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Monday, 30 May 2011

Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

A scribbled sentence in sepia ink; the scrawl of someone who drew the short straw and took the minutes of a meeting in 1756. I was looking through the archives of Chester Infirmary when I found a detail that spoke of lives and stories lost to history.

The note recorded that the infirmary's porter had been sacked for drunkenness. This wasn't a one-off bender – he'd been warned about his drinking before, and had now used up his last chance. The governors paid him his wages plus an extra 10 shillings, and sent him on his way. That note is pretty much the porter's entire contribution to posterity. Without the booze, he wouldn't have left any impression on the historical record at all. And if that had happened, he'd be like most people who have ever lived.

What was he like as a person, I wondered? Why did he drink so heavily? What had happened in his past and where did he go after he was booted out of the hospital? Why did the governors give him that 10 shillings?

This snippet of information inspired the gin theme of Kill-Grief and the porter, Anthony Wells, became one of the main characters. He's not a typical romantic hero. On the contrary, he's wasted much of his past and, to begin with, doesn't see much of a future either. But the story isn't really about him. It's about Mary Helsall, a young woman who becomes a nurse, challenges the prevailing stereotypes about women in medicine, and fights for survival against the shadows of her past and her own flawed character. The inspiration for her, too, came from brief mentions of nurses in the infirmary records. I was intrigued by the fact that a nurse called Mary Kelsall (I changed the spelling for the book) only lasted a few weeks in the job, to be replaced by someone called Mary Jones. What if, I wondered, the two names belonged to the same person?

Eighteenth-century nurses didn't (and still don't) have a great reputation – they are often seen as drunk, incompetent slatterns – but they were individuals coping with exhausting work, inadequate resources and violent patients. It would hardly be surprising if they sought to numb their emotions with alcohol, but I wanted to bring them into the light and portray them as individuals.

Mary finds herself on the receiving end of the stereotype – her perceived lack of morals meets with either disapproval or prurience from others – but although she is sometimes infuriating and self-destructive, she begins to discover just how capable she really is. She and Anthony realise that they don't have to accept what life has dealt them. Instead, they can use the only thing they have left – determination – to carve out their own future.

Although I started out by looking at historical sources, the book is completely fictional. I've no idea whether the real Chester Infirmary had anything to do with smuggling, murder, gin-fuelled romance or dodgy dealings in body parts – but through some tiny snapshots of real lives long forgotten, the characters emerged, and their story took shape around them.



Deborah Swift said...

I love the way your book grew from your curiosity about your research. And also I love the fact that the book features characters that are determined to make their own future.Chester Infirmary sounds scary!

Caroline Rance said...

Thanks Deborah - it was a challenge to create a main character capable of forging independence for herself without making her a modern woman in 18th-century costume. I hope I managed it!