I am delighted to be handing the blog over to author, Rachel Malik today as she talks about the characterisation in her novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves.
Over to you, Rachel!
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves
I’m afraid I can’t talk about Miss Boston without talking about Miss Hargreaves or Miss Hargreaves without Miss Boston. The novel is, amongst other things, a love story and a story of friendship and everything follows from their meeting. At the beginning of the novel, in 1940, Elsie Boston is a second generation small-holder, living alone and desperately trying to hold her Berkshire downlands farm together. She is nearly forty, unmarried and has no children. Rene is younger and arrives to work for Elsie as a Land Girl. She’s a city girl and a Northerner and she says that she’s a widow – but that’s not the whole story.
Elsie and Rene’s lives are hugely different from mine and probably from most readers’. They were working-class women born in the early 1900s who, via different routes, come to be living and working on the land in the 1940s and 50s. In contrast, I’m a middle-class Londoner, never happier than when I’ve got a big city to explore, and something, anything to talk about and analyse. The stark facts of their lives, above all that Rene leaves her very young children, doesn’t make them immediately sympathetic but it was crucial that readers really came to care about what happened to them. Looking back now, I don’t think I’d have set myself such a challenge as a first time novelist if Elsie and Rene hadn’t been based on real people.
When I started the book, I knew just a few things about Rene: that she was born in Manchester in 1907, that she was a publican’s daughter, that she married in the early 1930s and started working as a Land Girl in Berkshire in 1940. This was family history territory: birth certificates, censuses and the like and not surprisingly because Rene was my grandmother – my mother’s mother. I knew next to nothing about Elsie Boston, except that she was the owner of the smallholding that Rene came to work at: Starlight. In the early stages of the book it was Rene who drove me because she was my relative. She was also elusive, a mystery: I had never met her and my mother hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl. Why had she left her husband and children and why just before the beginning of World War Two? What kind of a life had she and Elsie had together? Did Rene ever regret her decision? Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is also a crime novel and without introducing spoilers, the crimes involved also brought up questions of character.
I wanted to keep Rene and Elsie at something of a distance in the writing – I didn’t want them to be too easy to get to know but I wanted to connect with them too and offer readers a way of doing the same. I knew from my mum that Rene named her after a film actress and I turned this into a love of cinema – a way of connecting her early life in the busy city with later events in the book. Making Rene a cinema fan also brought ‘us’ closer as I love cinema too, particularly the silent cinema that she encounters as a child. Rene started to take shape but I was still uncertain about Elsie. Born in Willesden, a London suburb at that time (and actually very close to where I grew up) Elsie was one in a big family who spent her whole life living and working on the land. I am an only child and a tentative and unsuccessful gardener but Elsie’s liking for cooking and love of animals are also mine. Her absolute commitment to being a farmer, often at great cost, is one of the things I particularly admire about her.
The first time I read the reports of the trial that Rene and Elsie become a part of in the early 1960s, I was disturbed to see them so exposed and I wasn’t really able to make much use of the material. I realise now that plenty of things you read when you’re writing don’t seem to be especially helpful at the time. But there were phrases each of them used that stayed with me. Elsie’s ‘we were rich’ – such an odd phrase to describe their life of hardship – haunted me, and I began to hear other things they might say. Then I wrote a series of letters between them (the original first chapter), these looked back at their lives together and this somehow opened up the way they talked and thought. That was the breakthrough, realising that it was their relationship that was crucial and that I had to think about them dynamically, not as separate units.
Friends who first read the book and after that, my agent and editor, liked Rene and Elsie from the start but the matter of Rene leaving her children concerned them – not surprisingly. In early versions I had almost skated over it. Now I felt encouraged to try and develop both stories and see what happened. Rene had left her children, which was unforgiveable, but I also greatly admired her. She and Elsie had broken with gender conventions and forged and maintained their relationship against all the odds. This is the story I have tried to tell, the whole one, both stories.
Thank you so much for joining me, Rachel! What a great piece. I love this era and will certainly be adding Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves to my TBR!
If you’d like to find out more about Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, you can follow the link below to get your copy of the book!
About the author …