The True Confessions Of Charlotte Doyle

The True Confessions Of Charlotte Doyle



For Elizabeth and Christina


Every book has its own history. With The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I can trace its genealogy very clearly. I had been living in Los Angeles, California, when life took me across the country to Providence, Rhode Island. It was like going back in time: from a sprawling, modern, west-coast city to the compact, antique, east-coast town.

The house I came to live in was quite old enough to make me wonder about the many people who had lived there. I also wondered if there might be a surviving ghost or two. Out of those speculations came the book Something Upstairs. It’s a story about history, with much to do about a ghost and time travel.

When I first wrote the book, Kenny, the main character in the story, time traveled to different moments in Providence history in order to solve a crime. When I rewrote the book, Kenny went back to only one point in time. But during one of the time trips he made in that first version, there was a visit with Edgar Allan Poe. Poe not only had a connection with Providence; he was the man who invented mystery stories.

Writing about Poe intrigued me so much that I set out to write a book about him: The Man Who Was Poe. A detective tale set in Providence, Poe tries to help a boy find his lost sister even as he plots a new story of his own.

Since Poe had invented the mystery story, I gave much thought to the form. One of his early mysteries came to be called a “locked-room mystery” —that is, something happens in a room which appears to have no entrances or exits.

One day, as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that there could hardly be more of a locked room than a ship at sea. Why not—I asked myself—write a mystery on a ship?

That decision is recorded right in the middle of The Man Who Was Poe. In Chapter 14, an old sea captain is talking to the boy hero of the book. He says, “Now, Master Edmund, if you’ve time to hear a good yarn, I’ve one for you. You see, The Lady Liberty had a sister ship. Seahawk, her name was—”

That was the moment I began to think out The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. And while I don’t think of the book as a mystery, there are certainly mysterious parts to the story.

The book has proved to be very popular—so popular I have been asked to write a sequel many times. I won’t. Here’s why:

In the course of the story, Charlotte learns to think for herself, to choose her own destiny. I like to think that unfolding openness is a key part of the tale.

My writer’s job was to set Charlotte on her life’s voyage. I say, may she be given a different life by everyone who has taken her to heart. And may each reader go forth with her.


September 2002

An Important Warning

Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was just such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago. Be warned, however, this is no Story of a Bad Boy, no What Katy Did. If strong ideas and action offend you, read no more. Find another companion to share your idle hours. For my part I intend to tell the truth as I lived it.

But before I begin relating what happened, you must know something about me as I was in the year 1832—when these events transpired. At the time my name was Charlotte Doyle. And though I have kept the name, I am not—for reasons you will soon discover—the same Charlotte Doyle.

How shall I describe the person I once was? At the age of thirteen I was very much a girl, having not yet begun to take the shape, much less the heart, of a woman. Still, my family dressed me as a young woman, bonnet covering my beautiful hair, full skirts, high button shoes, and, you may be sure, white gloves. I certainly wanted to be a lady. It was not just my ambition; it was my destiny. I embraced it wholly, gladly, with not an un­toward thought of anything else. In other words, I think that at the time of these events I was not anything more or less than what I appeared to be: an acceptable, ordi­nary girl of parents in good standing.

Though American born, I spent the years between my sixth and thirteenth birthdays in England. My father, who engaged in the manufacture of cotton goods, functioned as an agent for an American business there. But in the early spring of 1832, he received an advancement and was summoned home.

My father, an ardent believer in regularity and order, decided it would be better if I finished out my school term rather than break it off midyear. My mother—whom I never knew to disagree with him—accepted my father’s decision. I would follow my parents, as well as my younger brother and sister, to our true home, which was in Providence, Rhode Island.

Lest you think that my parents’ judgment was rash in allowing me to travel without them, I will show you how reasonable, even logical, their decision was.

First, they felt that by my remaining a boarder at the Barrington School for Better Girls (Miss Weed, eminent and most proper headmistress) I would lose no school time.

Second, I would be crossing the Atlantic—a trip that could last anywhere from one to two months—during the summer, when no formal education took place.

Third, I was to make my voyage upon a ship owned and operated by my father’s firm.

Fourth, the captain of this ship had acquired a repu­tation—so my father informed me—for quick and profitable Atlantic crossings.

Then there was this: two families known to my parents had also booked passage on the ship. The adults had promised to function as my guardians. Having been told only that these families included children (three lovely girls and a charming boy) I had looked forward to meeting them more than anything else.

So when you consider that I had but dim memories of making the crossing to England when I was six, you will understand that I saw the forthcoming voyage as all a lark. A large, beautiful boat! Jolly sailors! No school to think about! Companions of my own age!

One more point. I was given a volume of blank pages—how typical of my father!—and instructed to keep a daily journal of my voyage across the ocean so that the writing of it should prove of educational value to me. Indeed, my father warned me that not only would he read the journal and comment upon it, but he would pay particular attention to spelling—not my strongest suit.

Keeping that journal then is what enables me to relate now in perfect detail everything that transpired during that fateful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in the sum­mer of 1832.

Part One

Chapter One

Just before dusk in the late afternoon of june 16, 1832, I found myself walking along the crowded docks of Liverpool, England, fol­lowing a man by the name of Grummage. Though a business associate of my father, Mr. Grummage was, like my father, a gentleman. It was he my father delegated to make the final arrangements for my passage to Amer­ica. He was also to meet me when I came down from school on the coach, then see me safely stowed aboard the ship that my father had previously selected.

Mr. Grummage was dressed in a black frock coat with a stove pipe hat that added to his considerable height. His somber, sallow face registered no emotion. His eyes might have been those of a dead fish.

“Miss Doyle?” he said as I stepped from the Liverpool coach.

“Yes, sir. Are you Mr. Grummage?”

“I am.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, dipping a curtsy.

“Quite,” he returned. “Now, Miss Doyle, if you would be so good as to indicate which is your trunk, I have a man here to carry it. Next, please oblige me by following, and everything shall be as it is meant to be.”

“Might I say good-bye to my chaperon?”

“Is that necessary?”

“She’s been very kind.”

“Make haste then.”

In a flutter of nervousness I identified my trunk, threw my arms about Miss Emerson (my sweet companion for the trip down), and bid her a tearful farewell. Then I rushed after Mr. Grummage, who had already begun to move on. A rough-looking porter, laboring behind, car­ried my trunk upon his back.

Our little parade reached dockside in good order. There I became instantly agog at the mass of ships that lay before us, masts and spars thick as the bristles on a brush. Everywhere I looked I saw mountains of rare goods piled high. Bales of silk and tobacco! Chests of tea! A parrot! A monkey! Oh yes, the smell of the sea was intoxicating to one who knew little more than the smell of the trim cut lawns and the fields of the Barrington School. Then too, the surging crowds of workers, sailors, and merchants—all rough-hewn, brawny men—created an exotic late afternoon hubbub. All in all it was a most delicious chaos, which, while mildly menacing, was no less exciting because of that. Indeed, in some vague way I had the feeling that it was all there for me.

“Mr. Grummage, sir,” I call ...