“‘The past is a foreign country’” quoted Tracy Chevalier last night at her Primrose Hill Lecture. “‘They do things differently there.’” She continued: ” It’s a great opening line, and I wish I’d written it myself, but I’m not sure how far I agree with it.”
Chevalier is known and highly respected as a historical novelist, and her interest in the past draws her to illustrate the similarities with the present, rather than the differences. Instead of doing things differently from our forebears, as LP Hartley’s character Leo discovers, Chevalier proposes that we respond to life and its twists and turns through timeless human instincts that we share with our ancestors from the past.
However, that’s not to say that society remains the same. Look at Mary Anning, the real-life fossil hunter from Remarkable Creatures. Chevalier fictionalises her story, but the mores of the day – that a working class woman cannot – should not – receive recognition for her groundbreaking fossil discoveries, and that that it wouldn’t occur to the educated men who held sway to accord her any glory, is surely – hopefully – an example of things being done differently in the foreign country of the past.
The writer, best known for her much-loved novel, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, was talking last night to a rapt audience at St Mary’s Church, Elsworthy Road, as the third speaker in the Primrose Hill Lectures series. American by birth, Chevalier has spent her adult life in the UK, and has an English husband and son, who, she says, are amused by her inability to mimic or master the English accent. Alumna of Malcolm Bradbury’s creative writing course at UEA, she worked as a reference book editor before publishing her first novel, The Virgin Blue, a tale of an American woman searching for her French ancestors. However, it was ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ that really lit the blue touch paper and brought her popular acclaim.
Chevalier read last night from her latest novel, The Last Runaway, the tale of an English Quaker girl in the 1850s, who found herself far from home in Ohio, and who became drawn into the Underground Railway, a secret and dangerous system of helping runaway slaves escape into the relative safety of Canada. Chevalier explained that she considered three bridges to stretch from this novel to the reader, spanning the years in between, and linking our instincts and responses to those of her characters, so firmly rooted in the century-before-last. Most evocatively, the first bridge was the sense of being an outsider in a strange land. Chevalier herself knows this feeling well; arriving in London in 1984, she explained how aware she was of difference on a sensory level. Even the taxi fumes were strange to her: “London smelled different.” Having grown up further to the south, in Washington DC, in London she found that the sun was in a different place in the sky, so the light was coming from a different place. The other two bridges were silence – so lacking in our lives, she finds, but so central to the worship of 19th Century Quakers- and quilts, those comforting necessities of home, that keep us warm in our beds and create a core of snugness while we are at our most relaxed, vulnerable and private. The section that Chevalier read to us from her book vividly illustrated her point, and it was enjoyable to hear the author’s words spoken by her own voice.
Chevalier took great trouble to answer the audience’s questions throughly and with consideration, and she opened a window onto her methods, approach and inspiration. She is drawn not by particular periods, for example, but by spotting characters that come alive to her and present themselves as the kernels of a novel. Mary Anning, of Remarkable Creatures, for instance, leapt into her consciousness from a display at the Dinosaur Museum in Dorchester, so that novel was born not from a particular interest in fossils or early 19th Century Lyme Regis, but from spotting the humanity in a specific character. Thorough, almost method-style research and a vivid and very readable writing style of course helps.
Chevalier fans will be glad to know that there is another novel in the pipeline already.
Last night’s lecture will shortly be available to download at
Tracy Chevalier’s official site is http://www.tchevalier.com
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