Sunday, May 18, 2014

Guest Post & Review: The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow

Today we welcome author Liz Trenow who is promoting her latest book, The Forgotten Seamstress.  Enjoy her guest post about the challenges and rewards of writing a novel that goes back and forth over a period of nearly 100 years after my thoughts on the book.

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark 
Date of publication:May 2014

It is 1910 and Maria, a talented young girl from the East end of London, is employed to work as a seamstress for the royal family. As an attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity.

But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn. Disbelieved and dismissed she is thrown into a mental asylum, shut away from the real world with only her needlework for company.

Can a beautiful quilt, discovered many years later, reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?

My Thoughts:
I was really surprised by The Forgotten Seamstress.  I wasn't sure if I was going to like the book.  I loved it.  I was totally engaged and sped through Maria and Caroline’s stories.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because there are a few surprises in this book.  But the story waffles between two stories.  Through recorded interviews from the 1970s, Maria Romano tells of her time as a seamstress in Buckingham palace, a secret affair with the Prince of Wales, and her forced commitment to a mental institution for over 20 years.  Maria’s story was so heartbreaking, yet very bittersweet in the end. My heart just broke for her as she told her story.

Caroline, in the present, discovers a gorgeous quilt with exquisite embroidery hidden in her grandmother’s things.  She embarks on a hunt for clues to the maker of the quilt as she also navigates what she wants to do with her life and how to care for her mother as her mother’s memory fades with Alzheimer’s. Her decision in the end regarding the quilt was just so perfect and right!  Being an avid embroiderer, I loved the description of the quilt.  The fabrics and delicate stitches were described with such vivid detail that I had a perfect image in my mind as to what it looked like.  I only wish that the quilt was real so that I could see it in real life. 

I definitely recommend this wonderful story.  The ending alone left me with such a good feeling.  I know that this will make it into my top 10 of 2014.  I look forward to reading more from Ms. Trenow.

What are the challenges and rewards of writing a novel that goes back and forth over a period of nearly 100 years?

In The Forgotten Seamstress, the main challenge was to ensure that the ‘voice’ of each character was consistent and true to the period.

For Maria’s story, I steeped myself in Victorian literature and other novels set in the time, as well as books of social history. All that research reaped wonderful rewards: her narrative seemed to flow onto the page and I could almost hear her voice in my head telling me what to write. However, my 30-something metropolitan character, Caroline, was more elusive, since I am neither. For this I turned to my two daughters, both of whom are around that age, and live and work in London.

The basic plot challenge is making sure that the links between the narratives make sense and don’t give away too much of the mystery.  But introduce too much mystery through unlinked narratives, and readers will soon get confused and turned off. Making the dates work properly, especially if they need to fit with actual historical events, is also sometimes quite tricky – you can be sure an eagle-eyed reader will find you out if you don’t!

Because of the passage of time, my two characters could not have actually met, so I had to find a way for Caroline to learn Maria’s life story.  Maria’s was definitely an ‘aural’ or spoken voice and I still hadn’t worked out how Caroline, would have been able to ‘hear’ her, a century later. 

While researching the history of Severalls Mental Asylum, the model for Helena Hall in the novel, I came across a remarkable piece book by the sociologist and author Diana Gittins called Madness in its Place (Routledge 1998), in which she quoted from her recordings with staff and patients. These first-hand accounts really brought the place and the people to life and, in one of those light-bulb moments, I realised that this was exactly what I needed to do with Maria.

So I created a character – Professor Patsy Morton – who had undertaken a research project not unlike that of Diana Gittins’, although a couple of decades earlier. This was the perfect way of allowing Caroline – and the reader – to hear Maria’s story first hand. 

This was my ultimate reward: although we never properly ‘meet’ her in the book, the tapes enabled me to feel that I really knew her – I hope this is the same for you. 

Thanks for an interesting question – really made me think about how I write! 

About the author:
Liz Trenow's family have been silk weavers for nearly three hundred years, and she grew up in the house next to the mill in Suffolk, England, which still operates today, weaving for top-end fashion houses and royal commissions.

It was the recollections of Liz's father about how, during the Second World War, the mill worked night and day weaving parachute silk, that inspired her first novel, "The Last Telegram". 

1 comment:

Suus said...

This book sounds really wonderful, I'd love to read it!