Mary Cole, the protagonist around whom the Berkeley Series revolves, was born in 1767 in the parish of St Mary de Lode, Gloucester, England, the youngest of the three beautiful daughters of Susannah and William Cole, she a wet-nurse, he a butcher and grazier. A fourth child, Billy, completed their family two years later.
The parents, and in particular the mother, instilled into their children a notion of human equality. It was an accident of birth that some people were born rich and others poor. Nobility of character and a sound understanding of how to conduct themselves was key to their aspiration to a superior way of life. The daughters took this wisdom thoroughly to heart, but Billy showed sullen resistance. The two elder girls, Ann and Susan, were noted for their airs and graces among the good citizens of Gloucester, but Mary was refreshingly humble, honest and reserved. She attracted friends easily, but betrayed none of her siblings' saucy familiarity. The difference became patently clear after the death of their father on the eve of 1783 when, for economic reasons, the family was obliged to abandon its way of life.
Ann was already married to William Farren, a butcher of Westgate, Gloucester, by whom she had at least three children. Billy became apprenticed to Mr Parker, a local surgeon, while Mary and Susan went into service in London where their contrasting characters were thrown into relief. Susan was out to exploit her betters and climb the social ladder. Mary wanted only to do things the virtuous way and was even prepared to return to the Farren household to help serve in Will's shop and look after her nephews and niece when exhaustion and homesickness threatened.
In London, the girls found a good and honourable friend in James Perry, a young Scottish lawyer, entered at the Inner Temple, who was later to become the clever and widely respected editor of the Morning Chronicle, a journal with Whig sympathies.
By way of this connection, Susan was introduced to some of his colleagues and became the mistress of one of them before rapidly graduating to a peer of the realm when she began to re-invent herself and move in exalted circles with all the panache of a lady born and bred. She appears to have carried it off extremely well for the rest of her life!
Before long, Ann, who was disenchanted with her marriage and way of life, joined her. The pair then embarked on a series of amorous adventures among the glitterati of Pitt's England and the New America. There had been prolonged consultation between the lawmakers of the American Constitution and those who were constantly refining the British one. Indeed some of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence had learned the arts of their profession in London. Thomas Heyward, for instance, from South Carolina, had studied at the Middle Temple, William Paca of Maryland, the Inner Temple.
After a colourful career, Susan Cole, who at that
period went by the name of Mrs Edge, married James Heyward, the much
younger half-brother of Thomas Heyward. Thomas was the son of Thomas
Heyward, senior's first marriage, and James, the son of his third wife.
The Heywards were the wealthy owners of rice plantations.
Ann, meanwhile, had started a new family with Major Richard Claiborne, an American revolutionary, who later became a celebrated Judge.
The trail of their movements on both sides of the Atlantic has been riveting to research and has pointed up some interesting differences in attitudes to marriage and social mores. (Susan Cole had to start claiming she had been married to all the lovers by whose names she had been known!) It has revealed, too, that despite George III's 'lost colonies', links between Britain and America were being forged apace with movement between the two continents freer than ever.