This story had an odd genesis … though I probably always say that, so maybe they all do!
English Heritage recently released an anthology titled Eight Ghosts, which features eight ghost stories set in various English Heritage properties. The authors include Sarah Perry, Kamila Shamsie and Jeanette Winterson. Following this, English Heritage ran a short story writing competition in which members were invited to write their own ghost stories along similar lines. There was a 1,000 word limit, which I found a bit of a challenge, but I was determined to have a go.
Of course I wanted to feature LGBTQ+ characters, so I started with a search of English Heritage’s LGBTQ History pages – and promptly discovered William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp, who lived for some years at Walmer Castle on the Kent coast. Mr B and I had visited Walmer Castle during a holiday a while ago, so I already had a feel for the place. And it seemed an obvious location for the story that was growing from its initial kernel of an idea.
I dashed out about 1,100 words which caught the substance of it, and then started paring it back down to just under the limit. I didn’t know how strict they would be, so I didn’t stop editing until the final word count (including the title, author name and section markers) was 998 words.
When Manifold Press decided on a new anthology – a companion piece to our Great War anthology A Pride of Poppies, but this time about the Second World War – I thought long and hard about the subject matter. The fact is, I know far less about WW2 than I do about the Great War, so I felt it all too possible that I would have nothing to contribute.
One abiding interest of mine, though, is the Bloomsbury Group and in particular Leonard and Virginia Woolf. I love them both dearly, and for me they are indelibly associated with a great deal of the first half of the 20th century, including the Second World War.
The relationship of each member of the Bloomsbury Group with war was quite complex and individual. There’s a great little article by Roy Johnson exploring their varied actions and reactions on the Mantex site, if you want to explore further. His initial focus is on the Great War, but he includes later developments.
I knew that Leonard and Virginia were afraid of a Nazi invasion of Britain – a possibility that was very real at the time. We tend to dismiss such notions now, because of course we know it never did happen, but it was experienced by people at the time as a genuine fear.
I had three or four ideas about what to write for A Certain Persuasion. However, my contribution came from one of the notions I came up with initially as possible inspiration for other authors, that went into the Call for Submissions: “What if Elinor Dashwood was repressing her love not for Edward but for a woman?” It was an idea that stuck with me – and as I re-read Sense and Sensibility with my editor’s hat on, the decision was made as I realised how very much I love and identify with Elinor.
I like that she’s sensible and responsible, and takes things such as promises seriously. But I like that she also has a full emotional life going on in there, even if she chooses to keep it to herself most of the time. We see it, however, when she and Marianne finally have the whole horrible truth confirmed by Willoughby’s last letter to Marianne – Elinor promptly lies down on the bed beside Marianne and bursts into tears just as passionate as Marianne’s. We see it after her brother John Dashwood leaves Mrs Jennings’ house after talking to them about Edward’s engagement to Lucy – Mrs Jennings, Elinor and Marianne are horrified at how heartless the Ferrars family are being, and the three of them have a righteously satisfying vent about it. Elinor judges to a nicety when such things are appropriate and when they’re not.
Maybe I should say I ‘aspire to be’ Elinor rather than ‘identify with’, because heaven knows I get such things wrong at least half of the time!
Anyway! This became the story Elinor and Ada.
Of course Emma Thompson and Hattie Morahan each had an effect on my portrayal of Elinor, but my main source of inspiration was the following sketch of Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Berry.
Other writers no doubt do the same: I like to have a visual that captures something of what I want to achieve in a story, and I display it on one screen while I write in the other. This sketch was certainly it for me!
I contributed two stories to A Pride of Poppies, the first being No Man’s Land. The main character in this story is 21-year-old Drew, who was born intersex and raised as a man. We discover during a conversation between Drew and his doctor that perhaps the decision about his initial gender assignment was made for the wrong reasons – his father demanded a son – but Drew is fiercely attached to his identity as a man.
The story is set in November 1914; the war broke out a mere three months before. Drew is desperate to enlist, to prove himself. But his older lover, Henry, who fought in the Transvaal, is just as desperate to protect him – not only from the realities of war, but from a situation that would expose Drew to the scrutiny of men who are unlikely to understand or be sympathetic.
This is the second of my stories that appeared in A Pride of Poppies. The other story explored a difficult and challenging situation for its main character Drew. This story, however, is far more positive and up-beat.
The men are away at war. Lena has taken on her uncle’s work, and is delivering the mail in her village and to the outlying farms. When I first started writing the story, I began with two or three paragraphs of exposition about these facts – but luckily it occurred to me to start with something rather more powerful.
When we first meet Lena she is flying along a country lane on her bicycle, enjoying the speed and the sunshine, and revelling in the sheer freedom of it. There’s no denying that war is a tragedy, but it did serve to open up opportunities to women to do different kinds of work, to contribute in different ways than usual.
That’s all well and good, but Lena is also taking the chance to provide a very personal kind of comfort to the lonely wives.
I very much enjoyed writing the cheerfully outrageous Lena, and I’d love to return one day to write more about her and her friends. In fact, I’m going to go add her to my To Write List right now …