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“It is my painful duty to inform you that E.R. Elgin, Esq., Lieutenant and Instructor of Musketry, 42nd Royal Highlanders, died of Cholera on Sunday the 28th of July at one o’clock A.M.”

So began the letter from a military chaplain in Agra, India, to a Yorkshire lawyer in 1861. The lawyer was charged “to convey to his family in the quietest and gentlest manner possible the tidings of this most melancholy event.” Included in this “family” was sixteen-year-old Kate Parker who was unofficially engaged to Lieutenant Elgin.

Great-Great-Aunt Kate

Kate was my great-great-aunt. In the 1930s, when Kate was over ninety years old, she went to live with my paternal grandparents in Kirkby, Lancashire. My father had already left home, but my youngest aunt, Margaret, was still a teenager.  She’s the one who—much later—told me the story, including a scandalous detail: Kate had been expelled from her boarding school in Harrogate for engaging in an illicit correspondence with the young army officer.

Like most anecdotes, especially ones originating a century and a half ago, the facts cannot be verified. The only other surviving documentary evidence of the relationship is an affectionate note from Elgin to my great-great-grandmother Emily—Kate’s sister—enclosing a brooch.

Family anecdote into short fiction

I have a fondness for converting family anecdotes into fiction. A comment that my maternal grandfather once planned to emigrate to Canada became my Titanic story, Left on the Shore, published in the 2018 anthology So Much Depends Upon…. I spun a tale about the spoons my father brought back from Germany in 1945 into a submission on the theme of Legacy in Whatcom Reads’ 2023 anthology of that name. So how could I resist creating a romantic rivalry between sisters out of the bare bones of two yellowing documents?

The Elgin Letters is a novelette—a work of fiction between 7,500 and 20,000 words, longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. The form was popular at the end of the nineteenth century but has gone out of fashion, and the term is now used in a dismissive way for a short novel that is light, romantic or sentimental in character.

Guilty as charged. I had fun with The Elgin Letters, veering away from “serious” mystery and historical fiction to indulge in a little light romance. I’m offering the novelette for free as an e-book on Amazon between June 21 and June 25. As the required disclaimer states, any resemblance to real persons, alive or dead, or to actual locales is purely coincidental. I hope you enjoy the novelette. If you miss the free download, the e-reader version is only $0.99. It is, after all, a quick read.

The rest of the story

The real Kate Parker went on to marry a schoolmaster and had two sons, one of whom served in the First World War. I have his little prayer book issued to all British soldiers at the Front. Kate’s sister Emily wed a seafaring man and moved to Liverpool. This is where their daughter Eva met and married my grandfather who later became the Vicar of St. Chad’s in nearby Kirkby, where Kate ended her days. The seafaring man—my great-grandfather—died early. According to Grandmother Eva, “he was lost in the Magellan Straits.” Stay tuned for another fictional excursion into this completely unverified and unverifiable family anecdote.

Do you have a family anecdote handed down from a generation now passed on? You may choose to do the painstaking research in order to fill the gaps in the story and determine its trustworthiness. Or you can do what I do: use your imagination to embroider a fictional version.

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