So far I’d merely sketched out the Australian section – now I had to complete the picture. Each snippet of research added to the image in my mind. I was fond of detail, but even in those early days I knew that including too much would be a mistake.
Reading through documents, viewing photographs, Lena, my genealogist friend, shook her head. ‘I know you can do it – but what I don’t understand is how?’
A big question, but I tried to explain by repeating an old art school mantra. ‘In drawing,’ I said, ‘what appears on the page should be lines that suggest everything the artist left out. Same applies to writing…’
But like anything else it needs practice, and back then I was still in my Pre-Raphaelite phase. Thankfully, I’ve loosened up since.
I went on to explain that as students we were taught to observe the world around us – be it landscape, townscape, or figure drawing – and to see how an object relates to its surroundings. Most of all to discover how light and shade can be used to suggest a three-dimensional form on flat paper. In fiction too, light and shade – even a reference to weather on a particular day – helps to make the characters believable.
‘Otherwise these fictional people will have no more substance than cardboard cut-outs…’
Fortunately, to assist with the chapters set in wartime London, I also had a couple of autobiographies to read from the WW1 era. Carmen Callil had sent me Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, and Enid Bagnold’s Diary without Dates, both providing first-hand accounts of life and work in the hospitals of the time. Their experiences gave backbone to the ‘hospital’ strand of the story – and to one of its chief protagonists, the nurse, Georgina Duncannon.
Around the same time I visited The Retreat in York to learn something of its history. Times have moved on, but it still looks more like a country house than a hospital. It was founded in the late 18th century by the Quaker, Samuel Tuke, who promoted humane treatment at a time when asylums for the insane were brutal places. From The Retreat, Quaker doctors had gone on to spread its excellent values across the world.
Today, The Retreat is ‘a charitable, not-for-profits provider of specialist mental health care,’ which works closely with the NHS. But what impressed me at the time of my visit was the atmosphere of calm, so different from the mental hospital where I’d briefly worked before embarking on my writing career.
In my novel, Robert Duncannon’s daughter, Georgina, is a professional who has gone from basic training to nursing the mentally ill. Both location and history made The Retreat a perfect place for my fictional heroine to gain experience; a place, I felt, which would be important to her for personal reasons, and later shape her approach to nursing the wounded.
Much later, after reading the novel, a modern nurse commented wryly that this woman was a saint. And yet from studying personal accounts from WW1, I’d been inspired to write not simply what was possible, but what, for my fictional character, was necessary. Georgina Duncannon is a woman who has abandoned the personal for her vocation. Until, that is, Liam Elliott arrives in London, and she is detailed by her father to keep an eye on him.
Given the circumstances, what happens from then on is perhaps inevitable. But love and loss change people. And even though Georgina’s later life is not pursued in any great detail in Liam’s Story, I hope it becomes clear that after Liam’s death, she was a different woman. Fallible and vulnerable. Perhaps not quite the nurse she had been while her armour was intact.
Regarding Liam – both the fictional character and the real man – in Australia, as in Flanders, they had melded. Seeing the places, fitting the research into the landscape, I felt able then to describe, on the page, what it was like to be him, to be there during his time. To have the old city of York as his background, and to arrive in a strange, new, beautiful country where anything was possible.
So much was good – but then the dream, the potential, was shattered by war.
Considering all that, looking back on that time, brings the author Graham Greene to mind. To keep a clear view, emotion needs to be set aside – which is probably what Greene meant when he famously commented on the icicle in the heart of all novelists.
In my view his ‘icicle’ is not so much coldness as detachment from the issues being written about, coupled with the ability to view and control the outcome. To write clearly, one needs to be detached, leaving emotional involvement to the reader. And yet detachment holds up only for the length of the work. Afterwards is when the writer – particularly the creative writer – feels the pain and pays the price.