It began with a vague notion that I wanted to write a novel about an actor who led a double life. The nineteenth century was a time when people had very strong opinions about chivalry and the need for respectability and therefore I thought the Victorian age would form the perfect backdrop for a story about deception. I have always loved nineteenth century literature and therefore was attracted by the idea of writing something in a similar formal style to those books I so admire. Consequently, my actor became Victorian. I made him highly respected but secretly gay. I wanted there to be a war in the book too, simply because I like writing about wars and researching them and the Boer War conveniently took place right at the end of the Victorian era. And that was how Edmund Jeffers sprang to life as Actor-Manager of the Colosseum in London, married but gay who, as a result of an indiscretion, finds his life in tatters, his wife estranged from him, his theatre lost. And in an attempt to recover his good name, he decides to go and fight in the South African war. It was the roughest sketch, nothing more, but it was something to work with.
I read voraciously anything I could find about the Victorian theatre, Victorian life/culture/politics, Victorian London, the Boer War, South Africa. I looked at maps, studied tour guides of the time, scoured contemporary newspapers and memoirs. The stack of notes grew and grew.
The research itself was inspirational. I found out about the real life Victorian actor, Sir Henry Irving and his Business Manager, Bram Stoker who were close friends and I modelled the characters of Edmund Jeffers and Charles Gray on them. I also came across the famous actress, Ellen Terry who worked with Henry Irving and reading about her helped me with the creation of leading lady, Marguerite Davenport. The Colosseum theatre in my book is loosely based on The Lyceum theatre in London where Irving and Terry performed together and which is still in use today.
I wanted to tell the story of a man who is essentially honourable but because of the constraints that society puts on him, he ends up living a lie. How would this same man behave if he was freed from those limitations? Our perceptions of honour and respectability interest me and
I wanted to explore the way in which, very often, we think they are the same thing.
The research never stopped but eventually the writing had to begin. It seemed too daunting to start on page one and work my way through so instead, I picked out what I considered to be the pivotal scenes and wrote those. Then I completed the rest in whatever order I felt like doing them. I did not re-read anything. By the end, what I had was a jumble of episodes without any direction. So then I tried to arrange them in a way that progressed the story and made some kind of sense. That was the first draft. It was like a preliminary drawing.
After that the really hard work began, adding colour and detail and fleshing out the narrative and developing the characters until finally, I had what I considered to be the finished painting.
The next obstacle was how to find a publisher and that was a long and arduous journey. Eventually, my manuscript found a warm and loving home with Poolbeg under the Ward River Press imprint.
Over the years, I have written serials, short stories, articles, radio plays and children’s books. Some were published, most were not. In 1999, I won the Molly Keane Memorial Creative Writing Award which made me very proud and was a great boost. It persuaded me that I was at least competent at what I was attempting to do.
From a very early age, my ambition has been to write a novel and I tried on several occasions but failed each time. Once I turned fifty, I knew if I didn’t do it soon, it would never happen. There could be no more excuses about lack of time or experience or know-how. All the courses and manuals and workshops in the world were not going to do the writing for me. I had to sit down, be brave, and just get on with it. Which is what I did.
And so, that vague notion I once had about an actor who led a double life has now become a book – The Curtain Falls – and my name is on the front cover! If that’s not a dream come true, I don’t know what is.
(c) Carole Gurnett
About The Curtain Falls
London, 1897. Edmund Jeffers is the most influential actor-manager of his day and in line for a well-earned knighthood. His theatre, the Colosseum, is a national institution. But there is a seamier side to London life with which Edmund is very familiar. His private life and public persona are two separate entities and when these two worlds collide he is thrown into a maelstrom of his own making. As he attempts to recover what has been lost, all those close to him are forced to re-evaluate their relationship to him and their own lives. While his wife Violet sets out to establish herself in a male world at any cost, his brilliant leading lady Marguerite Davenport is forced to face her own demons. Isolated, his career and his theatre in jeopardy, Edmund decides to take a drastic step.
The Curtain Falls is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.