You might just have noticed that I’ve been a bit antisocial recently – I really can’t remember when I last welcomed a guest to Being Anne. When authors get in touch, I’d always much rather read their book – if it appeals, of course – and write a review. But when Jane Davis contacted me about her latest novel, Small Eden, I knew I just couldn’t manage to fit it into my reading list, however much I wanted to – so I thought I’d rather like to invite her to tell us a little more. Independently published, the eBook was released on 30th April, and the paperback (I see from Amazon) is now available too.
Jane has been my guest here before – with a post back in 2017 about I Stopped Time (you’ll find that post here – and can receive a free copy of the book if you sign up here for her newsletter), and again in 2018 with a post about Smash all the Windows (you can read it again here). And a few months later I was delighted to share my review of that one, and it was a book I was happy to recommend without reservation – quite wonderful characterisation, a stunning portrait of grief and loss with immense emotional depth, an examination of blame and responsibility, an ultimately uplifting read but tinged with the sadness that none of it really matters as those who remain attempt to survive in their own individual ways (you can read my full review here).
I’d like to promise that I’ll read this book soon too, but I just can’t see any blue sky over the next few months – but I’m delighted to welcome Jane to answer a few questions and whet all our appetites…
A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…
How would you describe your writing to others?
My own favourite definition of fiction is that it is “made-up truth”. Whatever my subject-matter, I try to make sure that my writing is honest, credible and authentic. I like to write about big subjects and give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas. I don’t allow my characters any privacy. I know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, the lies they tell and the fears they’ve suppressed. But I only meet them at a particular point on their journeys, usually in a highly volatile or unstable situation. How people behave under pressure reveals so much about them.
Beyond that, the kind of writing I enjoy – and hope to emulate – presents complex ideas in simple language. My favourite opening line of a novel is from The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies. ‘To lose a small boy in a world so wide is an easy thing.’ Perfect, and only one word contains more than one syllable.
And to throw another sentence into the mix. This one comes from The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham. When one character tries to explain why he has fallen for a particular man, he says, ‘He is not anyone Eakins would have wanted to paint.’ I love that.
What was the seed of the story in Small Eden?
For me, stories always start with a question, a desire to understand something or someone, or how an event could have happened the way it did. The seed might be a small detail that catches my eye. It might be a news report or a photograph. In the case of Small Eden it was a reproduction of a woodcut which hangs in our hall depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of tennis, just in front of our cottage.
We knew a little about the history of our cottage. It was built as a ticket office for a pleasure garden, but why a man would have created a pleasure garden at a time when larger enterprises had failed has always intrigued me. And so that became the story. My feeling was that the reason had to be personal.
What is the most significant event for you in the story and why?
It has to be the opening scene, because everything else stems from it. My main character Robert Cooke downplays his wife Freya’s concern that their son, Thomas, is running a fever. He tells her that Thomas doesn’t need a doctor, he’s only teething. In fact, the early symptoms of scarlet fever are similar to those of teething – the temperature, the flushed cheek and so on. So the Cookes don’t call for a doctor, and they don’t separate their infant son Gerrard from his brother. And of course, by morning, it is too late.
What follows is the story that follows is of how Robert creates a garden in his sons’ memory, and he does so in a place that was important to him as a child – a disused chalk pit, where he found sanctuary when his family first moved from London where everything was familiar to him, to a strange and backward place in Surrey called Carshalton.
It’s only when he loses sight of why he created the gardens that things begin to go wrong for Robert, but somehow in failing, he finds his own humanity.
Where is the book set?
The novel’s opening scenes are in London as Robert and his family visit Cremorne, a large pleasure gardens in Chelsea. I found the most wonderful sepia photos of Cheyne Walk taken in the 1860s, long before the Embankment was built and when the houses fronting the Thames were favoured by artists. Mortimer Menpes, the watercolourist and etcher, shared a flat with fellow artist James Whistler, and Turner spent the last three weeks of his life there. The action then moves to Carshalton, a Surrey village of some 2500 souls, and where life centres around its church and its taverns. There are also sections set in Glencoe, where Robert’s mother Hettie makes a pilgrimage to the place she was named after, also the place where her father met his end in a mountaineering accident. The wild open landscape of Glencoe is a contrast to the pleasure garden Robert creates, where nature has been tamed and sanitised. And finally we find ourselves in South Africa, where one of our characters goes to fight in the Boer War.
Where did your research take you?
The Victorian era. I had to look into everything: manners and etiquette, men’s hats, women’s underwear, how Victorian’s predicted the weather, horses and transport, street vendors, women mountaineers, tennis players, life expectancy, illnesses and their treatments and the language of death. I researched pleasure gardens and the growth of public parks, tight-rope walkers, human zoos, hot air ballooning, female artists and the Boer War.
Did you discover anything unexpected in your research?
Actually, yes. Today the name Carshalton is best associated with lavender growing. Of the many lavender farms that used to exist, only two remain. Mayfield Lavender is the larger of the two. In the summer months, people come a long way to see it.
But lavender was just one of many crops grown for medicinal and cosmetic uses. At a time when few women ran their own businesses, I was delighted to stumble across the story of Sarah Sprules. Sarah had worked alongside her father in his physic garden and took over his business after he died. Her products were known worldwide. Her lavender water won medals at exhibitions in Jamaica and Chicago, but the highest accolade she held was her Royal Warrant to supply lavender oil to Queen Victoria, bestowed on her after the Queen and Princess Louise visited her during August 1886. The royal connection proved especially beneficial as Queen Victoria had so many European relatives.
But that wasn’t all. Having decided that Robert Cooke should be a physic gardener, and trying to get an understanding for the crops he would have grown I discovered that Mitcham – just three miles down the road —was best known in the nineteenth century for opium production. This is something that has been written out of the history books, but in the nineteenth century, opium was something few household medicine cabinets would be without. Opium was used an anaesthetic, in sedatives, for the relief of headaches, migraines, sciatica, as a cough suppressant, to treat pneumonia, and for the relief of abdominal complaints and women’s cramps. Far from having a seedy reputation, it was respectable. Prime Minister William Gladstone is said to have drunk opium tea before making important speeches.
Do you agree that writing itself is an act of preservation?
Absolutely – and it’s not just bearing witness to a way of life that has disappeared, but the detail. During the two years it took to complete the novel, my father died. My sister beta read for me and pointed out that I have used a lot of Dad’s favourite sayings in the book. I was totally unaware of this, but I spent two days a week with him in the last couple of years of his life, so I’m not at all surprised they elbowed their way in.
There are other details that I’ve included. My father’s father was a wonderful artist. While at my parents’ house, I found one of his sketches – something I hadn’t seen before – with the inscription on the back: ‘If you study something long enough and don’t try to dictate what you think it ought to say, eventually you’ll find it speaks to you.’ By that time, Dad’s dementia was quote advanced, and he couldn’t confirm whether these were his father’s own words, or if he was quoting from another source, but I Googled them and couldn’t find anything similar, and so I believe that they were his. I have given them to my artist, Miss Hoddy.
Just this week we were told that the hollow horse chestnut tree in our back garden is rotten and will have to be felled. I’m glad that I’ve written about that tree in the book, because now it will have its own small place in history.
You mentioned lockdown. Were there any other ways in which it shaped the story?
I think the book was shaped less by lockdown than by an extension that our neighbours were building that added another storey to their house and brought them closer to us. My working title for the book was Encroachment. I suppose the impact of lockdown was the fact that there was no escape from the building works. I wrote to the sound of builders’ hammers. They’re there in the book. You’ll also find my neighbour’s barking dog in one scene.
Is there an environmental element to the novel?
There’s certainly a call to hold back the hands of change. Robert’s father Walter was a person who carried in his head the imprint of the London he knew as a boy. As a grown man, Robert mourns the loss of the hedgerows he knew from his childhood. He worries that Carshalton will simply become another London suburb. Part of his motivation for buying the chalk pit is to stop it from being snapped up by house-builders. By the end of the novel, the chalk pit has been overlaid by the pleasure garden and the pleasure garden by new buildings. Nothing is permanent; it’s impossible, no matter how energetically Robert fights his own personal battle against the encroaching years.
‘Life as it is, in all its terrible beauty. 5 stars and three hankies’ – Jean Gill, author of Historical Fiction series The Troubadours Quartet
‘With an eye for precise detail balanced by a sweeping imagination, this beautifully constructed book is built on deep foundations. Read it at least twice.’’ – JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs Series
About the author
Jane Davis’s first novel, Half-Truths and White Lies, won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with An Unknown Woman being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with Smash all the Windows winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.
Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of An Unknown Woman. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?
When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.