New Voices: Suzanne Burdon, Chris England, Allegra Jordan & Mark Wiederanders
by Myfanwy Cook
The Fun Factory (Old Street Publishing), written by Chris England, playwright and author of travel books, takes the reader into the “golden decade before the Great War. When music halls were the people’s entertainment, before radio, television or cinema, and bigger than all of them.” England says: “I’ve always been fascinated by comedians and what makes them tick. My favourites, growing up, were Laurel and Hardy, and I read everything I could about their lives and careers. I was particularly curious about the period when Stan Laurel was a young comic, just starting out in the music halls, who was snapped up by the great comedy entrepreneur of the Edwardian era, Fred Karno, and set to work touring in sketches as Charlie Chaplin’s colleague and sometime understudy.
“Perhaps understandably, this time is glossed over very quickly in the many biographies of both Stan and Charlie – after all there are several subsequent decades of great successes and marital misadventures to squeeze in.
“However, when I discovered that Chaplin’s own 528-page house brick of an autobiography described the several years the two young comics spent touring the UK and the USA together, performing together and rooming together, without mentioning Stan Laurel at all, well, that struck me as odd and not altogether fair.
“Chaplin does mention another colleague, though, just once, on the night he left the Karno company in Kansas City to go and work for Keystone Pictures. ‘A member of our troupe, Arthur Dandoe, who for some reason disliked me…’ he writes, describing a leaving present arranged by Dandoe, which was ‘an empty tobacco box, covered in tin foil, containing small ends of old pieces of grease paint.’
“If only Chaplin had read the card, which, according to Laurel’s account, Dandoe had inscribed ‘some shits for a shit.’ Some believe that Stan Laurel was omitted from Chaplin’s autobiography because he was the one performer who could actually hold a candle to the genius. For myself, I was fascinated by the man who could have come up with that leaving present, and the relationship that is defined by it.
“And so, against the backdrops of the spectacular sketches of the Fred Karno music hall company, I decided to tell the story of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and my narrator Arthur Dandoe.”
Almost Invincible (Criteria Publishing) by Suzanne Burdon is a biographical novel of Mary Shelley, whose life was as complex and unconventional as those of the early 20th century comedians that captured England’s imagination. Burdon’s novel highlights the “highly fractious relationship with [Shelley’s] step-sister Claire, who added to the scandal that surrounded this bohemian artistic set by living with Mary and her partner Percy Shelley, and having a child with Lord Byron.” The seeds of Burdon’s story germinated unexpectedly, as she explains: “‘Don’t leave me alone with her, she’s been the bane of my life since I was three years old!’ This was the panicky cry of Mary Shelley, then in her fifties, to her daughter-in-law, when her step-sister, Claire, planned to visit. It was one of those serendipitous moments during an unrelated Internet search which fired my curiosity, and propelled me into four intense years of research.
“As soon as I started to look at what was behind that intriguing plea, I found a wonderfully dramatic and powerful story about a young woman who was a strong woman in an unsympathetic society, a teenage rebel, grieving mother, determined author, and a long suffering lover of a man well ahead of his time. She was also the author of one of the most iconic books of any generation, Frankenstein.
“There are several good biographies of Mary, but I found it was often hard to find the real woman amongst the complexities of her life and the many people involved in it. Also, because I had started my journey from Mary’s relationship with Claire, everything that I read about her seemed to focus around that fraught interaction. From the time that Mary and Shelley eloped, when Mary was sixteen, and they unaccountably took Claire with them, through the rest of Mary’s time with Shelley when Claire was an ever-present third. A third, moreover, who was manipulative, volatile, jealous of Mary and in love with Shelley.”
Burdon “felt that the impact of the presence of Claire was not properly accounted for as a continuous influence on the fortunes of Mary, and in Almost Invincible, she “hoped to try and uncover the emotional truths that underpinned the facts.”
In Allegra Jordan’s novel, The End of Innocence (Sourcebooks), she introduces readers to characters united by love, but divided by loyalty. Her guiding inspiration was facts enshrined in a World War I memorial to “the enemy” at Harvard University’s Memorial Church: “I first heard about the memorial from the church’s late Reverend, Peter J. Gomes. He preached a sermon called ‘The Courage to Remember.’ In his sermon, Gomes said:
Over on the North Wall (of the Memorial Church), in the far back is a plaque in Latin, which most of you will be unable to read. In translation it says this, ‘Harvard University has not forgotten its sons, who under opposite colors also gave their lives in the Great War.’ And then there are listed four German members of the University who died in the service of the Kaiser in the First World War.*
“Gomes went on to explain that at the time the plaque was introduced, the University was loath to honor ‘the enemy’. However, his predecessor, Willard Sperry, believed it important to recognize these men because, as Rev. Gomes put it in his sermon, ‘humanity transcends the sides and there are no victors ultimately; there are only those to be commended to God.’
“I was inspired by this unexpected grace. I grew up in southern towns where loyalty tended to tie the community to wounded memories and prevent healing. I knew something had happened to drive the Harvard community to do this, and I wanted to uncover the underlying story.
“I explored this through the main characters in The End of Innocence – two Harvard students, Helen, from Boston, and Wils, from Germany, who fall in love on the eve of WWI and must face a world at war from opposing sides. I drew on themes of hope, despair, romance and reconciliation to give context to the story behind this little-known plaque.”
Mark Wiederanders Stevenson’s Treasure (Fireship Press) brings to life the quest of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the adventure tales Treasure Island and Kidnapped, who, in 1879, went to America to seek out and marry Fanny Osbourne. Wiederanders shares: “My inspiration to write a novel about Robert Louis Stevenson’s secretive journey to California began accidentally, during a weekend trip. My son had recently married and moved to the hills about six miles inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Although the town is known for spectacular ocean views, Clint Eastwood and high-priced boutiques, rural stretches of the inland hills are as undeveloped as they were in 1879. Hiking trails are canopied by twisting live oak branches, yucca plants jut up from chaparral grass, and occasional mountain lions prowl rocky ridges.
“While staying at my son’s house I read in a guidebook that ‘Louis’ Stevenson collapsed just a stone’s throw from where I sat. He would have died were it not for two goat ranchers who took the comatose traveler to their cabin and nursed him to health. What was the young, as-yet unknown writer with lung problems doing in these rugged hills so far away from Scotland? I soon learned that Louis’s collapse was one of several near-fatal setbacks during his year-long quest to make an American, Fanny Osbourne, his wife despite the fact that she was already married, had children and was ten years his senior. He had risked disownment by his disapproving parents and life itself to rejoin the art student he had met in France.
“Fanny, a fiercely protective mother who had fallen deeply in love with Louis, faced the realities of keeping her children fed while somehow ending a marriage to a domineering and philandering husband. As Louis wrote while riding a primitive rail car across the American plains, ‘No man is any use until he has dared everything; I feel just now as if I had, and so might become a man.’ Stevenson’s Treasure is about a couple who risked everything – and succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.”
Undoubtedly, all the debut novelists showcased would agree wholeheartedly with Stevenson’s remark that ‘risking everything’ to bring their characters to the attention of their readers was a worthwhile journey.
*Peter Gomes, “The Courage to Remember,” November 10, 1991. Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard University.
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK would love for you to tell her about any thrilling debut novelists you uncover. Please email (email@example.com) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook).
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 70, November 2014