Photos: Sicily (Balate Dorin/Getty Images); An Italian Scandal; Cecil Cameron in Sicily, and Cecil, current day (Courtesy of the Author)
An Italian Scandal
At 73, Scottish aristocrat Cecil Cameron writes a steamy debut novel about a rebel socialite who finds romance at a turbulent time in Sicily's history / BY Leanne Delap / January 14th, 2022
What is more inspiring than a brand-new career taking off at age 73? Cecil Cameron’s 10 grandchildren, she reports, are bursting with pride and excited to read her debut novel, a historical romance titled An Italian Scandal. But, “they are not allowed to read it until they are 14,” she says firmly. Until then, they aren’t “emotionally ready for it.”
She describes the plot herself. “Set in 1859, it is the story of a young woman named Carina Temple, who is banished from London after the death of her father, on account of a scandal that is not her fault. She winds up in Sicily, where she falls in love with a maverick, and joins the revolutionaries.” Sparks ensue, as well as intrigue. Suffice to say, as the tale gets twisty, the reader gets rather frustrated with Carina’s manipulative family back in London. There is quite a solid and deft surprise ending, a joy for the genre.
And yes, it is indeed emotionally steamy, and a satisfying, fast-paced read, with loads of richly described observations about historical lifestyles. Cameron brought some real-world sensibility to the fiery main character, a young woman ahead of her time in terms of agency, bravery and a desire to control her own destiny.
The author herself was no fan-waving noble living an isolated and protected existence in an ancient pile. She led quite the storied life as a humanitarian before she sat down to write this novel. “It has been smouldering away for a long time in my head, I’ve really thinking about the story for ages. Longer than like to admit,” she says.
Cameron is certainly well qualified to write a saga about a young, aristocratic woman. Married to Donald Cameron of Lochiel, Chieftan of Clan Cameron, she was born Lady Cecil Kerr, daughter of Peter Kerr, the 12th Marquess of Lothian, and Antonella Kerr, the Marchioness. She went to school with Prince Charles, and her daughter was a bridesmaid at his wedding to Lady Diana.
But the trappings and privileges of Britain’s high society were not part of Cameron’s agenda. In a recent story in London’s Sunday Post, she was called “a reluctant aristocrat” and “disenchanted debutante.” For 35 years, she threw herself into work with Save the Children, deftly juggling her role as a mother of four living between London and Scotland with travel to some of the more dangerous conflict zones in the world.
The turning point in her life came in 1972, after she finished her history degree and worked for a time as a research assistant. Dismayed by television images of children in orphanages in Saigon, she hopped on a plane and began helping out, impressed by the work of Save the Children. In 1974, she returned home to marry Donald; their first child was born just as Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese. Frustrated because she was unable to help on the ground, she joined the Overseas Committee of Save the Children in London. But she didn’t stay home for long: trips to Gaza and the West Bank, Northern Ireland and Romania followed. In 2002, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire for services to children. “I am very proud of that honour,” she says, as it was earned by drawing attention to the plight of disadvantaged children.
Titles are a subject Cameron has strong feelings about, and please note Lady Cecil Cameron doesn’t use hers on the book cover. “The aristocracy and the monarchy are very different things,” she explains. “The monarchy – I have the greatest respect for the queen and Royal Family – are an integral part of our life, our traditions and values, and are very much a force for good.”
The aristocracy “is not quite the same.” She elaborates: “A title is fine if it is earned, not if one comes upon it by accident [of birth]. Titles are not very modern, and create barriers with other people,” by which she means they draw class lines. Her humanitarian work was her attempt to “balance the scales” and bridge that divide. She told the Sunday Post she was “terrified of sounding like a do-gooder,” but I think she doth protest too much. No one dodges bullets and visits leper colonies for nearly four decades without a deep personal commitment to social justice.
Cameron has always been a writer, working for three to four hours a day even when her children were growing up, on “short stories, and now poems for my grandchildren,” but admits she was nervous when she decided to tackle the book that had been brewing for so long.
She had strong family connections to the location – Sicily – on her mother’s side. “I’m part Italian. My grandmother is from Naples. Sicily is an area I know well.”
Cameron, who reads Italian, did old-school research into the Franco-Austrian War, when rebels led by soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi wrested control of Sicily from the Neopolitans, paving the way for the unification of Italy. She used real books, in real libraries, mainly in London. “I went to primary sources,” she says of her exploration of Italy in 1859. “Letters, diaries, first-hand accounts written at the time.”
The author is a die-hard romantic, and the era leant itself to a passionate love affair. “The story of [Giuseppe] Garibaldi is one of the most exciting events of the 19th century,” she says, “and the reunification of Italy is the backdrop of the novel. The 1,000 [men] who followed Garibaldi left accounts that led to the [book’s] scenes in Palermo and the battle scenes, lending them colour and richness.” Sometimes, she says of finding nuggets in research, “you just get very lucky.”
A historical romance “feels like the right thing to take us out of the pandemic” and its marathon of hardships. “Plus when you can’t travel so much, you can always travel in your head.”
Her son, Donald, a member of Scottish parliament, put out a tweet in support of her new book: “My incredible mother has done a lot of things in her life (nurse in Saigon during the Vietnam War, vice-chair of Save the Children). Now, aged only 73, she gets her first novel published by Harper Collins. So proud of her.”
This modern shout-out clearly tickles Cameron, and she is proud of inspiring her grandchildren to follow their dreams. “Yes, it is a wonderful thing at my age to be setting off on a new career.” She reports she is deep into a second book, so her grandchildren will have their reading lists cut out for them: when they come of age.