Kate Cochrane: Her Life and Times

This week – October 12, to be precise – is Kate Cochrane’s birthday (on the evidence of a greeting her husband sent to her in one of their many letters.) What better time to introduce the lady herself and some of her exploits?

A secret elopement. Intrigues in South America. A knife fight with a would-be assassin. Crawls across rope bridges in the Andes. A four-month sea voyage with a teething infant.

Such adventures, one might think, would make a woman famous, especially if she undertook them 200 years ago, when a woman’s chances of attempting even one such feat were considerably more circumscribed. Kate Cochrane did them all.

I came across her accidentally – and admittedly, through reading about her husband. (Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane served as a model for the literary exploits of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and several instances in the film Master and Commander were inspired by Thomas Cochrane’s naval actions.)

Portrait of Kate with her daughter Elizabeth
Detail of a portrait showing Kate Cochrane and her daughter Elizabeth. Private collection.

Kate and Thomas’ relationship likewise rarely lacked for dramatic flair. He was a dashing war hero, aged 37, of an illustrious but bankrupt Scottish family – and he would someday be an earl. Kate was approximately 20 years his junior, a beautiful orphan living in the care of her relatives. They chanced across each other in London, and Thomas was smitten. After multiple proposals and multiple refusals, Kate eventually agree to marry him. The couple hurried off to Scotland by coach and were wed in a hasty ceremony that Thomas tried, but failed, to keep secret from his family. When Thomas’ father and uncle learned of the elopement, they withdrew a sizable inheritance. Kate went back to live with her aunt;  it was many months before the couple set up their own establishment and Thomas publicly acknowledged Kate as his wife.

From this rocky yet romantic start, Kate’s adventures began. Little is known of her early life due to a dearth of historical records. It is uncertain what year she was born, although 1795 or 1796 seems likely, given that she was said to be 69 at the time of her death in January of 1865. She was born the daughter of Thomas Barnes. There is some ambiguity surrounding her mother; some sources identify her as Frances Corbett, while a number of Cochrane biographers speculate that Kate was illegitimate. Kate’s father died while she was young, and she spent her later childhood and teen years being raised by relatives. She was living with a widowed aunt in a fashionable area of London when she met Thomas.

After their elopement, Kate and Thomas eventually set up house together and soon welcomed the birth of the first of their six children. It was a difficult birth for Kate – she had been gravely ill with scarlet fever, and her survival and the child’s were in question. But Kate, not yet twenty, came through the ordeal, and the little boy, christened Thomas Barnes Cochrane, lived as well.

Portrait of Thomas Cochrane
Portrait of Thomas Cochrane, c. 1807, five years before he wed Kate.

Kate’s troubles, however, were only beginning. Two months after the birth of the couple’s son, Thomas was convicted in a financial scandal and sentenced to serve a term in the King’s Bench Prison. He had had no commission for several years, and with the prize money he’d won in his earlier career not being replenished, Kate and the child were left in straitened circumstances. Kate visited Thomas as she could, and the couple exchanged regular letters. Upon his release, Thomas accepted an offer to lead the fledging Chilean Navy in the nation’s fight for independence from Spain.

Kate set sail with Thomas for South American in early autumn of 1818, with four-year-old Tom and his infant brother Horace in tow. While Thomas waged audacious attacks on Spanish ships and fortifications, Kate traveled on horseback through the Andes, visiting Mayan ruins and paying visits to the regional gentry. On one of these occasions, she crawled across a rope bridge with the newest addition to the family, a daughter named Elizabeth, strapped to her chest.

The family kept a house in the port city of Valparaiso, as well as an estate in the Quintero Valley gifted to them from the Chilean government. While there, an assassin sent by the Spanish chanced upon Kate. The man threatened her with a knife, but Kate gamely held him off until her shouts brought some of the servants to her aid. There is some suggestion that Kate was more than a bystander to the revolution, and that she carried messages and dispatches on behalf of Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s Supreme Director. However, the assassin was likely seeking information on Thomas’ orders rather than attempting to thwart Kate’s intrigues.

Image of the harbor in the city of Valparaiso
Valparaiso, Chile – and its harbor – as it looked in the early 1800s.

By the mid-1830s the family had returned to London. After several decades of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Admiralty and the British crown to grant Thomas a pardon for his earlier conviction, Kate’s efforts – which included personal meetings with the prime minister – eventually carried the day. Thomas had also inherited the title of 10th Earl of Dundonald, and Kate rose to the rank of countess. With the money from Thomas’ exploits in South America, the family purchased an elegant villa, Hanover Lodge, in Regents Park. There Kate entertained in style, and for the first time in many, many years, the Cochranes had a settled residence where they could live in comfort.

Image of Hanover Lodge, an elegant house and home of the Cochrane family.
Hanover Lodge, an Italian-inspired villa in Regent’s Park where Kate Cochrane and her family lived in the 1830s.

Sadly, not all of their children survived to benefit from the family’s improved circumstances. Little Elizabeth died in Chile around her first birthday, and Kate later lost another infant who was stillborn. Five children did live to adulthood: Tom, Horace, Arthur, Katherine Elizabeth (aka “Lizzie”) and Ernest.

Disparities in age and temperament, which had previously strained the Cochrane’s marriage, now led to irreconcilable differences that resulted in Kate living in France. The couple remained cordial – and never divorced – with Thomas sending financial support and paying occasional visits. They continued to exchange letters. When Thomas penned his autobiography late in life with the help of a ghostwriter, Kate’s actions in South America feature in it, and he writes admiringly of his wife’s courage.

Kate did not cross the Channel to attend her husband’s funeral when Thomas died in 1860, though she spoke warmly of his memory afterwards. She spent her final years in the French seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, suffering from bouts of ill health, and died in 1865. She is buried at St. Mary the Virgin, Kent, beneath a simple headstone. Thomas Cochrane was interred at Westminster Abbey.

Headstone at Kate Cochrane's grave
Headstone marking the grave of Lady Katherine Cochrane.

With a larger-than-life figure like Thomas Cochrane for a husband – radical MP, eventual Earl of Dundonald, and contemporary of men such as Napoleon and Lord Nelson  – it is understandable, though unfortunate, that Kate’s story had been subsumed within her husband’s colorful career. Now at last, she is figuring as the heroine of her own story – The Admiral’s Wife.


Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chili, Peru and Brazil, from Spanish and Portuguese Domination, Volume 1, by Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald. The Project Gutenberg eBook.

Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander, David Cordingly. Bloomsbury USA, 2007.

Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain, Robert Harvey. Carroll & Graf, 2000.

Correspondence. GD233: Cochrane Family, Earls of Dundonald (Dundonald Muniments.) National Records of Scotland.

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Stephen King’s Writing Tips: Infographic

“If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able  to  describe  it, and  in  a  way  that  will  cause  your  reader to prickle with recognition….Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” – Stephen King

Stephen King needs no introduction, and this infographic contains 14 of the bestselling author’s top tips on writing:

Infographic showing 14 writing tips from Stephen King

[Note: This infographic appeared on Hodderscape, in the post “Infographic: 14 Top Tips from Stephen King’s On Writing“]


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Yes, I Can

Every summer I engage in a ritual. It’s not the beach, a family reunion, or a camping trip (although I do those too). I make jam. If I can get to the woods, I harvest wild berries. Otherwise, I pick them at a local farm. Then I lug my haul home, boil up a pot of water, and begin kitchen alchemy.

“With glass jars, boiling water, and the careful chemistry of heat, sugar, and fruit, the canning process is both reminiscent of a science experiment and a visceral confrontation with the elements.”

There are plenty of easier ways to get jam, so why the fuss and bother of home canning? Partly, it’s about having a skill that seems less and less common. Partly it’s about honing my self-reliance. But the main thing is, and has always been, about the food.

Americans love to watch television shows about food, but we often forego cooking, as outlets from the Washington Post to Forbes to Slate have noted. With glass jars, boiling water, and the careful chemistry of heat, sugar, and fruit, the canning process is both reminiscent of a science experiment and a visceral confrontation with the elements. It’s dangerous. It’s inconvenient. And it forces you to get close to your food. As a result, the jam is not simply purchased, but earned.

So how does it work? My favorite raspberry jam recipe is from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving and goes like this:

You will need:

  • Very large pot
  • 8 half-pint canning jars, with lids and rings
  • 1 quart raspberries
  • 6 ½ cups of sugar
  • 1 pouch Liquid Ball Pectin
  • Not necessary, but very helpful, is Ball’s canning utensil kit
  1. Wash 1 quart of red raspberries. Crush berries in a large bowl.

Red raspberries 2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, gently add 8 half-pint canning jars, bands and lids removed, to the water. Boil jars at least 10 minutes. You will also want to wash and rinse the two-piece caps. (This article has complete instructions on sterilizing jars.)

3. Combine berries with 6 ½ cups of sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar dissolves.

Raspberries being boiled in pot

4. Stir in 1 pouch of Ball Liquid Pectin (available at supermarkets). Boil hard 1 minute, stirring occasionally.

5. Remove jars from pot and place on a heatproof surface. Fill empty jars with hot jam, leaving ¼ headspace (the gap between the top of the jam and the top of the jar.)

6. Place the clean jar lids onto the filled jars and adjust the rings. Careful, as the jars will be hot. Return the filled jars to the pot of boiling water. Process for 10 minutes.

Jam jars in boiling water

7. Remove the jars with the tongs. Place on a wire rack. You will hear the lids “pop” as the jars seal. I generally let the jars cool for 24 hours, by which time all the lids should have sealed.

Removing jars from pot with a set of tongs

8. Enjoy your jam!

Jars of homemade raspberry jam

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Whose History Is It?

Carnton Plantation stands 20 miles south of Nashville. Its proportions are elegant, its gardens filled with rare varieties of heirloom flowers, and its wide porch is stately and inviting. Visitors can wander the rooms and gaze at family portraits, look in awe at the family silver enshrined in a glass case and stamped with elegant monograms, and climb the stairs that lead to rooms whose windows offer views of sweeping lawns and boxwood hedges.

Photo of Carnton Plantation, which served as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin.
Carnton Plantation, Franklin, TN.

The slave cabins stood in the back, alongside the woods. And in the opposite direction, you will find the largest military cemetery in private hands in the Unites States. Nearly 1,500 graves hold the remains of men who fought and died at the Battle of Franklin. They are Confederates.

I visited Carnton earlier this spring. It was not the first time I had come to the site, but I was back again with more questions and an uneasy curiosity.

Carnton had been home to Carrie McGavock, a local legend whose story gained a wider audience with the release of the New York Times bestseller, The Widow of the South. During the Battle of Franklin and for months afterward, Carnton served as a field hospital where hundreds of wounded and dying men either succumbed or made slow recovery. Bloodstains mark the floors of makeshift operating rooms set up in the childrens’ bedrooms – tracing them will show where piles of amputated limbs were likely stacked, or where the cans of ether had been placed for primitive anesthesia.

The story goes that Carrie tore her petticoats into bandages after the household linens had been depleted. She personally nursed casualties and after the war, she and her husband arranged for bodies to be interred on family land –a book containing handwritten records of the names and information for each man can still be seen.

The place has the feel of a shrine, and walking through it on that bright spring morning, I bristled. Our tour guide noted that most of the household slaves had been sent to the Deep South once the war started to prevent their running away to Union lines. The McGavocks wanted to “protect their investment.” Lives and labor could be owned and bought and sold – and even now, in 2016, this was explained in terms that would have been perfectly at home in 1865. It was a matter of finance, and not morality – and the fact that the moral side of it was never addressed during that talk hangs with me even now.

For in the story we were given, Carrie’s compassion extended only to those who looked like her, and not to those whose endless servitude made her existence possible. The lost cause of the South still controls the Carnton narrative, making Carrie a heroine and leaving the uncomfortable questions unasked.

I left Carnton that day unsettled, and that feeling stays with me now. What do we make of Carrie McGavock? What do we make of the teenage soldiers who died on her porch that cold November night? Slavery is a hideous institution. The racism that was used to justify it equally ugly. I wonder if I can see the people in the Carnton story apart from their cause. Can I separate “good” behavior – compassion on the suffering – from a “bad” motivation – supporting a war justified by bigotry and exploitation? Can an act be judged apart from its context? Can I even truly know what drove Carrie and her family and the soldiers whose pieces lay scattered across the grounds?

Grass grows over the graves and the McGavocks are long gone, but it is still Carrie’s story that drives the place. It is one we should know, but it is not the only one. And at least for me, it is not all of the truth.

For more on my Nashville travels, please see my post Getting a Taste of Nashville at World Traveler’s Today.

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Nashville: Past and Present


Refrigerator magnet reading "Elvis Presley for President."
Elvis for President, 2016.

Isn’t it always interesting to revisit places we’ve known at different junctures in our lives? This spring I paid a return trip to Nashville, TN – after not seeing the city at all for more than a decade – and chronicled my experiences for World Travelers Today.

I would love to know which return trip has been the most surprising for you – please share your story in the comments! Then come along with me and discover a growing, gentrifying Southern city whose food reflects its changing identity in “A Taste of Nashville.”

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What If Books Had Soundtracks?

Storytelling and music are natural fits. From ancient Greek poetry that was more sung than spoken to the piano music that accompanied early silent films, humans have paired the languages of music and speech together for millennia. Music evokes memories, sets word to rhythm, conjures up moods.

I’ve always been a sucker for movie soundtracks, and as I’ve been thinking of character arcs and motivations for my novel, I can’t help but make associations between songs and characters. Just for fun, here is some of the music I associate with my protagonist, Kate Cochrane.

Tiffany – I Think We’re Alone Now

This song is so young and innocent and bubbly, I can almost imagine it playing as Kate and her soon-to-be-husband elope into a secret marriage.

Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Classic song for women who want the best out of life and aren’t afraid to go after it – especially if they haven’t had many chances to do so. Kate’s first blush as a woman of title and money must have opened a new world to her.

Gin Blossoms – Found Out About You

Secrets just won’t stay hidden, and what we try to conceal to protect those we love usually has a way of coming out.

P!nk ft. Nate Ruess – Just Give Me a Reason

Is there a better song that encapsulates love that’s gone wrong?

Eminem ft. Rihanna – Love the Way that You Lie

Possibly the gold standard of dysfunctional relationship anthems. Can’t stay in, can’t stay out.

Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart

The song for when you are ready to take the plunge into love. And Kate finds a second chance.

Vertical Horizon – Best I Ever Had

When the recognition of the truth comes too late to change events.

Sia – Chandelier

The lyrics on this speak for themselves.

What songs make of you think of your favorite characters?

P.S. I do love Menselssohn’s Hebrides Overture and have from the second I heard it. If the novel is ever made into a film, this much has to be a part of the soundtrack!

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How AirBnB Helped Me Write

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own. I’m lucky enough to have two – a cozy office with bookshelves that reach to the ceiling, and a sunroom that looks onto a tangled green backyard surrounded by trees. These are the places I feel at peace, where I can shut out the world for a time and focus on bringing my inner world, my writing world, out into life.

Unfortunately, neither are portable. While I have written in hotel rooms, on Amtrak trains, at writers’ retreats, in campgrounds, and even in bars, a rooted place has always felt most natural to me, most like home. So when I put together a research trip to Scotland for my upcoming novel, I went searching for a base camp, too.

View from windows showing old buildings in Edinburgh, Scotland.
View of Edinburgh from my AirBnB flat.

Within seconds of launching into my first AirBnB search, it was love at first sight. A perfect, snug little hideaway of a flat just steps off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. From here, I could easily walk to both the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland, two key sites for my research. There was a tiny galley kitchen, a comfortable bedroom, books and DVDs to keep myself entertained should I need them. Shops and restaurants stood within easy reach. The building itself had stood for over a century, and looked likely to stand for several more. I booked it straightaway.

The feeling I had when I stepped through the door went beyond “charm” and “character.” Yes, the flat had both, with its large windows of antique glass, thick stone walls, and utter lack of elevator (the flat stood on the 5th floor). But the appeal went beyond mere aesthetics.

Here, the space was mine, and mine alone – there was no schedule, no set times when coffee would be available or breakfast served. I could write and order my days as I pleased, breakfasting in my pajamas if I so desired on whatever lovely foods I brought up from the local market. (Scottish sausages, coffee, toast, and fresh eggs most mornings.)

I had a sense of space that was not sterile, but would be filled with the day’s rhythm of activities and the city around me. I had solitude and independence, but not isolation. If it wasn’t home, it was the next best thing. And I wrote and dreamt and pondered and wrote some more.

When I returned home, I finished the first draft of my novel within the month. I can’t say it was all due to AirBnB magic, but having a room of my own in what’s become one of my favorite cities certainly helped.

Disclaimer: This post is a statement of personal opinion, and is not an official endorsement of AirBnB services. No financial compensation, goods, or services have been received in exchange for this post.

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Offbeat London: 5 Unusual Gems

Think of London and think of Big Ben, red telephone booths, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London. Or perhaps Claridge’s Hotel, Harrod’s, Hyde Park, and bespoke shops along Savile Road. Or there are the theaters, Notting Hill, Piccadilly, Carnaby Street, and the Beatles, and Wembley Arena. London is a shapeshifter, offering a seemingly infinite number of incarnations – just which city will you experience?

No matter how many times I visit, London always finds a way to surprise me. Many of my favorite places are those I found by accident.

Big Ben clock tower.
Big Ben, London.

The Crypt of St Martin in the Field

The Church of St. Martin in the Field is hard to miss, sitting smack in the midst of Trafalgar Square and within a stone’s throw of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Both are well worth a visit. The church, however, contains a crypt which, in the midst of bustling, modern London, seems to offer a portal back into another world. Memorial tablets cover the walls and floor. The walls are hewn stone and brick, and you can easily read the names of the dead. A tiny café offers coffee, snacks and sandwiches – some nights, jazz musicians perform in the centuries-old space. I love it because instead of burying history, St. Martin in the Fields embraces it, build on it, and keeps both old and new alive.

The Thames

Where would London be without the River Thames? The Thames helped to give birth to London, offering the city a gateway to the sea – and in time, the world. A morning jog alongside the river, with the Houses of Parliament and Lambeth Palace visible in the distance, took me away from the crowds and showed me an experience of the city I could have found in no other way.

Interior of the British Museum, London.
British Museum, London.


Chic Bloomsbury, once the haunt of Virginia Woolf and others in the “Bloomsbury Group,” offers a glimpse of London at its loveliest and most refined. The neighborhood is home to the British Museum, and its proximity to the university creates an intellectual vibe. Bookstores are still in plentiful supply, and my shelves are home to happy treasures found here – one shop even allowed me to climb a ladder to reach a particularly tantalizing title! Russell Square gives residents and tourists alike a taste of nature; bring a lunch and take in the fountains, and don’t be surprised if the squirrels approach you for a treat.

Deck Chairs in St. James Park

St. James Park runs up to the gates of Buckingham Palace, so if you’re stopping by Buckingham, you’re stopping by St. James as well. From March to October, you can rest your weary feet by plopping into a deck chair. (Rented for a small fee – the service is also available in many other royal parks.) It’s relaxing. It’s lovely. For 8 quid, you can sit in the chair for an entire day. But why would you want to? It’s London, and the city beckons.

Sign reading "Foundling Museum."
Foundling Museum, London.

Foundling Museum

Back in Bloomsbury, the Founding Museum is one of London’s most poignant attractions. A small group of philanthropists established the Foundling Hospital in 1739 to care for abandoned children and the children of parents who were unable to care for them. The painter William Hogarth and composer George Frederick Handel played fascinating roles in supporting this institution. Most of these babies were given new names, and trained for servitude or military service. Mothers often surrendered a trinket or token along with their child – sometimes a keepsake, sometimes an item with information about the child’s father – for the purpose of identifying him or her should they be able to be reunited. You can still see some of these tokens today.

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Good Girls Don’t Waltz

I’m in Nashville this week, Music City USA (although Austin, TX may also put in a claim for that title), and where there’s music, there’s bound to be dancing.

I don’t expect to see any foxtrot or waltzes here, which like Nashville’s original speakeasies, belong to another era. For me, witnessing a waltz has always felt like a step back in time. What can be more refined and more romantic?

Drawing of couples waltzing.
Illustration of the nine waltz positions. Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816).

But it wasn’t always that way. Waltzing, when it first inveigled its way into British ballrooms by way of Austria during the Regency era, was met with shock and outrage. Matrons disapproved of it, the patronesses of Almack’s banned it, and no less a libertine than Lord Byron derided it.

What was so bad about the waltz?

First, unlike other popular of the dances of the period, couples danced with each other rather than as a group.

Secondly, the waltz involved the man touching the lady. For an extended period of time. In public. Scandal! In his poem satirizing the waltz, Byron wrote, “Waltz – waltz alone – both arms and legs demands, Liberal of feet and lavish of hands; Hands which may freely range in public sight.”

Attitudes gradually relaxed, and even the formidable clique of Almack’s patronesses began to permit waltzing, under certain conditions, by 1815. But the dance itself would continue to be considered “riotous and indecent” in certain circles for another decade.

If the waltz created such a stir, I cannot imagine what the response would be to what happens in today’s clubs!

Mass Historia – “The Shocking Waltz”
Jane Austen Centre – “The History of the Waltz”
Wikipedia – Waltz

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