Event Report: Historian Cheryl Butler in Conversation with James Gough


If rain is a good omen, then the rain yesterday evening was superb.

We met upstairs in the library, a room just beyond the literature section – a suitable place for an author conversation if ever there was one. We were a fair sized group and as everyone settled into their seats, Allison Kirby of Southampton Libraries welcomed us and handed proceedings over to James. It would prove to be the start of a tremendous night.

Cheryl is a local historian who focuses on Southampton; at school she chose our city as her town for a project and her interest remained throughout her university years in which she did a joint History & Drama degree. (She’s on the Editorial Board of Hampshire Papers and is writer and director of the Sarah Siddons Fan Club, a local theatre company.) She is passionate about Southampton and her knowledge is limitless; I think something all of us who were in the room would agree on is the sheer amount of new knowledge we left with. Our city has a very rich history.

Talking about her writing, Cheryl said, “The discipline is taking that [her ideas] and putting it in a form you can show other people”. The author has always flicked between being a historian and writer. Whilst she loves academic research she pointed to the restrictions in it that fiction allows her to bypass, the opportunity to explore all the little bits a historian has to leave behind. But she’s careful with her fiction – she doesn’t like to write something that she doesn’t know would happen.

Cheryl’s book, Theatre of the World, is about the precarious living that happened in Southampton in the golden age of the Elizabethan period, the later decades of the Queen’s reign. James defined it as ‘a rags to riches tale’. The story focuses on one Richard Mudford, a real-life resident, who was involved in the city’s successful privateering, and Cheryl followed as much of his recorded story as she could. She chose him as her character because she wanted to show events didn’t just affect royals.

“I really think Southampton has a fabulous story and I wanted to put that on show.”

Southampton’s archives are vast, and Cheryl believes we should make more of them. The Central Library is home to a great number of documents – records, historical financial information. (We had waves of immigrants here during the medieval wars – Hugenots and Wallonians to name just two – and there are documents that talk about the newcomers taking people’s homes and jobs. Cheryl pointed to the fact that the financial records we have are thanks to the Italians who travelled here.)

Did you know about Southampton’s Tudor trading success? Everybody in Southampton was involved somewhat in the massive marine privateering; you could take goods you took from Spain (we’re talking the time of the Spanish invasion here!) and trade them in Southampton. Our city was booming! Then the Spanish Armada happened and unfortunately that was that.

But our city continued to flourish in other ways. By Jane Austen’s time we were a spa town – Chalybeate spring was discovered which provided the powers that be the opportunity to dub our area an excellent place for swimming and drinking water to cure the ails of the country. This is where Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra enter our city’s story: aged 7, Jane wanted to join Cassandra at a school on the High Street; it was to be the first of three visits. She stayed 6 months, leaving only because she contracted ‘putrid throat’. The second time she visited was for her 18th birthday – the time in which the plaques around the city refer to her dancing at The Dolphin Hotel, where the floorboards she danced on remain. Austen loved Southampton; despite its use in television adaptations she actually disliked Bath and much preferred our seaside city. Cheryl pointed to Sanditon’s seaside resort as likely fashioned on Southampton. The short novel, Lady Susan, was edited whilst she was here. She visited Queen’s Park and wrote about her brother Frank skating on the ice – the area around Gods House Tower was a beach, and it froze.

In a nod to our forthcoming play, Jane Austen and the Waterman, James asked about Jane Austen and Charles Dibdin. Cheryl pointed to Austen’s copy of Dibdin’s score, on which she [Austen] has crossed out ‘soldier’ and added ‘sailor’ instead… it may be because she liked sailors, but the change demonstrates a big interest in the composer’s work. Laughter echoed around the room as Cheryl posed the possible idea that of the letters Cassandra Austen burned after her sister’s death, there could well have been one in which Jane praised Dibdin, having met him in the street.

It was a truly wonderful, inspiring evening with a keen sense of kinship in our shared location. And what Cheryl discussed links to our festival both as a whole – diversity, immigration – and in specific ways. Consider our events next week where James Evans will talk about the emigration of Britons to America – the reverse of Cheryl’s tale – and the speech being given by Eric Ngalle Charles, a refugee to our United Kingdom.

But I think audience member Petrina Butler (no relation!) summed it up best when she said: “Fascinating. I love how she brings the history of Southampton to life and shows her interest and knowledge. It’s such a treat.”

Written and photographed by Charlie Place.

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