I hope this finds you fit and well, whichever part of the world you are in.
I have some news. It is probably the most exciting thing to have happened since I began this journey, over seven years ago, of trying to get Ethel North’s letters to Lady Burghclere published as a non-fiction book and I shall be revealing much more very shortly, so watch this space!
Meanwhile, I have been making steady progress (as it used to say on my school reports) with typing up Ethel’s letters, and researching and writing the footnotes. At the moment, I am immersed in the letter she sent to my grandmother from the Holy Land, which she visited with Lady Burghclere in March 1928.
This letter was written from Government House, the High Commissioner’s Residence, in Jerusalem and is probably the longest letter in the entire collection. (There are about 80 letters and postcards altogether and they cover the fourteen years that Ethel was employed as lady’s maid and companion to Lady Winifred Burghclere, the elder sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, or ‘Lady B’ as Ethel refers to her in the letters.)
“We have had such an interesting week. We left Cairo on the night train and got to Jerusalem about 9am next day. Although we are staying at the above place [Government House], we have our own car and Dragoman which makes us quite independent.”
The first page of Ethel’s letter from Jerusalem, March 1928
The Jerusalem letter is a particularly challenging one to work on because it is full of Biblical place names and references, most of which need to be researched. Fortunately, I used to be a Religious Education teacher before I became a writer and I also have a degree in Biblical Studies, so it is probably not quite as difficult a challenge for me as it would be for anyone else.
There is no doubt that Ethel was a very religious person and she is clearly moved, in a spiritual sense, by everything she sees. Her poetic descriptions of her surroundings are also a delight to read.
“The calm of Galilee on a perfect spring morning is like no other calm except the desert and I think it is greater and sweeter, a less passionate calm. As one sails on the Sea of Galilee, it is as if one draws near to the Son of God, remembering all the time that on those quiet waters, as still as glass and hedged about by thickets of wild oleanders and lilies, the miraculous feet had walked.”
Sea of Galilee with Tiberias in the background Photo Credit: Israel_photo_gallery (CC)
I also find it fascinating that Ethel never seems to doubt that any of the places they visit are definitely the actual places where the characters from the Bible lived and worked.
” And so we came to the little town of Nazareth. We had lunch (brought with us) just outside the town and left the car, as the streets are not possible for anything but walking or riding on a donkey. We visited the home of the Virgin Mary and the workshop of Joseph and then just outside the town, what is now called the ‘Well of the Virgin’. It is certain that Mary must have come here for her water day by day and no doubt the child Jesus in his early days must have come with her, as do the children of today. “
Ethel and Lady Burghclere certainly covered a lot of ground on this trip, including visiting Tiberias and Nazareth, as well as many places in between, on just one day. The next day they travelled to Damascus.
“We left Tiberias for Damascus very early in the morning as it is a day’s journey through the Lebanon Mountains. We crossed the River Jordan for the last time, so I took photos and two bottles of the water. We made a very long ascent as at Tiberias, we were a thousand feet below sea level and Damascus is up four thousand feet. The scenery changed as we went further into Syria and became a wilderness of barren, stony mountains. But it was a delicious drive.”
Once again, Ethel shows a “poetic” style of writing in her description of Damascus.
“Damascus, where I now am, is an oriental city and viewed from the mountains above, is like a pearl set round with emeralds. It is a city that is ethereally lovely, exquisitely eastern and almost mystic in its fragile grace.”
The postcard Ethel sent from Damascus
The Jerusalem letter ends with them staying at the Continental Hotel in Beirut or ‘Beyrout’ as Ethel calls it.
“Here I am at the end of the journey. We were snow-blocked in the Lebanon Mountains coming from Damascus to Beyrout, so had to abandon our car and take the little mountain train until the road got clear. We then picked up another car which brought us down to Beyrout and will take us to Haifa tomorrow. Everywhere here is very luxurious in vegetation. The flavours of the oranges and bananas are wonderful. I shall never have such fruit to eat again. The town of Beyrout we do not care for much but the surroundings are beautiful.”
The trip to Jerusalem and its surrounding area seems to have had quite a profound effect on Ethel and she ends the letter by saying this.
“I am so sorry that these long days in the fresh air and sunshine, with the road all to ourselves, must soon cease. How beautiful it has all been! A pilgrimage and a revelation which will always be a living and perpetual memory.”
Ethel’s postcard showing Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
There are just two postcards left to type up from this trip and then the pair of them are back in Scotland and London for the rest of 1928, before going to Rome in 1929 for what would sadly turn out to be their final major excursion abroad.
So the end is in sight!
That’s all for now but I will be back soon with some very good news indeed, I hope.