I’m thrilled to announce that Frost Fair is due to come out in e-books tomorrow, 7th December. It’s one of my favourite books and I was thrilled when it was short-listed for the Elizabeth Goudge Historical Novel Award in 2001. It is a first person novel which threw up a number of technical challenges, (it is my only first person novel).
Frost Fair, 1814, by Luke Clennell
The big plus about writing in the first person is that you can get a real emotional immediacy. When the story opens, my heroine Emilia Daniels, is sixteen, impetuous and wildly romantic; she loves reading Gothic romances and I felt that I could have a lot of fun with that.
She is an only child. Her affectionate mother, very much a woman of her time, glories in the cult of Sensibility; for her, emotions are paramount. Emilia’s father, much older than his wife, is a product of the Age of Reason; he covers up his emotions with a chilly reserve. Emilia finds him intimidating and avoids him as much as possible.
Villains abducting a heroine
Mrs Daniels dies when Emilia is nine and Emilia retreats into a Gothic fantasy world and begins writing stories full of dark medieval castles, terrifying spectres, mistaken identities, battling knights and a general air of doom. I enjoyed thinking up their titles: The Doom of the House of Ansbach, and The Secret of the Drakensburgs, for example.
However, there are difficulties with a first person narrative as I swiftly discovered. Emilia has no way of knowing what’s going on when she’s not there – unless someone tells her. It might be a really exciting episode but, if she only experiences it at second hand, inevitably, the tension drops. It’s a real problem.
And what about the narrator’s voice? Should I have an aged Emilia telling her story? Or, should I choose to write in a child’s voice – as Sue Townsend does so well in her Adrian Mole diaries. This is technically more difficult – there is the problem of how to get across emotional connections or important pieces of information which your hero or heroine doesn’t know or is too young to understand. Eventually, I decided that my narrator, Emilia, would be in her late thirties; grown up but able to sympathize with her sixteen-year-old self.
‘Edinburgh Life in the 18th and 19th Centuries’ helped me once my heroine arrived in Edinburgh.
The next thing which interested me was the various locations. The book opens in North Yorkshire, a part of the country I knew well, from where Emilia, desperately in love, elopes to Edinburgh. I myself had lived in Edinburgh for a couple of years and I enjoyed researching somewhere suitable for the newly-married Emilia to live. Edinburgh in the early 19th century had a lot of medieval buildings, originally homes for the wealthy but now gone down in the world and reduced to crumbling multi-occupancy apartments. One of those would be perfect.
View of Mr Symson’s House, home of Emilia’s friends, the Irvines from ‘The Book of Old Edinburgh’ by J. C. Dunlop and A H Dunlop. 1886
Emilia had lived in a wealthy gentleman’s house with servants all her life; she needs to grow up and be tested. I threw her in the deep end and allowed her to struggle to keep going on a much lower income; to learn how to make furniture polish and do some hard physical work cleaning and polishing the ancient woodwork. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management came in useful here; as well as giving recipes for furniture polish, it also describes how to light a fire – which my heroine will need later, when locked in an attic room by the villainous Balquidder….
In a snowdrift, from ‘Coaching Days and Coaching Ways’ by W. Outram Tristram, 1894
I also needed to know about travelling by mail coach in the depths of winter for when Emilia flees for her life.
INTERLUDE: ENTRY OF THE HERO
Emilia has known Colonel Noël Beresford all her life; twelve years older than her, he is one of her childhood heroes. But when we meet him, he is a man under stress. He and his brother George both fell in love with the enchanting but extravagant Aline de Doulaincourt. Aline found Noël the most attractive but she knows that George, as elder son, will inherit a substantial fortune, so she chooses him, leaving Noël heart-broken. Two years later, he does the sensible thing, marries a woman with a good dowry who bears him a son but dies in childbirth. Noël leaves his son with his mother and joins the army. He is badly wounded at the battle of Vittoria and is invalided out. Noël is in a lot of pain and finds it difficult to cope with his eight-year-old son, Richard.
Colonel Beresford has much to learn. Through no fault of his own, he is entangled in Balquidder’s financial web; he needs to become a proper father to Richard; to understand that Emilia is no longer an over-romantic sixteen-year-old – but an intelligent young woman of twenty-four, with a successful career as an author and that she has much to offer – which he needs. Life for Colonel Noël Beresford is about to become very dangerous indeed.
In my mind, he’s Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility.
Emilia arrives in London in December 1813, a day or so ahead of the worst winter in living memory. Temperatures fell below freezing for over a month and 1814 became known as ‘the year without a summer.’
‘Frosts, Freezes and Fairs’ by Ian Currie – a really helpful book.
Fortunately for me, both the Museum of London and the Guildhall Library have excellent collections of Frost Fair ephemera, and I was able to study a variety of posters, prints, and newspaper articles.
While I was writing Frost Fair, the Museum of London put on a wonderful exhibition called London Eats Out: 500 years of capital dining, which included a genuine piece of 1814 Frost Fair gingerbread! The exhibition was also incredibly useful for illuminating the café, chop house, and street food culture of the early 19th century. I bought a catalogue and, over the years, it’s really proved its usefulness.
The last strand in the novel is that of the slave trader, Archibald Balquidder, a man who has ruined the many lives. The Slave Trade itself had been abolished in the U.K. in 1807 but that did not mean that the slaves themselves were emancipated – as the Abolition Society had hoped – that had to wait until 1833. In the meantime, corrupt slave-ship owners, like Balquidder, registered ships illegally in Lisbon, or some other non-British city, and continued their human trafficking.
‘Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood; the Demerara Slave Rebellion in 1823’ by Emilia Viotti da Costa
I’ve often noticed, and doubtless this happens to other writers, that the universe often gives me something helpful when I need it– and it happened with the above book that my historian brother gave me for Christmas, 1988. What is brilliant about the book is that it tells the reader exactly how the slave system worked in Demerara –now Guyana, and it doesn’t pull its punches. In particular, I learnt about growing sugar – by far the most profitable crop but also the most dangerous. I learnt how a slave plantation was run: the working day, where slaves slept, worked, and grew their food – and the punishments.
I’d already named my heroine Emilia before I was given the book, but I was quietly pleased to discover that it was also the author’s first name. I thought Emilia Viotti da Costa’s book was both brilliant and harrowing, and I learnt a huge amount from it and I took care to include her book in my Acknowledgements.
George Scharf’s London: Sketches and Watercolours of a Changing City: 1820-1850 by Peter Jackson
Lastly, I must mention the above book. I’m a George Scharf fan, there is nobody else, in my view, who shows us so well what ordinary London life looked like in the first half of the 19th century. What he draws is exactly what was there – without exaggeration, moralizing, or prettifying. And he’s interested in ordinary Londoners: road sweepers, men carrying placards, men up scaffolding, and people, young and old, crowding round a Punch and Judy show. He also depicts black people, ordinary Londoners, which reminds us that black people have been living in Britain at least since Tudor times. Scharf also sketches whole streets in such detail that you can see what every shop looked like, and what it sold.
I am delighted that Frost Fair is now coming out in e-books.
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