Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Alison McQueen on Researching a Historical Novel
My mother was born in Assam in 1928. The daughter of an un-proclaimed liaison, she came to England thirty years later, never meaning to stay, and met my father. I was born in London in 1964, four years before Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. Mixed marriages were still a rarity then.
I knew that I had a grandfather and that he had a farm in Africa, in Southern Rhodesia as it was then known, but I never met him. He existed only as a single photograph in my mother’s album. My father was an orphan, dumped on the steps of a Bernardo’s home at the age of five. With so little information about who I was and where my family came from, it’s little wonder I became a writer. I like to join the dots and fill in the gaps. I only wish it were easier and didn’t take quite so long.
My latest novel, Under The Jewelled Sky, is inspired by memories of my mother’s friends; the women I would eavesdrop on, the hushed voices and grave expressions passed over teacups. The story unravels the fragile construct of a severely dysfunctional British family and watches its slow disintegration in the wake of World War II, the subsequent partition of India, and a terrible scandal. My mother’s friends had grown up (many of them in India) in the days before such things were openly spoken of, but it was all there: domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, addiction, ruin, and occasional salvation. Bad marriages were commonplace, but divorce was unthinkable, and the brittle veneers of fake harmony were part of the everyday landscape. Morals and ethics were knotted up with religious doctrine and ‘stiff upper lip.’ Respectable people did not ‘wash their laundry’ in public, nor did they question what went on behind the closed doors of their neighbours’ houses.
The story is set in two locations, England and India, at two key points in history: in 1947 during the run up and aftermath of partition, and in 1957 in the lead up to the first visit to India by a serving British Prime Minister. The tangle of politics and diplomacy during both periods seemed like a fitting backdrop to the disordered lives of the characters, with layers of deceit and half-truths and nothing being quite what it seems. In the early stages of the first draft, I somehow had it in my head that the research would be no big deal, particularly after writing The Secret Children, which spanned a much broader timeline. I should have known better; one never knows just how deep the rabbit hole will go.
The research took months, leading me inevitably to the National Archives where I unearthed declassified documents from the 1957 Macmillan government which would have caused a great deal of diplomatic embarrassment should they have been leaked at the time. After ten years in office, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was described in British dispatches as weak and exhausted (although, in fairness, he was also regarded by the British government as a superb statesman who had simply run out of steam).
The archives catalogue a mire of political corruption and inaction, naming names and pointing fingers of accusation. I had started out without too much idea of what I was actually looking for, only to stumble across all manner of declassified secrets, some of which ran to hundreds of pages. Very little of it ended up in the final manuscript, but still, it is an absolutely necessary part of the process, serving as a solid foundation.
I sometimes liken the research to the making of a sculptor’s maquette, or to a frame of scaffolding around a building. Ultimately you won’t see any of it, but it has to be there in the first place, otherwise nothing will hold together. For me, the story’s environment has to feel totally authentic, and the only way to achieve that is to do the legwork and to be completely sure of the ground you are walking on.
The second timeframe, around India’s partition, took me back to a subject I have studied over and over. Here in the west we all know about the holocaust, yet the business of the British hauling-out of the ‘jewel in its colonial crown’ was a heart-stopping moment in history too. Millions of people died, often in grotesquely brutal circumstances. The reading and research was difficult to face, because I know what was there.
The 1947 part of the story is set partially in a maharaja’s palace. Although the fictional palace and its location are anonymous, I did have an inside track into life inside an Indian palace. In her twenties, my mother was hired as the private nurse to the Maharaja of Indore’s mother-in-law. She arrived there from Bombay and was shown to her quarters, an enormous suite in a grand building set across the grounds from the main palace.
A car was sent for her every morning, but she said that she preferred to walk. So off she would go, strolling through the grounds while the car followed along a few yards behind, driving at snail’s pace in case she should change her mind. Her breakfast would be served to her on a solid silver service, with a footman standing by should she want for anything.
From what she has told me, I am not sure that she handled it particularly well. She said that she didn’t want any fuss, which was quite the wrong way to go about things in a palace. There was also an incident when she was caught preparing her own boiled egg, which didn’t go down at all well. The cook was quite overcome with grief, and my mother never ventured to lift a finger again. I have to say, I rather like the thought of that.
Alison McQueen was born in the ‘swinging sixties’ to an Indian mother and an English jazz musician father. She grew up in London and worked in advertising for twenty years before retiring to write full time. Alison lives in rural Northamptonshire with her husband and two daughters.
Posted by Mark Evans