Beyond Notability: Edith Blake

Beyond Notability (BN) is an academic project. Click here to find out more about it.

I was commissioned to devise & tell four stories about women from the BN database– including their contradictions and complexities.

When I looked at the shortlist, I jumped at Edith Blake because my finely honed nose-for-a-story could sense interesting complexity. I noticed that Dr Amara Thornton seemed especially interested in her too! I knew this one would be tricky to devise but, rashly, I decided that was all part of the fun!

Who was she?

Edith Blake, born in 1845, was a painter, writer and had a strong interest in anthropology. She seems at first glance to be an ideal subject for a fun “Lady Adventurer” type story. She travelled around the world, she was glamorous, bold, spoke nine languages, and didn’t care much for stuffy norms and values. As a professional storyteller, this type of tale is easy to devise!

However as Amara and I discussed Edith Blake’s life, I could see how it was intertwined with colonialism and slavery. Thus, there is a second, more serious, story which runs, half buried, alongside the Lady Adventurer narrative. Uncovering it was delicate task which requited a lot of research to get right. We wanted to focus on Jamaica but neither Amara nor I had visited the island and we were not experts on its pre-history which soon became essential to the story.

I read a lot of history and also a wonderful book by poet Zakiya Mckenzie. With Amara, I virtually interviewed John T Shorter a Jamaican expert in Caribbean Heritage. We also had a long and fascinating meeting with Alexis Mc David who is Outreach Officer for Education at the National Museum Jamaica. (She even gave us a virtual tour of the pre-history gallery!) She also told us about the ongoing anger about the Jamaican Artifacts held in the British Museum which were taken when the island was a colony -and are not even on display. I could not have created the story without this help.

I now had a bulging folder full of densely written notes. I was encountering the curse of any storyteller: too much information! I stared at the pages of text, willing them to form into neat twelve minute narrative, but they wouldn’t.

I had to cut it down somehow so I kept asking myself, ‘whose story do I want to tell?’ It was a bit of a breakthrough when I decided to focus on an inanimate object instead of Edith herself.

I picked out the key moments and wove them together. Like a double helix, my tale took shape. Once the basic work was done, I knew that I would need one final interview to bring everything into focus. I wasn’t sure who to speak with, only that this person would not be an expert on history or archaeology, rather someone who felt that Jamaica is ‘home’.

That was when I spoke with RG, a Jamaican student who has recently come to live in the UK. We met by the lake in Clapham Common and I read him my draft aloud, watching to see how he reacted. I was happy to see that the emotional beats seemed to land well. Then, most importantly, he told me how he saw the character and personality of Jamaica and helped me imagine what it’s like to visit. Our conversation was the lightbulb-moment when, for me, the story finally came to life.

Read about the other stories: Alice Bertha Gomme / Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson / Charlotte Stopes.

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