Great Expectations Meets Grantchester? Clarissa Harwood’s Bear No Malice
Claire Morris talks to author Clarissa Harwood about choosing the 20th century
After she completed the first draft of her novel Impossible Saints (Pegasus 2018), Clarissa Harwood wondered what was next. As a writing exercise, she decided to develop the story of Thomas Cross – the nemesis of protagonist Paul.
“In hindsight, I should have guessed it would be more than just a writing exercise,” Harwood says, “because Tom was the one minor character who kept trying to take over the story!”
The result was her second novel, Bear No Malice (Pegasus 2019), set, like Impossible Saints, in the first decade of the 20th century.
Clergyman and reformer Tom has spent years avoiding (and covering up) his past as he hopes for advancement within the Church. But after he is attacked and left for dead in a wooded area outside London, he begins to lose control of the life he’s carefully crafted. This threatens his work, his position and his new friendship with the enigmatic Miranda, who harbours secrets of her own. Bear No Malice follows Tom and Miranda as they attempt to come to terms with the influence of the past on their present.
In both Harwood’s novels, the characters come across as real, perhaps because they exhibit very human flaws. She shares that at first it was a huge struggle to understand Tom. “It took a long time to stop thinking of [him] as a villain and really inhabit his perspective, but it was a great empathy-building exercise.
“Miranda was much easier. Some characters seem to have always existed in my mind and are just waiting for a story, and Miranda was that for me. I always wanted to write about a Lady of Shalott figure who is (temporarily) isolated from the rest of the world because of a secret in her past, and I enjoyed digging deeper to find out what her secret was. Ultimately, it always takes many revisions and a great deal of time and patience to develop a character. It’s very much like getting to know people in real life. You can’t find out everything there is to know about someone in a short time, and even after years of knowing people, they can still surprise us!”
In taking a minor character from one novel and making him the hero of another, Harwood cites the influence of Anthony Trollope and his series The Chronicles of Barsetshire. “I love exploring the same world from different angles this way, both as a reader and a writer,” she says.
To create an authentic picture of London and the surrounding area during the Bear No Malice period, Harwood drew on primary sources: first-person accounts such as newspaper clippings, diaries and autobiographies. During the course of her research for a novel, she also tries to visit the places her characters inhabit.
“Most of the buildings [my characters] work and live in are fictional, though the cathedral where Paul and Tom work as canons is a composite of St. Paul’s in London and Durham Cathedral,” Harwood says. “Every place has a personality or soul of its own, and I don’t think that changes much over the years, so it’s important whenever possible to walk the streets my characters would have walked, smell the air, see the plants and wildlife, and generally get a sense of what it feels like to inhabit that space.”
When I asked Harwood why Edwardian England attracts her, she admitted that she initially planned to set Impossible Saints at the end of the Victorian period but then she realized that Lilia (the female protagonist) needed to be a suffragette.
“My early drafts were set in 1897, but after some friendly prodding from my agent, I moved the setting ten years later to align more accurately with the activities of real-life suffragettes. I had to go back to the research drawing board to find out what other elements of the novel had to change to fit the new timeline, and I learned some interesting things along the way. For example, what changes most in the span of a decade always has been and probably always will be technology!
“My first love in terms of historical periods was the Victorian era, which I was introduced to through literature. I specialized in Nineteenth-Century British Literature for my PhD, and the poetry and fiction of that period have inspired me for as long as I can remember. Both the late Victorian and Edwardian eras are great periods for historical fiction [writers] because they are close enough to modern times that we share many of the same concerns (e.g. the increasingly fast pace of daily life and striving for gender and race equality). At the same time, there are fascinating differences, from fun ones such as fashions to ones we can learn from, such as the worrisome tendency of respected thinkers and leaders believing in eugenics. Those beliefs became more prevalent in the 20th century, culminating in the Holocaust and other atrocities.
“I now find the early 20th century just as fascinating as the 19th and no longer have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the Victorian period!”
A proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Harwood has several projects in various stages of development, but says she is most excited about a sequel to both Impossible Saints and Bear No Malice, which is set in the 1930s. (It’s important to point out that although these two novels are connected, they can be read as stand-alones; one memorable scene does appear in both, but told from the perspectives of different characters.) As she marches even deeper into the 20th century, readers will look forward to more of what this author is becoming known for: believable characters, complex storylines and authentic portrayal of an era.
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 87 (February 2019)