Meet Jocelyn Robson, the City alumna who coincidentally found the story that became her debut book whilst studying Creative Writing here at City. Read Jocelyn’s interview to learn how the journey of finding the story became a story in its own right.
Tell me about your time at City!
In 2008 I started the Creative Writing (Non-fiction) MA course so I could learn to use the techniques of fiction to tell a true story. At the time, I was working at London Metropolitan University as a researcher for the Institute of Policy Studies in Education and I really wanted a change of direction.
I had always wanted to write but I was never sure how I could make a living from it. A short time after starting the course I came across Grace’s story. I had seen some old photographs of girls in a gymnasium and wondered where they were and what they were doing. I soon found out that the girls were attending a technical education school in London and that the first of these Trade Schools for Girls had been founded in the 1900s. I read that someone called Grace Oakeshott had been the driving force behind them. But in an academic article about these schools, there was a footnote that said Grace had drowned at the age of 35 – and it made me think ‘what a tragic waste of life’.
How did this become a story?
Later I found an online review of a play entitled ‘Grace’. The play was about a woman called Grace Oakeshott who had staged her own death and run away to New Zealand. The playwright, Sophie Dingemans, claimed to be Grace’s great granddaughter and she said her play was based on fact.
I immediately began to wonder if this woman was the same as the one I was interested in. Was the footnote wrong? Had Grace not drowned after all? I started to Google. I then contacted the theatre company in New Zealand where the play had been performed and was put in touch with Sophie who in turn put me in touch with her mum, Cherry. Though Grace had assumed a new name in New Zealand, Sophie and her family had always known who their relative really was.
Cherry told me she was the daughter of Tony, one of Grace’s sons. I’m actually a New Zealander myself and when I was there a couple of months later for a conference Cherry met me at the airport. She took me to a cemetery in a small town in Hawke’s Bay and showed me the grave of someone called Joan Leslie Reeve. ‘That woman is the person you know as Grace Oakeshott’, she said.
By this time the story was getting exciting and I was struggling to balance my first year coursework with all the research I had to do. And I still had to decide how to write my book. I didn’t want to write Grace’s story in an academic way nor did I want it to be a dull story about education for girls, so I read lots to get ideas!
Coming to the end of my MA I was required to write 60,000 words which is about two thirds of a book. I told my tutor I wasn’t ready to write that much especially as there were moments when the story was turned on its head by the things I found out. In the end I didn’t complete my Masters but I left with a Post Graduate certificate. I wasn’t too bothered about the qualification because for me it was about the experience, the writing practice and the opportunity to meet others.
I was fortunate that the story and the opportunity to write it came along together.
What was writing your book like?
I left my post at London Metropolitan University in 2009. I wanted to write the book and so I treated it like a job and became a full time writer. My academic experience,meeting deadlines and expectations, helped me to structure my time. I spent 5 years researching and made some significant trips; to Fort Simpson and Fort Rae – where Walter Reeve, the man Grace ran away with, was born.
I thought of them as field trips and I also found more members of Grace’s family, and the descendants of those who had been left behind. I discovered that Walter had trained to be a doctor at Guy’s Hospital and that he knew Grace was married (to Harold Oakeshott) when he first met her. I found out that William, Walter’s father, had lived in Islington before he moved to Canada and that Grace was 1 of 4 children born in Hackney. I found out about Grace’s siblings, who her brother had married and the names of their children.
Not everybody wanted to talk to me but those who did were very helpful. I found a daughter of Grace’s great nephew on the electoral roll. I wrote to her and to my delight, she put me in touch with her parents. A short time later, I was able to meet the family in Kent. The night before my visit I was too excited to sleep! They shared their memories and family papers with me. I also traced the children and grandchildren from Harold’s second marriage – and found that one of his granddaughters lived only a short distance from me!
I had a wonderful time and I learned as much about the social history as I did about the people. It was more fun than anything I’ve ever been paid to do and the story of finding the story was as much fun as the story itself.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The structure was very challenging – trying to keep everyone’s story in chronological order and making the links between the characters clear.
What has been the biggest reward?
The way the book took me back to New Zealand where I was born and brought up. I was able to find out about my country in a different way and when I went back in March it was like bringing the two parts of my life together through the story of Grace’s life.
Any advice to others looking to follow in your footsteps?
Find a story that moves you, a subject that you feel passionate about.
Finally, it’s the quick-fire question round!
Favourite place in London: Hampstead Heath
Favourite holiday destination: Iceland
Must-check every day website: BBC
Dream travel destination: Yosemite
Cheese or chocolate: Chocolate
Jocelyn’s book ‘Radical Reformers and Respectable Rebels’ is out now and available to purchase from Amazon.