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Talking Location With author Caroline Beecham – London and Melbourne

12th August 2018

TalkingLocationWith… author Caroline Beecham. Her novel Eleanor’s Secret is set in London, Melbourne (and Kent) and here she talks about inspiration for settings. Enjoy!

author Caroline BeechamMy second novel, Eleanor’s Secretis an engrossing war-time mystery of past deceptions, family secrets and long-lasting love… Kathryn can’t refuse to help her grandmother, Eleanor, find out what happened to the war artist, Jack Valante, but when the search uncovers a long-held family secret, Kathryn has to make a choice that will change her family’s future.

London, 1942:  When spirited art school graduate, Eleanor Roy, is recruited by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to help their scheme employing artists, she comes one step closer to realising her dream of becoming one of the few female war artists. But breaking into the art establishment proves difficult until she meets the charismatic painter, Jack Valante, only to be separated by his sudden posting overseas.

Melbourne 2010:  It’s a difficult time for designer Kathryn to leave Melbourne for London; her husband Christopher rarely puts family before work and her young son, Oliver, has learning difficulties that demand extra devotion. She has never been away from him but has always shared her grandmother’s passion for art and love of a favourite painting. Now Eleanor is adamant the painting must be returned to its owner, the war artist Jack Valante – and nobody knows if he is even still alive.

Kathryn’s journey takes her back to Eleanor’s life as a young woman in war-torn London as she uncovers Jack’s missing war diaries and uses new technology to try and solve the puzzle of the missing artist. But when it becomes evident that Jack’s nephew is trying to stop her finding him, and her concern for Christopher’s care of Oliver deepens, Kathryn has to find the truth and decide whether to return home or risk the dangers to carry on.

Eleanor’s Secret has dual storylines and spans seven decades so I had present-day London, Kent and Melbourne, Australia, to include in the contemporary storyline, as well as 1940s London for the Second World War story with many iconic buildings and landmarks. These included Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, the British Library, the National Gallery and The Criterion. It’s both exciting and daunting writing about well-known locations and landmarks; exciting because of the opportunity to describe such important places but daunting that your portrayal will do them justice. And since setting isn’t just about the physical description of a place but trying to immerse the reader through the senses, it was a case of using lots of memory recall to provide detail of the smell, sound and atmosphere, and why it was so important to visit these locations as well as research them remotely.

The novel opens with Eleanor visiting The Royal Patriotic Building in South-west London to try and sign war artist, Jack Valante, to her scheme. The building is a stunning Victorian building with a gothic appearance but is in actual fact a combination of architectural styles: Scottish baronial, Jacobean and French Chateaesque. It has an equally rich history that includes its use for orphans of the Crimea and its reputedly still haunted by ghosts of soldiers who died there—which is why I chose it as an orphanage too.

While my main characters live in London: Jack in Battersea and Eleanor in Bayswater, the majority of the wartime story is set around Portman Square, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square, where Eleanor worked, and the War Artists’ Advisory Committee met at the National Gallery.

Background reading, online research, a search of the UK National Archives and archival photos helped with the research, and with scenes such as those at the National Gallery where Eleanor and Maura attend the lunchtime concerts and ‘Picture of the Month’ exhibitions that were held throughout the war. It was fascinating to learn how the artworks were transported to Wales at the outset of the war for their protection—but they’re back now so don’t worry if you’re planning a visit!

The Barry Rooms above were the venue for Myra Hess’s piano recitals and the black and white photographs below show the crowds queueing for one of these popular concerts.

‘The Golden Triangle’ was an important area to those involved in the art world; it lay between Gower Street, Trafalgar Square and the Royal Academy on Piccadilly:

Image from The National Gallery in Wartime, National Gallery Company, London

‘All part of the golden triangle, my dear boy: the National Gallery, here, and then the Slade. I can usually do it in half an hour, as long as no demolitions are underway.’ (Eleanor’s Secret, page 273)

The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours was part of ‘The Golden Triangle’ and although it’s now home to BAFTA, it’s where Jack meets Aubrey Powell, a key character in the story and a member of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee:

‘The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours stood at 190 Piccadilly, a magnificent four-storey building with carved stone busts on its façade: Turner, Cozens, Girtin, Cox, De Wint, Sandby and Barrett, all luminaries who had been honoured by their inclusion at the galleries. Jack had seen the busts before but they appeared even more impressive today, their usually austere gaze passing as recognition of the importance in which they were held. Or maybe it was because everything held more appeal today; even the sight of troops in the streets, which usually signalled the vulnerability of their city, made him feel safer. The boarded-up shopfronts that showed how their commerce had been destroyed also showed how, after three years of war, they were still standing firm.

Or perhaps it was because of Eleanor, the most enchanting creature he had ever met, and who—for some reason that he hadn’t yet figured out—had chosen him.’

Being able to see what the streetscape of London looked like during the war made a huge difference to thinking about how characters are impacted by their surroundings, rather than just imagining how it was. The image below shows Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, how it was protected by sandbags and how hoardings were used to advertise for nurses; an image that I’ve included in the novel. These records of London were especially important since my character is an artist recording life on the Home Front; seeing London through the eyes of an artist, and during the Second World War, was fascinating and I’d encourage anyone that’s interested to take a Blitz tour and do the same.

While the historic locations were key for the Second World War storyline, contemporary ones were just as important in creating realistic locations such as those of Melbourne’s trendy South Yarra suburb where Kathryn lives. Its where her thoughts frequently return to—to her husband, Christopher, and son, Oliver—and these lanes and alleyways are typical of Melbourne’s busy inner-city.

The English countryside is very significant for Kathryn too and part of the root of her homesickness; images like these capture the beauty and atmosphere of the place she loves and has left behind.

The contemporary storyline also sees Kathryn visiting the Imperial WarMuseum and the British Library, which are both key institutions that she uses to help solve the mystery of what happened to Jack. I initially visited both of them for research but when they also became important in telling the story and as locations in their own right, I had to pay particular attention to the actual buildings.

 

The dramatic exterior of the British Library above compliments and contrasts with the nearby gothic revival architecture of St Pancras Station, while the interior and Kings Library, has a more calming atmosphere. The Kings Library tower is a very humbling place to spend time, particularly when you discover that there are over 65,000 books in the collection. It certainly creates a feeling of reverence and it was just the right setting for Kathryn to piece together the mystery of her grandmother’s past. Looking back on the story now, and writing this piece, makes me realise how these important places do become characters in the story, in particular theImperial War Museum, which is such as valuable resource; a wise elder, that I continue to rely on. I would encourage anyone visiting London to go there; it’s incredibly interesting, entertaining and also reminds you of all those we have to be grateful to.

Kathryn visits the military historian, Alexander Gower, at one of the historic mews houses in the heart of Paddington, close to where Eleanor had lived in wartime. This area was important to me as a neighbourhood I spent time in prior to moving to Australia, and I gladly walked the streets taking photos and revisiting memories.

The novel also takes us to the older Eleanor’s home in Kent, a beautiful old farmhouse that now sits amongst newly constructed villages and networks of roads and motorways. These grand country homes, modest cottages and picturesque farmhouses, offer Kathryn the comfort and nostalgia of her childhood and the life in England that she misses—not autobiographical, of course!

 

The elderly Eleanor lives close to the Village of Tudeley and a very important scene takes place at All Saints’ Tudeley Church. The east window is by Chagall and I was particularly pleased about including the Church because of the window’s beauty and the connection with Chagall; it seemed fitting to use in a story about artists.

‘It was after two o’clock and the sun was angling home, throwing its light behind the western windows and casting the church in a rich manganese glow. Blue waterfalls rippled down stone walls, bathing the altar in a pale watery light. The effect was so dazzling that at first Eleanor didn’t notice the figure sitting in the middle pews, mesmerised as she was by the stained glass. It told the story of the scriptures, and their words came to mind: You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

That was how they all began and how they would end, and that was why she could bear this now; how she had borne it for all these years.’                                                                          (Eleanor’s Secret, Page 411)

Thank you to Caroline for such detailed and wonderful descriptions. You can follow her on Twitter, and Facebook.

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