Sunday, 28 October 2012

In Defence of Eugenie

Since releasing the latest volume in my Swallowcliffe Hall series, Eugenie's Story, about a month ago, I have come to realise that, while the book is selling well on both sides of the Atlantic, readers in the US don't actually seem to like Eugenie very much - or at least, not as much as Polly, Grace and Isobel. Poor Eugenie! I feel guilty. After all, I dreamed her up and now she's baring her soul in public, only to be condemned as a superficial airhead on

It's true that Eugenie is superficial - at least to begin with. She is a product of her class and time, obsessed with herself, unaware of the feelings and lives of others, blind to the many injustices around her. I wanted to create a less straightforward narrator for this story, so that when she assessed a particular situation or judged a certain person, the reader might wonder what the real truth of the matter was. The gap between Eugenie's frequently high-flown language and the mundane reality of her life is sometimes touching, and often (to me, at least) comical. Upper-class girls of marriageable age in the Edwardian era were placed under such narrow constraints, their opportunities for expression so few, that many of them must have been frequently verging on the edge of hysteria, just like Eugenie. Her blunders and misapprehensions lead her into such trouble! Here she is, visiting a tenant cottage on the Swallowcliffe estate where the man of the house lies ill upstairs. She has brought some cast-off clothes with her:
I visit the Beamishes, with qualified success. Bearing the mourning gowns Miss Pratt has deemed beyond salvation, I knock on their front door for some minutes before Mrs Beamish eventually emerges, sleeves rolled up and hair falling down at the back. Apparently it’s wash day. Inside, the cottage is in chaos: there are children tumbling about all over the place and the baby is wailing. Mrs B takes me into the front room, where the furniture is now covered in dustsheets, but has to keep darting back to the kitchen as the copper’s boiling over. I’m not offered any refreshment, and when I unpack the parcel to show her the mourning gowns, she starts to cry. It soon becomes clear these are not tears of gratitude, as I initially assumed. One of the children sidles into the room to stare at me but runs away when I attempt to engage it in conversation. Feeling a little de trop, I take my leave as soon as decently possible, promising to return another day; Mrs Beamish is clearly relieved. Despite the best of intentions, I fear I lack the common touch.
Who else but Eugenie would consider mourning gowns a suitable gift when calling on the sick? I'm sorry, but she just makes me laugh. And that, I suppose, is the nub of the matter. If you don't find Eugenie at all funny, she must be hard to like. She's not particularly nice to her long-suffering maid, for example, constantly under-estimating and patronizing poor Bessie:
The transformation of Bessie has begun! Part of the problem, I realized with one of those flashes of inspiration that seem to come so regularly to me now, is her name. ‘Bessie’ sounds positively bovine, and her surname is Cheesman which presents further difficulties. I can’t go about calling ‘Cheesman!’ – it would be too ridiculous and has connotations with trade. I have decided to call her Beth, which is so much more refined. The name makes me think of Little Women, one of my favourite books, and while Bessie (as was) may never reach the fictional Beth’s heights of saintliness, she has now been leant a certain dignity.
If nothing in that passage makes you smile, at least inwardly, then Eugenie must seem very unlikeable. Books with unlikeable main characters can be hard work, yet they can also make a reader question the narrative and look for the truth between the lines. (Jane Harris's Gillespie and Me, for example, is quite brilliantly unsettling.) Granted, Eugenie is a snob, obsessed with herself and blind to the injustices around her, yet I've also tried to show that she's brave, passionate, kind-hearted in her own way, and funny. If anyone who's read the story would like to tell me what they think of her, I'd be fascinated.
PS - And look at her tiny waist! How could anyone be charitable in a corset laced so tightly? 

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Mists, mellow fruitfulness and sloe gin...

Autumn is here  (well, in the northern hemisphere at least it is), and I have been out and about in search of blackberries for blackberry-and-apple crumble and sloes, or blackthorn berries, for sloe gin. Sloe gin is something that would have been prepared in the still room at Swallowcliffe Hall, to be enjoyed by Lord Vye at a shoot or out hunting. It's also just the thing for warming you up on the football or rugby touchline. Sloe gin needs a couple of months to steep, so prepare it now to enjoy at Christmas.  

Slithering along this muddy track on a Dorset clifftop - my favourite sloe hunting ground - the only sounds were waves breaking down below on one side of the hedge, cows tearing at the grass on the other, and birds singing overhead. It was a grey day, and the hawthorn berries in the hedge shone out brighter than ever. Some people say you should wait to pick sloes till after the first frost (like digging up parsnips) but these ones were plump and juicy, and if I had left it much longer, the snails would have eaten them all.

Wash the berries when you get them home and pick out any leaves. Then you can either spend a quiet hour in front of the TV, pricking each one with a fork to release the juices, or freeze them overnight and bash them with a rolling pin in the morning. Tip the bruised/pricked/bashed sloes into a Kilner jar and add some sugar: about 1 cup/6 oz/175g per pound of fruit. Top up with gin (you can use vodka too, if you like), seal the jar, give it a good shake and put it away on a shelf or in the larder. (Wish I had a larder. I can remember my granny's clearly: full of jam and marmalade, and bags of elastic bands or neatly-wound tiny lengths of string. She never threw anything away.) Give the jar a shake when you're passing but otherwise leave the drink for a couple of months to mature. You can add more sugar now if you feel it's needed, but go easy or it'll end up tasting like cough medicine.

Strain the sloe gin through a sieve when it's ready. I've read that adding a teaspoon of almond essence improves the flavour even more, though I haven't tried it myself. And some people steep the gin-soaked berries in sherry afterwards. Sloe gin makes a lovely Christmas present, if you can bear to give it away!