Saturday, 28 May 2011
The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller
Before I started writing novels (this is my second, following The Return of Captain John Emmett, which is a current Richard and Judy book club choice) I wrote about history and travel. These themes all came together when I set my novels in the early 1920’s, with flashbacks to the Great War. Just as travel books are, most importantly, about creating a powerful sense of place, so historical fiction uses many of the same ideas and techniques to recreate a place in time as well as physical locations.
When I’m reading I dislike feeling I’m being lectured to or that the author’s research, however virtuous, is too dominant. So I tried to let the background to my novels be something that a reader could absorb rather than be told about. But what I found hardest were the little details of the period. Did middle class men have pocket or wristwatches? How many houses had electricity? How much make up did a ‘nice’ girl wear and would a couple have sex before marriage in 1921? How many servants were kept in a small country house? How long did it take to drive 80 miles?
But there was also research specific to the plot of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. My first book had mostly been set in London and Gloucestershire – my home county. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is set in Wiltshire in an area I also know quite well, from the dense Savernake forest to the standing stones at Avebury and Stonehenge: extraordinary and mysterious archaeological remains that I had studied at university. I remembered the lecturer standing by Silbury Hill and pointing about him (through the drizzle!) describing the whole area as ‘a vast ancient ritual landscape.’
Where better to set a book about death, the disappearance of a child, and layers of secrets?I started researching hedge mazes - a very old feature of gardens, many of which vanished had in the twentieth century and which had always fascinated me. Then there were Saxon churches and the first hydro-electricity installations in private houses, sometimes wondering as I wrote how novels always seem to take off into unknown areas. But perhaps the most fun was looking into the massive British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, which was intended to raise spirits crushed by the losses and privations of war (it was, incidentally, the early scene in the film The King’s Speech where the future George Vith made his halting and embarrassing first address). The original Wembley Stadium was built as the centrepiece of this show. It was the largest exhibition ever held and attracted 27 million visitors to a strange (and wonderful for a writer) mix of worthy industrial exhibits, a fun-fair, a specially constructed sea-side, replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Taj Mahal and a coal mine, a full Canadian rodeo, massed marching bands and much else besides - not all of it smooth-running. It is even less smooth-running in my novel, where a second girl vanishes into the chaos, crowds, noise and spectacle of the exhibition and where the connections between war, families and landscape are slowly unravelled by a psychologically bruised former infantry officer helping restore a village church.