When the novel you wrote arrives at your door in a parcel from the publisher, it’s a strange, dissociative moment. At least it is for me. I open the parcel, pull out the book in its handsome jacket, and think, ‘Wow! Where did this come from?!’ Because it still amazes me the way a story comes into being in your head. First there is nothing. Then there is the spark in the void – and, somehow, a chaotic mass of possibilities will begin to morph into a narrative.
If I look back at the genesis of my new novel, The Revelations of Carey Ravine, I could say that it started with London’s Spitalfields. I was living in Brick Lane at the time. Each day on my way to work I used to pass a building in Artillery Lane with a very particular façade, which I recognised as an authentic 18th-century shop front.
For a history nerd like me, that was a big deal.
I found that the shop had been leased in the early 1700s by a silk mercer called Nicholas Jourdain, who was a Huguenot. I vaguely knew that Huguenots had fled religious persecution in France and came to Spitalfields in their thousands in the early 18th century – but now I began to read more about them. The first generation of refugees had mostly worked as weavers, but as the silk trade declined, their descendants diversified into occupations like market gardening around Bethnal Green and the flower trade. I am intensely devoted to the world of plants, so that was a detail that chimed with me and I filed it away in the back of my mind.
I think that Huguenots appealed to me, too, because they were outsiders – and I identified with that. I had come to the UK from New Zealand and no matter how embedded I became in London over the years, I was never really of the place.
I moved out of Brick Lane and further afield as rents rose and the age of austerity began to bite. It seemed like all around me I could see the same-old, same-old repetitions of history. The mistakes of the past unlearned. I began to want to create a fictional world which reflected the mirages of our present time.
At the same time, more subjectively, little feelings of disillusionment were beginning to flutter around my head. I had always been disposed towards the sparkly aspects of life, but things that were supposed to be cool and aspirational seemed suddenly not. My thoughts began to turn towards the verso of glamour – an underside not visible until something happens that makes the scales fall from your eyes.
So that is where I started: with the idea of a woman who lies to herself about what she wants and a world that lies to itself about what it is. I wanted a heroine who was a little bit foreign, a little bit offside with society. That’s when I recalled the Huguenots. They could supply a background that was exactly right for my heroine – French blood, a market garden in Bethnal Green that would stand for Eden before the loss of innocence. The expulsion from the garden, the arrival in the glittering city…
There is always an instant when a character comes to life, that is, begins to inhabit your concept of her or him. That happened when I began researching the Huguenot surnames prevalent in 18th century Spitalfields. I found the name Ravine. There was my heroine: deep, with an element of danger, formed by a violent rush of events.
‘A beautiful historical mystery for fans of Sarah Waters, Amitav Ghosh’s The Sea of Poppies, and Jamaica Inn.’
The latest book ‘The Revelations of Carey Ravine’ by Deborah Daley is out now!
If you liked this post, why not catch up on…