Current Cardiff undergraduate Caitlin Coxon offers some thoughts on Florence and Giles, one of the books featured in our March BookTalk event.
It is a curious story I have to tell, one not easily absorbed and understood, so it is fortunate I have the words for the task. If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain. Such concealment has become my habit and began on account of my fear, my very great fear, that were I to speak as I think, it would be obvious I had been at the books and the library would be banned. And, as I explained to poor Miss Whitaker (it was shortly before she tragicked upon the lake), that was a thing I did not think I could bear.— John Harding, Florence and Giles (Blue Door, 2010), p. 5
She’s coming to life under my hands. The dark, untidy mass of her hair, the bright eyes, the frill of her white dress, her sash, her parasol. She’s floating in the liquid, becoming more and more real. I jiggle the tray and peer closer. She is ready no; finished; perfect. I lift her out, shake the paper, peg it up and let it drip. I sit down on the stool in the dark room and gaze at her.— Gaynor Arnold, After Such Kindness (Tindal Street, 2012), p. 1
John Harding: ‘[Florence and Giles] was inspired by Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw”. The book was made into an opera by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten and on my way home from watching the opera I began to think it would be interesting to tell a similar story, only this time not from the point of view of the governess as it is in the Henry James book, but from the viewpoint of one of the children. I’ve always loved stories like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and I loved writing in the genre. So much so that when the book was a huge bestseller and people in the UK and Italy and Brazil kept asking for another book in the same genre I decided “Why not” (Perchè no?)’
As a working-class girl from Cardiff, she knew more about that world than many of her contemporaries. She was brought up in a rented Victorian house, an only child living with grandparents as well as parents. Her mother and father were both shop assistants for local grocers. ‘My dad used to bone sides of bacon,’ she recalls. ‘He died when I was 11, giving me the opportunity to feel sorry for myself as a semi-orphan. Around that time, I first read David Copperfield and immediately identified with the lone child hero.’
It was the most autobiographical of Dickens’s novels, and Girl in a Blue Dress is another fictional take on an aspect of his life, albeit under the name of Alfred Gibson and set in the period immediately after his funeral. The central figure is his wife, Dorothea Gibson—alias Catherine Dickens—who is neither invited to the funeral nor favoured in the will. By the time of Dickens’s death, aged 58, they had been separated (though not divorced) for 12 years. She had been given a home and an income, while the famous writer kept their 10 children and had more time to spend with his much younger mistress.
It’s a brave writer who will take on Henry James, but John Harding’s publishers trumpet his debt to The Turn of the Screw. So Flora and Miles become Florence and Giles, and Bly House becomes Blithe House, a mansion set in New England in the 1890s. Fortunately, however, Harding rings enough ingenious changes on James’s study of perversity to produce his own full-blown Gothic horror tale.
Arnold laces her tale with a lively infusion of all things Lewis Carroll. Familiar images—a looking-glass; nursemaids and piglet-babies; puddles made of tears; cupboards and keyholes; Cheshire cats, walruses, dormice, oysters and caterpillars—pop up with a knowing wink and a nod. Merging 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with a distinctly measured approach, Arnold also draws on her experience as a contemporary childcare social worker, weaving a tapestry rich with imagination, madness and sadness. (At a particularly painful point in Daisy’s story, it comes with relief when a stalwart character, gentle with kindness, attempts to take charge: ‘Tell me again … but calmly this time, Daisy. So I can understand.’)