New Voices: Jess Armstrong, Lucy Barker, Logan Steiner & Patrick Worrall

WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK

Debut novelists Jess Armstrong, Lucy Barker, Logan Steiner & Patrick Worrall provide readers with new insights into the historical events and people that captured their imaginations.

Lucy Barker’s The Other Side of Mrs. Wood (Fourth Estate/Harper, 2023) shows she has, as she says, “long been fascinated by the Other Side, and no period has embraced spiritualism more than the Victorians.

“In a time when long-held scientific and spiritual beliefs were being challenged every day, why wouldn’t one be able to talk with the dead? Most mediums operating in Victorian London were women. The domestic setting of séances gave them respectability, enabling women to gain power and influence at a time when it was hard for a woman to cultivate either.

“When I was thinking about story ideas,” she continues, “I kept seeing these lavish seances full of showmanship and mischief. I knew they’d be so much fun to write (and they were), but I also wanted to weave a story around them that went beyond our homogenous idea of the Victorian woman. I have an MA in Victorian Studies, and my research unearthed so many ordinary women succeeding under the constraints of a patriarchal society. It was really important to me that whatever characters I had running around my book, they had to be rooted in fact.

Enter Agnes Guppy and Florence Cook, the two mediums whose reported rivalry inspired my story.”

Both of these women “were trailblazers,” Barker relates. “Agnes was known as the Flying Enchantress after she apported over the chimney pots of London from her home in Highbury into a séance held in Holborn. Florence was the first person in England to materialise a full spirit, her guide Katie King.”

Agnes, Barker’s other main character, “was a well-established and brilliant medium when fifteen-year-old Florence first appeared in the early ´70s, and the catalyst for my story lies in the rumour cultivated by Nelson Holmes, an American medium who’d fallen out with Agnes. He wrote that Agnes had complained bitterly about Florence’s growing popularity and wanted to put her out of action with vitriol. While I doubt that Agnes had any nefarious designs on Florence, I could relate to her feeling threatened by the fearlessness of someone who had nothing to lose. Agnes couldn’t perform those risky stunts that Florence, with her charm and newness, was using to gain influential patrons: Agnes was too old and too reliant on her wealthy supporters for any slip-up to be tolerated. But equally she couldn’t allow herself to become irrelevant for the very same reason. This conflict—both personal and interpersonal—was nectar, and thus brilliant, established Mrs Wood and daring upstart Miss Finch were born.”

Logan Steiner’s novel After Anne (William Morrow, 2023) had its origins in her interest, as she states, “in the story behind the story: learning about the lives of creators of my favorite books, what they struggled with, and who they loved and why they wrote what they did. And no book touched me more deeply growing up than Anne of Green Gables. I read the Anne books many times, and I watched the CBC miniseries with Megan Follows each time I visited my grandparents in small-town Iowa.”

Steiner was often called “an oversensitive kid, accused of taking things too personally,” she says. “I also narrated playtime, perpetually trying to convince my younger brother Ben to participate in my imaginings. Anne’s character showed me that the intensity of my feelings was okay, and that I was not the only one always dreaming up a story.

“Although, like Anne, I have always wanted to be a writer, I went to law school knowing that I didn’t want to put the pressure of making money on my creative dreams. I have been a practicing litigator for the past thirteen years, and early on, my law career took my full attention. The deep pain of losing my brother Ben unexpectedly to a brain aneurysm motivated me to stop putting my creative dreams on hold.”

When preparing to write her novel, she researched “the life stories of writers whose books have meant the most to me,” she continues. “Reading about the life of Anne’s creator Lucy Maud Montgomery (who went by Maud), I got chills. I knew I wanted to tell her story.”

Steiner discovered that “Maud was a woman who not only died with secrets, but whose manner of dying was kept secret for generations. And yet she wrote such open, unfiltered characters. I felt pulled to understand: Who was this woman who edited even her private journals for later publication? What drove her to develop such life-affirming characters but to write at the end of her own life, ‘My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it’?”

Writing and rewriting Maud’s story have taught her, says Steiner, “more than I could have imagined about what matters in life, including persevering in the face of self-doubt and growing from pain instead of hiding it. Maud’s story also taught me how much of life’s narrative is out of our control—especially when marrying and having kids—and how difficult this can be for a writer who is used to controlling the narrative. But we always have control over where we put our attention and over the stories we choose to tell. I am forever grateful for the years I have spent in the company of Maud’s story.”

Patrick Worrall’s The Partisan (Penguin UK/Union Square, 2023) opens in summer 1961. It is a time when the Cold War is at its height, but what follows from a match in London between two young chess prodigies can be traced back to the Eastern Front during the Second World War.

Worrall explains, “There is a classic creative writing exercise where the teacher shows the class an enigmatic photograph and asks them to write the story of the people in it. A photograph was the inspiration for my first novel, The Partisan.”

The photo was “taken on the Eastern Front at some point during World War Two,” he says, “and I came across it unexpectedly in an exhibition about partisans in a fortress-turned-museum called Fort Nine in Kaunas, Lithuania. The real shot is as described in the book: three smiling teenage girls, all carrying guns they had stolen from the occupying forces of Nazi Germany. I never discovered their names, or what happened to them, but I have tried to imagine their story.”

He points out, “Lithuania, a flat country with no natural defences, was invaded once by Hitler and twice by Stalin in the space of four years. The history of that period is necessarily tragic and complex. We still feel the reverberations today.”

The history of the period is a complex one, hallmarked by political intrigue. “There were different kinds of partisans fighting in the forests of eastern Europe in the 1940s. Some were Jews who refused to go quietly into the darkness prepared for them by the Germans and their local collaborators. Other guerrillas across the Baltic states and beyond fought the Soviet occupiers long after the Iron Curtain descended. These Forest Brothers made swathes of eastern Europe impossible to govern until the death of Stalin in 1953.”

As Worrall describes, “It’s here that Lithuanian history intersects with British history. One of many jolts of horror I experienced when researching this period came when I realised how many of those brave men and women had been betrayed to their deaths by my fellow countrymen. British intelligence was supposed to be helping the anti-Soviet resistance. Instead, the defectors who formed the Cambridge spy ring were passing on the identities of the rebels to the Russians.”

Any time Jess Armstrong, author of The Curse of Penryth Hall (Minotaur, 2023) begins to write something new, one of the first decisions she makes “is the when and why of the setting because it plays such an integral part in how the main plot will unfold,” she reveals. “I knew before I ever set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), that I wanted to situate The Curse of Penryth Hall between the First and Second World Wars—a tumultuous time marked by sweeping cultural, political and technological change. It is difficult to convey just how deep of a mark the First World War left, and I wanted to try to capture those changes somehow in fiction. The second thing I always knew was that I wanted to incorporate folklore into the narrative. I kept returning to this palpable tension between tradition and modernity in the 1920s. I thought I could explore that by making my heroine a folklorist—to give her an internal conflict rather than an external one.”

Only when Armstrong “was digging into research to understand Ruby Vaughn, my heroine, and pouring through accounts of 19th and 20th century folklorists, that I really honed in on what to do,” she relates. “I kept coming across these fascinating stories of cunning folk in Cornwall even well into what historians consider modern and industrial times.

“There was something utterly captivating about these tales, and how different the stories and fates of these witches were to popular perceptions of witchcraft in the past. These figures were members of the community and often respected—if sometimes feared. This was a different sort of story, and the idea of juxtaposing this deep folkloric tradition with the post-war world took hold. I immediately created the character of Ruan Kivell, the village’s Pellar, as a contrast to my heroine. Ruby, as an outsider and the point of view character, becomes our lens into that world and into understanding the way people responded to the rapidly changing world around them. She wasn’t a part of this community—she was never meant to be—she was a modern woman of her age who was about to be thrown into the middle of a folktale of her own.”

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate University Fellow. She designs and facilitates writing workshops and is an avid reader of historical crime fiction. Please do contact (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) if you uncover any debut novelists you would like to see featured.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 106 (November 2023)


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