Louisa Elliott and Liam’s Story took a huge amount of in-depth study. By the time both books were finished I’d reached saturation point. I’d lived with my characters for so long, worrying about their past, present and immediate futures, I knew them better than my own children. At the time, learning, writing, discussing, was mostly terrific fun, like playing grown-up games of ‘let’s pretend’. Having friends to share it with doubled the pleasure. Racing towards the end with a sense of excitement – finding the last chapter, and then the last few lines, takes satisfaction to a transcendent level.
Afterwards, inevitably, comes the anti-climax. The drop in adrenaline is equal to the heights achieved in finishing the work. That sudden emotional void is like losing a lover: it can leave you feeling grief-stricken, weepy, ill and depressed.
In a sense, after Louisa Elliott, it was just as well that the new house, a new way of life – and particularly the new book with all its excitement – had claimed my attention. Family history had ceased to enthral. After immersing myself so completely in late Victorian life, I needed a break. Liam’s Story provided that break, but afterwards WW1 was a subject I could no longer face. In truth, it was as though I’d been there – as though I’d lived it, which in a sense I had. It was so important to me I used to make pleas with God: ‘I could write this book and die happy, Lord, but please don’t let it be before I get to the end…’
I was wrung out by the time the novel was finished. On a terrific adrenaline high, yes, but it had taken all I’d got to achieve it.
And then the waiting for people to read it. Nail-biting anxiety, followed by the editing process.
Alison Samuel came to stay for one night and two very intensive days of ‘final editing’. Previously we’d worked in her office in Bedford Square, but she thought we’d get on better at Railway Cottage. No phones ringing, no one taking her attention away from the book. I picked her up at the station and we started work shortly before 11:00 am; with just a short break for lunch, we stopped work that evening at 7:30.
We ate out, returning later to look at mock-ups for the covers of the new book and the new edition of Louisa Elliott. The cream and gold covers looked sumptuous, but it brought a lump to my throat to see Will’s photograph in cameo on the front of Liam’s Story.
In my diary, after she’d left next day, I wrote: ‘Up at 7, working by 8. Alison & I had half-hour lunch & I popped a casserole into the oven for later. Just as well – we didn’t finish until 8:30 pm, & then I ran her into town for the 9:15 train back to London. Exhausted.’
Succinct but true. And if I was destroyed, so must Alison have been.
‘Woke up feeling dreadful,’ I wrote next day, ‘all weepy with reaction. Kept thinking of the photo on the cover of the new book & imagining posters of same in bookshop windows. Very strange & upsetting.’
Haunted by doubts now the final edit was over and the manuscript on its way to a printer, I bundled Fido and some overnight things into the car, and headed across the North York Moors to find comfort with Peter.
What had I done? The question drummed at every twist and turn of the road. I wept most of the way to Whitby, aware, for what was really the first time, that I’d written a huge piece of fiction about a real person. With struggle, excitement, passion behind me, suddenly the weight of responsibility was crushing. What if I’d got it horribly wrong? The love-affair with Georgina Duncannon – not exactly the kind of thing you’d brag about – was entirely imagined. What did that say about me? Just who did I think I was to write all this and think it was okay? And what’s more, what was I doing allowing Will’s photograph to be used on the front of a novel that was just a made-up piece of let’s pretend?
‘God knows I meant well,’ I whispered to Peter, ‘but what if I’ve done him a terrible injustice?’
Peter was somewhat bemused. I explained that I hadn’t been affected like this at the end of the first novel – well, maybe I had, but for different reasons. The thing was, Louisa was heavily based on fact – the family history was as accurate as I could make it, the skeleton of truth standing firm beneath the flesh of fiction.
But for Liam, I said, in order to create the fictional modern characters, I’d had to change the family history and introduce an illicit relationship in the past which would no doubt raise eyebrows in the family. In a few months’ time, I said, the book would be out, published, in bookshops on the very street where Edward had had his premises. The street where Will would have walked most days when he lived in York. His photograph was on the cover, on the posters.
I was scared. Who was I to give permission? For heaven’s sake, I hadn’t even asked my mother, and I wasn’t at all sure how she felt about what I’d been doing for the past couple of years.
Sensibly, Peter pointed out that Mum knew about the photograph and hadn’t objected. What’s more, I’d been writing solidly for eight months, virtually without a break. Since beginning this novel two years ago so much had happened. In effect, he said, the two books had overlapped and become one, taking almost a decade of my life to bring to this point. Suddenly it was over. No wonder I was feeling the effects.
We covered this ground more than once, but next morning, after a good long walk on the beach with Fido, my head felt a little clearer, and gradually over the next week or so I recovered my equilibrium, accepted that what I’d written was a piece of fiction, not a biography, and hoped my mother’s family would see it that way.
The photograph continued to worry me though, and despite Peter’s assurance I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d done the right thing until something rather odd came to pass.
Our small front garden edged the drive – what had been the track-bed of the first railway line out of York. The first spring of residence I’d weeded the soil, surprised later when a mass of bright orange marigolds appeared. When I mentioned them to the previous owners they were mystified – no, they hadn’t planted marigolds. But the mass of flowers came back year after year until the summer of 1991. Having aerated the soil in the spring as usual, that summer we found bright scarlet corn-poppies coming through instead.
Bobbing their scarlet heads, they bloomed all through the summer and well into September, prompting memories of my childhood and all those journeys to York. Poppies blooming by the roadside and Mum telling me about her father who’d fought in the First World War – and his brother Will, whose name was on the Menin Gate. I gazed at them in my garden, and knew they were not just a happy coincidence, they were a message that all would be well.
‘Poppies,’ Mum said each time she came down the drive. ‘You always loved poppies…’