Characters in The English Lady Murderers’ Society

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Writers don’t as a general rule try to transpose people they know into their books. Although we may take elements from friends and acquaintances (and not always consciously) we mix them with a load of other stuff including caricatures, stereotypes and characters devised by other writers. Like impressionists, who often seem to be creating their work not directly from the original models but at second hand from impressions done by others in the business, writers are probably inescapably drawn to using borrowings in recognition that someone before them has already done part of the work of distilling the essence of a certain type. I don’t know how far I’m guilty of this kid of borrowing (if”guilty” is an appropriate word), but I shouldn’t be in the least surprised if I were at least to some degree.

The English Lady Murderers’ Society is a ruby wedding present to my wife and I wanted to make it special for her. We have a marriage characterised by affection, fun, conversation – and, obviously, dancing. I think it has been wonderful and I wanted to convey a sense of it and also my gratitude to Shirley. This is what lies behind my description of the marriage between Janet and David, who are based on the pair of us with the important exception that, for reasons of the plot, there is a streak of ruthlessness in Janet which is missing from my wife. The intelligence, the beauty and the elegance are all there. And as for my resemblance to David, I can say only that I enjoy poking fun at myself and would recommend the same to everybody as a way of staying grounded in reality.

The other characters are all creatures of my imagination, put together from a number of sources. Some people have seen an original model for Belle, but, if so, I’ve taken considerable liberties and the end result isn’t intended to describe any actual person. Rather, what I had in mind was a broader set of originals: my mother and my wife’s aunts: northern working class women similar to those who appear in work by Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. If at times you can imagine those authors writing my dialogue, it’s because we are all describing the same thing and the dialogue is an authentic voice. This observation applies to Belle, her mother Alice and, to some extent, to Carol. Janet’s memories of her family and upbringing stem from the same source.

Earthy is compounded partly from the appearance of elderly hippy women I’ve seen, together with a completely imagined picture of what it must be to have come through that experience, plus the voice of a dear friend, now dead alas.

I once saw a casino croupier in Bulgaria who might have been a starting point for Carol in her prime, working the cruise liners. Otherwise she is a mixture of bits and pieces, only to the very slightest extent based on a real person.

I have seen many women who look as I imagine Joy to look, but her thraldom to the appalling Arnold is completely imagined.

Veronica and Poppy are a complete invention. I have lesbian friends, but they don’t resemble my fictitious characters in the least. Poppy posed a particular problem because I found it effectively impossible to imagine her inner world, not so much because of her sexuality as because of her youth and background. This posed a serious technical difficulty because the book works by taking the perspective of each of the women and Poppy is excluded from that treatment. My solution was to justify her essential unintelligibility to me by making the point that she is also unintelligible to all the other women, which I think is plausible.

In the country markets of southwest France, Shirley and had come to divide the young men seen there into two types:”Ravis” and”Léons”. The Ravis have adopted a New Age look and parade themselves self-consciously and may be seen behind stalls selling crystals and magnetic bracelets. The Léons comprise dark, skinny, dangerous-seeming young men: not especially good-looking but with a louche attractiveness. I borrowed both of these types for the book. Ravi’s girlfriend Hatshepsut is a description of a strikingly beautiful young woman I saw some years ago. Léon’s gallery of figures is based on one that Shirley and I visited.

One aspect of my characters that was no part of a conscious plan and took me by surprise when I noticed it as I was writing, is the significant age gap between most of the women and their partners. I wondered whether there was some sort of general point I was trying to make, though in the end I’ve concluded that there isn’t, and that the common feature is the accidental result of several particular explanations.

Belle is nine years older than Charlie. This gap can be considered as at the upper end of the normal range and not especially remarkable. It’s there for plotting reasons as background that will in due course explain what Belle is trying to hide.

Joy is twenty-five years younger than Arnold. Here the age difference is a mark of Joy’s weakness and dependency, which force her to take a much older husband. It’s the setting for Arnold’s controlling stance towards her.

Veronica is twenty years older than Poppy. Here the situation is reversed. Although Veronica is on the surface a rich, attractive, self-confident woman, the power really lies with Poppy because Veronica isn’t confident that Poppy loves her and will stick by her as she grows older.

However, the most striking case of age difference is between Janet and Léon, who is thirty years her junior. In part this is a plotting device: the fact of the age difference creates a mystery over their respective motives, especially Léon’s. But mostly the willingness of Janet to engage with a younger man underlines the fact that age hasn’t diminished her capacity for feeling and that older women are not just sexless zombies.

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