New Voices: Lorna Cook, Molly Greeley, Alan Hlad & Alec Marsh
WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK
Debut novelists Lorna Cook, Molly Greeley, Alan Hlad and Alec Marsh create intriguing characters set against the backdrop of historical fact.
Molly Greeley’s imagination for The Clergyman’s Wife (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2019) was stimulated by the thought-provoking fictional character of Charlotte Collins from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The idea for her novel had been, she says, “germinating since I first read Pride and Prejudice more than twenty years ago. Back then I agreed completely with Elizabeth Bennet’s instinctive reaction to Charlotte Lucas’ engagement to the ridiculous Mr. Collins: Charlotte had made a terrible mistake.”
However, as time passed and after many subsequent readings, Greeley says, “I softened my take on Charlotte’s decision, and her choice began to seem less horrifying than the circumstances that led to it. Charlotte had neither money nor the means to earn any, and she had no beauty (which, of course, was its own form of currency). She lived in a time when a woman’s security, unless she was exceptionally fortunate, was always linked to the prosperity and generosity of the men in her life. The remarkable thing about Charlotte is that she saw an opportunity and took it; in doing so, she took charge of her own life in the only way available to her.”
Some of Greeley’s favourite books, she notes, “take well-known stories and delve into the minds and hearts of characters who were peripheral in the original. Charlotte has never felt peripheral to me …though we get little of her inner world in Pride and Prejudice. We see her mostly from Elizabeth’s perspective, with a few interjections from the novel’s nameless narrator, and through Elizabeth’s eyes Charlotte seems calm, practical, and more than a bit calculating. But Elizabeth, as it turns out, is not the most astute judge of other people’s feelings and motivations. So, I started thinking: what if Charlotte was just good at making the best of things? What if she was truly grateful for the security Mr. Collins offered her — but what if security was not enough to make her truly happy in the long run? What if she finally fell in love?”
Charlotte’s story is, Greeley explains, “about a woman’s worth. And it’s a story about love — or lack thereof — and what place it would have had in the lives of women who did not have a man with ten thousand a year waiting to rescue them from the terrifying uncertainty of the future. Such women, like Charlotte, had to rescue themselves.”
Social media inspired Lorna Cook’s novel, The Forgotten Village (Avon, 2019) a Kindle Number 1 Bestselling Novel in which the village, in some ways, takes on the role of a character.
Cook explains, “When I thought of the story of Veronica in the past, who goes missing after being forced to leave her requisitioned manor house in World War Two, I had no real sense of place, no location in which to set the story, and so I parked the idea and moved on to something else.”
One of the challenges was, Cook notes, “to write about a country house that hadn’t been set foot in since the war, I needed a valid reason for such a house to have been out of bounds for so long. Nothing I could think of sounded remotely plausible, and I wanted readers to be able to believe in the reasons for almost eighty years of household abandonment and neglect.”
Providentially, “As a World War Two Home Front obsessive I fell over myself with excitement when my husband tagged me in a Facebook post from a national newspaper: ‘Photos Show Crumbling Remains of Tyneham Village.’” Cook shares, “I had never clicked on a link so quickly. An entire Dorset village requisitioned; over two hundred residents evicted in under a month, forced out of their homes to go…where? And those at the manor house received the same fate regardless of their status. Where did they all go, and under such short time constraints? The story of Veronica and her past-love Freddy that I had parked came to the surface and I placed them in the panic-laced set-up of a village under administrative siege in the midst of war. Around them secrets and lies are woven while in the present-day Melissa meets historian Guy and the two endeavour to discover why no one from the manor house was ever seen again after requisition day.”
Cook’s novel is, she says, “part historical mystery, part love story. I enjoyed writing every second of it, but without visiting Tyneham I felt I wasn’t doing the village justice. At Tyneham itself, just a short walk inland from the beautiful coast, the story developed with such vivid ease, even though only the schoolhouse and the church remain; both are standing relics of a lost era. The farmhouses, rectory, shops, post office and cottages have now crumbled through time. The manor house, which for the purposes of my story stands empty and abandoned on the outskirts of the coastal village, was demolished long ago.”
“The mystery of Veronica and Freddy is pure creation,” Cook points out, “but there are those closely associated with Tyneham who wanted to know why the manor house was ever demolished at all. Perhaps this is the real mystery of the forgotten village.”
Inspiration for characters comes in both human and animal form, as illustrated by Alan Hlad’s novel The Long Flight Home (Kensington US / Hodder UK, 2019) about homing pigeons during WWII. Hlad shares, “I had always been fascinated by true, yet little-known historical events. The Long Flight Home was inspired by Britain’s darkest days of World War II, and one remarkable discovery — made many years after the war — which remains a mystery.”
While conducting research for this book, Hlad says, “I became captivated by a 2012 British news report about the skeletal remains of a war pigeon that was found in a Surrey chimney, decades after the war. Attached to the pigeon’s leg was a coded message, one that has yet to be deciphered by codebreakers around the world, including Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). I find it intriguing that British codebreakers, during World War II, cracked the Nazi Enigma machine and turned the tide of the war. But today, this encrypted message has stumped the world’s best cryptologists, and the pigeon’s message remains a secret.”
Initially, Hlad says, “I knew little about pigeon fanciers or the heroism of their war pigeons. I’d assumed, due to technological advances in communication, that war pigeons did not serve in great numbers after the First World War. But during my fact-finding, I was surprised to learn that homing pigeons were used extensively in World War II. In fact, the National Pigeon Service, a volunteer civilian organization in Britain, delivered over 200,000 war pigeons to British services between 1939 and 1945. Source Columba was the actual code name for air-dropping 16,000 homing pigeons in German-occupied France and the Netherlands as a method for locals to provide intelligence to Britain.”
Hlad wonders: “What is written on the indecipherable message, carried by the war pigeon that was found in the Surrey chimney? Maybe it contains information about Operation Sea Lion, codename for Hitler’s plan to invade Britain. Perhaps it is a last-ditch communication from a lone British soldier, trapped behind enemy lines. Or, like The Long Flight Home, the encrypted note is far more than military intelligence. Until the code is broken, I like to believe that the message will someday reveal — despite the tragedy of war — that hope is never truly lost.”
Alec Marsh says, “I love reading a gripping thriller, a page-turner that has integrity of character and setting, and that, ultimately was what I set out to achieve, long before I had the characters or particulars of the book that became Rule Britannia (Accent Press, 2019) in place.”
Marsh drew his factual inspiration for Rule Britannia from, he explains, “one of the many insights of Martin Pugh’s history of fascism between the wars in Britain, Hurrah for the Blackshirts. In the part of his at times alarming history where he touches on the Abdication Crisis of 1936, Pugh reveals that a fascist-leaning Conservative rump in Parliament was in favour of the King accepting the resignation of prime minister Stanley Baldwin on the issue of the King’s marrying twice-divorced Wallis Simpson (meaning a constitutional crisis since the leader of the opposition, Clement Attlee, had already indicated that he would not serve). Instead, they wanted him to stay on, and for a minority, right-wing ‘king’s party’ to assume power. Given Edward VIII’s sympathies, it’s intriguing to consider the impact on world affairs that this might have had. The action of Rule Britannia unfolds in the closing days of the Abdication Crisis and touches on these themes and the wider implications.”
Marsh aimed at emulating, he says, “novels such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, Stamboul Train and Rogue Male, and to create a light thriller that delivered the excitement and dramatic action of Fleming with the enjoyable characterisation of Wodehouse. With its protagonists Ernest Drabble – a left-leaning professor of history at Sydney Sussex, Cambridge and amateur mountaineer – and Percival Harris, a gossip columnist plying his trade on one of the London newspapers – what I’ve set out to create is an enjoyable but at the same time thought-provoking ‘entertainment’ in the spirit that Graham Greene meant it.”
From the heroic homing pigeons, whose efforts have been commemorated in an exhibition at Bletchley Park (https://bletchleypark.org.uk/) to Jane Austen’s Charlotte Collins, the characters brought to life by Cook, Greeley, Hlad and Marsh are destined to provide readers with tantalizing insights into the historical periods and social conventions of the times in which they lived.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (email@example.com) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see brought to the attention of other lovers of historical fiction.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)