Always

Always

Are we defined by the things that haunt us? Perhaps haunt is a strong word. How about the things that won’t leave us alone? The things that keep popping back into our lives from time to time. For me it is two signs that I’ve been thinking about lately. The one pictured above I’m hoping will be the jumping off point for a new story.

The other one, another sign on a gate – Manderley – (obviously a fan of the book Rebecca) by the waters of the upper reaches of the Colo River, of all places. I was on a boat at the time cruising past and the gate literally opened out onto the water. I strained to see a house further up the path above the river but couldn’t. This was the 1970s and I’m suspecting that the house and the gate are long gone. From time to time over the years, I wonder idly about hiring a boat and finding the gate but the logistics of the whole endeavour keep putting me off. Still “Manderley” comes to me from time to time in both its manifestations.

Daphne du Maurier “discovered” Manderley in the late 1920s when the family began visiting Fowey in Cornwall. Sailing on her yacht Marie-Louise, Daphne had come across the enchanted woods on the Gribben Headland. “And looking north, inland, from the Gribben, I could just make out the grey roof of a house there, set in its own grounds amongst trees.”

On the first occasion Daphne and her sister Angela attempted to visit the house but the drive was three miles long and night fell before they reached the house. From Growing Pains: the shaping of a writer Daphne writes:

“The following day we tried another approach, taking M (Daphne’s mother’s) little car and driving to the west lodge, leaving the car at the gate. We walked across the park and through another gate, and came to the house. Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the of the fairy-tale, until someone should come to wake her.”

She visits the house many times by herself, walking the grounds, peering inside and imagining the past life of the house. Of course it is Daphne herself who wakes the house. Twice. In real life she leases the house and does it up, making it her home and living there from 1943 to 1969 when she returns it the Rashleighs. In the world of fiction she creates Manderley, the house of Maxim de Winter.

“Childhood visits to Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire influenced the descriptions of Manderley, especially the interior. Menabilly provided the setting, the long drive and the woods hiding the house from the road. The inscrutability of it, you could say.

Inscrutable too was my “Always” gate. What was its meaning? When I first saw the green gate, I had recently moved to the area after my “always” marriage broke up. In the early days when I passed the sign, I would look at it with a quizzical fascination. How hopeful of them. In darker moods, I would think, How dare they! Now I just wonder (as my character Zach will do) what do they actually mean by this nonsensical word?

And what about he persistent image of a ‘Victorian Woman’ who later developed into The French Lieutenant’s Woman – the character Sarah Woodruff in the novel by John Fowles. This image wouldn’t go away either.

In a 1969 essay titled “Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” Fowles reflects on his writing process. He said he had an image during the autumn of 1966 of “A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea.” He determined that she belonged to a ‘Victorian Age’ and had ‘mysterious’ and ‘vaguely romantic’ qualities. He made a note at the time about the function of the novel saying:

“You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t ever pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it’s a pretence.” And not long afterwards The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one of the most intriguing, postmodern historical fiction novels of the 20th century is born.

A sign, a house, a person. Whatever the object of fascination is, it seems to me that often, if we let it, obsession turns into a creation.

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Catching up with your characters after a long break

Passenger Liner 1925

Passenger liner 1925 Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m in a whimsical mood so this is a whimsical post. I’m working out strategies – the best way to reconnect with my characters after a long break. Maybe some of these may help you if you are in the same “boat” and writing an historical novel. This is not the desperation of What to do when you can’t write. No, nothing like that. It’s more like one of us has been on holidays. Say, me. I’m back in town leaving my calling card Debbie Robson, Writer from the 21st century.

There it is on the silver platter. It’s the first, I notice this morning, but will probably soon be buried under an abundance of fancy calling cards because my character is young, very pretty and from one of the wealthiest families in Sydney. And she’s available. Well, her mother and father think she is.

I’m thinking maybe a cooee might help. I have a strong voice that carries. I could cooee across the sandstone mountain range. Way down below are tree ferns, a tinkling waterfall. Look, there are my characters walking along the opposite ridge. Their figures are outlined against the setting sun like an old fashioned travel poster. Soon they will heading back for dinner at The Carrington in Katoomba.

How about a letter? That threatened species that is disappearing as fast as good quality writing paper. “I’m writing to let you know that your best friend Louie is safe and well, in Paris. With Christopher’s help she booked a berth on the SS Osterley. Yes, she’s not even in Sydney. Don’t worry, Sarah. I’ll take care of her.”

In reality (well in the novel) Sarah will be distressed and concerned for her friend and I will leave her in that state for at least a week. Oh, the cruelty of novelists! But don’t worry the manuscript is not called Paris Next Week for nothing.

Actually I’ve decided I’m going to flee as well. I think I’ll catch up with Louie first. Right now I’m on this God awful cruise liner with screaming kids everywhere. Beside me are people with iPhones, iPads and Notebooks taking photos of nothing. I bribe a steward and free of baggage and misconceptions, I step into the small tender that is bobbing in the waves. We are leaving the stacked monstrosity behind. Sunlight is dancing on the water and ahead is the Osterley, dark hulled and very long, quite alien to my eyes. As we get closer I can see women in cloche hats and pencil thin dresses leaning on the rails to call out to me. I smile and call back, thrilled to be leaving the 21st century behind.

Lost in Time

People don’t change over the years but the environment they live in does. When Ishobel Ross, a cook from the Isle of Skye, arrives in London in July 1916 it is amazing how much she gets up to in the city without a car! She is sightseeing – taking in the theatre, a trip to Aldershot, shopping at Selfridges, visits to St Pauls, Marble Arch, and tea at Fullers. The list goes on and I’m exhausted reading it. Finally on the 29th she writes “Got word today (from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals) to report at Victoria Station on Tuesday morning.”

Got word? How? Obviously not by SMS or mobile call but I’m left pondering the alternative. Did the SWH ring Ishobel at her hotel? Send a telegram? From my research into the Twenties in Sydney it is amazing to someone from the 21st century how often they got mail in the early part of the last century: twice in the metropolitan area and for a time a delivery on Saturday which beggars belief. Telegrams too seem to arrive very quickly, including the dreaded ones from the War Office – “We regret to inform you…”

Did the SWH send a boy running through the streets of London with a message? Who knows? There is, of course no way of knowing now. As they say “you had to be there.”  And taking that line of thought I can imagine a 22nd century historian possibly stumbling over emails, letters, the odd diary, containing such lines as: “Met this great guy last night. Too good to be true so I googled him.”

Google may be around for another 100 years. Or it may be lost in time in the way of “got word” and “shanks pony” – a term my Mine Manager/diarist great-great grandfather Richard Pope frequently used in the 1880s. “Took ‘shanks pony’ into Silverton from Broken Hill.” A special breed of horse you are wondering? No, it means to walk. So there you are, you were way off course just as I maybe off course when I speculate on Ishobel’s “got word”.

The past is another country. They definitely do things differently there.