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Chapter 1
"This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."
                                                                                                     - William Shakespeare

~*~

        SUZANNE Brigit Bird was born on October 16, 1700, the second child of Harold and Nancy Bird. Her father, Harold, was the younger son of the Earl of Nottingham, and his father had purchased him a commission in the Royal Navy when he was sixteen. He had risen quickly through the ranks, and by the time his first daughter, Jennifer, had been born in 1694, he had attained the rank of vice-admiral and the family was living in a small country estate just outside of Portsmouth, in the south of England.

"I'm sure you must have heard by now the child was another girl. It was not easy, and I have been forced to remain in bed these past two months in order to retain my strength," Nancy wrote to her sister, Hilda, who would later become the wife of the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, Sir Nicholas Wright. It is from these letters, preserved in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, that we are able ascertain a number of details regarding Sue's early childhood. Nancy's enforced bed rest would have repercussions on her second daughter's name, much to her apparent disgust. "Harold sought help from the nurse [Nanny] when it came to her baptism, and of course, Jacqueline is French, so the baby is in the church records as Suzanne, rather than Susan. He also gave her the middle name of Brigit, after his mother, and I would suggest perhaps we use that instead, only Jennifer insists on calling her new sister 'Sue.' I do not understand why, as she can say the full name perfectly well, although with a French accent that I simply must put a stop to."

Harold was "bitterly disappointed" that Sue was a girl, especially as due to the difficulties endured by Nancy during her pregnancy and birth, the doctor had strongly recommended against having any more children, ruling out the potential for the hoped for son and heir.

"He has now declared that his daughters must be raised in the same way he and William [his older brother, the Viscount of Durham] were, despite their fairer sex," wrote Nancy in the same letter. "He is currently seeking a governess for Jennifer, and declares that in a few more years, he will be looking into a tutor for her."

Harold was true to his word and provided for the girls' education as though they were boys, at a time when any sort of real education for girls was unusual. Only the daughters of the wealthy or nobility would receive any sort of education, but that was limited due to the beliefs of the times. Careers for women were very limited, so they were not seen to require the same education as men did, and indeed, too much education was thought to be harmful to their minds or ruin their prospects for marriage. Schooling was focused on teaching women how to govern a household and how to behave properly in society. They were taught how to read and write, with other common studies including French, needlework, geography, music and dancing. These subjects were not ignored by Harold for his daughters' education; indeed, thanks to their French nurse, Jacqueline, both Jennifer and Sue grew up speaking that language fluently, although Jacqueline would leave the household when Sue was four.

"We are currently looking for a new nurse, primarily for Sue as Jennifer is insisting that she is too old for one now, although how she expects to bathe herself, I do not know," wrote Nancy in the spring of 1705. "Jacqueline ran off with one of the stable boys, and I have my suspicions that he had got her in trouble. I have told Harold (who is insistent that he is responsible for find a new nurse for the girls as I am once again on bed rest due to a rather nasty cold) that I do not wish for another French girl. He agrees with me, but only because he wishes for a Continental to teach the girls another language. I cannot think what else they would need, especially as Jennifer is learning both Latin and Ancient Greek with her tutor."

In the absence of a nurse for Sue, Jennifer's governess (for at this time she was working with both a governess and a tutor) was pressed into service as temporary child care for the little girl. Chris Dailey was responsible for ensuring that both of the girls knew how to behave in a manner befitting their place in society. She was a stickler for ensuring that they did not break any house rules, which included a dress code for meals and exact bedtimes. Miss Dailey would start to teach Sue how to read and write, placing great emphasis on Sue's penmanship and those lessons would remain ingrained in Sue's mind for the rest of her life. But reading and schooling in general would initially seem to be a problem for Sue, who unlike her sister, had no interest in sitting down to study or to read. It was not until much later in her life that Sue would enjoy reading and choose to do so on a regular basis.

However, where Sue excelled was in the physical prowess she was starting to display. Harold was proud of her abilities, although both Nancy and their new nurse, a Dutch girl named Anneliese, would despair as Sue would rather run around, or go out riding on her pony, than sit down quietly with a book like Jennifer. The fact that her husband encouraged such behavior only exasperated Nancy further.

"He seems to believe that if he tries hard enough, he can turn Suzanne into a boy. There are a number of boys in the village her age, and she is taller and stronger and faster than them all, which only seems to encourage him further. He spoke the other night about looking into a dueling instructor for her – a six year old girl, I hasten to remind you! When will she ever need to handle a blade? I feel that I should put my foot down, but I did agree to let him oversee the girls' education after I failed to give him a son."

True to his word, Harold would engage a fencing instructor for Sue, although she would ultimately only see six months of lessons with him. Despite his name, Vincent Cannizarro was a master in the French style of fencing, which contains a clear distinction between offensive and defensive actions. His diaries, covering years of pupils, can be seen at the British National Fencing Museum and his brief entries on "S. Bird" praise both her hand-eye coordination and her ability to spot defensive weaknesses to exploit, although he writes how her own defense abilities could be better.

Sue's seemingly natural affinity for fencing only served to further distress Nancy, as much as it delighted Harold. Part of his motivation for treating Sue as a boy was revealed during a visit to Nottingham to see his older brother. William had a son, James, who was six months older than Sue, and William had been continually boasting about his son's accomplishments. Harold would try to counter with his daughters' achievements; at twelve, Jennifer was virtually fluent in four languages and passable in a fifth, while Sue was well advanced beyond her age in both physical and academic pursuits. However, William refused to acknowledge any of their accomplishments, and so Harold would propose a head-to-head challenge between Sue and James in an activity of William's choosing.

Nancy was not amused.

"He [William] chose a duel, of course, because he did not see how any girl would be able to match, much less beat a boy. I was inclined to agree with him, and was most reluctant to let another child attack my daughter with a sword, even though they will be using wasters [wooden training swords]. I do have to admit that I could not watch but it was over mercifully quickly."

That evening after dinner, Sue was able to quickly disarm her cousin, much to the disbelief of his father and the gathered guests. She would then repeat it another three times to demonstrate that it had not been a fluke. Cannizarro had been spot on in his analysis on her ability to spot defensive weaknesses to attack and her own subpar defensive abilities were not a factor.

William had then proposed a second challenge, a swimming race. Harold accepted, despite the fact that Sue had never learned to swim, a rare skill at the time. There was a large lake on the family estate in Nottinghamshire, so with the race agreed upon for the following morning, Harold took Sue out that night for a swimming lesson by lantern light.

Sue would win that race too, much to the continued surprise of everyone, with the exception of Harold. "Sue doesn't like to lose," he would explain to his wife afterwards.

Sue's achievements against her male cousin were further recorded in letters and journals by a number of the guests present, many of them expressing their disbelief in what they had just witnessed. The competition between Sue and James has been thoroughly examined and referenced in a number of works about the Stuart period and has been acknowledged as a truly unique incident when discussing gender norms and childhood experiences. "Boys Will Be Boys" by the American historian, Graham Hays, is regarded as the most comprehensive volume on the subject, devoting several chapters to Sue's known exploits as a child.

The trip to the Midlands to see William and his family had been made with a specific purpose: to say goodbye. Harold had been appointed as the Governor of Bermuda, a small island in the North Atlantic Ocean, located approximately 640 miles off the coast of North Carolina. It was a good move for both Harold's career, and also for Nancy's health, who was continually plagued with illness during the long, damp, dreary English winters.

Nancy was unable to able to visit her family in order to say goodbye, instead filling a long letter to Hilda with all the details, including her fears in being uprooted and what this change may have on her daughters even though they were, as she said, "remarkably insouciant" regarding it all. One thing that would change immediately for Sue and Jennifer would be their attendants. Although Miss Dailey and their tutor, Lew Perkins, would travel with them, Anneleise and Cannizarro remained behind, although that still did not appear to concern them too much. Jennifer's only concern was that their not inconsiderable library would be making the trip with them, and Sue's only tears were shed when she was informed that she was unable to take her pony with her. However, those tears would soon dry up and a new chapter of her life would start.




i. Front Matter
Chapter 2
Table of Contents

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vicki595

April 2011

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