How discovering the real-life Mr & Mrs Wilson was life-changing...
Before & After: The Incredible Story of the Real-Life Mrs Wilson reveals the truths behind Alison Wilson's marriage to former MI6 agent and novelist Alexander 'Alec' Wilson, following her discovery after his death that she was not the only Mrs Wilson – and their sons were not his only offspring. Written for her children Gordon and Nigel, the book was made into the 2018 BBC TV drama, Mrs Wilson, starring award-winning actor Ruth Wilson as her own grandmother. Family Tree Editor Helen Tovey caught up with Gordon and Nigel to ask them about the discovery of their unusual – and life-changing – family history...
Your mother’s account gives a very honest insight to her marriage. When she gave it to you to read in 1992, did you have any idea of what to expect?
Gordon did not know what really to expect. However, he was aware that his parents had gone through some very difficult periods of extreme austerity during the war years and a few years afterwards when he was too young to remember or appreciate what was happening, sometimes to the extent of having at times been reduced to eating only potatoes. So, this account underlined the reality of this state of affairs and only served to increase his admiration, respect and gratitude for a mother who had struggled to cope with such a situation and come through this ordeal. It did not occur to him that it would reveal so much about our father.
For Nigel it was entirely unexpected as our mother had shown great reluctance to talk about our father after his death. If any of his school mates had asked what his father did, Nigel quickly changed the subject. He realised that there was not much point in trying to find out more about his father as his mother’s lips were then sealed.
Did you ever wonder about your father, or had she managed to protect you from the truth as she’d so wished?
During Gordon's teenage years he began to question in his own mind some of the stories our father told him about what he had done, achieved and accomplished, not least in the sporting sphere, in which they seemed too good to be true. He also questioned whether we really were part of the Marlborough family as our father had claimed and whereas, when asked by my peers at school as to the profession of my father, he stated the line that our father himself postulated that he was a retired Indian Army colonel, he did wonder why he was in what was the seemingly lowly position of being a hospital porter pushing around beds, albeit claiming he was head of that team.
However, he kept all these thoughts to himself and did not mention them to our mother or Nigel. For the latter the awakening was very many years later when in a letter to us dated 14/1/93 our mother wrote: “I have agonised for years over this – whether to tell you or not and now, after much thought and prayer, I have decided you have a right to know." So for him it took 30 years after our father's death to let us in to the secrets, but even then she only gave us “Before”; she left “After” to be read after her death.
Family secrets often have a way of bubbling to the surface, niggling away at other family members – before your mother’s revelations to you, did you ever feel that ‘things didn’t quite add up’?
For Gordon the answer was yes. When our father died he was 21 and had passed out of Britannia R.N. College, Dartmouth and was in his first operational ship. When told of his father’s death by the First Lieutenant (2nd in command) in the evening after dinner, following a telegram from our mother to the naval authorities, he was relieved of the requirement of keeping a night watch and plans were made to land him from the Channel the following morning.
He sat in his cabin, his mind a blank and felt rather guilty that he wasn't more upset, indeed feeling very little emotion. In retrospect, he thought that this was because, when home on leave out walking with our father, the latter frequently had to stop to get his breath back as a consequence of the heart operation he had recently undergone and perhaps subconsciously he expected this outcome, but also, he thinks, it possibly reflected the doubts about him which had accumulated.
He returned home the next day and in trying to help in every possible way went off to the local authorities to register the death, from the signature of which we were tracked down many years later. He gave no indication of his doubts, but within two weeks he went off to Somerset House to look up our father's birth certificate. He was astonished at what was revealed. On Gordon’s birth certificate his father’s name was registered as Alexander Douglas Gordon Chesney Wilson, but on his own it was actually Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson. The one true element of being born in Dover Castle was indeed validated, but far from being a scion of the Marlborough family, his father was Staff Sergeant Alexander Wilson and mother Mrs Annie Wilson, née O'Toole.
This really shocked him, but he never told our mother about this, not even when she gave us the account of her life to read, nor did he tell Nigel, he supposes as a protective action. For Nigel the situation is really covered in the previous answer.
What was it like meeting up with the wider Wilson family tree and other descendants of Alec Wilson?
Our family was very small. We only knew our maternal grandmother and our mother’s brother and his wife, who had no children, so it was just the two of us. Our mother occasionally mentioned some cousins in the Lake District, but we never met them. Nevertheless, by the time we met our hugely expanded family we were well prepared. We had known about the first family from our mother's memoir for some 15 years, but it was a big surprise to find out about first Douglas Ansdell and then, shortly after, Mike Shannon from two separate sources, fortunately two years after our mother had died.
Having made telephone contact the two brothers decided that the only thing to do was to invite all the men to Gordon's home for a lunch gathering, which was a great success sealed by some excellent wines and a superb bottle of vintage port. The curiosity of the remainder of our families was uncontainable and so three weeks after this lunch we had another gathering of the whole family, again in Gordon's house, which amounted to 30 people and seven young children and included the author of our father's biography, Tim Crook, who had done so much to bring all this about, the only people missing being two of our father's granddaughters and their families, one of which lives in Australia.
The most significant point was that the one daughter of our father, Daphne, who had not felt able to come to the first lunch, did attend the second gathering and really enjoyed the experience. Since then we have been incredibly close knit and find enormous pleasure in each other's company. This is the most positive factor in the story as our small family expanded to 50 people with an age range from Dennis Wilson, now 98 years old, his sister Daphne, now 97, to Nigel and Mary’s youngest grandchild, one-year-old George.
We all come with ‘baggage’ of sorts from the previous experiences – does it feel right to know the truth about the past?
Time is a great healer and it is now 74 years since the Second World War and we deeply sympathise with our mother’s predicament which caused her so much pain. Soon after the discoveries of our half brothers and sister, Dennis arranged a dedication ceremony for a new headstone for Alexander Wilson’s grave at Milton cemetery in Portsmouth.
The brothers and sister had agreed the following wording: “In loving memory of Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson also known as Alexander Douglas Gordon Chesney Wilson, author and patriot 1893-1963, and the quotation from William Shakespeare’s Othello, 'He loved not wisely but too well'.
Yes, it does feel right to know the truth about the past and in our experience the expansion of the family has provided so much love and friendship, as well as a brilliant TV film, which got a BAFTA nomination.
With thanks to Gordon and Nigel Wilson.
* Before & After: The Incredible Story of the Real-Life Mrs Wilson by Alison Wilson is published by Little Brown Book Group Ltd in hardback, RRP £16.99, and Kindle £10.99 (ISBN: 9781472132369). Read Helen Tovey's review in the September 2019 issue of Family Tree, on sale 30 July 2019.