This summer I read a wonderful historical novel set in Corsica, The House At Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman. I’ve always wanted to visit this island so I soaked up the scenery and atmosphere as I read. I was also completely absorbed in the story. It is a well written love story that unfolds through letters discovered nearly a century after they were written. Since I enjoyed the book I am delighted to tell you that I’ve invited the author, Vanessa Couchman here today to answer some questions about the book.
Welcome Vanessa. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
VC: The House at Zaronza is set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front during the First World War. It follows the fortunes of Maria Orsini, a young woman from a bourgeois family, who lives in a Corsican village with her parents. She and the village schoolteacher fall in love but have to carry on their relationship in secret, since her parents would disapprove. Maria’s parents have other plans for her future and she sees her dreams crumble.
The novel follows her story up to and beyond World War I, when she becomes a nurse at the Front. This is a novel about love, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society, whose values are challenged as the world changes.
What prompted you to write about this historical event or era?
VC: A true story was the inspiration behind The House at Zaronza. We came across some late 19th-century love letters in a B&B in Corsica, which had only come to light when the B&B’s owners unblocked a niche in the attic, where they were hidden in a box. The lovers were destined never to marry, since the young woman to whom the letters were written had to marry someone else.
Little is known about the rest of her life but I decided that the fictional Maria would become a nurse during World War I; partly because she wanted to do something useful and partly to escape the closed society of Corsica. Without revealing too much of the plot, World War I is integral to the story. And, of course, it is very topical.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
VC: In terms of the run-up to World War I and its subsequent course, I stuck pretty closely to the facts. Maria goes to Bar-le-Duc to a military hospital and is involved in the 2nd Battle of Verdun in 1917. She then goes to Amiens, which was bombarded by German forces during their final big push in early 1918. I had to remain faithful to the historical facts, but, of course, Maria’s part in them is fictional.
What research did you do for this book?
VC: I had to do quite a lot of research. First, I needed to research how it might have been to live in Corsica during the early 20th century. Not much is written in English about that period of Corsican history. However, for background, I used Dorothy Carrington’s magisterial Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica, which explains a good deal about Corsican history and culture that I found helpful.
Second, I needed to research French military medical care, and in particular nursing, during World War I. Again, this wasn’t easy, since surprisingly little seems to have been written about it. I was fortunate to stumble upon some contemporary diaries written by a French nurse that were rediscovered and published by her great-granddaughter. This provided much useful information about the organisation of medical care, the wounds and conditions that nurses had to deal with, and the day-to-day life of a French nurse.
In addition, of course, I had to research World War I. There, by contrast, I was almost overwhelmed by the volume of information!
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write?
VC: All the characters are fictional, with the exception of the young woman, whom I named Maria, and the schoolteacher. However, since little is known about them, I had to invent their characters, how they looked etc. I suspect it is more difficult to write about known historical figures, since the scope for invention is much more limited.
Which do you prefer to write and why?
VC: I think I prefer to write about fictional characters. I am interested in the lives of “ordinary” people who are affected by world events.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
VC: As I mentioned above, it was not easy to re-create life in a Corsican village in the early 20th century. The book by Dorothy Carrington was very helpful. In addition, I consulted other sources. James Boswell, for example, better known for his life of Samuel Johnson, visited Corsica in the 18th century and wrote an enthusiastic memoir of his travels. Since Corsican society changed very little until the 20th century, his impressions were probably reasonably accurate, if perhaps a little rosy-tinted.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
VC: I don’t really have a preference. In fact, I was surprised recently when I did an analysis of the gender of my characters in short stories to find that in 50% of cases, my main characters are men. However, in The House at Zaronza, I felt it important to write the story from the point of view of a woman.
A major theme in the novel is the role of women in Corsican society and the changes that World War I wrought, albeit very slowly. I also wanted to chart the development of Maria’s character as she grows throughout the book. I found that more interesting than using one of the male characters as the main protagonist.
I am working on a sequel to The House at Zaronza. The main character is also a woman, since the book follows through on the themes mentioned above.
Thanks for answering my questions, Vanessa. It was a pleasure to learn more about a novel that I enjoyed so much.