I would like to pretend that after having read ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ I had popped Kate Summerscale’s first non-fiction novel ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ onto my to be read list. That wouldn’t be true. In fact for some reason I didn’t even go and look it up, and yet when I saw Sue Perkins raving about it on the BBC’s ‘My Life In Books’ (which I am hoping they bring back) I thought ‘ooh that sounds like the perfect book for me’ and indeed it was a real treat, and one that showed sometimes life really is stranger than fiction.
I admit that before I opened ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ I had never heard of Marian Barbara Carstairs, who was known as Joe Carstairs, who was proclaimed ‘the fastest woman on water’ as a world champion and record breaking speedboat racer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I have to say, as some of you might be thinking, the idea of a book about boat racing could be quite dull but if anything could be said about Joe Carstairs the last thing they could think of would probably be dull. In fact as Kate Summerscale found out, when a relative of Joe’s wrote to her to write an extended obituary in the Telegraph (where Summerscale worked), Joe Carstairs was a rather extraordinary woman.
Joe was not your stereotypical young girl who stood to inherit a great fortune being the granddaughter of Nellie Bostwick, one of the original trustees of Standard Oil, and a multimillionaire of the time. She didn’t want to run out and meet a husband for a start, instead having lots and lots of lesbian affairs, including one with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly (who I thought sounded fascinating and want to find a biography of, anyone know of any?) It appears Joe was never quite herself in childhood, brought up by her mother who never spoke of her father and who married men and had affairs like it was going out of fashion, and after falling off a camel at London Zoo at the age of five Marian B. Carstairs felt that she was reborn as the person she should be ‘Tuffy’. But ‘Tuffy’ grew up and soon became ‘Joe’, a woman who liked boat and car racing and preferred the company and clothes of men.
“Captain Francis disapproved of his wild stepdaughter. ‘He thought he’d cure me,’ recalled Joe, ‘but he didn’t.’ This wildness, the sickness which was not cured, was even then a euphemism for her masculine behaviour. When Francis caught the little girl, aged eight, stealing his cigars, he punished her by ordering her to sit down in his study and smoke one. If you’re sick, he said, go out, throw up and come back. Joe, who had been pilfering his cigars for some time, sat down and calmly smoked her way to the end.”
It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.
It’s also fascinating because of the time period it covers, the developments in those years (both in technology and science, the latter makes a very interesting story as her mother was part of a movement to use ‘testicular pulp’ as a healing substance – which went wrong), and the eccentricity of Joe’s family and the people close to her. In fact I won’t list every single wonderful story or event; you should simply read ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ and find out more.
I have to add her that whilst I think any biography could probably have been made interesting by such an eccentric and fascinating person as Joe Carstairs, I think Kate Summerscale makes her come truly alive. Summerscale must have also had quite a job on her hands in trying to separate the fact and the fiction from Carstairs life, as the tapes recorded of her telling her tales sometimes proved to be just that. Summerscale includes these ‘exaggerations’ and if anything it made Joe Carstairs more real to me, I liked her even more. So I am thankful to Kate Summerscale for telling her story in ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’, which I should add won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, and for Sue Perkins for enthusing about it. I hope I am now passing on that enthusiasm to all of you.