ID: LCM_DMY / Elaine Barker

TitleDora Greenwell McChesney - literary connections to Mersea
AbstractLiterary connections to Mersea

Dora Greenwell McChesney

I first became aware of American author, Dora Greenwell McChesney (1871 - 1912), following the chance finding by a researcher friend of an article Dora had written about Mersea Island in the Wichita Eagle newspaper dated 16th November 1902. I then found a brief mention of her in James Canton's book, Out of Essex, a study which tracks the paths of those literary figures who have ventured into the wilder parts of Essex and a landscape that has inspired some of England's finest writing.

The Witchita Eagle article is a wonderfully atmospheric, detailed piece of writing describing the landscape and alluding to the history of the island but clearly McChesney was all too aware of proposed plans for the island's development, writing.

I shall be glad to remember it as I have seen it under the shifting sun and cloud of a stormy summer, and as not many will see it henceforth for the speculative builder is hovering on our borders, prepared to ruin what the long generations have spared. [See In the Marshes of Old England ]

In another piece of writing set locally during the Civil War, entitled A Masquerade, the action starts with the protagonists approaching the Strood at Mersea. Probably also published elsewhere, this short story appeared on a 'Lady Readers' Page' in a Trinidadian newspaper called The Mirror on 21st July 1913.

They had come to the causeway which divided Mersea Island from the mainland. The tide was high and waves were rolling sluggishly across the banked up wall, threatening every moment to cut off their further progress. On either hand the waters of sea and river, meeting, spread out in a sheet of grey, touched here and there with sinister green light under a sky dark with thunder.

Dora was a prolific writer of full-length historical romances, articles and short stories and some of her work was serialised in newspapers and magazines. Her writing was informed by her passion for history and most particularly the period of the English Civil War. She had a reputation for systematic and thorough research and her heart and sympathies were with the Royalists of the seventeenth century [The Chronicle 18.7.1913]

Most of her novels are available as reprints (at a price). They include

Kathleen Clare Her Book 1637 - 1641 a story based on a fictitious journal kept by Clare in the reign of Charles I, published in 1895

Miriam Cromwell Royalist - A Romance of the Great Rebellion published in 1896

Rupert by the Grace of God: The Story of an Unrecorded Plot Set Forth by Will Fortescue published in 1899

Cornet Strong of Ireton's Horse published in 1903

London Roses published in 1903

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet published posthumously in 1913

Of these novels only the final one, set during the Wars of The Roses is unconnected with the Civil War. Even London Roses, set in London at the time of the Boer War has a lengthy discussion of the Civil War amongst the characters!

Dora Greenwell McChesney was the daughter of Mary Elizabeth Studdiford McChesney known as Elizabeth (c1841 - 1906), a writer, and Professor Joseph Henry McChesney (1828 - 1895); her parents married in 1865.

Joseph McChesney was the State Geologist in Illinois in the mid to late 1850s before being offered a post at the University of Chicago. He became professor of Chemistry, Geology, Minerology and Agriculture there, a post he retained while serving in England from 1862 - 1869 as President Lincoln's consul to Newcastle-on-Tyne. In the year of his appointment as consul, he was described back home as highly cultivated, intelligent and patriotic [Index Universitatis March 1862]

Joseph's wife, Elizabeth, who wrote as L Studdiford McChesney, wrote Under the Shadow of the Mission: A Memory of Santa Barbara circa 1897. The review in The Spectator Archive gives a clear indication of the focus of her writing.

It is chiefly made up of dialogue on the serious topics of morals, religion, and life; dialogue which is always thoughtful and sometimes brilliant.

The Nun before the Christ Child
appeared in the Monthly Review in 1906 and Elizabeth also had short stories published in the Atlantic Magazine.

It is clear that Elizabeth was to develop a bond with Dora beyond that of mother and daughter, sharing a love of writing and exploring ideas. Dora's dedication in Cornet Strong of Ireton's Horse in 1903 reads


Elizabeth moved to the Old Thatch in East Mersea, probably early in the twentieth century, exactly when has so far not been discovered, she does not appear in the 1901 census for the village, but it is clear from the 1902 Wichita Eagle article that her daughter visited and knew Mersea - and her mother's neighbours - well.

Do not I - I who write - enjoy the honor of living in the haunted cottage? Such a smiling little place it is for so eerie a reputation bowered all summer through in "seven sisters" white roses up to the eaves, aflame in autumn with the Virginia creeper. And next to "The Myth" lift [sic] a quaint old world house, gabled, thatched, with an oaken door which might resist a seige. "The Ship" or "The Old Thatch" for it has born both names has sheltered for the summer our good neighbors " The Mother of the Island" and her gayly gipsy household..... "The Old Thatch" has known very different inmates, for it was in earlier times an inn, which must have sheltered many a riotous gathering of smugglers.

Mersea Museum has the written memories of Mrs Isabella Dawson (1880 -1972) whose family rented 'The Myth' for some years from Thomas Underwood. Her spelling of Elizabeth and Dora's surname perhaps indicates the pronunciation they used?

Mrs and Miss Mackesny (writers) came to East Mersea from America and had our cottage one winter [The Myth] and after rented the thatch one next door and were there when it burned down. Both are buried at East Mersea. I believe that Mrs Mackesny brought Dora away from America because she was in love with a married man. A Lady "Something"[Macdonell?] and a lawyer came to Miss Mackesny's funeral. They were the only mourners. Memoirs of Isabella Rosa Dawson

Elizabeth died in 1906 at East Mersea and a few years later, when Dora herself fell ill, a newspaper report indicated that Dora had been living for some years on Dartmoor.

Miss Dora Greenwell McChesney the novelist is dangerously ill. She is well-known in the Okehampton district and has resided for some years at Belstone. Western Daily Mercury 6th July 1912

Dora died a week later at the young age of 40 and her death in The Chantry, North Nibley, was announced in the local press.

The posthumous publication of Dora's final novel The Confession of Richard Plantagenet in 1913 elicited many tributes by reviewers. The novel was in fact a fragment which was finished by Dora's editor, Miss L Maye. A friend, Lady Macdonell gave a moving memoir in the foreword

the world has lost not only an accomplished writer but a striking and delightful personality....

Mrs McChesney was an American and her daughter refused to give up her American citizenship, yet they both lived and died in England and Dora Greenwell McChesney's literary affections were centred on the Stuart period of English history.

Mother and daughter are buried at East Mersea Church, their grave marked by a cross with the following inscription.

Mrs L Studdiford McChesney, died October 24th 1906 aged 65 years; her daughter Dora Greenwell McChesney died July 3 1912 aged 40 years. They desired a better country That is our heavenly God has prepared for them both. In Loving Remembrance of those noble women and gifted writers this cross is erected.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Other local literary connections
Margery Allingham
Sabine Baring-Gould
John Goodwin alias Sidney David Gowing
Alfred Ludgater
E. Arnot Robertson
21st Century Writers

Thanks to
Carol Wyatt
Tony Millatt

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum