Maria and the Admiral
Rachel Billington’s new novel published May 10, 2012.
Background engraving by Maria Graham 1823.
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Maria and the Admiral is my first historical fiction. I’d been thinking about writing Maria’s story ever since I visited Chile in 2004. She was an extraordinary woman, an opinionated blue-stocking, originally married to a captain in the British navy with whom she sailed the world. Her journals were published in the early eighteenth century which makes her one of the first female travel writers. Indeed if she’s known anywhere now it’s in feminist travel circles. The Chilean connection came when she arrived in Valparaiso in 1822, now a widow as her husband had died as they sailed round Cape Horn. There she met the Napoleonic war hero, Admiral Cochrane, leading a new life as head of the Chilean fleet. The two immediately became close friends. My novel takes off from there: Maria’s story but in relation to a man whose independent spirit matched her own. His marriage, earthquake, civil war, their flight to the new Brazilian court at Rio de Janeiro and her own second marriage never diminished her passionate devotion.
Cochrane is handsome and bluff, passionate about machines and married - to the effervescent, beautiful, absent Kitty. She is the focus of Maria’s entertainingly hypocritical jealousy … deriding the coquettishness of other women, Maria is not averse to the attentions of the young sailors who surround her in the paradisical region of Valparaiso. Billington’s descriptions of the landscape are lush and evocative, and her portrait of Maria is delightfully honest.
It’s as much a record of 19th-century Chile as a drama, and Rachel Billington gives a real sense of the beauty and atmosphere of Valparaiso and its surroundings…. Her consciousness of the limitations of romantic love and her old-fashioned acceptance of emotional and physical pain make Rachel Billington’s Maria touching and dashing in equal measure.
There is an admirable economy to Billington’s writing. It moves us through death, earthquake and childbirth with something of the brisk matter-of-fact qualities of Defoe…. This economy cuts well against the hyperbole of the Spanish rhetoric of the politicians Maria meets. Hers is an assured , self- deprecating voice of the intelligent Englishwoman abroad, trying to make sense of the complexities of love and politics in a continent that is changing seismically.
A fascinating account of Maria’s arrival in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1822. she is newly widowed following the death at sea of her first husband , Captain Thomas Graham; in Valparaiso she meets the charismatic Admiral Cochrane, the disgraced British Navy officer who commanded various small South American navies through their wars of independence. They begin a passionate, secret affair.
Maria Graham was an author who broke through the conventions of her time…it was as a widow in Valparaiso, she saw the flamboyant Admiral Lord Cochrane sail into the harbour, fresh from leading the Chilean fleet to victory over the Spanish. Rachel Billington imagines that intense relationship in this engrossing novel.
In a voice so witty and intimate, so utterly human, she makes what is already a gripping story even more so because of the powerful presence of Maria whispering in our ears. This is not only a wonderful story but a terrific way of discovering more about previously unknown corners of history.
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