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An Interview with Jane Bowen, author of From Triumph to Tragedy

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Born and raised in Scotland, I studied history at the University of London before training to be a teacher. On retiring, I became involved in local history in Northumberland, writing a book on our village workhouse, A Poor Little House, and editing and contributing to two volumes of local history essays, before becoming involved in researching the Pegasus.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I have always enjoyed writing, including penning stories as a child, but as an adult I have been more interested in recording actual history. I have been particularly influenced by the work of C.V. Wedgwood and E.M. Almedingen, both of whose books made history come alive and were often unputdownable. As a teenager I remember reading Wedgwood’s William the Silent by torch under the bedcovers, having been told to stop reading and go to sleep! My ambition (yet to be realised) is to write a book that has a similar impact on its readers.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I have been a teacher, a civil servant, and at one time was involved in child protection issues. I am also a collector of Victorian Souvenir woodwork made in Ayrshire in Scotland—Mauchline Ware—and have edited a collectors’ book on it.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I thought about the title for a long time, but in the end it simply summarised the story—a pioneering, very successful ship that that was wrecked off Holy Island on a calm, clear night with the loss of over seventy lives—at the time, the worst maritime disaster in British waters. Originally I became interested in the story when I uncovered a set of five reward notices for information about the victims of the wreck, and was surprised to find that no one locally knew anything about the wreck or its victims.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I was thrilled that I had managed to bring the Pegasus story to public attention; it was virtually unknown, and I had felt that both the ship and the passengers who lost their lives deserved some recognition. I was also delighted with the effective way in which the illustrations had been used in the book.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

There are two things—the first is the extent to which the North Sea route between Hull and Edinburgh was the major motorway of its day, and paddle steamers such as the Pegasus made a significant contribution to industrial and economic development in the mid-19th century, contributing among other things to the cloth, chemical, and building industries; the improvement of agriculture and food supplies; and also promoting culture—allowing circuses and theatre companies to bring shows to remoter parts of the country. Secondly, a realisation of the scale of the human tragedy brought about by the sinking of the Pegasus.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

The most rewarding part was letters and emails from readers saying how much they had enjoyed the book, and appreciating the work which had gone into researching it.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I am currently working on a biography of Dr. Henry Richardson R.N. He was born in Berwick upon Tweed, and on leaving school qualified as a Doctor at the University of Edinburgh, before joining the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon, and served in the navy for some twenty years. During that time he was involved in the Opium Wars in China, took part in the anti-slavery blockades of West and East Africa, was surgeon commander of a convict ship sent to Western Australia, and served as surgeon aboard a naval training ship. On retiring he returned to Berwick where he took charge of the newspaper that his father had originally founded in 1808.

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