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Monday, 2 May 2011

The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift

The story behind the story.
One Sunday I was out for a walk with a friend in the countryside, and strolling down a leafy un-made track, we came across a white tent right in the middle of the path. It was blocking our way, so we peered inside. An official-looking man was sitting there who told us he was from an organization called English Nature. His task was to guard the rare lady’s-slipper orchid which was in flower a few yards further on. Apparently orchid enthusiasts were so desperate to get hold of the plant that in 2003 half of it had been dug up by a greedy collector and since then it has been guarded whilst it is in flower.
A bit taken aback that a guard should be patrolling such a quiet country footpath, and full of curiosity, we followed him to view this rare orchid. Nestling against the green of the hedgerow, it was strikingly different from most other English flowers. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the sight of it took my breath away. I had never seen anything so exotic-looking growing wild before - the creamy yellow “slipper”, surrounded by the twisted blood-coloured ribbons. It struck me at that moment that every time anyone saw this, generation after generation, they must have experienced the same awe. The thought that it could be lost to future generations, sobering.
We stood and stared as our guide described a little of its history. The species was on the brink of extinction in Britain but when a single plant was rediscovered, the Cypripedium Committee was formed, a sort of plant mafia, designed to protect the lady’s-slipper and develop a conservation strategy involving propagating or cloning the species.
The committee are obsessively protective of the plant - In one TV programme explaining this much-publicised and expensive conservation programme the interviewer asked one of their members what would become of the original - "Will people be allowed to see it?" he was asked.
"No," he answered, "and if I have my way it will live the rest of its days unseen and die in isolation."
This seemed an interesting paradox and whetted my imagination. It seemed strange that the Committee were able to effectively “own” the plant in their attempts to preserve it. Eventually this became one theme I wanted to explore in the novel – but I am jumping ahead.

I did more research. I trawled internet sites and orchid books and read scientific articles on plant cloning. This is the sort of thing I used to do when writing a poem – looking for snippets of language, unusual words or fragments that I might craft into poetry. After a few attempts at beginning a poem, I realised it just wasn’t working. It seemed a bigger, more wordy idea than there was room for in a poem, more of a narrative. The plant on its own was nothing without characters to see it, so I drafted chapter one of what was to become The Lady’s Slipper.

At the same time I went to a philosophy workshop in an old Quaker meeting house at Yealand, a short drive from my home. The old meeting house is full of atmosphere, built in 1692, the silence of the meetings over so many hundreds of years seems concentrated into its very walls. What moved me most on that particular day was the graveyard. It is a typical Quaker burial ground where all the headstones are exactly the same – plain granite, thumbnail-shaped stones with a simple name and date. It is the ultimate expression of death as a levelling process - whoever you were, however rich or poor, you would have the same memorial and be returned to the land. This idea of equality is not so startling today, but how would it have been viewed in the class-ridden system of seventeenth century England when the movement began?

I started to investigate Quaker history. I was fascinated by the Quaker strict code of morality and the strength of their convictions for peace in those early times, particularly as when the movement began, England was still recovering from the bloodshed of the English Civil War and the subsequent Puritan repression. I began to visualise the character of Richard Wheeler as a Quaker.

Fortunately I live near the birthplace of the Quaker movement, so visits to their first meeting grounds and houses such as Swarthmoor Hall where George Fox himself actually stood, played a large part in the background to the book. There is nothing like inhaling the smell of seventeenth century panelling, or looking at a view of a garden from inside mullioned glass. George Fox kept a diary which provided me with not only a time-frame, but also a flavour of the particular language of the period.

As I was researching I found I was haunted by “what if” questions such as, what would happen if a Quaker had pledged not to take up arms but then was put in a position where he must defend the person he loves? I was interested also to explore the whole question of territory, and what it is that makes people defend their territory.
Not just in an obvious way, but more subtly too - for example, Thomas becomes indignant when Ella encroaches on Alice’s territory.  

The lady’s-slipper for me represents the land. It rouses a patriotism in me, something that has become a somewhat unpopular idea of late. And I think many people are asking questions about soldiering, and the paradox of using conflict to bring about peace. So the character of Richard Wheeler enabled me to explore these questions without implying the answers, but just to raise them.

The Lady’s Slipper grew in an organic sort of way. Although I was aware of the crafting process as it went on, in some respects I feel the story was already “out there” somehow, and I am just the person who happened to pen it down. So I feel immensely grateful to the characters for letting me tell their story.


David Fuller said...

Deborah, I love this piece. It is evocative and fascinating, and it goes to the heart of the human condition. I love the image of the white tent in the middle of nowhere, with a guard protecting a flower. I look forward to discovering your novel.

Gabrielle Kimm said...

I'm always delighted to discover the original inspirations behind novels I love (and I love your book!). You describe your journey through the creation of your novel in fascinating detail. I'm so pleased to have read it - and am really looking forward to the release of 'The Gilded Lily' too.

Harry Nicholson said...

Deborah - Your explanation of the source of the story is a delight to read.

I sometimes go out with botanists and know how intense they can be when a rarity is discovered. We saw some orchid species recently on the Yorkshire cliffs - in pouring rain but it did not seem to matter.

Sadly the Whitby Friends Meeting House is now a restaurant. I used to teach meditation in that atmospheric meeting place.

Ann Turnbull said...

Deborah, the story of your inspiration is fascinating and has made me long to read the book. I'm off to order a copy!

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks so much Ann. I enjoyed your talk at the Historical Novel Conference.

Holly Weiss said...

Your description of taking the walk and discovering the closely guarded lady's slipper is so well done. I read your book when it released and loved it. I look forward to The Gilded Lily.

I love your idea for this blog to promote "the story behind the story."
Thank you!

Jessica McCann said...

What a fascinating premise for a novel. I just love how the idea came to you in a place where you least expected. Thanks for sharing your inspiration.