In the spring of 2012 I was captivated by Hazel Gaynor’s novel, The Girl Who Came Home, a story of several Irish passengers on RMS Titanic. This month Hazel releases her second novel, A Memory Of Violets, and once again steps back into 1912, though this time the setting is London. Since I enjoyed her first book so much I’ve invited her to join me at Ascroft, eh? to tell me more about her new release.
Welcome, Hazel. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
HG: Inspired by true events surrounding flower sellers in turn-of-the-century London, A MEMORY OF VIOLETS is a historical novel about a young woman who finds the diary of an orphaned flower seller who was separated from her sister in Victorian England, and her journey to learn the fate of the long lost sisters.
What prompted you to write about this historical event or era?
HG: The novel was inspired by my love of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady (I played the role of Eliza Doolittle in my school musical when I was seventeen). I wanted to understand more about the real Elizas – the young women who sold flowers and watercress on the streets of Victorian and Edwardian London. I hadn’t appreciated just how many young children were selling flowers on the streets, many looking after their own siblings and becoming ‘little mothers’ themselves. I spent many years living in London and always loved the atmospheric cobbled streets of Covent Garden.
Although fiction, the book was inspired by true events surrounding a charity that was set up in the late 1800s by philanthropist, John Groom. He set out to take the orphaned, blind and physically disabled flower sellers off the streets and teach them how to make artificial flowers. Their work became widely known in London and eventually reached the attention of Queen Alexandra – great-great-grandmother to the current Queen Elizabeth II. The very first Queen Alexandra Rose Day was held in June 1912, and the charity still exists today.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
HG: Ah, the eternal historical fiction dilemma: how much history, how much fiction? Where I feel the history demands, I will always stick to the historical facts. For example, significant dates, places, the layout of London at the time, modes of transport, how people lived their day-to-day lives. It is very important to me to stick to those historical facts to lend the necessary historical authenticity to the novel. As Hilary Mantel once said, ‘I will make up the content of a man’s heart, but never the colour of his wallpaper.’
As a novelist, I obviously relish the challenge and the creative freedom to tell a story in my own way and I enjoyed developing my character of Albert Shaw who was based on the real John Groom. Rather than strictly adhering to the known facts about John Groom’s life, I also drew on other influential characters from the era, other philanthropists and social observers. I felt strongly that I wanted to create my own character, based on Groom, but who had his own conflicts, relationships and dilemmas. This allowed me more scope and depth in developing the various threads of the novel, rather than sticking strictly to the known facts.
What I have been very conscious of in writing both my novels is to not let them become a vehicle for me to insert all the fascinating things I discover in my research. Readers are far too astute to allow the author to get away with shoe-horning something ‘clever’ into a novel just because they found it interesting. At the HNS Conference in London last September, Essie Fox described this as ‘wearing your research lightly’ and I think that’s a great expression. The history should form the backbone to the novel, but be almost transparent to the reader. It is the characters and the story unfolding that should grab the readers’ attention. While it is important to be authentic, I remind myself not to be stifled by the history, but to allow myself the freedom to create the magic of a novel.
What research did you do for this book?
HG: I absolutely love the research phase of writing my novels. It really is like finding hidden treasure and I become utterly fascinated with the smallest of details: what people ate, how they dressed, the vocabulary they used, how they travelled etc. The problem is definitely knowing when to stop researching and start writing – after my initial phase of research I tend to do the two in tandem.
I usually start with that initial spark of an idea, which might come from anywhere at any time, and from there I read lots and lots of books (both non-fiction and novels) written in that era, or about the subject matter. I then use the internet to find more detailed information – newspaper reports, old video footage, photographs, locations I might visit – and when I have this broad basis of information I start to write and create my characters. With A MEMORY OF VIOLETS I visited locations and historical archives to deepen my knowledge and really immerse myself in the era. I like to have a general sense of my characters and plot before I get into the very detailed research.
Of particular help to me was the time I spent at the London Metropolitan Archives, where I gathered a vast amount of information about Groom’s Flower Homes in London, the Flower Village orphanage in Clacton on the south coast of England, and about Queen Alexandra and her Rose Day. From newspaper reports, photographs, ledgers, personal letters and other documents from the period, I developed a real sense of the era and of these young girls and women, particularly what it meant to them to have been given an opportunity to improve their circumstances. I also got a real sense of the family bond that existed between the girls and women in the homes they shared. For many, it was the first time they had experienced any sort of family life, and from this, I developed the novel’s central theme of family relationships – particularly the relationship between sisters.
From this material, and reading widely around the social history of Victorian London, I created my cast of fictional characters to fill these institutions. This is the joy of writing historical fiction – the ability to create characters and conflict and story and present all of that in the novel form, where those characters become real to the reader. I particularly enjoyed developing the main protagonists: my little flower-sellers, Florrie and Rosie; Marguerite Ingram who enjoys a contrasting life of privilege and Tilly Harper, the young woman who arrives in London to work at the Flower Homes and who ultimately connects all the threads of the story as it reaches its emotional conclusion.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write?
HG: I tend to use mainly invented characters. There are definite constraints to using historic figures and I personally find them harder to write.
Which to you prefer to write and why?
HG: I prefer creating my own characters. There is a wonderful freedom in creating an entire person with a past and emotions and complexity. Whenever I do use actual people, there is always that sense of duty to portray them accurately, and I find that a little stifling. For example, when I describe the scene when Queen Alexandra drives through London on Alexandra Rose Day, I used a lot of historical records and photographs to describe her, the carriage, her daughter and the scene accurately. I enjoy this, but the novelist in me loves a blank canvas to create one of my own characters. It is fun to intermingle the two.
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?
HG: It is really down to research and to understanding the period so that it almost becomes second-nature to you to know how someone would speak or what social constraints would have influenced someone’s behaviour. Henry Mayhew’s work London Labour and the London Poor gives an extraordinary amount of colour and detail to the period and was particularly helpful to me in developing a sense of Victorian London. Photographic records of the era are also incredibly helpful in imagining a setting. I love drawing on the five senses to really add a sense of place – there is so much to draw from in the market and street scenes in London during the period the novel is set in. Dialogue is also important in bringing characters to life, and can be particularly helpful in portraying the social class an individual belonged to. I enjoyed switching between the different narratives in the novel to express the different characters. Weaving all the threads, time periods and storylines together was a challenge. In many ways this was a much more complex novel to write than THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME, but I think it is natural for every writer to want to stretch themselves with each new novel they write.
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?
HG: I actually find the opposite! I am especially interested in female historical characters. Typically, women weren’t considered to be as significant as their male contemporaries, so were written out of history to some degree (mostly by predominantly male historians). It has been fascinating to see so many ‘forgotten’ women come to the forefront of historical writing in recent years. Writers like Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir have written well known historical events from a new, and fascinating, female perspective. I am naturally drawn to writing strong and interesting female characters, but I also enjoy writing in the male voice, and it was interesting to write the ‘Memoirs of Albert Shaw’ which come as an additional section at the back of A MEMORY OF VIOLETS. If pushed, I would have to say that I prefer writing female characters at the moment, but who knows what’s down the line? Perhaps there is a Heathcliff or a Robert Merivel brewing in the back of my mind!
Thanks for answering my questions so thoroughly and with such enthusiasm, Hazel. I have A Memory Of Violets on my tbr list and look forward to starting it soon.