A Literary Obsession
by Jenetta James, Author of The Memory House
After I graduated from law school, in about 2005, I spent almost a decade researching the life of a completely neglected English novelist by the name of Barbara Comyns.
It started out with a few second-hand paperbacks and before I knew it, I was holed up in the British Library squinting at magnified microfilm and flogging up and down the country to visit farmers in Hertfordshire and artists in Shrewsbury and windswept gravesides in Shropshire. I interviewed every living relation of my subject I could find, from bemused bystanders to her fragile, generous, and, by then, elderly children. I pored over archives in art gallery back offices and sweated my way through reams and reams of letters written in pencil on wafer-thin paper. I made my boyfriend holiday in Ibiza because Comyns had lived there and I thought we might ‘find something’. I walked it, I talked it, I ate it (beetroot was her favourite food, and alas, for a while, mine too).
When I look back on this episode now, I still can’t explain it. I had a full-time job and a boyfriend. For the first time in my life, I had wages. I shared a house in London with friends who were mostly in a similar position. Life was full and just starting out. I had finished my history degree and left university behind. Study was a chapter of life that appeared closed. My obsession, therefore, with a footnote in twentieth-century literary history, was completely irrational.
As you may have divined, it didn’t really come to very much. I did discover things—significant and in certain respects, quite shocking things. The story of that lady’s life was like a ball gathering speed and size in my hand. I could feel the story gaining pace, taking off. But then, life sort of intervened. My career changed direction and I was very occupied with that. I lived in Trinidad for a while and then in France. I got married and had a baby. Very shortly thereafter, another one came along. I never quite managed to make the story I had worked so hard to uncover come together and it whittled away. One day, I looked at my hand, and the ball of magic had gone.
Quite a few years later (maybe two years ago, maybe three…), I was approached by an academic who had had the same idea: to write the life of this amazing, forgotten lady of letters. I knew then, as I had known for some time, that I was not the person to write that story. Somebody much better qualified had come along. I handed over every scrap of research I had done and wished her well. And I hope very much, one day, to see the hard-backed, shiny-covered, fruits of her labours in my local bookshop.
Without being particularly aware of it, the strange joys of this era of my life have haunted my fourth novel, The Memory House.
Like me, The Memory House has one foot in the present and one in the past. It is the story of a Victorian lady of great consequence, a ‘lost’ novelist, and a modern girl with no particular direction in life. In addition to being a romance (two romances, in fact) and a mystery, it is a story of how the past can invade and destabilise the present. How words from the past can be so powerful that they cling to your life, decades, centuries after they were written.
The writer at the heart of The Memory House is a work of fiction; she was never real. ‘Ethel Turner Everett’ (I decided to call her this as I thought it sounded impossibly Victorian, but you be the judge) is central to the story. She was a minor novelist of the nineteenth century, briefly popular and long forgotten. She wrote a couple of novels and a few poems and after a brief period of rising fortunes, was never heard of again.
I was a little influenced by George Eliot (noting of course that Mary Ann Evans was really hiding her sex rather than her identity) and also by Elizabeth Gaskell (also a writer who went wildly in and out of fashion). But more than that, I now realise I was influenced by my own experience as a failed literary biographer—by the idea that people come and go, but words on the page, whilst they may be forgotten for a while, stick around forever.