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In 1880, Ada Curtis bore Gerald Howard the first of several illegitimate children. Ada was a housemaid, the daughter of a Lincolnshire butcher. Gerald was her employer and the son of a once-grand family now obsessed with its own threadbare nobility. They thereby sent their descendants tumbling chaotically into the twentieth century. More than a century later, inspired by the stories, reinventions and half-truths in her family's past, Elizabeth Speller - Gerald and Ada's great-granddaughter - set out to trace the criss-crossing lines of their history, and, as she recovered from a mental breakdown, she began to wonder if that history offered any explanation of what had happened in her own life. The search brings vividly to life the passions and hopes of four generations, amid tales of wealth inherited and lost, eccentricity, sexual indiscretion and madness. Ultimately, this book will remain in the memory as a beautifully realised sequence of portraits of mothers and daughters.

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