Having had a few days to recover from the mammoth task of re-editing my first novel, I feel I must say a few words about two brilliant women – Carmen Callil and Alison Samuel of Chatto & Windus – who helped shape the raw manuscript into what became a bestseller.
But first a small digression into what inspired LOUISA ELLIOTT. It began with a photograph of a young Australian soldier, and a little diary, written in 1916, which fell into my hands in York, England, half a century later.
I was far too young to recognise it as a life-changing moment – but it sparked an immediate and consuming interest in my distant, long dead relative. I promised myself that one day I would make his story into a novel. Years passed, and marriage and children intervened, but the real Liam never went away. Gradually that gentle tap on the shoulder became more insistent, and finally, in 1982, I embarked on wide-ranging voyage of research.
Having delved into WW1 years previously, I found myself concentrating on the social history of the era leading up to it. Then I started digging into the diarist’s family background. Incredibly, what I found in my first foray into the archives changed my perception entirely. With the most important aspect of the story before me, suddenly his parents’ lives were up-front and demanding to be explored.
From the moment I started work in earnest my life changed dramatically. I met people whose interest in the story led to others – individuals without whom I could not have written in such depth. I was blessed by a string of coincidences which went on for ten years in all, throughout the research and writing of both LOUISA ELLIOTT and LIAM’S STORY. (That roller-coaster ride of events is related in a memoir to be published next year – more details later.)
Coincidences, one after another, large and small, kept the research and the story moving. Many were variations of Library Angel incidents – the kind where you find the right book amongst thousands of others, when you don’t even know what you are looking for. The most trivial were like little jokes – as though someone unseen was being playful, just making his presence felt.
But the most momentous involved other people – and only towards the end, when I was able to look back, did I see how each and every one had been leading up to what I can only describe as a galloping, Grand National finish for the first novel.
One Library Angel episode led to me being introduced to Caradoc King, of literary agents APWatt, probably the oldest literary agency in the world. Another, shortly afterwards, concerned Carmen Callil, then Managing Director of Chatto & Windus. Caradoc didn’t know her well at that time, yet she ‘just happened’ to call him in the midst of what she described as a boring summer, and asked did he have anything for her to read?
As a matter of fact, he did. He sent her my manuscript of LOUISA ELLIOTT. She read it in double-quick time, said she was determined to have it, and made what was, in 1987, a fantastic offer. It was particularly breath-taking, given that both she and Caradoc King agreed that the novel was unfinished. An extra part of the story, set in Dublin, still had to be written.
As the manuscript went off to Carmen, Caradoc called me to say how astonishing it was that my book had gone ‘straight to the top’ – by-passing all the usual channels of readers and editors. He had to explain to me – an inexperienced northerner with no literary connections – that not only was Carmen Callil Chatto’s MD, she was something of a legend, a young Australian who had successfully broken into the largely male world of British publishing. Having founded the Virago Press – publishing books by, for and about women – she had then gone on to head one of the UK’s most respected publishing houses.
So, with all that information, I couldn’t help wondering just what it was about LOUISA ELLIOTT that had so captured her attention. On the surface it was a triangular love story set in late 19th century York. It reads like a romance, and yet the events which befell the main characters were far from romantic. Loving across a divide of class and culture, loving in spite of a close family relationship.
LOUISA ELLIOTT was based on the lives of real people and real events. Moved by the reality of their story – and its consequences – I used the skeleton of fact and clothed it with the flesh of fiction. My intention being to present a view of the late Victorian era through the eyes of ordinary people.
As a young, attractive woman, what do you do when you fall in love with the wrong man? Embrace celibacy, or go ahead and follow your heart? And when it all goes awry, how do you deal with it?
‘Brave, foolhardy, moral degenerate or free-thinking supporter of women’s rights – at the time any one of those epithets could have been used to describe Louisa Elliott…’ My comment from the memoir describes Louisa in a nutshell. It was perhaps that shifting, 3-dimensional view which appealed to the ardent feminist in Carmen Callil – and has appealed to thousands of people since. Men and women alike.
I didn’t intend to write a feminist tract – and indeed the novel is far from that. But whether Louisa made the right decision in the end is a matter of debate. Certainly the consequences of her actions had long-lasting effects. For me, knowing the outcome determined the ending.
But having fallen in love with the story and made her offer, Carmen’s next problem was to get this unwieldy manuscript into some kind of shape for publication. Her comments and criticisms went to the woman who became my editor at Chatto & Windus, Alison Samuel.
Petite, professional, and utterly charming, Alison put me at ease from the moment we met, and I trusted her from that day forward. Just as well, since it was Alison’s task to sort out these 800+ pages of manuscript and reduce the content without disturbing the story. And to do it without upsetting a new and tender author. She did it brilliantly, never making a suggestion without explaining it first, and allowing me to find alternatives where my original was poorly phrased.
Between us we demolished innumerable adjectives and adverbs. I introduced ‘reported speech’ in places, which shortened quite a few pages of dialogue, and altogether was happy with the changes. My recent horror at the length of my sentences – all those semi-colons! – did not appear to upset Alison at the time. But as someone recently remarked, 25 years ago, long sentences were okay. Nowadays, we’ve come to prefer shorter descriptions all round.
Alison Samuel and I worked together through four big books, and never had a cross word or difference of opinion. In my view it was the best kind of teamwork, which produces, at the end of the day, the desired result.
Alison went on, after Carmen Callil retired, to become the publisher at Chatto & Windus. Sadly, Alison too has recently retired. I’m sorry because it would have been fun to work with her again, especially while I was having ‘another go’ at editing LOUISA ELLIOTT for a new readership. I’m sure she could have made some good suggestions!
With regard to teamwork, there are many other crafts which go into the making of a bestselling novel – not least of which concerns the image on the cover. And the cover of LOUISA ELLIOTT was the draw which had eager fingers reaching out for it…
More about designers next week!