‘I were on a ship called the Oriental. Bugger of a
thing, she were, shocking rough below decks.
Anyway, there were a young miss on the boat with
the same name as yours. Beautiful girl, she were.
“Thought you might know her.”’
That's all.” He looks around at the three men.
This website is for you, the reader. It’s a place where you can explore Lewisville, behind-the-scenes.
Lewisville is a novel, but most of the people and many of the events are based on real life. You’ll be introduced to those people and places, see images of them and read original documents about them.
Alexandra Tidswell has an LLB and a BA
in Māori from Otago University, and is a former diplomat. Alexandra has always been interested in the stories of early
New Zealand and how they’ve shaped
our culture. She is a partner in Kia Māia Bicultural Communications, which produces bicultural interactive training
Alexandra lives in Nelson with her husband and two children. This is her first novel.
Lewisville’s cover image was created by Auckland artist Penny Howard. The red thread often seen in Penny’s work represents the Māori world view of carrying the past with us into the future, and remaining connected to our tipuna. It symbolises both a blood line, and a story thread. www.whitespace.co.nz/artists/penny-howard
When Martha left Willoughby to look for work, her three youngest children were packed off to the Rugby Union Workhouse. Mary Ann was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship to a seamstress, but Harriet and Will were inmates for some years.
Records of their time there, and after they left, can be seen in the image gallery.
The tiny hamlet of Willoughby, Warwickshire is where the story starts.
It’s here that we meet Martha and Ebenezer, and discover how driven Martha was to escape a life doing laundry, mending, and working in the turnip fields.
Martha hankered after a feather mattress, nice dresses and a house named Grimmsville. Eb just wanted the love of his life, Martha, and their three girls. He certainly didn’t enjoy being away from them in the army.
Browse the image gallery to see pictures of Willoughby scenes that appear in the story, and documents related to the Masters and Grimm families. Click on the pictures to read a description of each image.
London was Martha’s first destination in her desperate quest for upward social mobility.
There are no records of what she did at first in London, but at some point she found herself working for George Duppa Esq, the nineteen-year-old son of a Baronet from Kent. There, she met David Lewis. Mary Ann, who had been training to be a seamstress in Rugby after leaving the workhouse, joined her in London.
Duppa was taken with Wakefield’s scheme for colonising New Zealand and it wasn’t long before they were all Wellington-bound on the Oriental. Ebenezer too was leaving England on the Stakesby, bound for Tasmania. While Martha’s mission was to escape poverty, Eb’s was always to be reunited with his wife and children.
Ebenezer sailed to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known then, on 15 May 1833. I found many records
of his time there and you can see some of them in this image gallery.
There are no records of Will’s time at the boys’ reform school at Point Puer though, because that part of the book is fiction. Will vanished without a trace after leaving the Rugby workhouse. You can however see some images
of Point Puer.
We know that Ebenezer headed to the goldfields on the screw steamer from Launceston to Melbourne, but what happened to him after that in real life is a mystery. The part of the novel set in the goldfields is invented, as are Jack Ah Wei and Wen. Will and Harriet’s reunion is also fiction, although I like to think it might all have happened.
Wellington in the early days of British immigration was a sort of shanty-town, where two cultures met head-on. Lewisville sees this through the eyes of the colonisers,
most of whom saw the tangata whenua as fascinating and even admirable in so far as they did not get in the way of
Most of the settlers were in a state of culture shock that seemed to last a long time, gathering from their letters home. There were no such letters however for Martha and Mary Ann, who couldn’t talk about their past with anyone – even each other.
In this image gallery are photos and documents from Martha, David and Mary Ann’s lives in Wellington; lives that were very different from their previous existence
Martha Grimm has a sorrowful secret, and her daughter Mary Ann is the only other person in New Zealand who knows it. Growing up dirt-poor in Willoughby, Warwickshire, in 1815, Martha dared to imagine a different life. Now she is a wealthy and respectable Wellington settler half a world away. But the cost has been high. Martha cannot speak of the past nor the people she left behind. Lewisville is a novel based on true events. It is a story of one woman’s ambition, of escape and reinvention, and the bittersweet consequences of achieving one’s dreams.
“You must promise me, if this man approaches you, you will have nothing to do with him. Tell him you have no idea what he is talking about; faint to the floor if you must. But don’t let him say anything that could unravel our lives here. Promise me!”
The novel also tells the story of Martha's family, who are separated because of her ambition. It follows their fortunes through the first half of the 1800s, in Warwickshire, London, Tasmania, Melbourne's gold fields and Wellington, New Zealand. Every family has its secrets, and this one took almost two hundred years to unravel.
Lewisville was shortlisted as a finalist in the 2017 New Zealand Heritage Book Awards in September 2017.
Reviewed in Takahe Magazine August 2017:
"Lewisville is an easy read, often gripping, packed full of interesting characters. In particular, its descriptions of the Wakefield Brothers’ NZ Company and empathetic Māori involvement in early settlement are excellent, so much so that it could easily be used as a set book at secondary school, encompassing history, social studies, geography, as well as literature. There has been a great deal of research behind the writing of what is a remarkable first novel."
Featured in New Zealand's North & South Magazine, April 2017:
"In a colourful novel based on the story of her English ancestors, Alexandra Tidswell unravels a 200-year-old tale of intrigue and deceit."
Review on New Zealand Fiction Review Blog 15 May 2017:
"Tidswell has pieced together the true fragments of her family’s story and woven in plausible fictional motives and actions to present a thoroughly enjoyable read."
Review in The New Zealand Listener, April 2017:
Review in Wellington Regional Heritage Promotion Council Newsletter 'Heritage Today' March-April 2017:
"This intriguing historical novel – based on a true story – is an absolute cracker ...Alexandra Tidswell has researched her own ancestry carefully and thoroughly, and makes clever use of fiction to round out the missing bits. I urge you to read her wonderful suspense-filled account of these colonial lives (two of whom are buried in the Bolton Street Cemetery)."
For full review go to the top of page six at this link: http://www.wrhpc.org.nz/library/20170301_heritage_today.pdf
Review on FlaxFlower 20 February 2017:
"Lewisville .. is a wonderful, can’t-put-it-down page-turning read."
For full review go to:http://www.flaxroots.com/flaxflower
Review on The Booksellers New Zealand blog 'We Love Books', January 12 2017:
"I see Lewisville as a coming-of-age book. The family story is integral but it is a really gripping story with real characters and identifiable places. This is a valuable contribution to the backstory of our country. It is well-told, excellently edited and researched and very readable."
For full review go to: https://booksellersnz.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/book-review-lewisville-by-alexandra-tidswell/
Interview with Radio New Zealand's 'Standing Room Only' on 11 December 2016:
Alexandra Tidswell's new novel was inspired by some very old secrets.
From impoverished wife of a good-for-nothing charmer in Warwickshire, to respectable settler in Wellington, Lewisville is the story of Martha Grimm, fictionalised by her several-times-great granddaughter, Alexandra Tidswell.
Martha's story already reads like pure fiction, it's so remarkable and so full of secrets and drama. Nelson-based Alexandra has had a long fascination with the story. But, as she tells Lynn Freeman, it wasn't until she started researching her ancestor that she uncovered quite how much Martha had effectively re-invented herself.
To hear the interview click here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/standing-room-only/audio/201827276/alexandra-tidswell's-new-novel-inspired-by-secrets
Interview with Ruth Todd on Bookenz, Plains FM, Canterbury, on 24 January 2017 (Lewisville interview starts at 13.53)
Review Page & Blackmore Booksellers, 17 November 2016
“From the first page I was drawn into 1815 Warwickshire and the story of Martha and her family. Their tale of ambition and loss still resonates today as this debut novel is based on the author's own family history. But this is no dry historical saga; it's a beautifully written story that is peopled with compelling characters whom I couldn't help but feel compassion toward even as they made sometimes unsympathetic choices. We follow family members in Warwickshire and London, through the Australian penal colony and gold rush, and as some emigrate to Wellington, New Zealand. I found the story gripping as I wondered when the carefully crafted lies would begin to unravel. It isn't often I awake in the middle of the night to finish a book, but I just had to know what happened next.”
-Jo Dippie, Owner, Page & Blackmore Booksellers ‘What We Are Reading’, 17 Nov 2016.
Goodreads Reviews: 5 star average rating
“I’ve just spent the day reading your book and I just wanted to say congratulations, it is the most amazing book. I loved every minute of it. I started reading it in bed today and I thought, well, I‘ll get up soon, and I’ve been in bed all day until I finished it! It’s just a lovely piece of work."
"Just finished Lewisville. Such an incredible story. The writing was brilliant, I started reading it when I got home on Friday and only took breaks to eat and sleep. Can’t wait for your next novel."
“I am thoroughly enjoying “Lewisville” and reluctantly put it down now and then to do something domestic.”
"That was a brilliant read. I thoroughly enjoyed every page and congratulations on a fine piece of research and writing.”
"Great story, I really enjoyed it. I am full of admiration for your imagination and amazing research. I want to know more."
"The book is so well-written and the characters are so convincing – both male and female. I love your descriptions of the moors, of rain, of children in bed together, and the old-fashioned snobbery in colonial New Zealand. I have thirty pages to go, and have enjoyed every succinct chapter."
"I loved your book! From your writing I pictured the places, became involved with the characters and felt a rising tension as Martha's secret came ever closer to being discovered. I was intrigued by the history, especially the Wellington settler experience, and thought you must have researched so deeply to be able to place your characters in the three quite divergent geographic locations. Wow. I do so think this book should be shared and reviewed on Kim Hill or Kathryn Ryan's RNZ shows. It is such an important story. How amazing that it is part of your own inheritance."
"I finished Lewisville the other night and thoroughly enjoyed it! It was beautifully written and was a wonderful story."
"I have bought and read your book, the last one on the UBS shelf so I hope they get more in soon (or had more out the back). I enjoyed it, thanks, and had a happy weekend of reading. I didn't realise it was about some of your ancestors until the end so it was a good read just by itself! I liked the understated way you told the story, and the historicity felt right throughout. Having come from both sides of that old but continual class war myself, I could totally relate to it."
“You transport me to a world that I am glad I never had to endure … I am totally riveted… I was just so happy to put washing in the machine today … no grey whites for us.”
Book Group Questions
Book Group Discussion Questions
If you have more ideas for questions / themes please contact me: Contact Alexandra