Inspiration for The Housemaid's Daughter

Union Castle LinerThis book was inspired by my grandparents’ migration from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900s.

They did not arrive in their new country together: they were engaged for 5 years – grandfather in South Africa, grandmother in Ireland – before my grandmother was allowed to leave Ireland to marry him in SA. But the best-laid plans…

During her chaperoned journey, she met another suitor on board ship: an English army officer en route to India to rejoin his regiment. He wanted my grandmother to jilt my grandfather by remaining on board when the ship docked in Cape Town, and sail on to India and marry there. But she chose not to. She set aside the shipboard romance, duly got off the ship and married my grandfather on the same day beneath the watchful eye of Table Mountain, and embarked on her new life as planned.


But aside from thwarted romance, it was my grandmother’s recollections of trying to settle in Cradock, and understand the local community, that particularly caught my attention. These memories were the genesis - the seeds - of The Housemaid’s Daughter.

She was unprepared for Cradock’s isolation, and the issues of racial inequality that were soon apparent though not yet enshrined in law. She befriended the household maid, and surely had to cope with the disapproval of neighbours. She taught at the local school, but couldn’t help wondering why black pupils were not admitted. These early memories were revealed quietly to me as I learnt the piano by her side.

At the same time, I used to play in our garden with the daughter of my parents’ housemaid.
I began to realise that copying my grandmother’s early attempts to build bridges was, for my generation, far more difficult: Apartheid was now law. There could be no relationship between black and white such as she had tried to forge.

While my own and my grandparents’ experience provided the background for the novel, The Housemaid’s Daughter is a work of fiction. It is the story of two journeys: the first being an Irish family settling into a challenging new world. The second, and the major theme of the book, is the development of Ada, their black maid. She is torn between the Irish family she loves, and the township where she teaches. The liberation Struggle threatens to consume both.

Union-Castle liner photo © copyright Wikipedia