Five years ago I wanted to write a novel wherein a strong, contemporary woman saves a woman born centuries before her, by bringing her from the past to our time by means of a wormhole. I wanted to do this for several reasons. First because I had just read a novel in which the Virgin Mary, slips into the life of an ordinary, (non-Catholic) woman writer, to rest and to “get away” from the pressing demands of being the Virgin Mary. That gave me the idea of “disappearing” into another life, into another time.
Second of all, I had lost all hope of finishing my dissertation on an 18th century woman writer who very much-needed to be rescued and spared the awful fate real life had dealt her. Thirdly, I had promised, as many doctoral students do when starting a dissertation to make a contribution to the language and the literature by doing an in-depth, critical study of this woman’s life and literary output. I wouldn’t be completing my dissertation, but I found I couldn’t just walk away—either from her or from all the work I had done on her. So, since fear of failure is a rather constant companion of graduate students, I decided I could side-step abject and total failure on the PhD front by turning my research into a novel. I could fulfill a promise to Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) that she would not languish in total obscurity if I had anything to do about it. So I began a novel, never having written a word of fiction in my life.
I had written for most of my life—essays, term papers, master’s thesis, a trunk full of poetry. I composed and edited a daily company newsletter and even had spent a brief season “covering” high school football. But never fiction. NEVER dialogue. And I was so terrified that at first I thought I would just collaborate with another writer, since the task before me was so monumental. I joined a writer’s “coffeehouse” online. That’s where I met Jane and several other very nice people. Jane told me I didn’t need another writer; that nobody knew Charlotte Smith as I did and nobody cared about her like I did. I slowly came to realize Jane was right—I would have to just teach myself as I went along.
In the beginning the epistolary format was my strong suit. I could write letters both as the young graduate student at the University of Tennessee and as the struggling 18th century writer and single parent, and I could write the history of their lives. So I wrote what I knew. Pretty soon the book’s characters became so real that they more or less told me how they would act and what they wanted to say. Eventually, they wrote a different ending than the one I wanted for the book. A more authentic ending, which meant I had to grieve more, but one that rang truer for Charlotte. I became a human sponge and everything got squeezed out and into the book: scenery, snatches of conversations overheard— even the antics of my cat. They all found their way into one of the women’s lives—either Lillian’s in 1997 or Charlotte’s in 1793—and filled them out.
One of the hardest things about writing about Charlotte Smith was the problem of how to write like a woman who had lost her best friend and then her child within months of each other, because these losses were the seminal events of her life, and the ones she never got past. How would I approach these events as her when I had no losses of my own to even begin to help me understand? But then in 2008, tragically, I suffered the same loss as Charlotte, when my son was killed in an automobile accident. He was 20; Charlotte’s daughter was 20, and then I understood what hell really is.
I can truly say that in 2008 it was Charlotte who saved and rescued me, even though I began the novel with the express purpose of saving her! She forced me to write and write and write and to move forward, even though I didn’t want to. It was like she was telling me, “this is what you can do—do it!” When it came to that chapter where her daughter dies I grieved both 20 year olds as hard as I could—and it was real.
At the end of the book, I grieved again because I hadn’t saved Charlotte by manipulating her fate through time travel. She wouldn’t, couldn’t leave her life in the 18th century. She couldn’t leave either her living children or the one we lost. So I had to say goodbye and leave the intensity and the immediacy of the bond we shared for so many years behind. Every time I read those final 2 chapters, I am affected, just as I am whenever I read the dedication page.
As for the promise I made to Charlotte Smith, now nearly 15 years ago, I think I kept it. Whoever reads my novel learns about a fascinating poet and novelist who deserves to be read and known. She was the best-selling novelist in England for 10 years! Wordsworth learned from her; Dickens lifted a whole section of her life and made fiction of it. She was revered by Sir Walter Scott and William Godwin and countless other artists. She has been recently called the Mother of English Romanticism. It’s time she was read and studied again and given her place in the canon of English Literature.
I suppose outside of the Creative Writing Major, writing a novel is a strange way to make a scholarly contribution to the language and the literature. But I feel I made lemonade out of rather a lemony hand and have told a story that only I could tell. And yes, I have actors in mind for the characters in the big screen version.
©DebbieDavis All Rights Reserved
Debbie was born in Wilmington, NC, graduated from Queens College and earned at Masters degree at UT. She loves NC State college football and basketball, knitting, reading, and writing poetry . Having raised 6 children she lives in Tennessee with her cat. She travels annually to Chincoteague, VA and hopes to one day make that her home.
Our next Article will be a hilarious look at Menopause. Our Guest wishes to remain anonymous. Read what she writes and you will see why…possibly you will relate, or your could read it to see what you have to look forward to.