoleon's Grand Army reached Vilna on its retreat from Moscow. I think of myself as Cornish but I was born in Devon, in the village of Clyst Honiton, off a stagecoach a few miles before we reached Exeter.

My mother was not Cornish but, my father having just died in a duel, she was coming to spend Christmas with his relatives at Place House, St Anthony. My name is Emma Spry and I have an elder sister, Thomasine, who was aged four at the time. My mother was heavily pregnant when we took the coach from the Angel Inn in Islington, but she did not expect the pains to start until at least the middle of January. In the event what she called ‘the accursed jolting' was too much for her, and on the second day, right at the end of the second day, she found she could go no farther.

So we were put off near Clyst Honiton and taken in at a villainous dirty hostel called the Pig & Goat and a midwife sent for. My mother tells me it was terrible weather: rain and a gale of wind, and few folk were about, though darkness had only just closed on the wild afternoon. With Thomasine holding tight to her sweaty hand, she was led up a corkscrew staircase where the whiskery woman who kept the tavern was scraping flint on tinder to light a tallow candle. A low raftered room came into view with two trestle beds, torn hessian curtains, a pitcher and ewer on a stool, rain pattering on paper in the unlighted fire grate; a rustling in another corner where a brown rat was making his exit. There had been a remission of the pains while she disembarked, but they began again as the coach horses' hooves clopped and slithered on the cobbles outside, partly drowned in the tantrum of the gale.

An hour later I was born. My mother knew there was a woman in the room and assumed it to be the midwife, but no one knows whether it was the innkeeper's wife or this watery-eyed scrofulous newcomer who was responsible for the damage done to my face as I came into the world. There is no reason to suppose that there was anything peculiar about the birth, any let or hindrance which would have compelled a human agency to attempt to assist a normal presentation. The so-called midwife left in the middle of the following day and was not seen again, so it is likely it was her fault.

The fact remains that my looks were marred for life.


family was a landed and wealthy one. Place House – some say Place is an abbreviation of Palace – was originally a monastery, the residence of a prior and two black canons. At the Dissolution it passed after some vicissitudes into the hands of the Spry family, who had lived there ever since.

They had a naval tradition. In the side chapel of the church adjoining the house were memorials to one Spry after another who had been ‘Admiral of the Red' or ‘ Rear Admiral of the White'. My father had gone against tradition and became a courtier. ‘ Equerry of the Queen', my mother said, but I have come to take some of her statements with a pinch of salt. Details of the duel in which he died were never given to his daughters, but my uncle Davey, who could be crotchety on occasion, once muttered to me that my father had been ‘killed in a drunken brawl'.

Neither my uncle nor my aunt Anna quite approved of my mother, who was an actress. It became clear, though I do not think they ever said so openly, that they thought brother Aubrey had married beneath him in wedding someone ‘ on the stage'. Claudine Hall, to give her her maiden and stage name, was about thirty at the time of my birth, tall, sharp-nosed and elegant. She had a good presence and a good voice; but I do not quite know how we contrived to continue to live at Place House long after the first month had expired, and indeed eventually to consider it our true and only home. Possibly because it was so little inhabited. The house had a separate wing at the back which was not used, and we came to look on this as our own domain.

Admiral Davey Spry and his wife had four children of their own: their eldest daughter, Anna Maria, who was fifteen or sixteen and was at school in London; Mary, a year or so younger, who was quiet and simple-natured and had a governess in the house; then came a son, Samuel, who was ten and was at school at Dartmouth; and the youngest boy, Desmond, who was seven and would shortly be sent away to school.

Place House is on the Roseland Peninsula. It faces out to the tidal Percuil Creek, on the opposite side from St Mawes; so while St Mawes looks east and south, Place House looks north. It is sheltered from the winter gales, and the water that slides up the creek and laps against its lawns is usually as placid and as reflective as a lake. You could call it a big gentleman's house, three-storeyed – the second floor being attics lit by dormer windows in the roof – with an unusual spire, or more properly a narrow pyramid above the central hall. The public rooms faced the lawns which ran down to the quay and the creek. Behind the public rooms ran a narrow passage, used by the servants, so that they could attend to the needs of the family in any room without passing through the other rooms.

The wing we came to live in and almost count as our own ran backwards from the main hall, had four bedrooms, a parlour, a sewing room and a nursery. It had been unoccupied for some time and was in poor repair: rain dripped into the bedrooms, wallpaper peeled, carpets were threadbare, dry rot was settling in some of the floorboards.

But this condition was pristine compared to the condition of the church to which the house was joined. There were no other big houses nearby, and the congregation, such as it was, was made up of farmers and smallholders who lived in cottages and cultivated the fertile fields of that gentle peninsula; some fisherfolk who waited for the pilchards and trawled the shallow seas for lobster and crab – and the Sprys, who had direct access to the church by opening an oak door in the north drawing room and walking right in.

Much of the roof of the church had fallen in, the altar had been wrecked by a fallen beam during a winter gale, some of the bench ends had been looted, and when the parson came, the Reverend Arthur Miller from St Gerrans, who also had the cure of St Anthony and St Just, he read prayers and preached from the belfry, which had so far stood the assault of wind and weather and was reasonably sound.

When I was old enough to sum up the situation I used to wonder that a family of such considerable wealth should so neglect what was virtually a part of their house. Could it be that they were all unbelievers? From their conversation this seemed very unlikely.

In those earliest years there were few Sprys about. Even in the school holidays the children more often than not stayed at Tregolls in Truro, another big house that belonged to the family, from which base communication with their own kind was much easier than from the Roseland peninsula. This was particularly true at Christmas and Easter, when the Assembly Balls took place. My uncle Davey was the admiral in charge of Plymouth Dock, and his visits home were frequently cut short because he had bought and was rebuilding a third house in the county, just off the main coaching road between Falmouth and Truro. The reason for this did not become apparent until I was ten years of age and deemed old enough to be told.

The one constant was Aunt Anna. She had had her children late, and was ‘delicate'. She slept in the bedroom immediately above the north drawing room and therefore one of her walls was common to the church. When she was not well she lived most of her time in this room; when she was well she spent the day in a rocking chair in the south drawing room looking out over the creek. Her great pleasure was cards. When she was alone or with her companion, Elsie Whattle, she would play solitaire, bezique or sometimes backgammon, but when she could find companions she played whist. Hers was not a social snobbery, it was a card-playing snobbery. Only those who played well were invited and only those who could afford to play for the stakes she regularly played for. So whenever she was well some eight or a dozen of her friends were entertained in turn and one came to know them all by sight or by name.

BOOK: The Ugly Sister
12.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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