The seed for Small Pleasures came from an interview I overheard on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour in 2001 with the journalist Audrey Whiting. She was recalling an incident in 1955 when the Sunday Pictorial, for whom she worked, ran a competition to find a Virgin Mother. She had been prompted by the work of a geneticist, Helen Spurway, whose research into parthenogenesis in fish and reptiles led her to claim that it might be possible in humans. Several women came forward and were quickly discounted, but one – a Mrs Emmimarie Jones – proved harder to dismiss. She claimed to have been a virgin and segregated in an all-female hospital for the months around the time of the conception of her daughter. Over six months, mother and daughter were subjected to such tests as were available in 1956 and the doctor leading the investigation declared that they were unable to disprove Mrs Jones’s claim. The story was a tabloid sensation, doubling the circulation of the paper to 6 million.
Having caught the tail end of this story, I sensed its potential as the basis of a novel, but I was writing light romantic comedy at the time, and this story, I felt, had something altogether darker at its heart. So I left the idea hanging up in my mind like a piece of flypaper for well over a decade, to see if anything stuck to it. Then in 2015 I had the unpleasant experience – not unknown among writers – of realising I had sunk many years’ work in a failing project: the book I was writing just would not co-operate. My publisher turned it down; my agent was pessimistic about selling it elsewhere. The choices before me were to keep desperately trying to re-animate its corpse or to write off those wasted years and start something new. It wasn’t a difficult decision to face forward rather than back, but the whole episode had made me depressed and jittery. I didn’t want to commit to writing another novel that might prove equally untameable, and if I was going to spend a few years with them, I wanted the characters to be good company at the very least. I also had no great confidence that I would ever be published again.
That’s when I turned my attention again to what I now thought of as ‘the Virgin Birth novel’, and it was while I was researching the history of my part of South London to see whether it would do as a location, that I came across a reference to the Lewisham rail crash of 1957. I had been a regular user of that very line for two decades without ever having heard of this significant local tragedy in which 90 people died.
This was the fly that stuck. I had to do some violence to history to unite these two strands, but the Virgin Birth plot was always going to be a thoroughly fictionalised version of the Sunday Pictorial story, so I didn’t feel too troubled about that. But this time, with the encouragement of a new agent, I made sure that I had worked out every detail of the plot before I started writing. I didn’t want to go through that experience again of barrelling ahead, full of enthusiasm, and then finding myself in a Bermuda Triangle of unresolved plot holes and dead ends.
It was also a departure for me to be writing about an era I am just too young to have lived through and it took some research to think myself back into the mindset of the 1950s. As well as books of local history, I found the varied fiction of the 1950s – Iris Murdoch, Rosamund Lehmann, Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, particularly useful for tuning into vocabulary and speech patterns. It was really important to remember that the characters themselves would not have felt old-fashioned or quaint, but thoroughly modern and slightly contemptuous of the generation that came before, just as we do. The other rule of course was not to flood the book with period detail for sake of it but to use description exactly as if it was a contemporary novel. For example, no one would ever write, ‘He picked up his reinforced aluminium and crystal iPhone’, so you wouldn’t write ‘He picked up the bakelite telephone receiver.’
Once I had the plot mapped out, the actual writing took about two years – the blink of an eye, by my standards. Small Pleasures is the result. It is both a mystery and a love story and at its heart is the character of Jean – a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and, on the brink of forty, living a limited existence with her invalid mother from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a Virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fake. The more Jean investigates, the more she becomes drawn into the Tilburys’ family life, and her awakening – at the eleventh hour – to friendship, buried maternal longing and passion comes at a high price for all involved.
It is about the nobility of sacrifice, and the conflict between personal fulfilment and duty in the last gasps of the postwar period when the huge social and sexual changes of the Sixties were all still to come. It also celebrates the beauty in all things unfashionable – the plain, the suburban, the over-the-hill.
In spite of my having spent ten years in the wilderness, and my previous sales record being less than dazzling, my new agent managed to find three publishers who were sufficiently keen on the book to offer for it. This I felt was hugely to the credit of an industry which is often criticised for being overly obsessed with young, debut novelists and celebrities, and an encouragement for other aspiring writers.
(c) Clare Chambers
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is published by W&N.
About Small Pleasures:
1957, south-east suburbs of London.
Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother.
When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.
But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard – with his dry wit and gentle disposition – and her charming daughter Margaret.
But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.
But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.
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