Inspiration for the Novel
Updated: Jan 9, 2019
Down Labyrinthine Family History Paths
If there was one mysterious, spellbinding female member in our family tree to look up to when I was growing up, it was our great grand aunt, Gertrude Throop Cable. The mention of her name in family gatherings always created tension. But whenever my four sisters and I, who lived in Madrid, Spain, got together with our four paternal cousins, who lived in Manchester, it was only a matter of time
before speculation about Lily’s adventurous life would begin to bubble up.
The men in the family were not thrilled with Gertrude’s story. My father and his brothers shifted uncomfortably in their chairs when the topic was brought up. ‘She was no lady’, was their unwavering verdict. They were conservative, and having a ‘bad girl’ in the family disquieted them. Although, it had originally been one of my uncles, a passionate genealogist, who had spent years collecting photographs, letters, official certificates and older family members’ testimonies, trying to assemble the puzzle of Gertrude’s story.
And the legend that emerged from his research went something like this: in 1898, Gertrude, then only seventeen, one of the beautiful and talented daughters of our strict Mancunian family, left the house against her father’s will to become an actress. She worked at the Imperial Theatre in London for a year or two before she joined a traveling theatre company that ended up in St. Petersburg, Russia. There she met a handsome Russian aristocrat, Sergei Nikolayevich Latvin, fell in love with him and followed him all the way east to Vladivostok, where they settled and had a baby daughter out of wedlock, Olga.
The story got blurry at this point. For some reason, she and Sergei were separated, and Gertrude was forced to return to St. Petersburg with baby Olga. She arrived in a very bad state of health, and was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis, after which the Russian sanitary authorities demanded she leave the country immediately. Gertrude then left her child Olga behind with Sergei’s mother, and traveled all the way back to England where she died very soon after her arrival. Her sisters kept her letters, her jewels, and the amazing fur coat she brought with her which had been a gift from her beloved. She died in 1906 at the age of 24, and the death certificate declared her to be spinster and theatrical dancer, and to die of pulmonary phthisis.
After that, all trace of baby Olga was lost to our family.
Gertrude’s tragic death and her disappeared child were sources of a lot of speculation in our family conversations, especially the fate of baby Olga. What had happened to the little girl? Did she perish afterwards in the Russian Revolution? But Gertrude’s charisma outshone all else—to have an ancestress who had defied all conventions to pursue an artistic career bestowed a very particular badge on the women of the clan.
Years later, after I left my family and my homeland and moved to New York to become a filmmaker and a writer, I thought many times about Gertrude and her solo flight across Russia at the end of the 19th century. Plowing through the hardship of growing into an artist in a difficult, competitive world dominated –still today- by men, is a hard predicament for any woman at any time and place in history.
Only recently did it occur to me, one idle Sunday evening, to google Gertrude’s name, and when she popped up immediately under ancestry.com’s website, I knew I was in for a trip down the rabbit hole. The first surprise was to find her photograph uploaded onto another family tree: the descendants of her daughter Olga listed her as their grandmother. I learned instantly that Olga had survived and lived an interesting, rich life, had married into a wealthy Ukrainian family and migrated eventually to the US in the 1950s.
The picture her family had uploaded onto the site was very similar to the photo my mother kept on top of her writing desk in the living room. In both images, Gertrude is richly dressed in a long elegant coat with a fur stole that reaches below her knees, and a large, elaborate hat dressed with something resembling ostrich plumes, or some other exotic bird’s feather. Both photographs were taken in Saint Petersburg in 1900.
I immediately got in touch with her grandchildren, who were very generous in providing information to fill in the gaps of her story. The most important piece I obtained was the copy of a short life memoir written by Olga herself, in which besides narrating her own life, she recounts everything she knew about her mother. This is how it starts:
I was born in Vladivostok, Maritime Province of the Russian Far East, on January 6, 1903. My father was Sergei Nikolayevich Latkin, Commissioner of the Customs for the Far East. My mother was Gertrude Throop-Cable.
During the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 my mother took me to St. Petersburg, while my father remained as a war correspondent there. The Trans-Siberian railroad had not been built, or completed at that time. We had to cross the Lake Baikal on sleighs, it was winter and my mother contracted a cold, which due to her weak lungs developed into tuberculosis... I do not remember her, since I was only 1 1/2 years old… From what I was told and the photography I have, she was a beautiful woman. Artists always asked my father to have her sit for a painting.
The moment I started reading this document, I thought about writing a novel.
The rest, as they say, is history.