Research for writing 2: THE TEXTURE OF LIVED EXPERIENCE

The writing has been going slowly during the last couple of weeks, not because I’ve been slacking but because I’ve been researching more than usual as I write. It’s a reminder that research, for a writer, is so much more than checking names and dates and background events when drafting the plot.

I’ve been reading more than usual as well. I’m writing in a genre that’s new to me and I learn from the books I really enjoy as a reader. It’s all there on the pages, how to do it well. Sometimes, how to get it wrong (for me, anyway) is there too, and I learn from that. I’ve realised that the way a writer uses their research, the way it lives and breathes in the story, very often makes the difference between a book I can’t put down and one I struggle to stick with past the first chapter.

When a show house is ready for viewing, the designers ‘dress’ the rooms for the public, to make them look lived-in and attractive: scatter cushions, vases, books on the coffee table, magazines by the bed and pictures on the walls. And yet, somehow, nothing looks real. The appearance of human habitation has been dropped in and it doesn’t fool anyone. Nobody’s home. The same thing happens when the outcomes of a writer’s research are scattered like those cushions, placed deliberately to add the sounds and smells and sights of a particular historic period. The name of a song popular at that time, the title of a book that was being read, the name of someone who was in the news, an apparently casual reference to something topical, dressing the spaces. It all adds up to an effect that’s attractive, just like the ornamentation in a show house, but it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t take you into the minds and bodies of the characters living there.

Hilary Mantel has said that the job of a novelist is to ‘recreate the texture of lived experience’ and, from my own reading, that doesn’t happen when historical authenticity has been injected into the story in the redrafting. I can only say what I know about my own writing but for me, research is as much a part of the writing process as it is part of the preparation for writing. It takes a long time to understand the world picture of the lives lived by my characters from the past. When I write about them, or find the words to let them think or speak, I need to know what they care about, what they fear, what makes them laugh. I agree with Hilary Mantel when she says it’s time to write when you ‘not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back’.

Sometimes I feel that slipping away from me and that’s when I have to step back and re-immerse myself in the world my characters inhabit. What’s available from a free Internet download is varied and surprising. My protagonist is nineteen years old in the chapter I’m writing at the moment, and the year is 1798. I’m reading the same stories she read in women’s magazines that year, studying the newspaper cartoons she saw that caricatured politicians and well-known people. I’ve spent several hours reading a cookery book published that same year, which helpfully includes advice about how to maintain a household, including how to remove bed bugs from a headboard and how to use wet sand to clean a kitchen floor. I’m reading poetry published in monthly magazines, newspaper reports and, more than anything else, the advertisements, those self-contained little stories that reveal so much about what mattered to men and to women. It’s not a fact-gathering activity. It’s a method of transportation through time and I can feel myself shifting back into her world. The cotton cambric on her back feels light, flimsy, too cold on a day like this. Discomfort.

‘Research is not a separate phase from writing. There is no point where the writer can say, “I know enough.” Writing a novel is not like building a wall.’

The quotations are all from the fourth of Hilary Mantel’s 2017 BBC Reith lectures, ‘Can these bones live?’ broadcast by BBC Radio 4 and available as Podcasts

Never say ‘Never!’

Earlier this year I was at the Margaret River Library, talking about the latest research I’ve been doing since publication of my book about Georgiana Molloy. I closed the presentation by making the point that some things simply have to remain a mystery forever.

I showed the audience a photograph taken at the JS Battye Library a few weeks earlier, an image of a document found among the papers of John Molloy, Georgiana’s husband.

Bernice Barry 11

I said, “I’ve always believed that John Molloy drew this little sketch of Napoleon for his children, telling them about his adventures in the Napoleonic wars and perhaps even saying that he had caught a glimpse of the emperor himself during the Battle of Waterloo. But the provenance of this sketch this will probably be something I’ll never be able to find out.”

That same afternoon I sat down at the computer and decided to have one more go at discovering some pathways, clues that might just lead me to the truth. What came to the surface that day is a remarkable, twisting tale.

Ten years ago I said, “I’ll never find out how and when John and Georgiana first met. It was nearly 200 years ago and nothing’s recorded about that small event.” Then, in 2011, a list of old apple trees on my computer screen opened the door to discovering the wonderful story of their first meeting.

I’ve learned an important lesson: when it comes to research, never say ‘Never’.

To read the next instalment of this story, ‘John Molloy and the emperor’ look  here:

 

© Photograph by Mike Rumble

JS Battye Library WA (SLWA) ACC 4730A Pencil drawing presumed to be of Napoleon with tree and cottage to the right. Anon.

From fact to fiction

The last few weeks have been full of new experiences and much new learning. When things slow down a bit I’ll try to collect my thoughts about all of that, especially what I’ve learned about being interviewed and how to stay calm when you’re on the phone, live, to a lot of people listening in other states. I’m still a real beginner but the best things so far (for me, anyway) have been the encouragement and feedback. Readers tell me their thoughts about my book and their own reasons for a personal connection with the story. Messages from reviewers and writers have also meant a lot to me.

It’s also been a busy time of moving on with writing something new and that feels strange, with so much interest now in John and Georgiana Molloy, having so many conversations about them and answering questions about researching their lives, at the same time as I’m travelling  further into the new manuscript I’ve been working on for the last six months. It’s fiction so it’s another challenge but I deliberately set out to find out what would happen for me as a writer if I stepped way beyond my comfort zone.

The extended pathways of research over the last decade meant that I collected a huge amount of interesting material that ended up being filed away and was never used.  But there were a few things – tiny, colourful pieces from hidden lives – that lodged in my memory and kept burrowing away into my imagination. I couldn’t let them go and last year I decided to find a way of bringing those parts together and adding new elements to make a complete story. I thought fiction would be so easy in comparison with writing a historical biography… After all, you can just make it up! But it’s not easy. It’s difficult. Yet it’s difficult in the same delicious, mind-stretching way because it still involves choosing words and putting them next to one another in the very best way you can.

Family anecdotes and old, old documents like this one from Georgiana’s history started me off on an exploration of someone else’s world, one that I had to create rather than find. But it still feels like ‘finding’ and the people in this narrative have already become real to me in a way I’d never, ever anticipated. The strangest thing of all, so far, has been the way a new character appears in front of me in the scene I’m writing. The whole book is planned and researched and plotted and yet someone I wasn’t expecting suddenly walks onto the stage and I realise they were part of the story all along. I just hadn’t met them yet.

Tiny details

Minutiae…  Small pieces of information can fascinate.  They don’t usually answer the big questions but they work together in magical ways to bring the past to life.  An individual is placed in a more detailed setting and their world is populated with real objects, against a background of colours and sounds. Even now, for most of us, each day is usually an accumulation of small experiences.  Finding details in the lives of the Molloys and the people whose lives touched theirs in some way (as family, friends, ancestors or descendants) was an important part of learning to understand their world but most of the information that I found so absorbing couldn’t be included in the book; long lists of facts aren’t always welcome as part of storytelling! But the small things that intrigued me continue to do so because they make people I’ll never meet seem just a little more real. Here’s a small and very random selection of information that came my way. I hope it gives you a sense of the enjoyment I find in history.

*When Georgiana was at school in London in the 1820s, she had her hair cut about every five weeks. Her mother had to pay additional costs for almost everything apart from the food she ate: washing for each year, the sheet music provided for her music lessons, visits to the opera, the cleaning of bonnet ribbons, the fees of her ‘Dancing’ teacher and any hairdressing required. She attended a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and for some reason I can’t imagine, she needed purple net and a black silk apron.

*The Adult Orphan Institution where two of the Bussell sisters were educated in London after their father’s death was started by Sophia Williams. Sophia was an illegitimate daughter of (Giacomo) Casanova, the Italian writer known today for his amorous affairs.

*When Georgiana’s mother married David Kennedy in Carlisle in 1800, it was an unusually warm autumn. In the English countryside, Michaelmas daisies flowered and walkers who were out in the early evening air saw gossamer floating on the breeze.

*Captain Duncan Darroch of Drums near Dumbarton, a friend of Georgiana when she was living in Scotland, was even more dashing and eligible than I had space to detail in the book. This future Baron of Gourock was part of the military guard for the exiled French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on the small, barren island of St Helena. He was present when Napoleon died, an event that caused even the most patriotic English soldiers to collect souvenirs – a lock of hair or a piece of lint dipped in Napoleon’s blood.

*The research of Georgiana’s granddaughter, Georgie Bisdee née Hale, helped me find the right pathways to explore. There wasn’t room in the book to include the beautiful details of her wedding, an occasion that showed how John and Georgiana’s descendants had thrived.

‘Her dress was white crepe de Chine over white silk, trimmed with some beautiful old lace and chiffon. The bridal veil, arranged to shade the face and to fall in graceful folds past the waist at the back, was a piece of lovely old Brussels lace, and had been worn by the mother of the bridegroom on her wedding day more than sixty years ago. It was caught at the back with a diamond fillet. A shower bouquet of white roses and bouvardia completed the costume. The two bridesmaids were Miss Dorothy Bisdee, niece, and Miss Joan Cox, cousin of the bridegroom, who both looked very pretty in gowns of cream-embroidered mousseline de soto over silk, with cream straw hats, trimmed with champagne coloured ribbon, and carried bouquets of fortune’s yellow roses and autumn leaves, with trails of Virginia creeper.’

Western Mail Perth WA 7 May 1904 (trove.nla.gov)

*Listening to music from the past, recent or distant, can seem to make the years disappear. On 17 March 1812, as John Molloy’s regiment took up their battle position outside the town wall of Badajoz in Spain, their band was playing the very appropriate tune,  ‘St. Patrick’s Day’. On 15 June, after weeks of marching, hunger and hardship, the regiment arrived at Puente Arenas, a town where they could rest and re-supply. The band of the 1st Battalion played, ‘The Downfall of Paris’ (another traditional dance tune) as they marched over the bridge and camped nearby. There are many versions available to listen to but this one transported me to a place side by side with the marching men of the Rifle Brigade.

And on this clip the wonderful Martin Carthy tells the full story of how this tune came to be a favourite during the Napoleonic War.

*By the time Georgiana’s mother was forced to move out of Crosby Lodge, she had reduced her household to just two servants, a man to do the heavy work/odd jobs and a woman. This meant that Mrs Kennedy had to take on some domestic duties herself, probably for the first time in her life.

*The city of Ladysmith in South Africa was named in 1850 for Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith, the wife of Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith. This Harry Smith was John Molloy’s old friend from his days in the Rifle Brigade and Molloy was with him when he first met Juana in Spain during the Peninsular War in 1812.  Georgiana met her too during their stay at the Cape of Good Hope. Juana taught the newlywed Mrs Molloy the Spanish folk songs that she and John later sang to their children.

*In her letters, Georgiana often made reference to poems and stories from her childhood, or mentioned the fact that her children knew them too. Most of these can still be traced through Internet searches. The nursery song, ‘Dame Durdan’ tells a story of farm life much like Georgiana’s in Augusta:

‘Dame Durdan kept five servant maids to carry the milking pail,
She also kept five labouring men to use the spade and flail.’

Another example: in 1833 she asked her sister to send her some books for little Sabina, ‘The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s feast’. A poem written by the Princess Mary tells this simple story (Bell 1808) and other versions (William Roscoe) were designed for children. New editions and adaptations of both are still in publication today.

‘And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black

Who carried the Emmet, his friend, on his back;

And there came the Gnat and the Dragon-fly too,

And all their relations, green, orange and blue.’

 

‘Emmet’ is an old English word for an ant. You can see the rest of this 1808 text here.

*Captain Francis Byrne was an army colleague and friend of John Molloy but when the two couples travelled together to Perth, Georgiana found that she disliked Mrs Byrne. Anne-Matilda was the daughter of Sir Amos Norcott, a commander in the Rifle Brigade. Her brother Charles sailed to WA with her and became Superintendent of Police. The area known as Norcott Plains was named after him and so was a street in Perth, but ‘Noreatt Place’ was the result of someone misreading the spelling of his name!

Choices, choices…

One of the most difficult aspects of writing the book was deciding what information to include and what to leave out. Small facts about someone’s life, the minutiae of their world, can seem fascinating to one person and read like boring detail to another. Many of the gaps in Georgiana’s life were found by locking on to these apparently insignificant things and following their paths back in time. Some of the research stories were included in the book, some got a mention but no detail, but many didn’t make the cuts. This one was reduced to a single sentence in the book and on the Facebook page.

‘Another treasure was her brother George’s ticket for the opening ceremony of the Carlisle Canal in March 1823, just before his tenth birthday.’ (Page 321)

There was more I wanted to tell about this object, saved in her sewing box and handed down through the family. The first few times I saw the ticket I assumed that it was Georgiana’s. I was looking at the photograph more carefully last year and realised that the name is ‘Mr’ and not ‘Miss’. The abbreviation is the common one for ‘George’. The ticket actually belonged to Master George Kennedy. It’s one more clue to the warm affection Georgiana felt for her youngest brother.

The Carlisle Canal was a grand venture intended to boost the economy of Georgiana’s home town by connecting it for the first time to the coast via the Solway Firth. Carlisle was a manufacturing ‘boom town’ and was known for its wool and cotton cambric fabric but the world was changing and industry required faster, much cheaper transport. The canal was quite successful but short lived because it was replaced in the 1850s by an even faster and more efficient way to transport goods: a railway.

I wondered why a journey on the canal was necessary for young George. Why did a child need access to the warehouse? Why was it a day worth remembering with this ticket as a keepsake? In June 2015 I checked the date to see if that was significant in some way.

12 March 1823 was the much-awaited opening day of the canal. George (and possibly Georgiana and the rest of the Kennedy family) joined the huge crowds who attended the magnificent ceremony at the ‘basin’ and the warehouse. This explains why the ticket informs visitors about the best time to arrive if they want to watch the first ships arriving. It must have been the last family outing before Mrs Kennedy removed the whole family to Rugby in Warwickshire, where Georgiana was so unhappy. Perhaps that’s why she treasured this small item enough to keep it safe for the rest of her life.

Erased by the passing of time

On the subject of the highs and lows of research… It’s exciting when you find the grave you’ve been looking for after a five year search. Not so exciting when you see that the family chose sandstone for the headstone, a very common choice in the Carlisle area during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s soft and it weathers quickly. Here, the inscription (that might have revealed all) has worn down to a blurred smudge on the surface. All part of the historical fun.

Unravelling mysteries

Ten years ago I had no idea what the note on this envelope might have meant but when I saw it again recently I had learned enough about Georgiana’s mother to understand the abbreviations she used. It’s the same with handwriting. Documents can be difficult to transcribe until you become familiar with an individual hand. After a while it even becomes possible to decipher tricky words because you can predict the particular vocabulary a writer might use.

Cumbria Archive Centre D KEN 3 / 26

A 19th century mind at work

Sometimes an old document can give a strong feeling of connection with the original writer. Thinking not just about the factual evidence in the words on the paper, but also about the person who wrote those words, can create vivid pictures of an individual who lived long ago.

It’s hard to believe now, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, knowing your exact age wasn’t essential for most people in a world where few legal things were connected to date of birth and form-filling wasn’t part of daily life. When Georgiana’s father wrote a personal note recording the date/place details of his own birth, he wanted to know exactly how old he was at the time of writing and he worked out the subtraction not in his head, but by writing it down. A few years later, he must have found the note and he did the same thing again, working out his age once again by writing a simple calculation on the back of the folded paper.

Georgiana Molloy Bernice Barry 19th century mind 2

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The oldest documents in Georgiana’s story

Research can be an exciting experience especially when working with primary sources. You sometimes feel as if you’re touching fingertips with the original writers of the documents in your hands. But it can also be a long, frustrating process. These are some of the precious documents in Georgiana’s family archive, dating back to 1567. Many are written on vellum (calf skin) and in Latin, with heavy wax seals. They hold the stories of a family’s past but they are so very difficult to read.

It’s interesting that, so far, this photograph has been viewed by more readers than any other on the ‘Georgiana Molloy 1805-1843’ Facebook page.

Coast Australia, Series 2, 2015

Filming in Augusta with the wonderful Brendan Moar for the second series of Coast Australia, May 2014.

Georgiana Molloy Bernice Barry Coast Australia 1

The documentary included a section on Georgiana Molloy in Episode 4.