Since Carmen was away on business, I was to meet my editor first. Arriving at Chatto’s offices in London’s Bloomsbury was another pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment. The beautiful Georgian terraces, surrounding a green park, once housed the titled and wealthy, but had been the home of book publishing for decades.
Chatto & Windus – now part of Random House – moved later to Vauxhall Bridge Road, but in the late 1980s their building in Bedford Square seemed structurally unchanged from its 18th century heyday.
I was captivated. Like a tourist in a stately home, I paused to admire the staircase, the banisters, the mouldings – the books for heaven’s sake – not to mention the portraits of famous authors arrayed like honourable ancestors all the way up to the second floor. Alison Samuel was amused, I think, so I felt I should explain my love of architecture, although my smile probably told its own story. Only another book-lover could understand how I felt that day: happy, honoured, impressed, and despite the evidence of my eyes and several glowing letters, not quite able to believe that I was entering an historic publishing house, and my work would shortly be part of it.
Alison was about my own age, petite and stylish, with cropped dark hair, an elfin face and a lovely sense of humour. I liked her at once. And liked the fact that she was forthright, that she could say what she thought was not so good and back it up with an explanation. She hoped it didn’t upset me? I said not at all, I enjoyed constructive comments, and hoped to learn from them. After that first meeting I would say that we were both looking forward to working together.
We talked for two and a half hours, about everything to do with the book, from its inspiration right through to the new work I’d agreed to do. At the end of it Alison gave me three pages of notes, queries, criticisms and suggestions for me to go through before our next meeting – with her boss, Carmen Callil – on 15th October.
I had an appointment to see Caradoc on my way back to King’s Cross, but by then my mind was limping. I didn’t have chance to read Alison’s notes until I was on the train, but the first few lines read: It’s an astonishingly accomplished novel, quite the most stunning, evocative, romantic and beautifully written historical novel and love story we’ve read in years.
That blurred my vision for several moments but, hankie in hand, I read on. After the praise, the crits of Louisa Elliott were mere technicalities. I read them thoroughly, knowing as I did so that they were justified and could only improve the novel. When I showed the comments to Lena, she was in full agreement. And with her past experience in the workplace, she was able to stand back and express her admiration for these publishing professionals. Like me, she understood just how vital a detached appraisal was to any piece of work.
And she kept quoting the praise to anyone who would listen. Get them interested, she insisted; get them all buying when the book comes out. She should have been in marketing.