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 all 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 I confess, through reading about her husband. (If you’ve ever seen the film Master and Commander, you’ve met one of Lord Thomas Cochrane’s literary counterparts in the figure of Jack Aubrey.) Kate is mentioned in one article as “a beautiful orphan, nearly twenty years his junior.” Reading further, I discovered that the couple had six children over the course of their marriage, and that Kate routinely crossed the Atlantic to accompany her husband on his naval campaigns.
Hot damn, I thought. Who is this woman? And why haven’t I heard about her until now?
|Portrait of Katherine Cochrane, Countess of Dundonald, and her daughter Elizabeth.
Part of the reason, I think, is that historical records on Kate have serious gaps. For example, we don’t know what year she was born, or who her mother was (leading to speculation among some Cochrane biographers that she was illegitimate.) Her father died while Kate was young, and she spent her later childhood and teen years in the care of relatives.
Furthermore, with a larger-than-life figure like Thomas Cochrane for a husband – radical MP, eventual Earl of Dundonald, and author of multiple books, including two autobiographies – it is understandable, though unfortunate, that Kate’s story had been subsumed within her husband’s colorful career.
Toni Morrison once said this: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
So I started writing. And researching. And writing some more. I traveled to England and Scotland, retracing some of Kate’s time there. I walked the London neighborhood where she and Thomas eventually settled. I read some of Kate’s surviving letters, miraculously preserved in Scottish archives, and took a bus through Fife to see the Cochrane family home that Thomas and Kate visited in the autumn of 1825.
I’m still writing – still journeying, for writing is a journey – and finding the voice to tell of Kate’s adventures. Kate, like all of us, is more than the sum of her parts. More to come.