Free-spirited, anarchic, rule-bending, Prudence’s purpose in life is to have fun, sometimes in unusual ways. Hobnobbing with the likes of actress *Mrs Patrick Campbell, *Lady Ottoline Morrell and *Millicent Fawcett, pioneer suffragist, Prue is happy to dip her toe into anything that catches her fancy.
It’s not often our headline news features How To Keep Cool in a Heatwave in this country of unpredictable weather. (Hot tip for night-times, fill a hot water bottle with cold water; or better still, put it in the freezer.) So if you fancy an easy read to distract from that and other things take a look at Claudia, free on Amazon in ebook form only until July 16th.
This is the one question that writers allegedly dread being asked. But as a writer myself, and a reader, it’s the question I would most like to know of another writer.
Some authors are inspired by a place, or a period in history, some by personal experience, others by a real event read about in a newspaper (or these days on social media). As for me, my ideas always begin with people.
The first book in my Modern Women series, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday,featured a 50-something society lady and mother of three whose moribund life is revitalised by her discovery of the joy of sex. The idea sprang from a short story which in itself was partly inspired by Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, in which a young couple’s married life is ruined on the first night of their marriage by the bride’s deep-rooted fear of sex.
Well now, I thought, isn’t that a common experience? Not all sex entails couples panting up against a wall, or groaning and writhing in a rumpled bed. Sex, particularly for women in the past, was not necessarily regarded or expected to be either joyful or particularly fulfilling. Sex was for procreation only. We have our forefathers (and –mothers) to thank for that.
When I expanded my short story into a full-length novel I decided to set it in the Roaring Twenties, a time of revolutionary change for women: off with the corsets and the inhibitions, in with bohemianism, free sex and Marie Stopes. It was Ms Stopes who first posited (in her book Married Love) the idea that sex could be fun for its own sake and not just for the continuation of the species; who actually mentioned the c-word in print (not that c-word). In my book it was the discovery of the outlandish idea that sex did not necessarily mean lying back and thinking of England that opened Claudia’s eyes to the changing world around her, which in turn led her to realise life can begin at fifty.
Then, since one thing inevitably leads to another, subsequent books in my Modern Women series featured women who’d appeared in the previous book. So Prudence, Claudia’s free-wheeling best friend, became the subject of book two, The Purpose of Prudence de Vere; and Violet, Prudence’s unhappy suffragist friend, the subject of book three, The Makings of Violet Frogg and again of book four, Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.
As I immersed myself first in the Roaring Twenties and then in the Victorian and Edwardian periods – the books went backwards chronologically – I became more and more intrigued by the role of women in those societies. The series title ‘Modern Women’ only occurred to me some way down the line, as I realised Claudia, Prudence and Violet – and indeed Merry and Gaye, two actresses who feature in my later books – were all in their different ways bucking the trend of the worlds in which they lived. They were not campaigning feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. But they managed, in their different ways, to find the means to live their lives as they wanted irrespective of what was expected of them; whether that meant partying with bisexuals in a flat in Parsons Green (Claudia), or proposing marriage to John Maynard Keynes (Prudence), or breaking away from an unhappy marriage to join the suffragist movement and work for a living (Violet).
Someone on BBC Radio 4 recently described Nancy Mitford – who along with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was the inspiration behind my first novel, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday – as ‘allergic to earnestness’.
This is spot on. Despite the fact she was writing nearly a century ago, and about that unfashionable species known as the Upper Classes, her prose is so light, and so witty, it is easy to forget she is writing often about tragic – or worse, apparently trivial – matters.
The Radlett family that features in her novel The Pursuit of Love (currently on BBC 1 on Sunday nights) is dysfunctional to its core, thanks to tyrannical, xenophobic Uncle Matthew (played with great gusto by Dominic West). He uses his children as hunting prey and abuses them, in public or otherwise, at any given opportunity. He rages about ‘huns’ and ‘wogs’ and refuses to allow any of his children to be educated. He humiliates his niece Fanny – the narrator of the book, the only one of her cousins to receive a proper education – with dogged relentlessness. If this was a modern-day family he’d have been locked up years ago and his children taken into care.
The Pursuit of Love on the surface is about the desperate desire of the central character Linda Radlett, Fanny’s cousin, to fall in love and to marry. But the book is a long long way from a romantic novel. The apparent triviality of the central theme is an example of the sort of empty, purposeless lives so many young women were forced to lead back in the earlier part of the twentieth century, when very few of them were expected, or given the opportunity, to make a career or lead any kind of independent life.
Ms Mitford’s determined lack of sentimentality at times comes across as harsh, even shocking, especially when it comes to childbirth. But what also strikes me about her is the economy of her writing. It is this economy and lightness of touch that above all I have tried to emulate in my own novels, and some reviewers have, most gratifyingly, picked up on this. My favourite kind of review is along the lines of ‘a partly tragic story told with wit and a lightness of touch’. Just the sort of thing one might say about Nancy Mitford, if I may be so bold and arrogant as to mention myself in the same paragraph as her.
The Pursuit of Love, adapted and directed by Emily Mortimer, is currently screening in three parts on BBC 1. In celebration of this I have reduced the price of Claudia for the duration of the series to 0.99c (0.99p).
Claudia Faraday, like her author, is a shy and reserved woman who hates to draw attention to herself.
However in the big bad world of books, of which there are far too many, a person – and an author – does from time to time have to raise her head above the parapet and say ‘Here I am!’
So it was for this purpose that Claudia and I enlisted the services of Rachel’s Random Resources, who took us on a five-day blog tour last week in search of reviews. It was the most attention either of us had received ever since Claudia appeared on the scene back in 2015 (she was revamped in 2019), which was heart-warming to say the least. Here are some of the comments from the book reviewers:
The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a delightful novel which consistently confounds expectations . . . Claudia is a lovely protagonist. A gentle and well intentioned woman who, in her sixth decade, is only beginning to question her wants and desires . . . It is not a difficulty to spend time in the world of these delightful characters.https://pajnewman.com/
Patsy Trench writes a fun, easy and totally relatable story that translates well to current day . . . it’s a page turner that I know every woman can identify with in their own way and will absolutely love . . . With a really great cast of characters and a brilliant plot, I honestly have to repeat myself and say “you gotta read this book.” https://www.facebook.com/readinggirlreviews/
Trench combines the charm of the early 20th century with a facet of womanhood that hasn’t really changed that much at all. We put the pleasure of others before our own, because society tends to deem it be correct that way. And goodness gracious me if one does endeavour to discover and enjoy pleasure, and demand it no less – well I never, what would people say? https://mmcheryl.wordpress.com/
A coming-of-age story set in the 1920s where the protagonist, Claudia, shakes off the shackles of a prim, well-to-do lady and discovers the joy of sex . . . Offering something a little different from other books, I think this would appeal to fans of the 1920s or historical fiction . . . It’s an unusual story that provides a different perspective on what it means to be a woman. https://mrsbrownsbooks.wordpress.com/
She originated in a short story I wrote some years ago, about a woman in her fifties and the mother of three grownup children who discovers the joys of sex for the first time.
‘It got better, in time, though to be truthful it always felt more of a duty than a pleasure: a little like homework, satisfying when over, and done well, but never exactly enjoyable. But then nobody had ever suggested it could be otherwise.’
That was Claudia talking about sex.
I was intrigued by the notion that for many women of previous eras sex was largely a matter of lying back and thinking of England. The idea that it could be pleasurable, and done not just for the sake of procreation, never seemed to enter their heads. Then along came Marie Stopes, who made the outrageous suggestion in her book Married Love that sex could be enjoyed for its own sake, and that there was such a thing as a clitoris – whose function was for the purpose of (self) gratification rather than producing babies – and, in her own way set the world of sex on fire.
But The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is not solely about sex. There is a bit of erotica of course. But it’s essentially – as the title suggests – about what the effect this new discovery has on a woman in her fifties, brought up in the rigid confines of the Victorian age and now, thanks to an unlikely happening, emerging into the bright lights of the Roaring Twenties: a time of bohemianism, Noel Coward and the Bloomsbury group; when women were shedding their corsets along with their inhibitions.
It’s a book about a reserved, impeccably-mannered woman of a certain age learning how to behave badly, you could say. What might have happened if Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (whose name was the inspiration behind Claudia’s) had met D H Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors.
In November three years ago I sat
down to attempt the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in a
month. I had heard of the National Novel Writing Month before but dismissed it
as a gimmick. In the event it turned out to be a surprisingly positive
experience, especially for a writer like myself who has a tendency to go back
over stuff until that opening chapter is absolutely
The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it keeps you moving forwards all the time, even if like me you have no idea where your novel is heading. All I had was a character, Prudence, best friend of the subject of another novel I had written, set in 1920s England, about a woman discovering the joys of sex in her fifties. (I wrote about Claudia for Books for Women back in 2016 – http://booksbywomen.org/writing-about-sex-and-the-older-woman/) At the end of the month I hadn’t quite achieved the 50,000 words but my novel, or rather my character, had taken me to all sorts of totally unexpected places, including espionage in World War I, the suffragists, the Bloomsbury set and all sorts.
But there was a problem: having set my character up as a
free-thinking woman who as a result of an inattentive upbringing breezed
through life without rules, boundaries, plans or purpose, I realised my novel
did not have a story. That’s to stay a well-structured
beginning-middle-and-ending, with an inciting incident that set off rising
action to a climax and back down again to resolution; where the main character
goes on a journey and ends up other than where she started. In other words,
along with my protagonist, the novel itself had no purpose.
I wracked my brains to come up with an Idea, but I soon
realised it’s not something you can do in retrospect. That’s like being able to
add the crucial ingredient to a cake after you’ve baked it. So in the end I did
the only thing I could think of – I made a virtue out of what could be regarded
as a drawback: I made the lack of purpose a feature of the book, I even used it
in the title – The Purpose of Prudence de Vere.
If you google the word purposelessness, which I did in order
to look for quotes for the book, you will find it is invariably regarded as A Bad
Thing. A life or a person without purpose is not worth a pin. And yet my novel
is a happy thing and my purposeless central character is – if you think of it
in these terms – a model of mindfulness. She lives in the moment. She is open
to surprise. She is open, period. She lives her life spontaneously, according
to whim and happenstance. She is a lot happier than I am. To tell the truth I’d
rather like to be like her.
Would more of us be happier if we took life as it comes? If
we were not driven, often blinkered, by some purpose that we’ve invented for
ourselves in order to have a reason to get up in the morning?
In life I’m a bit of a control freak, but when it comes to creating characters in fiction I don’t seem to be able to have any kind of power over anything they do.
This is annoying for a dyed-in-the-wool planner. As an example in my current oeuvre my central character – a woman in her forties whose husband, who was a spy in WW1, died under mysterious circumstances – has just decided that rather than accepting an invitation to visit Lady Ottoline Morrell in her mansion in Garsington (both of which I have researched industriously) she is going to embark on a quest to find out exactly how her husband died.
This not only alters the trajectory of my book, it threatens to turn what was meant to be a cheerful memoir of a free-thinking woman of the 1920s into a spy thriller. Now I have to down tools and make trips to the Imperial War Museum and read up on what spies did in WW1, mindful of the fact that everything to do with the secret service in the war was by definition secret, which means the answer isn’t going to come easily, if at all. (Though one joyful discovery: it turns out they – both spies and spy-masters – really were known by letters rather than names, as in ‘C’ and ‘R’ and so on.)
How does any writer plan a book so he or she knows what’s going to happen in the end? I guess if you’re writing thrillers, or anything where plot is paramount, it’s easier to manipulate your characters to fit the story; though they are still people, with wills and desires and temperaments and a natural human instinct for disobedience. Or if they’re not they probably won’t be that interesting.
This really all came about as a result of NaNoWriMo (for those not in the know, this is an annual scheme to encourage writers to try to write the best part of a novel in one month, November). When you have to get your 2000 words a day down and you simply don’t have time to go back on things or to change your mind, let alone to research something, you find yourself making decisions on the spot that may come back to haunt you later. Hence the fact that my character married a spy. (Where did that come from?)
Writing books with recalcitrant people in them certainly keeps you on your toes, and it teaches you something else. I know a lot more about WW1 than I ever did, and even a fair bit about spying. Maybe my next book will be a spy novel.