World literature

Chile’s Valparaíso of 1822 sets stage for new historical fiction

British author Rachel Billington takes creative approach to the story of a romance with the once disgraced, now lionized, Admiral Cochrane.  

Monday, May 14, 2012  
British Admiral Alexander Cochrane is immortalized throughout Valparaíso in statues and monuments. ( British Admiral Alexander Cochrane is immortalized throughout Valparaíso in statues and monuments. (Photo by Carlos_Y./Flickr)

The headstone of 19th.century author and artist Lady Maria Callcott in the Kensal Green Cemetery of London reads: “Lady Maria Callcott: A Friend of the Nation of Chile.”


A naval officer’s daughter and wife, Callcott traveled the world and wrote extensively about her journeys, but left a more indelible mark here in the Southern Cone than any other country.


She spent a year in the city of Valparaíso, at that point one of the most important ports in the Americas, after her husband died suddenly of a fever in the rounding of Cape Horn.


It was a tumultuous year for both Callcott and Chile - the British writer experienced one of the worst earthquakes in the history of Chile, and became the first person to document its effects, and she became involved with the disgraced British Admiral Alexander Cochrane as he led Chilean ships to victories over the Spanish fleet.


Now that year has been re-imagined by the pen of contemporary British novelist, Rachel Billington, author of Maria and the Admiral, which centers on a secretive affair between the two British expats in Chile.


Billington first became aware of the story of the globe-trotting writer and dashing naval officer while staying in Valparaiso with her daughter and Chilean son-in-law nine years ago.


“Everywhere in Valparaíso you see Cochrane monuments, Cochrane squares,” she told The Telegraph. “He’s seen as a real hero. And I began to hear about this contemporary of his – a British woman who was one of the first people to write about Chile, before anyone knew much about South America at all.”


And it’s not hard to see how the interest became an obsession - there is plenty in Lady Callcott for Billington to share in common. With 22 novels, four childrens books, several works of non-fiction, television scripts and newspaper columns, the former president of the writers’ organization PEN, and an editor of Inside Time, the contemporary author certainly shares her compatriot’s formidable work ethic.


To read more about the life and drama of Valparaíso in 1822, look for the book at a store or library near you.

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