The Adventuress’s Story: The woman behind The English Patient

While history is a great and sweeping thing, it is personal possessions which tell its stories best of all.

Many a time, I have stood in front of a glass case at some local museum, poring over small cloak-brooches ornately inlaid, which once graced some ancient noblewoman.

And who can remain unimpressed by the chess set of worn walrus ivory, found in some sea cave on the Isle of Lewis?

These things are beautiful, not just because they are beautifully crafted, but because they hint at stories untold.

The joy of local history is that the stories often take over.

Each artefact was someone’s once. Each tells a story with its silence.

And so there I was, at a little Heritage Centre in Maidenhead, on the Thames. The tiny place was humming with activity: the local  Alzheimer’s group was there to see an exhibition about the Air Transport Auxiliary,  the women who moved spitfires and other planes to where they needed to be during the war.

There was a Remembrance exhibition with military artefacts and information, and a fabulous floor-to ceiling book collection taking up an entire wall.

And then I came to a strange little glass case. It contained a scrapbook and its contents.

Someone in Maidenhead had spied it at a local jumble sale, and snapped it up, bringing it to the Heritage Centre for safekeeping.

And well they might. This scrapbook has a connection with one of the strangest and best known tales of the twentieth century.

It is a set of memorabilia and newspaper cuttings concerning a very beautiful Edwardian woman; Helen Clayton-East, who married into the Clayton-East family of Maidenhead.

It seems the desert captivated the young woman after a visit to Egypt in 1903. Infatuated, she wrote a novel: The Breath Of The Desert. It received a review from The Times which talked about torrents of high-strung emotion. But other papers commented on the beautiful descriptions, which were evocative of the desert sands.

The pictures of her are arresting. She was a great beauty, a trend-setter. Her wedding was reported in all the right places.

She had a dashing son who enlisted in the Navy. Sir Robert Clayton East had inherited her wanderlust. He took six months’ leave from the Navy at the age of 24, seduced by legends of a lost city called Zerzura, white and full of treasure, where tales tell of a sleeping king and queen.

Months after his return, and just a year after he had married a beautiful young wife, Helen was called back home from Scotland by a radio SOS message. Her son was was dead: killed by a rare disease similar to infant paralysis, contracted, doctors said, in the desert, searching for a lost city.

Her son’s wife, Dorothy, spent the next months in a strange fashion.

She chose to fly out and continue the search for the city, using her husband’s findings and maps. Herself a great beauty and not inconsiderable intellect, she compiled a report to be sent to The Times.

But on the day she sent it, she, too, met her end.

The inquest heard that she had jumped from her plane cockpit as the plane was taxiing on the runway. The throttle was stuck, they said, and she, the pilot, jumped out as the plane was travelling at 50 miles per hour.

No-one can explain why she did not simply switch the engine off.

Dorothy Clayton East is said to be the woman behind Michael Ondaatje’s Katharine Clifton, the beautiful gifted aristocrat with whom the EnglishPatient falls fatefully in love.

And here in this little glass case was the prologue: a scrapbook cataloguing the halcyon Edwardian era when Dorothy was just a child, playing far away from the Clayton East empire.

It is, after all, our personal possessions which tell stories best of all.


To read a detailed story of Dorothy Clayton East and read some of the newspaper clippings of the time, click here.


38 thoughts on “The Adventuress’s Story: The woman behind The English Patient

  1. I’d never heard of Zerzura before, though like many I’d seen The English Patient (Barry Norman’s featured film in next week’s Radio Times!) and wondered how close to real life it was. I see that Wikipedia says “Notable twentieth-century explorers Ralph Bagnold of Britain, and the Hungarian László (Ladislaus) Almásy led an expedition to search for Zerzura from 1929-1930” and that “in 1932 the Almásy-Patrick Clayton expedition reconnaissance flights discovered two valleys” which sadly proved false leads. Clearly Dorothy was not the only model for characters in Ondatje’s novel.

    I’m going to have to read up more about the Clayton-Easts and Zerzura with its fabulous resonances in other legends, so thanks for drawing attention to this historical by-way!

    Also, as a childhood fan of the original Tarzan novels (Tarzan and the Apes was first published exactly 100 years ago) I am reminded of the fact that Tarzan was not only Viscount Greystoke but also John Clayton. I wonder if Edgar Rice Burroughs borrowed the name Clayton for his savage hero as a result of reading Helen Clayton-East’s earlier novel and setting his own novel in Africa.

    1. Pleasure, Chris: I sense there is more than one book in their family history, though Ondaatje has bagged a juicy one. Wouldn’t that be a turn up for the book if Burroughs used them too?

  2. Gosh, I enjoyed this. If you came here and looked around I wonder what personal possessions would say of me Kate. What about yours? I like art and nature. I think that would come through but what else?

    1. Strange: I have few personal posessions. They are lost in the clutter of family. A pottery hare; my battered camera case and its contents, and my laptop. My pearls of great price are here, Tammy.

  3. You always find the most fascinating connections to make in your writing – I never know from the start what the whole story could possibly be. fascinating piece 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lexy: and thank you for making visits here to wade through text. It is not fashionable to write so much these days, and I am eternally grateful that people spare the time to read, despite the 600+words.

  4. I read the newspaper clippings and memorabilia with great interest and fascination. Am I the only one who thinks Lady Helen committed suicide? It seems everyone was tippy-toeing around this, kept thinking up improbable scenarios about accidents, she didn’t know how fast she was going, etc. She sounded like a highly experienced and fearless individual. Maybe after her young husband’s death and the failure to find the mythic oasis, she gave in to despair and went out in a big way in her beloved airplane. There’s no mention of this or even suggestion in what I read. I suppose one couldn’t have been buried in consecrated ground and all the family scandal, etc., so accidental death was the official verdict. She was quite a dashing figure.
    In the posthumous publication of her desert experiences, I was astonished to hear Lady Helen’s praise of the Italian air force and her disparagement of the Arabs who went out to the desert to die rather that live with the Italian occupiers.
    Or maybe I shouldn’t be astonished for that mindset in the early 1930s. Mussolini was involved in the Libyan occupation, was he not?

    1. No, you are not the only one. It does all seem very rum, and very sad. She was an incredible woman by all accounts.

      As for Italy: I don’t know a lot about the aristocratic support for Italians, but I do recall Roderick Spode from the PG Wodehouse books – have you come across the character? There were some strange undercurrents back then…look at Unity Mitford and the MItfords in general…..

  5. Roderick Spode rang a bell. Yes, I read a lot of the PG Wodehouse Jeeves books many many years ago and remember the “Black Shorts.”
    I had heard of Oswald Mosely, but looked up Unity Mitford at your suggestion and read about the whole family of Mitfords. They were an odd bunch, to put it mildly. There was a bit in Wikipedia that someone claimed Unity Mitford was in a maternity hospital during the war (in England) and gave birth to Hitler’s baby! Sounds like a supermarket tabloid about Elvis Presley and aliens. There was some disagreement whether she had really shot herself in the head with a pearl-handled pistol (gift from Hitler) when she was still in Germany. And also that she was having an affair with a married RAF man after she got back to England.
    Helen Clayton-East and her husband and the Mitfords certainly had theatrical lives didn’t they? I guess the non-aristocrats just slogged along, working at regular jobs and joining the army and doing what they were supposed to do.

  6. How interesting. I always feel this way, wondering about the rest of the story, when I see such artifacts and pieces of a life in a museum. Now I want to read The English Patient (saw the movie). An intriguing post, Kate.

  7. As we sat around our Thanksgiving table yesterday we started talking about our favorite movies! Several of us mentioned our love for The English Patient. I’ve seen it several times, just mesmerized by the characters and the story..I have yet to read the book and now I must! What a fascinating find from what I think we would call a “garage sale.” What a fascinating story, Kate!

  8. I wallow in these treasures, you discover, Kate. The world is full of people who insist upon exactitude. However, I love a good soak in imagination and possibility while respecting facts and good reputation. I try to imagine getting to Egypt in 1903, never mind the challenges of language, culture, etc. (Of course, when I head for Europe, I’m halfway there before I’ve left Canada!) Then I marvel over another adventuress who actually learned how to pilot one of those crude planes-of-her-day. I suspect there was a damned good reason the engine was not shut down! The next time I am with my helicopter engineer nephew, I’m going to ask him what prevented her from doing so.

    I am compelled to keep this woman’s spirit and good sense in tact!

    Yes, I really appreciated this read. Many thanks.

  9. Enjoyed your article very much in the way it is filling in intriguing blanks in history. Am working with others here in Italy on a book to come out in English on the expeditions to Libya in the 1930s, and would be grateful for any information you could give us on the Claytons. thank you

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