Zoffany’s Daughter

Written by Stephen Foster
Review by Sarah Bower

This unusual book tells with considerable verve and charm the little-known story of Cecilia Horne, daughter of the painter Zoffany, and the custody case concerning her youngest daughter, Laura, in which she became embroiled on Guernsey in 1825. Foster deliberately mixes fact and fiction, using historical documents and an imagined journal written by Cecilia’s older daughter, Clementina, to tell his tale. The book also includes meditations on the difference between the art of the historian and that of the novelist and a fascinating account of Guernsey’s eccentric legal system.

It does not, however, entirely fulfil its ambitions. This is partly because it is neither one thing nor the other, but I think Foster could have got away with this if his narrative choices had been more judicious. Clementina is very much an observer of the tragedy that embroils her mother and sister, which results in the reader feeling shut out of the emotional worlds of Cecilia and Laura. Because Foster focuses his narrative solely on events that take place on Guernsey, we have no sense of what happened to end Cecilia’s marriage before she fled to the island, which results in a lack of context. I was, therefore, left with a sense of a good story, with much to say about Victorian attitudes to the family, not quite done justice by the teller.