I thought I’d share an excerpt from my first book, The Bridge Builders, edited by Kim Weiss and published by Vantage Press. It’s due out this spring…
In England in the early 1900s, only the very wealthy owned automobiles. British cars were still hand-built, handcrafted, prohibitively expensive, and were invariably the provenance of rich men with large houses or country estates. They garaged their new automobiles in motor houses once used to stable horses and carriages, and employed chauffeurs – drivers who doubled as mechanics — to motor them about. My grandfather, Albert Ernest Bell, was one of those early chauffeurs, employed by a duke in Brough, Yorkshire, England.
Granddad stood no more than five feet, two inches tall in his stocking feet, yet he was a robust man who served his vocational apprenticeship in the study of steam engines. When he gained employment with the duke, he switched to studying and maintaining automobiles. It was his responsibility to see that the duke’s new cars ran well and that the noble family was transported safely as they traveled to their various properties.
It was in service to the duke that Granddad met and married my grandmother, Elizabeth Messider, a slender woman of French descent who stood four inches taller than Granddad and worked as the family’s governess. Entrusted with the duke’s children, she trained them in various courses as preparation for higher education. And she was, in every sense, a true British Nanny who embodied what her king – George V — reportedly considered his nation’s greatest strengths: “diligence, dignity and duty.” Always dressed like a duchess ready for afternoon tea, Elizabeth Messider prided herself on her gentility – despite the fact that she was not an actual member of the British upper class. Yet it was her most profound mission to raise her own sons – Ernest, her first born, and Albert, her second and my father — to be as intelligent, cultured, and gentile as any nobleman’s sons. And she pursued this mission with zeal.
My grandparents lived in a stone cottage beneath a thatched roof on a corner of the duke’s estate in Northern England, amidst picturesque expanses of rolling hills, meandering roads, and a short walk to water’s edge. Lovely gardens surrounded their modest home, thanks to Granddad’s avocation: gardening. He loved working with and maintaining plants, and became quite adept at raising perennials as well as annuals. For cutting gardens he was particularly fond of gladiolas, asters, daffodils, tulips, chrysanthemums, and pansies. (My own love for these flowers was galvanized by age five after countless hours spent at Granddad’s knee, listening to him describe his lush English gardens.)
To my grandmother – who was known as “Nanny” to both the duke’s children and her future grandchildren – theirs was an admirable station for a working-class family in post-Industrial Revolution England. She expected her sons to be proud of and content within that world. But my father was not. By 15 years of age, he was in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. A scholar and a dreamer, he longed to leave that world behind and pursue a life unfettered by class or geography.