Today I’m delighted to interview Jane Davis, an award-winning author of several literary fiction novels. As well as a friend, Jane is an excellent writer, whose books I eagerly wait to read as soon as they are out. I’m lucky to have received an advance copy of her latest novel, Small Eden, which is out tomorrow. A review of the novel will follow shortly here and on my Instagram feed.
Q: Where do you live and how does that influence your writing?
I grew up close to Wimbledon, best known for its association with lawn tennis. These days, SW19 is in one of London’s most expensive postcodes, but back in those pre-DIY days, it wasn’t nearly so affluent. I can no longer afford to live there, but I haven’t moved far.
It used to amuse me as a child when my father pointed to a built-up area and say, ‘I remember when this all used to be fields’, but I’ve noticed that I’m saying much the same thing. The changes I’ve seen, both demographically and architecturally interest and unsettle me in equal measure. I wrote in Half-Truths and White Lies how the discovery that my middle school had been knocked down made me feel as if my memories had been trampled on. My interest is change, how it feels personal, and sometimes you won’t even be aware what’s been taken from you until you return to a place you once loved, or were loved in. Somewhere that has acquired more meaning than the place itself. And, returning to that place, you stand there and try to take it in. The block of flats. The bland new housing estate. The multi-storey car park.
With Small Eden, I have written yet more characters into my personal landscape – the land on which our house is built, and which had an industrial history as a chalk pit. What an act of optimism it must have been for one man to turn it into a pleasure gardens at a time when the trend for pleasure gardens was over! And how did it finally become a residential street, indistinguishable from any other street in the area, but for subtle clues?
Q: Can you tell us any more about your house?
When we moved into the cottage, hanging in the hall was a reproduction of a woodcut depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of doubles on a tennis court. The vendors had told us that it had been the gatehouse for an estate, but that didn’t feel quite right. We consulted a local historian, who was intrigued enough by what he saw to begin researching the history of the cottage. What he had to tell us was far more interesting. The cottage was built by a Mr E Cooke. (I call him Robert.) As for what led a man to create a pleasure gardens after the last of London’s pleasure gardens had failed isn’t written in any history books. My instinct was that something from his past was driving him. It had to be a person. And that, of course, is the story.
Q: You were writing this book at the time your father died. Did you find that your loss shaped the story?
That’s a good question. I always wonder if what’s going on in my life is visible on the page. I had already started to write about a man whose life was shaped by grief, when my father went into a care home for what should have been a fortnight’s respite care. None of us could have foreseen how rapidly he would decline. And because he was hospitalised during a lockdown, I didn’t get to see him during the last month of his life, so there was that loss too. I don’t know, perhaps I was able to flesh out my main character’s feelings as a result.
As a writer, I can give characters histories, I can write memories into being. You might argue that they’re not real, but after my father died, I learned that some of the stories he told me about his childhood were just that. Stories. What is important is that he believed them, and because he believed them, these stories shaped him, and in turn shaped me. In fact, I have discovered that the story that inspired my novel These Fragile Things, something that I was convinced was part of my DNA, probably wasn’t true. I wanted to go on believing it, but the dates just don’t stack up. There were a lot of dates that didn’t stack up and sheaves of paperwork that pointed to the truth. So that’s something I thought about while I was writing the book.
Q: Do you agree that writing itself is an act of preservation?
Absolutely. 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’m not surprised that they crept in. Sometimes writing means bearing witness to a rapidly receding way of life. Sometimes it means resurrecting a piece of the past that has been excluded from the history books. During my research, I discovered that Mitcham, a town three miles from where I live, was once Britain’s opium-growing capital. There is no shortage of information about the area’s history of lavender growing, but even though the use of opiates was widespread in the nineteenth century, it’s actually quite hard to find information about opium growing. And so I decided that should be what my main character did for a living.
Q: You’ve talked about your leading man, but can you tell us a little about some of the women in your novel.
Firstly, there’s Robert’s wife, Freya. Robert married her when she was only seventeen. She had come to Carshalton from Leeds for a spring-water cure. In marrying Robert, she left her large extended family. The couple barely had time to get to know each other when their first daughter Estelle arrived. The two boys Thomas and Gerrard followed in close succession, and Ida arrived shortly after the boys’ death. The loss of their sons has driven a wedge between them, not because Freya blames him, but because they simply don’t know to talk about their loss. Freya concerns herself with her daughters’ upbringing and running the household, but as Robert’s business expands, and the pleasure gardens open, she becomes socially ambitious. She’s horrified when Robert develops the calloused hands of a worker.
Then we have Robert’s mother, Hettie. Robert has always rebelled against Hettie’s excessive avoidance of risk. Hettie’s fears aren’t without good reason. She was named after a ridge in the Scottish Highlands, the place where her parents met. Then, when she was still an infant, her father was killed in a mountaineering accident, and so she knows that the world is not a kind or a safe place. Hettie has constructed a very specific set of rules to help manage her fear, until eventually she is galvanised into setting off on a pilgrimage to see for herself the place that claimed her father. This proves to be transformative. Hettie realises that her fears have no basis in reality. She’s been her own goaler all these years. And so, after an absence of several months, she arrives home in Carshalton a very different person, striding about looking like the Wild Woman of Boneo and caring little for public opinion.
When Robert decides to run a competition for the design of his pleasure gardens, Florence Hoddy is the only woman to respond. A brilliant mind and a talented artist, she lost the use of her legs in a road accident. Hiding herself away from pitying eyes, she paints only what she sees from the window at the back of her house.
In Small Eden, I wanted to show a world on the cusp of change. Robert says that none of the women in his life are behaving as he expects them to. I was proud to discover that my local town, Sutton, had a very progressive girls’ school, complete with a science lab (which was almost unheard of at the time). And we see Ida Cooke’s aspirations to study medicine, and this being a real possibility. We see women tennis players. And in spite of her injuries, we see Miss Hoddy being perhaps the most liberated of all of the female characters, freed from the burdens of being a woman and a mother because her accident left her chair-bound, and instead finding fulfillment through art.
Q: Is there an environmental element to the novel?
There is 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, mourning the loss of hedgerows, Robert 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.
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…
‘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
More About Jane Davis, 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.
Publication Information and Links
EBook release date: 30 April 2022
Available for pre-order: 7 April 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Universal buy link: https://books2read.com/u/bPg68r
Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/60736777-small-eden
Paperback release date: To be confirmed.
Contact Jane Davis