Time and Relativity: Beverly Swerling’s Bristol House
by Claire Morris
In Bristol House (Viking, 2013), Beverly Swerling spins an intricate and compelling tale set in both contemporary and Tudor London. Annie Kendall arrives from America to conduct research on the Jew of Holborn, who lived during the time of Henry VIII. She takes up residence at Number Eight Bristol House, a flat that appears to be haunted by a Carthusian monk. As the days pass, it becomes clear that her investigations, the people she is working with and for, and the monk-ghost are connected to the politics of her own day. To explain further would be to give away too much, but let me just say that I found this novel enormously entertaining, as well as extremely well plotted.
I asked Swerling where the idea for the story came from, and she told me that it had been “lying in wait” for her for over two decades – since she first walked into Number Eight Bristol House in 1991. The flat belongs to her son’s in-laws, and when she stepped over the threshold, she glimpsed what Annie sees during page one of Bristol House. When she starts a book, Swerling has a sense of where she’s going, maybe even the twist in the tale that she’ll build toward, but very little idea of how she’ll get there until she actually writes. Despite the complexity of the plot, she keeps its threads straight by rewriting constantly, and is alert to any inconsistencies or events she might need to go back and foreshadow.
One of the reasons I was so captivated by Bristol House was that both the contemporary and Tudor London she depicts seemed very authentic. Swerling visited London during the four years it took her to write the novel, and perhaps more crucially, she has lived in Britain on and off during her adult life. This explains her assured handling of the differences in British and American speech and mannerisms, though it is evident that she is a consummate researcher, and like most accomplished novelists, is always paying attention to details.
“A story begins for me with characters and a situation,” Swerling says. “If those characters happen to be living in a different time and place – because the story I want to tell works better that way – then I start reading in the period as I write. With Bristol House, I knew Annie saw a ghost almost the first moment she entered the flat she was to sublet. But I didn’t know for sure it was a Tudor ghost, or even a monk, until I realized that the old Carthusian monastery, the Charterhouse, was on a direct sightline with the apartment building.”
One of the themes Beverly explores in this novel is the question of whether past, present and future co-exist. She is convinced that time is not a straight line, that, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “…time present and time past are both perhaps contained in time future, and time future contained in time past…”
“I read Eliot before I ran across the theory proposed by Einstein, but it was very exciting to me to discover that ‘advanced scientific theory’ and poetry shared the same insight,” Swerling says. “I’ve pretty much been writing about this subject one way or another ever since.”
So what is next for this talented author? A lot. She’s working on a book called 27 Sin Eaters’ Street, in which a young and beautiful Jewish woman in Prague in 1937 had an opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler – and didn’t take it. Weave in the story of this woman’s contemporary American granddaughter and it sounds to me like another winner. Beverly is also involved in republishing some of her out-of-print backlist as e-books, including the historical novels Mollie Pride and Juffie Kane (originally published as Beverly S. Martin). The first of these e-books will be available sometime this summer. I, for one, can’t wait.
Beverly Swerling grew up in Boston, but now lives in New York where her acclaimed “New York” novels are set. Find out more at www.beverlyswerling.com.
About the contributor: CLAIRE MORRIS was the managing editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009. She currently lives in Toronto, and keeps a blog on aspects of writing at http://claireonwriting.wordpress.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 65, August 2013