New Voices: Molly Aitken, Finola Austin, Gretchen Berg & Katie Hutton

WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK

The ‘undercroft’ of history and its events, people, & places are revealed through the writing of novelists Molly Aitken, Finola Austin, Gretchen Berg and Katie Hutton.

The foundations for Finola Austin’s novel Brontë’s Mistress (Atria, 2020) were laid, she says, when she “fell in love with Victorian literature early. As a child, I started with the works of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. By my teens, I was devouring novels by Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, and those other Brontës—Emily and Anne.”

When Austin was eighteen, she continues, “I went to Oxford University to study Classics and English. There I found other pockets of literature I admired—Greek, Latin and English epics, early modern drama, Roman love elegies. But there was never any doubt that the nineteenth century was my favorite. I did a Master’s focused on the Victorian period, working on Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Brontë again, and now Mary Elizabeth Braddon too.

“When I started to write my own fiction seriously, I knew the nineteenth century would be my setting. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I’d find my characters and story.”

Austin had, she says, “just shipped my books across the Atlantic to New York City, where I was working in digital advertising. I’d promised myself that I’d now read all the books I owned but hadn’t got to at Oxford. Amongst these was Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, the first great Brontë biography.

“I was reading alone in my Brooklyn apartment when I came to Gaskell’s description of the rumored affair between the Brontë sisters’ troubled brother, Branwell, and his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson. Mrs Gaskell called Lydia a ‘profligate woman, who had tempted [Branwell] into the deep disgrace of deadly crime.’  She said that in this case, ‘the man became the victim,’ and suggested that Lydia was responsible, not only for Branwell’s demise, but for all the Brontë siblings’ premature deaths.

“What a salacious piece of gossip from literary history! I was convinced that somebody must have rejected Gaskell’s interpretation and told Lydia’s side of the story. I googled frantically. But nobody had.

“I just knew that this was a story I had to tell,” she says. “I did a full year of research before I actually put pen to digital paper, but once I started writing, I wrote in a fever. The novel is the result of a lifetime of passion for Victorian literature and that exhilarating moment of inspiration, which felt like love at first sight.”

The Island Child (Knopf US / Canongate UK, 2020) by Molly Aitken grew out of the Irish landscape and also, like Brontë’s Mistress, from a passion for literature. Aitken studied Literature and Classics at Galway University and has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa. She chose to focus, through her central character, Oona, on motherhood and the healing power of stories to bring her characters to life.

Aitken explains: “There’s an idea of old Ireland that’s woven into every tale we tell about our country’s past. It’s a story of peat fires and poets at their spinning wheels, rain-soaked hills and wild seas.

“While studying at Galway university, I read three works that lit my imagination. JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea is a play set on one of the Aran Islands. It’s a romantic, heartbreaking vision of rustic life, undercut by the tragedy of the sea. Old World Ireland has the essence of a myth. It lives almost out of time in our imaginations. With the arrival of technology, old Ireland has been all but lost, but the landscape hasn’t changed that much on the islands. I walked the fields and rocky shores and listened there for the voices of my characters and the voice of the island.”

The same week that she read Synge, she says, “I dipped into Book 7 of The Odyssey, where the hero is found by a princess washed up on the shore of her island. A shipwreck was one of the first scenes I ever wrote for The Island Child, but I became fascinated by the girl who found the outsider and her relationship with her mother.

“I spent my teens on the south coast of Ireland in a tiny village where we were what’s known as ‘blow-ins’. Some people called my mother a witch. She was after all not only an outsider but divorced. Later, a similar woman, Aislinn, appeared in The Island Child.”

It is a ritual for her, every year, “to reread Eavan Boland’s poem The Pomegranate, an Irish retelling of the Greek myth of the mother and daughter, Demeter and Persephone. In one poem Boland seamlessly blends modern Ireland with ancient myth, and this is what I longed to achieve with my writing and The Island Child.”

As Aitken points out, “No novel appears fully formed. It’s a patchwork of many ideas and voices, sewn together over time. The voices of the authors I’ve read; the voices of the people closest to me; the voice of history; and perhaps sometimes, the voice of the land and sea.”

Katie Hutton and Aitken have both shown their love of rural settings in their novels. Hutton’s The Gypsy Bride (Zaffre, 2020) is set in rural Oxfordshire. Her central character Ellen’s life and plans are changed dramatically by the First World War, which brings her into contact with a local Gypsy community.

The original seeds of inspiration for The Gypsy Bride came, for Hutton, “from browsing in an Oxfam bookshop. I intended to write something rural, a love story, set between the two world wars, and culture-clash is part of my DNA (I am from County Antrim). The spark was W.H. Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life (1910), charting the farming year in Wiltshire; the chapter entitled ‘The Dark Men of the Village’ describes Romani Gypsies, part of the warp and weft of the agricultural year, seasonal workers for whom their employers didn’t have to find accommodation because they came with their own.

“I went on to read George Borrow and others, starting to glimpse the character of Sampson Loveridge through the trees. However, early literary images of Gypsies were not usually written by Gypsies themselves, and so were sometimes highly-coloured, romanticising, or derisory. I owe a huge debt to the Brazil family of the South-East Romany Museum in Marden, Kent, who clarified many issues and also referred me to Thomas Acton, Emeritus Professor of Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich, who fact-checked my manuscript.”

The idea for her heroine, Ellen Quainton, came from a different source. “I looked to English ancestors; my great-great grandfather was a Primitive Methodist preacher in a village in the Chilterns. The ‘Prims’ united with other Methodist groups in 1932, thus disappearing as a discrete entity, but the impact they had on working-class life should not be underestimated. Their Sunday schools provided education for children and adults – not all Prims by any means – prior to the 1870 Education Act. Involvement in early trade unionism they saw as God’s work, standing up for the oppressed. My main source for my portrait of the Prims is the Englesea Brook Museum and Archive of Primitive Methodism, near Alsager – a fascinating microcosm of a vanished world.”

The Gypsy Bride by Hutton and The Operator by Gretchen Berg (William Morrow, 2020) have both drawn on research into their own families’ pasts to delve beneath the surface of the periods that they have written about.

The Operator, Berg explains, “began as genealogy research. My mom gave me a small brown notebook that had belonged to her mother. ‘Your grandma was the family historian,’ she’d said. My wide-eyed, confused page-turning of those little notebook pages became the character Charlotte’s wide-eyed, confused page-turning of those little notebook pages. My grandma’s little brown notebook became Vivian Dalton’s little brown notebook, and some of the notebook pages made their way into the novel; their contents woven into the plot.

“I never knew that my grandma had worked as a telephone switchboard operator until after she died. My mom said she used to eavesdrop on all the calls she connected. Plot-wise, I thought it would be interesting if she’d happened to overhear something about her own family. That part was fictional, although the secret she overheard was not.”

There was a story in Berg’s family about her grandmother. “My mom had always said, ‘Your grandma doesn’t trust people who read books,’ which made me laugh, because it seemed absurd. But the little brown notebook illuminated a lack of trust in other areas.”

Berg has set her novel in the 1950s, when “propriety and appearances were extremely important, and in a small community rumors expanded and escalated quickly. Having a secret leaked could seem disastrous, whether or not it really mattered that much.”

It was only later in her life, she says, that “during the few visits we had, I could see my grandma’s profound insecurities, which I think stemmed from the fact that she was undereducated and that she wasn’t wealthy, like the fancy ‘four-flushers’ she was always complaining about, and eavesdropping on. Her world, delineated by Wooster, Ohio, was very insular and small, and heavily influenced by how she perceived other people viewed her. In a way, I wanted my grandma to have a different, better story. I wanted her to learn and grow and triumph, as Vivian Dalton eventually does in The Operator.”

Since medieval times and before, ‘undercrofts’ have been used for storage purposes. Aitken, Austin, Berg and Hutton have searched through the rich treasure house of history to recall concealed aspects of times past and built their characters into its fabric.

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.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 93 (August 2020)


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