Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2017

Zoffany’s Daughter (2017), by Stephen Foster

Having so recently had a bad experience with a self-published book, I approached Stephen Foster’s Zoffany’s Daughter with some regret that I had agreed to review it.  But I need not have worried: the book is beautifully produced and I enjoyed reading it.

German-born Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) was a distinguished neoclassical painter whose works are held in the National Gallery and the Tate, and the Royals have some too because his patron in England was George III (the mad one).  But Zoffany was dead by the time events in this history take place and no help to his daughter Cecilia, except to confer upon her the status of a lady.  And had he been alive, he may not have wished to be involved in her travails, because then as now, custody battles are unedifying affairs.   The best thing we can say about the 21st century version of such battles is that at least they take place without the attention of scandal-mongering newspapers.

Which was not the case in the 19th century.  Newspapers, in fact, turn out to be a major source of information for historian Stephen Foster when he set out to unravel the story of Cecilia Zoffany, the estranged wife of the clergyman Thomas Horne, who turned up on the island of Guernsey with two of her eight children, Clementina and Laura, and promptly provoked a storm of scandal and gossip.  But the book is not a straightforward chronological narrative of events: it consists of introductory material on the nature and credibility of sources; background information about the history of child custody and the legal status of women; Clementina’s imagined journal; and excerpts from newspapers and court documents from St Peter Port in Guernsey.  An extensive list of sources at the back of the book shows the extent of the research, nicely balanced by the author’s warning at the outset:

Most of this story is true.
So far as I know, none of it is false.
Much of it is fiction.

Zoffany’s Daughter is subtitled ‘Love and treachery on a small island’, but it seems to me that in the battle for custody of the girls, the treachery is not clear-cut.  Under British law, Rev. Horne was entitled to custody as of right, husband and wife being considered one person at law and women therefore generally having no separate legal existence.  Whatever we might think about this now, fathers were considered to be best placed to fulfil their duties to their children which were to provide for their proper maintenance, to protect them and to give them an education suitable to their station in life.

But, (for reasons unclear because the matter escaped the attention of the English press), when Rev. Horne and his wife Cecilia separated in 1821, he retained custody of his sons and one of his daughters and Cecilia had custody of Laura (aged 10 when the custody battle erupts in 1825) and Clementina (aged 16).  The Separation Agreement provided an allowance of £300 per annum for three years.  Cecilia debunked to France, then Jersey, and arrived in Guernsey at the end of the three years desperately short of money.  Ominously, she accepted sums of money from a complete stranger – a gentleman called Mr Jean de Jersey (who unsurprisingly turned out to have a ‘reputation’).

While Foster presents a detached account of the eventual court battle, his sympathies seem to be with Cecilia, a mother desperate to avoid losing ‘the child she valued more than her life’.  He concludes the book with a plaintive poem ‘A Mother’s Farewell Address to Her Daughter’ which was published in the Gazette de Guersey a fortnight before the always-inevitable handover.  But (perhaps because my sympathies lie with the child) this sentimental portrait doesn’t wash with me.  To try to prevent the court handing Laura over to her father, (presumably gravely concerned about his daughters’ prospects in these less than salubrious circumstances), Cecilia had, with Mr de Jersey’s connivance, smuggled Laura into a co-conspirator’s home.  The court promptly put Cecilia in prison for contempt of its orders and offered a reward for the discovery of the child’s whereabouts.  This left this child – torn from the only family she has known for the last three years – confined indoors for weeks with no contact from her family except for clandestine night visits from Clementina.  Even allowing for different attitudes to children in the 19th century, this seems to me to be a remarkably cruel thing to do to a ten-year-old child.  And pointless.  While her mother was posturing her love for the child, Laura was deprived of both parents.  She had none of the material benefits of living with her father, and wasn’t with her mother anyway.

Because I’m interested not just in history but also in how historians ‘do’ history, I was intrigued by Foster’s discussion of microhistory.  In the chapter titled ‘On small history’ he writes about movements in the writing of history –

Marxist, empiricist, narrative, structural, labour, historicist, environmental, feminist, quantitative, social, nationalist, trans-national, total history, deep history, post-modern, cultural, new historicist and many more. (p.60)

Foster names microhistory as one of these ‘fashions’.  What it offers, he says, apart from a narrowness of focus […] is the exploration of some larger historical issue beyond the specificity implied by its title.  I haven’t read any of the microhistories he offers as examples, but The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) by Natalie Zemon David, is familiar to me because I’ve read The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) by Janet Lewis and I saw the excellent film starring Gérard Depardieu for which Zemon David was consultant.   By showing in detail the lives of ordinary people, microhistory aims to illustrate larger truths about society and culture.

Although he says that it is up to readers to make up their own minds, he stakes a claim for Zoffany’s Daughter as another example of the genre:

Here then, in the story of Cecilia, Clementina and Laura at St Peter Port, is a small series of events, interesting but seemingly inconsequential to all but those caught up in them, unfolding over a short time in a confined and inward-looking place.  These, on the face of it, are potential ingredients of what historians call ‘microhistory’.  (p.60)

Sadly, what I think Zoffany’s Daughter shows is that whatever about gender inequity in the 19th century, then as now, parents locked in marital hostilities often lose sight of what really matters when it comes to the wellbeing of their children.

Zoffany’s Daughter is illustrated with reproductions of portraits and paintings, many of them in full colour.  There are extensive notes for each chapter at the end of the book, and a clear explanation in the chapter ‘On history and fiction’ of the textual method used to differentiate between Foster’s creative inventions and what are faithful transcriptions or direct quotations from sources.  I really like this, because it resolves the issue that (IMO) bedevils creative non-fiction.  The reader who want to know what’s ‘true’ and what’s not, can see for herself… though of course she must still exercise critical judgement about the selection of sources and the objectivity of narrative perspective!

Author: Stephen Foster
Title: Zoffany’s Daughter
Publisher: South Solitary Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780646971414, 152pp.
Review copy courtesy of the author.

Available from the author’s website.


  1. I commend you for reading and writing while the rest of us are preparing for visitors and wrapping presents. So far I have lost three books out of my TBR for rellos I forgot to buy for but will be seeing on the day (I wept a little over Bloodlines). This sounds such an interesting book that I wonder that it had to be self-published which will surely restrict its distribution. I’m glad fact and speculation are easy to distinguish, hard to treat it seriously otherwise. And yes, doesn’t the child so often get forgotten in the battle which is ostensibly all about her.


    • Ah well, we keep things very simple chez moi. And even in the days when I had an extended family to worry about, the present business had to be done weeks ahead in order to post parcels off in time.
      As a teacher, I saw at first hand what misery warring parents can inflict on their kids. Often the children think that the split is somehow their fault, and worse, that there is something they should do to bring them back together again. It’s quite heartbreaking to witness, and worse still when the child is being used as weapon or a prize…


  2. Your analysis reminds me of the eponym in What Maisie Knew. Dickens is perhaps unsurpassed in his portrayal of distracted, neglectful parents. On another note, as I wish you a happy, peaceful Christmas, Lisa, I thought of you when I saw this piece in the Guardian today: a fascinating glimpse of early colonial life in Tasmania –


    • Greetings of the season:)
      That is such a lovely painting, so poignant! That little girl, Mahinna, is the subject of a wonderful novel called Wanting by the Tasmanian (Booker-winning) author Richard Flanagan. (See How nice that you can see an exhibition of the artist’s work:)


      • Thanks for the link. What a coincidence that the little girl should be the subject of a novel by so prominent a novelist. I love it when bloggers open up the world like this, revealing what would otherwise remain hidden.


  3. […] read a review, at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


  4. […] Zoffany’s Daughter, by Stephen Foster […]


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