Strong Women and Strong Stories: interview with Juliet Greenwood

Juliet Greenwood brought out a new novel this year – The Ferryman’s Daughter, published by Orion, set in Edwardian Cornwall, but here is my interview with her, posted a couple of years ago, in which she talks about her first three books, published by Honno.

As with The Ferryman’s Daughter, her books have a strong link with Cornwall and are set in Victorian and Edwardian times, following the lives of strong, independently-minded women struggling to find freedom and self-fulfilment. Eden’s Garden was a finalist for ‘The People’s Book Prize’. We That are Left was completed with a Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary.

Juliet’s great grandmother worked as a nail maker in Lye Waste, near Birmingham in the Black Country, hammering nails while rocking the cradle with her foot. Juliet’s grandmother worked her way up to become a cook in a big country house. Their stories have left Juliet with a passion for history, and in particular for the experiences of women, so often overlooked or forgotten. Juliet lives in a traditional cottage in Snowdonia, in the UK, and loves gardening and walking.

Juliet’s Books

Eden’s Garden
When Carys returns to her childhood home in Snowdonia, to look after her mother, she finds herself drawn back too into her family history, an old romance and the mysteries of Plas Eden, the decaying great house and its mysterious statues.

Her story runs parallel with that of Ann, a gifted artist at the end of the Victorian era, who discovers the hard way that a woman can have a rich husband, a beautiful house and a place in society, but she’s still just property, to be disposed of as her husband wishes… unless she fights to regain her own identity.

We That Are Left
Elin Helstone lives in a grand Cornish mansion, Hiram House, with little to do but be an elegant wife to Hugo, a damaged veteran of the Boer War. The outbreak of the Great War breaks up their cold comfortable world, as Hugo goes off to fight, but it also opens up the possibility, for Elin, her cousin Alice, and her friend Mouse (Lady Margaret Northolme), to discover what they, as women, can do. Elin ceases to be an ornament. She becomes the manager of an estate responsible for feeding the community. Alice takes work in a hospital and the indomitable Mouse ferries supplies to France. When disaster threatens, Elin rises to the challenge. And when the war ends, and more domestic dangers arise, she will find the strength to deal with them.

The White Camellia
Two women have an intense personal interest in the Tressillion estate in Cornwall. Bea has grown up there, daughter of a wealthy, powerful family whose bankruptcy has left her virtually homeless, seeking a career and self-determination in London. Sybil, who left the area years before, has become a wealthy hotelier in America, and wants to buy it.

While Bea, attempting to find employment as a journalist, becomes involved in the suffrage movement, centring on the White Camellia tearoom, Sybil begins to reopen an ill-fated mine at Tressillion. It’s the mine that killed Bea’s father and brothers, and its secrets will bring the two women together.

Here is my interview with Juliet

Would you call your books, first and foremost, historical novels or romances or mysteries? Or do you think they defy definition?
I think I would call my books historical novels, with some romance, and a touch of mystery! Apart from my timeshift, Eden’s Garden, which is set in contemporary and Victorian times, my books tend to be set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I write about independently-minded women finding their own path, which of course includes romance – a particularly angst-ridden subject in eras when women had few other options than marriage for financial survival, when they generally married barely out of their teens with very little experience of life, no contraception, and with no way out if it all turned out to be a terrible mistake. My books are also about families, their conflicts and relationships, and so there is always a family mystery in the background to be resolved. In We That are Left it comes as Elin finally understands the reason for her husband’s behaviour, while in The White Camellia it is a family feud, rumbling through the generations that threatens to destroy the characters.

You write about women, in different ages, facing different problems, but they are all strong, feisty, independent characters, who refuse to surrender. Do you identify with any one of them more than the others? Which is your favourite?
Oh, my goodness, that is a hard one to answer! I think, like most writers, all of my heroines, although they are all very different from me, have a little bit of myself in them. As most writers know, it takes dogged stubbornness to be published. My Yorkshire dad used to call me ‘occud’ (as in awkward/stubborn) (it was not a compliment), so I suppose that theme runs through my heroines! Growing up in the sixties and seventies, when women were still generally expected to be decorous and domestic (I’m neither), I definitely identify with their struggles to break free from stultifying expectations, particularly the struggle to gain the confidence to realise you are competent and to grab life with both hands. I feel that, largely because of this past, it’s something women are still battling with today.

I love Anne, the Victorian heroine of Eden’s Garden, and Elin, the heroine of We That are Left for their journey from being the women society expects them to be to discovering their own strengths, and their own humanity. Elin, in particular, starts as a child-bride, but, through her experiences in the Great War, becomes one hell of a woman. At the moment though, my favourite has to be Sybil, the heroine of The White Camellia. She’s a woman in her thirties, who has experience, and oodles of baggage, behind her, and has make terrible mistakes that haunt her throughout the story. She’s the most complex and troubled of my heroines, and I love her for all her strengths and her foibles and her dogged determination to keep on battling and protect those she loves.

All the books take place, at least in part, in Cornwall, though you live in North Wales. Why is that? What is its allure? Is Cornwall particularly important to you?

I love Cornwall! I’ve spent many happy holidays there, more often than not with a tent on my back. It’s very different from London, where I lived for a while both a child and an adult, and the mountainous beauty of North Wales. Although from my office in the hills I can see Anglesey, whose coastline is very similar to Cornwall in many places. The combination of mountains and sea is my idea of heaven (with London only a few hours away for a quick blast of city streets, naturally!)

Your novels have delved in depth into World War I, Victorian health care, Women’s suffrage tearooms, recipes, market gardening, mining… How much research do you do, before you embark on a book? How much does it influence what you write? Do you ever find it too painful to use?
I tend to be attracted to the lesser-known stories of women’s role in historical events. Once I get an idea, I tend to do some general research, and then research in more detail once I’ve written the first draft and know exactly the detailed information I need. I find reading the background the most fascinating, there’s so much of women’s history we just don’t know.
Before I began researching for We That are Left I had no idea how daring and active women were in the Great War, nursing on the front line while bombs fell, talking their way out of capture by the German army, and even working behind the lines as spies and rescuing soldiers who had been wounded or separated from their regiments, sometimes taking them over the Alps to avoid the border guards.

It was the same with The White Camellia. I’d heard of the suffragettes, but I knew very little of the suffrage movement that battled for over fifty years to not only achieve votes for all women and men (most of whom were also unable to vote before the 1880s), but also had huge successes in gaining rights for women when it came to property, custody of children, and even the right to earn (and keep) an income, as well as establishing that women fell into prostitution through starvation, rather than to lure virtuous sailors to a minor lapse in behaviour. The suffrage ladies also fought against the trafficking of young girls for the sex trade, and began the fight for equal pay. There are so many amazing women I’d never heard of, and to whom we owe so much for the rights and freedoms we take for granted today. And yes, there is some research I find too painful to use. In The White Camellia one of the characters tries to photograph a suffragette march and is thrown into prison. I read some pretty graphic accounts of the violence and abuse women were subjected to, both on marches and in prison, which I chose not to use.

I’m currently researching Victorian trafficking of young girls, some of which is definitely far too upsetting to use. I’m telling a story, not a history lesson, and I feel that sometimes it is easier to simply describe horrors, rather than to take your characters through their survival and out to the other side. I always give a reading list for anyone who wishes to know more – but I strongly feel that women are still underestimated as life’s incredible survivors, and that is the bit that really interests me, rather than rubbing my readers noses in horrors (I find life quite scary enough as it is).

All your books focus on a big house, often decaying, and its grounds, islands complete in themselves, slightly adrift in the heart of the real world. Is that down to a personal fascination with such places or is it a metaphor for the personal dramas that are happening there? They are all extremely atmospheric. Which of them would you choose to live in, if you could?
I love old houses. I spent much of my childhood in a cottage in the wilds of Wales with no amenities (yes, it really was candles, oil lamps, a coal fire and a loo at the bottom of the garden), which was filled with the history of families surviving in the harshness of a remote and mountainous location. It both gave a heightened focus on the family unit, but also highlighted the changes in the wider world. I still love electricity, hot water, and no longer having to run the gauntlet of (imaginary) wolves and bears in a howling gale! I love big old houses, both to visit and as a setting, because they offer similar stories on a wider scale – and they have gardens, for which I have a passion (it shows). I particularly love the crumbling variety of old house, so I think that if I were to choose one of the houses in my books, it would have to be Plas Eden, the fading mansion with the statues waiting in its grounds for their mystery to be resolved. The possibility for stories is just endless …

Juliet at Bodnant Garden

Juliet’s links

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