Gilli’s book Buried Treasure was re-launched on 9th July with a great new cover and today she tell’s is about Tetta, one of the characters from the book. Speaking as someone who recently started looking into their family tree I found this fascinating.
Possibly the most important two facts about my approach to starting a new novel is that I’m an ‘into the mist writer’. And I like to subvert stereotypes.
I will have chosen an arena but I have only the haziest notion of where a story is going, and all I have to go on about my characters, is their back-stories.
In BURIED TREASURE all I initially knew about my archaeologist hero, Theo Tyler, was his very entangled background. I had decided to give him a family tree which suggested he should have lived a gilded youth, from prep to public school, from Oxbridge to a job in the Law or the City in one effortless glide, but……
Theo’s mother, Marietta (known as Tetta,) was the privileged only child of a titled family. She rebelled as teenager and, defying parental expectations, became involved with the punk-rock revolution. Her marriage to a notorious singer-songwriter, Vernon Tyler, drove an insurmountable wedge between her and her family.
When the story begins, Tetta is a long-widowed alcoholic, but craves recognition for the status she rejected when she was young. If it proves impossible for her, then she wants her son to be acknowledged as the grandson of a baronet.
This scenario made the writing of BURIED TREASURE far more complicated than it might have been. What was I thinking to create this complicated woman? But if I wasn’t going to change her and make her more ordinary, I needed to understand her. Why would such a rebel do a complete about-turn in her middle-age and want to reclaim her status as part of the establishment? Then it came to me. She is just like my grandmother! The knowledge was a gift. I could make her real.
My father’s mother, Dorothy, was from an affluent, upper-middle-class Victorian family. Her father, William Henry Ashton Smith, a pearl broker, regarded work as an interruption from the real purpose of his life – sport. I won’t detail his various sporting accomplishments, but he eventually became president of Harlequins (rugby) Football Club. His second wife, Margaret Kitchin, Dorothy’s mother, was a professional singer of coloratura.
Dorothy grew up during the hay-day of the Gaiety Girl and music hall. When she was a stage-struck sixteen-year-old, having apparently inherited her mother’s voice, she dyed her hair blonde and appeared on the boards for the first time. By the time she was 21 she was married to William Pettit (described on the wedding certificate as a professor of music, in fact an actor and banjoist!). Only after Dorothy gave birth to my Aunt Joy was the marriage annulled. We don’t know on what grounds, but suspect William was a bigamist.
The wedding of William Pettit and Dorthy’s wedding.
My grandfather, John Jamie Allan, was another theatrical – a ‘song and dance man’, known as Jamie Dallas – sadly injured in WW1. The appetite for music hall had begun to diminish after the war, and anyway, opportunities for someone who was now no longer acrobatic and able to do the prat-falls and dancing for which he was particularly known, were fewer and farther between.
John Jamie Allan as Widow Twanky
This is how my grandmother, the rebel from the rather grand family, fell on very hard times. Now with three boys, as well as her daughter from her previous marriage, Dorothy was no longer able to perform much herself – much as she would have loved to. Living from hand-to-mouth, did not diminish her need to be noticed, to be the centre of attention – to be taken seriously. Once, after an altercation with her husband, she famously spent an afternoon on the back lawn in a “faint” until a neighbour enquired if she was all right.
My gran outlived her husband by seventeen years. And the more she aged, the more the rebel was forgotten in the face of authority’s failure to treat her with sufficient respect. Snubs and slights offended her deeply. Her need to prove that she was being under-estimated, that she was better than this, would frequently erupt in the toe-curling demand: “Do you know who I am?”
When ‘No’ was the inevitable answer, “The niece of the late Dean of Durham!” was her retort. It became a running family joke.
We only discovered why she expected this announcement to humble her adversary, when we inherited her archive, a posh word for the unsorted jumble of ‘stuff’. Amongst it was a sepia photograph of G W Kitchin, the Dean of Durham Cathedral. It needed little research to discover he was a very eminent Victorian indeed. A notable scholar and friend of Ruskin and Lewis Carroll, he was Professor of Classics and History at Christchurch Oxford and became its chancellor. Prior to his appointment to Durham Cathedral, he had been the Dean of Winchester, as well as being an author, composer and tutor to the crown prince of Denmark. The list goes on. But he wasn’t my gran’s uncle, he was her great uncle.
G W Kitchin
Now, if I’m disrespected, I can say, “Do you know who I am? I’m the great great great niece of the late Dean of Durham!” More importantly, if anyone argues about the believability of Tetta, I can say: “But she’s based on my own grandmother!”
Thank you so much for sharing this Gilli and for providing so many great photos. You can buy Buried Treasure here
Find Gilli’s other books TORN, LIFE CLASS and FLY or FALL at
Gilli Allan began to write in childhood – a hobby pursued throughout her teenage. Writing was only abandoned when she left home, and real life supplanted the imaginary kind.
After a few false starts she worked longest and most happily as an illustrator in advertising and only began writing again when she became a mother.
Living in Gloucestershire with her husband Geoff, Gilli is still a keen artist. She draws and paints and has now moved into book illustration.
All of her recent books TORN, LIFE CLASS, FLY or FALL and BURIED TREASURE have gained ‘Chill with a Book’ awards.
Following in the family tradition, her son, historian Thomas Williams, is now also a writer.
Contact Gilli at