June 22, 1785: A wedding in Gretna Green

In my novel A Moon Garden, there were two lovers who could not marry legally in England in 1785. This was because of the Marriage Act, passed by Parliament in 1753. For a marriage to be legally binding, the ceremony had to be conducted by a minister in a church or chapel of the Church of England. Jews and Quakers were exempt from this restriction, but Anglicans and Catholics were not. The law also set the age of consent at 21. The Act remained in effect until 1836.

It did not apply in Scotland, however. Under Scottish law, couples could wed on the spot in front of two witnesses. They only needed to declare that they were both free to marry. As a result, thousands of English couples eloped to Gretna Green, which was the village they reached as soon as they crossed the border from England into Scotland. The first building they saw was the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith developed a lucrative side business presiding over civil marriage ceremonies, and became known as the Anvil Priest.

The couple in A Moon Garden travelled to Gretna Green for their wedding. The blacksmith conducted a brief handfasting ceremony, then declared, “‘You have tied the knot. I pronounce you husband and wife.’” With that, the blacksmith raised a metal hammer and lowered it with great force against the anvil, producing a loud ringing sound.”

I was happy to discover a series of five narrative paintings by British historical genre painter John Arthur Lomax, depicting the anvil wedding of an anxious couple at Gretna Green. It looks just how I had envisioned it!

At Your Service by John Arthur Lomax (British, 1857-1923)

The Blacksmith’s Forge by John Arthur Lomax (British, 1857-1923)

The Blacksmith’s Forge with Love Gained and Lost by John Arthur Lomax (British, 1857-1923)

Over the Border by John Arthur Lomax (British, 1857-1923)

The Blacksmith’s Shop by John Arthur Lomax (British, 1857-1923)

Crying time

London Bound
London bound

One year ago today, on February 27, 2020, I was on a plane bound for London.  There were a few more documents I wanted to review at the National Archives and one book I particularly had to see at the British Library.  Two weeks after I got home, travel was restricted.  As much as I would have liked to return to England, I was very grateful and relieved that I had gone when I did.

Royal Opera House – Curtain Call

In January of 2019, I had been in London doing research for a new historical novel about the world of opera.  It was exciting to stay in Covent Garden and attend a performance of the Royal Opera.  On my last day in town, I indulged a whim to go see a portrait of a British Army officer that I had come across when I was writing my novel, A Moon Garden.  When I saw the painting, I was captivated.  The artist had masterfully captured the essence of a young, confident, strong, and beautiful young man.  

It was difficult to find out anything about this soldier, and I realized that the novel was going to have to wait.  It had become my mission to uncover this man’s story and tell it.  After researching for a year, I began writing.  My pursuit of information was ongoing throughout the year that it took to complete the written chronology of the life of this inspiring man.  When I was nearly finished, I became sad.  As I wrote the last lines, I cried.

A friend recognized my symptoms.  She laughed at me and said, “You did this last time too.”

“When I wrote A Moon Garden?”

“Yes,”

“I cried?”

“You got very emotional.”

I did.  Writing the novel was a psychological journey. The main character was constantly faced with challenges and crises in matters of war, love, family, and community.  As I wrote his story, I felt his worries, his joys, his internal conflicts.  I would listen to arias while working at my desk and suddenly find myself weeping.  But that was separate from what I experienced when I finished writing the book. A different kind of sadness enveloped me.

While I felt the thrill of accomplishment, I also had a sense of loss.  After spending over a year researching and writing about my fictional characters, I had a strong attachment to them.  Although I was glad at last to be able to share the story with my readers, it was an adjustment to let go and change my priorities.  That is how I feel now about this soldier.  For two years, I was singularly absorbed in connecting with him, discovering who he was, what he did, where he went, how he thought, why he made his choices. It is a relief to know that his story is closer to being known. 

For a few minutes, I indulged in some crying time.  The mood has passed.  I still have work to do.


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Bloomsbury, London

Artists John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 in this house in London, where Mr. Millais grew up. The hotel where I stayed in the past week was just a few doors down. Between my time spent in museums, the National Archives, and the British Library doing research for my new book, and walking through this beautiful neighborhood, I thoroughly indulged my passions for history, art, and classic architecture! 

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London Home of John Everett Millais
©Roxane Gilbert