Michelle’s First Book
“Without Charity” was Michelle’s first published book. There is a special place in every author’s heart for their debut work… it is often intensely personal in flavour, and usually the result of years of hard toil. We asked Michelle how “Without Charity” came to be – and what it means for her.
What made you write Without Charity?
[pull float=”alignright”]What if they fell in love? Everything followed from that…[/pull] “I was driving through the countryside, on a cold, crisp winter’s day, and as I left a tiny hamlet, I passed an endless wall of ivy-covered stone, and then a pair of massive, overblown gates. I thought: imagine a man at the turn of the century living in a house behind gates like these – and imagine a girl in a hamlet just beyond the a wall like this one. There’s barely half a mile between them, yet they’re separated by the unbridgeable chasm of class. What if they fell in love? Everything followed from that…”
You’ve set part of the story in South Africa – why?
“One Christmas I was talking to my father about the early Pavers, who settled in South Africa in the early 1800s. They were an independent lot – if slightly cross-grained: although they were staunch supporters of the Crown, they chose to settle in the Boer heartland of the Orange Free State. Perhaps that’s why our family motto is Faded But Not Destroyed! Anyway, I was intrigued, particularly when I read more about the war, and learned of the English policy of burning farms.”
Is there a personal link with the farm-burning which features in the story?
[pull float=”alignleft”] I switched on the television, and discovered that it was Remembrance Sunday[/pull]”Very much so. Although my family supported the English in the Boer War, things got a little confused out on the veldt, and the English destroyed several farms belonging to my great-great-grandfather Richard and great-grandfather Adolphus. In true British fashion, they took their losses on the chin and remained loyal supporters of the Crown to the end of their days.”
How long did it take you to write the book?
“About three years. I was still practicing law, so I had to fit in the writing around that. There were times when I felt I was leading a double life: early mornings and late at night with Robert and Charity – and daytimes spent litigating patents in the High Court. Much of the first year was taken up with doing the research, while most of the actual writing was done during my sabbatical year, when it was far easier to stay immersed in the story.”
You’ve obviously researched the book very intensively – do you enjoy this aspect of writing?
“I love it! Especially researching the way of life of the Edwardians of all classes. I actually went to South Africa for the Boer War research, and in the little town of Reitz, where my family originally settled, I found a Paver Straat (“Paver Street”), named after my great-grandfather Adolphus. By then my father had died, so I never found out whether he knew about this or not. I hope he did.”
[pull float=”alignright”]I actually went to South Africa for the Boer War research…[/pull]What was the hardest part to write?
“Without a doubt, the passage dealing with the First World War. It wasn’t made any easier when I decided to take a break, switched on the television, and discovered that it was Remembrance Sunday.”
Did you do any of the actual writing in or near the locations which feature in the story?
“Some of it, yes. I spent a while in the remote corner of the Orange Free State in South Africa which formed the background for the war scenes in the book. I also spent quite a lot of time in Lincolnshire, wandering around villages and churchyards and cornfields, visiting great houses, and getting lost in Bourne Wood – which gave me the idea for the Ponds. (Unfortunately, though, I never got to stay in any of the stately homes I visited! )”
Did you use any genealogical facilities in researching the book?
[pull float=”alignleft”]I think they thought I was mad, but they were very helpful…[/pull]”At one time I haunted the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, in order to research the procedure generally, and gauge the atmosphere. (I had some interesting times trying to explain to the clerks there that I wasn’t trying to locate an actual will, because the person I was researching was someone I’d made up. I think they thought I was mad, but they were very helpful.) When I wrote the first draft, the Registry was still in Somerset House – but when I came to revise the manuscript, I found that it had moved to Holborn, so I had to repeat the whole exercise and re-write an entire episode. At least I found out before the book was published!”
Did you visit local churches to gather information?
“I’ve always been fascinated by English parish churches, perhaps because I grew up near an old church with a beautiful overgrown churchyard full of wild flowers and very old tombstones. I used to wander around reading the epitaphs and trying to imagine the human stories behind the brief, stark inscriptions – and I still do whenever I’m in the country. Doubtless all that was somewhere at the back of my mind when I was devising the story. And it was fun to have an excuse to go back and really study some churches, when it came to doing the research.”
You seem to know a great deal about the clothing of the period: was this a special interest of yours, or did you research it especially for Without Charity?
[pull float=”alignright”]I particularly loved researching Violet’s wonderful couture creations…[/pull]”I knew from the outset that clothing would be extremely important in the book, as it was one of the critical class indicators at the turn of the century. However, I really didn’t have much detailed knowledge, so I had to set about researching it pretty well from scratch. As so often happens, I found myself hooked. And needless to say, I particularly loved researching Violet’s wonderful couture creations. A considerable number of actual designer dresses from the period has survived, so it was a question of pondering individual creations in museums and books, and deciding which would have suited Violet best.”
How did you learn so much about the details of cottage life, from how they cooked and cleaned, to how household items were arranged?
“Here it was more a question of putting aside the history books and concentrating on the day-to-day reminiscences of ordinary people who lived and worked in the country, as gleaned from biographies, anthologies, local histories, and local museums. In addition, you can learn a lot from going through the popular magazines and newspapers of the period and studying the adverts – which are often immensely revealing, not only about what was available, but also about peoples’ attitudes to their houses and themselves.”
You have obviously learned a great deal about the lives of women in Charity’s era; what insights has this given you into the lives of modern women?
[pull float=”alignleft”]For some women, having a child out of wedlock blighted their whole existence[/pull]”Like most women these days, I’ve grown up with a hazy sense that on the whole I’m lucky to be around now rather than then, and that women at the turn of the century had far fewer choices and less freedom than we have today. But researching the book made me focus on what that actually meant in practice. For example, women like Violet – who got married without having any idea about sex – really did exist. Similarly, for some women, having a child out of wedlock blighted their whole existence – like Charity’s poor mother.”
What was it about the turn of the century which appealed to you, and will you be writing anything else set in that time?
“The turn of the 20th century is, I think, a period of fascinatingly extreme contrasts: unbelievable wealth rubbing shoulders with the most grinding poverty; a class structure as rigid as any Hindu caste system; and an ideal of Victorian family life and womanhood set against a reality of upper-class liaisons, and widespread prostitution. It was also a time of enormous confidence in the Empire, which can make it seem very remote to our eyes today. And yet – the people who lived in that time had the same concerns as we do today: they worried about money, and their families, and about finding love. That’s what attracts me to the period, and makes me come back to it again and again…”