It’s sadly impossible to read every book that catches your eye, but I’m delighted today to join the blog tour for The Dissent of Annie Lang by Ros Franey, published in April (kindle and paperback) by Muswell Press. See if it appeals to you as much as it did to me…
‘My story starts and ends at railway stations, though of course I can’t know this yet as I clamber off the boat-train at Victoria that warm May afternoon… ‘
Annie is only six when her mother dies. Soon her strict religious father recruits Agnes as a housekeeper from the Mission their family founded, and Agnes becomes his second wife. As her stepmother’s iron grip on her life tightens, Annie’s resistance incurs increasingly harsh punishments. But Annie finds solace in the friendship of her young Sunday school teacher, Millie Blessing, until one day Millie mysteriously disappears…
Six years later, 18-year-old Annie returns from studying in France to discover her beloved brother Fred in a mental hospital. Here she also finds Millie Blessing, who has been held in a locked ward since her disappearance. Annie starts to volunteer at the hospital and with the help of her own childhood diary, she gradually unearths a secret that threatens to ruin them all…
Set in the 1930’s, this novel explores the dark space between public and private morality and charts the journey of brave formidable Annie Lang who dissents from her parents’ path to right the wrongs hidden in the heart of her own family.
I’m delighted to welcome Ros Franey as my guest today on Being Anne, with a simply wonderful guest post – all about “the smell”…
People are asking what on earth prompted me to write my story The Dissent of Annie Lang, a novel set in the 1920s and 30s, which has no apparent connection to my own life, or to the work I’ve done in television documentaries, very much to do with the present. The answer is that it started with a smell.
It was the mid-1990s and I was walking down the road with my friend Penny and my mum, who was pretty spry in her eighties. We stopped opposite a Victorian house and stood staring at it. It was the house where my mother grew up and I hadn’t seen it in 30 years. A man and a woman were working in the garden, digging and weeding, and a little boy ran around them. It was a happy family scene. But after a few minutes we realized we’d been gawping at their home rather rudely, so we crossed the road and went up to them to apologise. I explained that this is Mum. Mum grew up in this house and that I also used to come and stay here as a child. The young woman stuck her trowel into the flowerbed and stood up.
‘That’s amazing,’ she said. ‘How extraordinary. Would you like to come in and tell us about it? Come and look around?’
Her husband didn’t seem too thrilled at this idea but we all answered at once. Mum said, ‘Oh no, thank you.’
Penny and I said, ‘Yes please!’
So in we all went.
Of course, it was transformed. This was the late 20th Century, after all, and Mum’s old house was no different from so many other Victorian houses restored by those of us lucky enough to live in one. Walls had been knocked down. Poky kitchens were now larger, light and airy. Those walls that remained were now bright and white. Dark, varnished paintwork had been stripped back to the original pine – something the Victorians never saw. Net curtains had been binned, to allow the sun to shine in through glorious wide windows. It was unrecognisable from the dreary place in which I used to sit and shiver on those dingy half-term holidays when I was a little girl at primary school.
Glancing at Mum, I could see she was utterly bemused. She couldn’t locate the original boundaries — where the scullery had stopped, for instance, and the breakfast room began, or how the sitting room fitted in relation to the front door. I sympathised: I could barely make it out myself.
We entered the front room. When I was a child, this room – north-facing and dismal – was used as a bedroom. It’s where Mum and I used to have to sleep during those visits on which, for some reason, my Dad was never with us. And the room had a smell. It was the smell of damp, of course; of dank dim spaces, un-lived-in and never aired. But there was something else. It was the smell of a kind of rotting, and it came up through the floorboards from the cellar, which I knew ran underneath this particular room. Whatever those friendly young people had done to the house, however much they had scrubbed and loved and renovated it, they hadn’t been able to get rid of that smell. And although I hadn’t given it a thought in 35 years, it transported me straight back to the end of the 1950s and the sense of dread that haunted me there.
As soon as we had said goodbye and were outside again, I turned to my mother. ‘Mum, Mum, did you smell it? The smell? Did you smell that smell??”
And she looked at me as if I was mad, and asked, ‘What are you talking about? What smell?’ So it had no resonance for her. But to me it was as clear and pungent as it had ever been – my madeleine moment – and it reeked of a story untold.
So of course, I did absolutely nothing with this information for about another fifteen years. But it was a seed inside me, turning this way and that until it started to grow into a story. The story, I’m glad to say, is not the history of my own family, although it’s rooted in the rather fundamentalist Christian faith of my mother’s parents and grandparents – against which she’d revolted, so I’d been spared it.
It’s the story of a little girl growing up with the smell under the floorboards: a stifling climate of abnegation and bigotry, and the hypocrisy that flows from all that. But it’s not a misery memoir. It’s about hope: the optimism, humour and spirit of children, and how the little girl revolts, and sets out on a journey to cut herself free.
Ros, thank you – I so enjoyed that post, and wish you every success with the book. My thanks too to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for the invitation and for her support.
About the author
Ros Franey grew up in the Midlands where this book is set. She is a maker of award-winning documentaries, including two films about the Guildford 4 which, along with the book she co-authored Timebomb, contributed to the quashing of their case. This is her second novel. She lives in Camden, North London.