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Talking Location With …. author Jody Cooksley – CHARMOUTH

7th May 2024

#TalkingLocationWith…. Jody Cooksley, author of The Small Museum

The key chapters in Jody Cooksley’s chilling Gothic thriller, The Small Museum, take place in the pretty village of Charmouth, on the Dorset coast.  

I grew up in Norfolk and have always loved the British coastline with its windswept beaches and rugged cliffs. Swimming in freezing salt water was one of my favourite pastimes and I still can’t go to the beach without jumping in the sea, whatever the time of year! As a child, one of my favourite hobbies was beachcombing and I would spend hours sorting and drawing shells and pretty pebbles. In Norfolk, belemnites and amber can often be found on the beaches and it was always exciting to hold such a piece of history, so it was easy for me to imagine the thrill that my character, Madeleine, had when her husband finally invited her to join him on a fossil hunting trip.

In the novel, Dr Lucius Everley is a ruthless scientist with a burning ambition to restore his father’s name – at any cost. He’s a collector of nature who has worked for years towards the discovery of ‘fish with feet’ and appears to be on the cusp of realising his dream. His young wife is a talented anatomical artist and is tasked with imagining his creatures in drawings. When she loses a child at birth, they travel together to Charmouth, a trip that she hopes will bring them together. But what she discovers about his work whilst they are there allows her to piece together the horrors of the reality behind his cabinet of curiosities.

Jody Cooksley

Shutterstock via the author

A large part of The Small Museum takes place in London, but I needed a key location for the ‘discovery’ of a fossil creature. I knew it should be Dorset, the main rich seam of Jurassic finds and an important area for Victorian collectors. Charmouth may be less famous for fossils than neighbouring Lyme Regis, but its coast is just as beautiful and its cliffs are studded with history. It’s still quiet and unspoilt, much of its architecture is Victorian and the main street looks almost the same as it would have done in the 1880s. It was very easy to picture their boarding house and imagine the characters in it at the time, a cosy seaside sojourn for the couple and the place where Madeleine, who has suffered a terrible start to her marriage, finally allows herself to believe that life will improve.

Boarding houses sprang up in great number along the Dorset coast at the time, catering to the race to be the first to discover and name new ‘great lizards’ and other finds. You can imagine their heyday when you walk along Charmouth’s streets, full of impressive nineteenth-century villas with balconies designed for taking the sea air. Dorset’s limestone is perfect for preservation, creating an attractive draw for amateurs with little knowledge of how to look for specimens. Fossils of all kinds could be found very easily. Victorian collectors were competitive, making cut-throat claims on discoveries and even creating outright fakes. It’s these unnatural behaviours that I wanted to explore in The Small Museum, the idea that such contest could drive characters to very dark and twisted ends.

Jody Cooksley

Madeleine begins to find hope for her marriage away from her husband’s creepy London museum, and feels as though the freedom and fresh air of Charmouth will change them.

When we got to the seam, he put on long waders, fastened by a belt at the top of his thighs, to help him walk to the furthest ends. He examined it, taking his time, walking this way and that along the exposed ridge of limestone. I waited on the dry sand, wondering what he saw. Had he found his creature? A part of his creature? Did he carry my drawings in his head as he searched? For the first time in months my thoughts were focused on something other than Arthur. Salt spray on my cheeks made me feel alive. The air tasted fresh. I wanted waders too, so I could be in the water.

It’s a small respite at a difficult time for her – the optimism of new starts that sea air and beaches bring. Charmouth’s beach is spectacular. A sweeping expanse with a wide beach where seams of fossiled rocks are exposed when the tide retreats, backed by dramatic, high cliffs. Jane Austen called it ‘a happy spot for sitting in unwearied contemplation’ and Madeline, grows in confidence there, drawing ‘faerytale creatures that writhed across the page in skin and scales. Merfolk with human eyes and faces’. For a while she believes she can find happiness. Until she discovers her husband’s secret and her life is destroyed, their marriage dashed liked the waves against Charmouth’s cliffs.

Jody Cooksley

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Photos via author’s Shutterstock licence

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