Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Meet the Princes

Pamela Blevins, author of the forthcoming Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty, looks at some of Marion Scott’s ancestors – including the “family witch”:

One of the joys of writing a biography is the adventure of playing detective – stumbling on information, following leads that either fizzle or turn to gold, finding clues in odd places and eventually solving mysteries about your subject’s life. Most of Marion Scott’s life was a mystery except the limited public one: “friend and mentor” of Ivor Gurney, biographer of Beethoven, acclaimed authority on Haydn, founder of the Society of Women Musicians, and the troublesome and stubborn “mulish old maid” and “fragile fool” of Gerald Finzi’s too-often quoted experience.

Scott presented quite a challenge until I learned that her ancestors were from Salem, Massachusetts. I’m originally from Massachusetts and Salem was one of those historic places we visited on school trips when I was a child – seafaring community, famous for the witch hunts of 1692, inspiration for the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I soon discovered the roles that Marion Scott’s maternal ancestors - the Prince family - had played in that history.

The first members of Marion’s family journeyed to America from England in the 1620s. They settled in Salem, then called Naumkeag, a small coastal community of crude, one-room, thatched dwellings that stood alongside the bark wigwams and log dugouts of the Indians. Two Prince brothers had started life in the New World as indentured servants but gained their freedom and went on to become businessmen and landowners.

Marion’s great great grandfather Henry Prince I (1764-1846) was a bold, ambitious man who rose from working in a distillery at 15 to becoming a ship owner and sea captain. He sailed from Salem to Sumatra, explored the Indian Ocean, opened trade routes to the Philippines and Zanzibar, and made huge profits in cinnamon, coffee, pepper, hemp, sugar and slaves. He built the West India Goods Store, which is today an historic site under the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service.

Henry’s son Henry II (1787-1854) followed reluctantly in his father’s sea boots, voyaging to South America and the ports of Europe and Russia. He fought in the War of 1812, was a hero in a battle with a British ship (we won’t say what happened to that British ship), eventually settled on a career in the U.S. Revenue Service (now the Coast Guard), but met an inglorious end when he was dismissed for “intemperance”.

Henry’s son George, Marion’s grandfather, spent most of his life in St. Petersburg, where he went at the age of 16 to work in the family mercantile business, William Ropes & Co. By the time he was 21, he and his cousin were managing a thriving commercial fleet of nine American supercargo ships that criss-crossed the seas from Russia to India and from China to New England, the southern ports of the United States and the West Indies with cargoes as diverse as feathers and Franklin stoves. George stayed in Russia, where he and his English wife reared their children, including Marion’s mother.

And I must not forget the family witch. Sarah Osborne, a distant aunt through marriage, was the first woman arrested in the Salem witch hunts of 1692. “An agent of the devil”, she was tried (in a tavern), convicted and sent to a Boston jail where she died chained to an oak post before she could be hanged. She was arrested by the great great grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I doubt that Marion knew about this chapter in her family history.

Marion was very fortunate in her parents. Sydney, a solicitor and gifted musician (he worked with Walter Bache to gain wider recognition for Liszt), and Annie Prince Scott, were progressive thinkers and activists (suffrage, temperance, rights for servants) who nurtured their three daughters in a can-do/nothing-is-impossible atmosphere charged with liberal doses of freedom of thought, expression, attitude and behavior. They instilled in them the belief that they were capable of being and of doing whatever they chose in life.

The more I learned about Marion Scott’s background and about Marion herself, the more I came to recognize how significant a role her heritage played in shaping her character, attitudes and values. I also understood why she dared to go where no one had been before, why she had no fear of failure, why she was such a skilled and visionary leader and why others were so willing to follow her. It was in her blood.

Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty will be published by the Boydell Press in November.

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