During the first year of writing, I’d been struggling to find the right tone and pace. But at last the novel was finding its own rhythm, just as the Elliott history was starting to impinge upon Louisa.
Having fought her inclinations and won, she finds her defences against Robert destroyed by her employer, the monstrous Albert Tempest. Distressed by his assault, afraid to go home, she turns instead to Robert. But while a sense of honour keeps Robert’s inclinations at bay, his subsequent actions, though satisfying, have powerful consequences.
As I put him on a train for Blankney, I knew this was the moment when truth would come out and all the fine promises collapse. Different culture, different aims, completely different ways of looking at life: these lovers were always destined for a stormy relationship. And without me even having to think about it, that is how their love affair begins.
In the book, the scene is frank without being too explicit. Treading a fine line, I wanted to express the tenderness as well as the passion, overwhelming emotion rather than physical description. If ever this book was published, I didn’t want to startle the horses or even the children. Mum, I felt, was probably grown-up enough to appreciate it.
By chance that December, I spotted Dr Newman one morning near the Minster – instantly recognisable with his flowing locks and a Victorian frock coat. He reminded me of the artists I’d studied with years ago – a colourful character and always a delight to meet.
When he suggested coffee, I agreed at once, and was soon answering questions regarding the research and my literary efforts. When I said I’d just finished the first part of the book, he asked when I was going to let him read it.
Recalling its recent content, I was suddenly embarrassed. I hesitated, which Peter Newman misread.
‘Perhaps you’d rather not show it at this early stage?’
‘No, it’s not that.’ I found myself fumbling for words. ‘I’d be pleased for you to read it, but…’
Did he divine my thoughts? There was a flash of amusement before he glanced away. ‘But perhaps you’d rather I didn’t read it critically?’
I hadn’t even thought of that. It was another test of confidence which took a moment or two to resolve. I knew I would hate to have my work pulled apart; on the other hand it was an offer not to be turned down, especially from a professional whose work and opinion I respected. Having read two of his books during the year, I was impressed by their style – so much livelier than those dry-as-dust tomes I’d waded through for A Level History.
In the end I agreed – and offered to stand him lunch in return. He phoned in the New Year to say that he’d finished reading the manuscript, and wanted to share his thoughts. Although he sounded positive, I did have qualms.
As it transpired, I need not have worried. His main criticism concerned the Prologue: he didn’t like it and suggested I scrap it. I would have to decide, he said, whether the information could be conveyed in some other way.
While I was digesting that, he said he admired the way I wrote dialogue, and went on to bet me £50 of my royalties that the book would be published.
Peter Newman’s generous assessment, matching in its way Lena’s uncritical enthusiasm, came just at the right time. It spurred me on, making me think that maybe, just maybe, my dreams of publication might one day come true.
All I had to do was finish the book – but real life kept getting in the way. It was to be three more years before it dawned on me that I would have to find an end point. Otherwise, as my patient husband remarked, taking the story through to WW1 and beyond – which had been Plan B – it would take twenty years to complete. He was expressing something that had been making itself felt for some time. In October, about a month after he’d gone back to sea, I wrote that I had an ending planned at last.
What baffles me now is that I really believed I could finish this novel – comprising just three parts, all taking place in York – without writing the Dublin section. Perhaps I was simply overwhelmed by the size of this project. Twists and turns and tempting side-issues meant there were already 500 pages sitting beside my typewriter on the dining room table. Roughly another 200 pages would be needed to reach the end. If I were to write the events in Dublin as they happened, length alone would be a negative factor. With a mental image of publishers’ slush piles, I went for the shorter version.