A chance encounter at a summer party sent writer Josceline Dimbleby on a quest to uncover a mystery in her family’s past. After talking with Andrew Lloyd Webber about a beautiful, dark portrait in his art collection, she decided to find out more about the subject of the painting: her great-aunt Amy Gaskell. Dimbleby had always known her great-aunt’s face from this haunted portrait by the well-known Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, but beyond that and a family rumor that Amy had died young “of a broken heart,” Dimbleby knew little of her female forebears.
At the start of her search, Josceline came across a cache of unpublished letters from Burne-Jones to her great-grandmother May Gaskell, Amy’s mother. These letters turned out to be part of a passionate correspondence—adoring, intimate, sometimes up to five letters a day—which continued throughout the last six years of the painter’s life. As she read, more and more questions arose: Why did Burne-Jones feel he had to protect May from an overwhelming sadness? What was the deep secret she had confided to him? And what was the tragic truth behind Amy’s wayward, wandering life, her strange marriage, and her unexplained early death?
In piecing together the eventful life of her grandmother, Dimbleby takes us through a turbulent period in history that includes the Boer War, the Great War, and the Second World War and visits the most far-flung corners of the British Empire. The Souls—William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, and William Gladstone—all play a part in this sweeping, often funny, and sometimes tragic story. Above all, it is her infectious enthusiasm for a subject so close to home that makes May and Amy such a compelling and richly entertaining read.
“As with the opposite sex, there are few books you fall for and want for life, even fewer with which you can find little fault. Here is a right stunner, a secret family history. . . . At the book’s outset [Dimbleby] is an innocent setting off breathlessly on a search; but the innocent evolves into a romantic, then acquires the wisdom of a historian, and ends up encasing a whole century in the most attractive of nutshells.” —David Hughes, Spectator (UK)
“A brilliant sleuthing job which will appeal to anyone who has ever found a skeleton in the family closet.” —Daily Express (UK)
“An entirely captivating book . . . Josceline Dimbleby’s greatest gift as a storyteller is her ability to communicate the excitement of her discoveries . . . compelling.” —Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times (UK)
“Utterly charming . . . as tightly structured as a crime novel.” —Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“This enthralling family romance explores a lost world of hidden love . . . more compelling than many novels and more informative than most history books.” —Observer (UK)
“A wonderful cabinet of curiosities of a book. Josceline Dimbleby’s family memoir of art, death, and forbidden love—locked away for more than a hundred years in secret letters and attic trunks—reads like the most gripping novel. I loved it.” —Katie Hickman, author of Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia
“What I admire particularly is the social research on which she has constructed a compelling romance (complete with mystery). The way in which she makes her quest part of the story gives the book an extra excitement. The whole book is deeply satisfying.” —Michael Holroyd, author of Basil Street Blues and Mosaic
“The story of an intimate friendship between the painter Edward Burne-Jones and the much younger May Gaskell, richly illustrated by a remarkable collection of new letters, May and Amy is also a charming portrait of a circle of family and friends. This is a highly enjoyable book, full of engaging detail and marvelous research.” —Caroline Moorehead, author of Martha Gellhorn