The English Lady Murderers’ Society has its origins in a holiday Shirley and I spent during the summer of 2009 in a small village in South West France, where we stayed in a cottage our friends generously lent to us. As I often do when staying in borrowed places, I ran through the books on the shelves and read those that looked entertaining. One of them was The Jane Austen Book Club. I enjoyed it a great deal, and thought that a tale organised around a group of sympathetic women in which their characters and histories are gradually revealed was a strong idea. The question was: could I do anything with it?
Obviously the chief interest of such a book lies in the characters, but there has to be a flow of events in which the reader sees them act, whether those events comprise a”plot” in the conventional sense or not. Right at the outset I felt I had to solve this problem in order to have a viable novel, and I approached it from two directions.
My first idea was to hang the narrative on a framework: namely that the women in the group would each in turn teach the others a skill that Life had taught them. This allowed me to cut the story into sections named after the subjects of the lessons: for example How to Dance the Tango. The result is that the focus of the narrative shifts according to who is giving the lesson, and so each of the women is given the attention she deserves and the reader’s interest is spread among all of them. I feel this makes for a richer text. Certainly it was more rewarding to write.
The second element of the narrative is a plot in the ordinary sense. I came to it from my background in writing murder mysteries. I decided I would place the central character, Janet, under the suspicion of having murdered her husband at some point in the recent past, and develop that mystery through to a solution in the normal way. I hoped the reader would find this intriguing because Janet is the principal character and we are meant to sympathise with her – yet can we safely do that? As an extra, I throw in a second murder that occurs during the action of the book, and this too has to be solved by the reader.
Finally I had to decide on a setting. I’m not an author who wants to write realistically about his immediate situation: rather I like to go on holiday in my head during the long process of composition. Various people have commented on my ability to convey a vivid sense of place, and I find it one of the most enjoyable aspects of the craft. In this instance I thought I’d use the same village in which the idea had come to me, though I renamed it and changed minor details to avoid any misunderstanding about the fictional nature of the book. The advantages of using a familiar place are practical: the research and the need for note-taking in the interest of consistency are greatly reduced. And of course there’s the pleasure of visiting in memory a place one loves.
The basic idea, the plot structure and the setting form a foundation without which it’s difficult even to start the writing process. However the themes of my novels are a different matter in that they tend to emerge from the process of writing rather than be clear in my head from the beginning. In the present instance I had nothing particularly in mind, though I was to discover that there were issues implicit in my choice of subject.
The starting points from which the themes developed were these:
- I was writing a book about the experience of women told through the eyes of women. And yet I’m a male writer.
- By focussing on the women in relation to each other, I was marginalising the men, and this made me think of the condition to which most women will come, namely widowhood with its attendant issues of grief, loneliness and the need for support from others.
Separate from the themes is the motif of dancing, which was a deliberate choice made by me and not inevitable in the way that the focus on women was. To be clear: the themes of a book are what the book, at a certain level, is about: they are its subject, just as much as the plot. A motif, on the other hand, is just a vehicle to carry other things. So this book isn’t about dancing: rather I use dancing as a medium to develop or illustrate the plot, characters and themes. If they interest you, you can read more about the themes and the motif of dancing.
The English Lady Murderers’ Society is dedicated as a ruby wedding present to my wife, Shirley. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I wrote it at a time when I was thinking over the experience of forty years of happy marriage. Whether writing books or reading them, there’s a time that seems right for the effort: a time when one’s talents, insights and experiences are ready for the task. I can think of books – Proust for example – that I couldn’t face when young but enjoyed in middle age. And conversely there are novels I read in my teens (anything by DH Lawrence) that now seem absurd and overblown. I don’t say that one reaction is any more valid or valuable than the other. In this case I think I had to be getting on a bit before I could write what I may as well call”a women’s novel”. I’m strengthened in this opinion because I remember my agent, the late great James Hale, suggesting in the mid nineties after I’d written Lara’s Child, that I might try such a book, and I had no real idea what he was talking about. Evidently I wasn’t ready then, but now I am. I believe thatThe English Lady Murderers’ Society is the book James wanted to me to write, and I’m sorry that he’ll never read it.
The English Lady Murderers’ Society is a humorous novel, but I’ve written it as truthfully as I can, and I think the lives I’ve described will echo with those actually lived by real women. I feel a great affection for the characters of the book and a sympathy for their situation whether happy or sad. I don’t think I could have written the book if I hadn’t been still in love with a good woman.
I hope these few notes help you enjoy The English Lady Murderers’ Society – always assuming you care to read it.
If you would like to read a sample, click here