I’m delighted to be hosting Charles Ellingworth in my hot seat on tour today.
Charles is chatting to us about his historical novel A Bitter Harvest which is the first volume in a sequence of novels that will follow the events of the inter-war years and the lives of a unique generation of women.
1919. The Great War is over and an armistice agreed but peace is not a given. England, riven by grief and loss, attacked by the Spanish Flu, with its younger generation of men killed, traumatised or wounded, is adjusting to a changed world. The slaughter of the Great War is over, but the Roaring Twenties are still far away.
A Bitter Harvest explores the experience of the two Richmond sisters and their cousin Ariadne, confronted with the reality that only a fraction of their generation will ever marry and have children.
Set predominately in the English countryside, the narrative shifts between Dorset, the Peace Conference in Paris and the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow, with a cast of characters that includes an aged Thomas Hardy and Lloyd George at the height of his powers. But when Julian Belmore, an Irishman who has come through the war unscathed but conflicted, meets the sisters, bringing emotional turmoil in his wake, events begin their descent towards tragedy.
A Bitter Harvest is published by Quartet Books and is available to purchase in paperback format.
Hi Charles, welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.
What was the idea/inspiration behind A Bitter Harvest?
The inspiration for A Bitter Harvest goes back to my childhood. I was brought up in a small village in Leicestershire where there were at least half a dozen spinsters – as they were known then. At the time, being a child, I didn’t think about it much but now I know they were part of generation of women whose future husbands were killed in the First World War. They had been raised in an Edwardian society where women were defined by marriage and children but for them this was never a possibility. It was a cohort that was starved both emotionally and sexually and never had the possibility of children or grandchildren to comfort them in their old age. There were three sisters that I knew well one of whom was our nanny and cleaner. Edna, or Vossy as we knew her, had had ‘a young man’ but he had died in Flanders. Because so many regiments were raised locally, on a catastrophic day like the first day of the Somme, whole villages would be wiped out.
The sisters lived in a house with a few modern comforts. There was only an outside privy and washday was once a week in a galvanised tub with a mangle as a dryer. A television appeared in the late 70s. As I looked back on their poignant lives I thought that a novel, or novels, that followed women of their generation through their lives would be filled with possibilities.
How do your characters come into existence Charles?
The characters come out of the story – and I don’t mean the plot. In all my novels so far I have had a time and place that I have found interesting – slightly off the the well beaten track. In the case of A Bitter Harvest, it is 1919 – after the terrible war which has been endlessly described in memoir and poetry, and before the Roaring Twenties when a very different world emerged. I was fascinated by this time and what it would have been like with grief everywhere and a society that could never be the same as everyone drew breath and wondered what would happen next. I had heard a (supposedly true) story about an aristocratic young woman who had fallen pregnant by a servant and disappeared to France to have her baby – which then appeared back in her life as grown Frenchman. This was the kernel – and the principal characters I had in my head as I formed the story. I have their characters and motives well drawn before I start writing. What I find interesting is that the secondary characters, often unknown when I start, come out almost from the subconscious, without me thinking of them. I have come to trust this and use it.
If you could choose to be one of your characters who would you be and why?
I would like to be Isabel Richmond. Despite the background of the sadness and loss of World War I, for many women it was a time of opportunity – particularly if they had education and talent. Isobel has been to Cambridge where the languages she studied took her to the Paris Peace Conference where she meets new and different people who will kick start her career as a sculptor. She is able to explore different aspects of her sexuality and become someone that would probably not have been possible in the antebellum world. Though the background to the story of A Bitter Harvest is melancholy, youth is youth – and even in a scorched landscape green shoots appear.
Can you tell us about the other characters in A Bitter Harvest?
The main male protagonist is Julian Belmore, an Irishman who is been in the Navy and therefore avoided the trauma and mutilations of the trenches. He is also bisexual and has been involved in Irish Nationalist politics, both of which will come to haunt him in the post war world. He is the master and huntsman of a hunt in Dorset, where he meets Isobel and Rose Richmond and their mentally handicapped sister Davina and their second cousin Ariadne. Isobel I have introduced before. Her sister, Rose does not know what do with her life. She knows the marital odds are against her but is feisty and not prepared to be a victim. Her and Julian have a deep rapport but circumstances and economics blight their relationship. Their cousin, Ariadne, is the daughter of the kindly Lord Milborne whose patronage pays for the living of the sisters’ vicar father and the salary of Julian Belmore. He is old fashioned and beaten down by the loss of his son during the war and miserably married to Ariadne’s mother who is a spoilt and self-indulgent drug addict. Ariadne herself is an heiress with a tough carapace but with a basic kindness allied with an uneducated intelligence. She is a victim of her class and upbringing unsure of how she can be happy stuck between her warring parents and in the rut of her country life. Her Aunt Daphne, is more of a mother to her than her own. In her turn she is married unhappily to Robert Milborne who is Lord Milborne’s younger brother, senior in the security services with a sinister reputation for cruelty. He can however show unexpected kindness – but never to his wife who is a cultivated and benevolent friend to many.
What scenes did you enjoy writing the most?
Isobel’s time in Paris, working with the British Delegation was interesting to write as it combined big events in which she is involved with a ringside seat where she meets (and just survives) an attempted seduction by Lloyd George and witnesses the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time her world is opened up by new friendships and an affair with an older Parisian woman of the world. It is the coming of age of a interesting young women and intriguing to write from her point of view. I like writing about women and getting under their skin – Isobel’s in particular as I think her life is going to be fascinating as she is someone who masters fear and grasps opportunities.
… and the hardest?
Could I change that to challenging? I think it is a real challenge to write about sex in a way that isn’t pornography or beyond cliche. In A Bitter Harvest there is gay sex from the point of view of both men and women and unsatisfactory heterosexual fumblings. I think the secret is never to describe anything going into anywhere. It is now almost impossible to do this without falling into the traps above. Before, after and any permutation without the above is possible – but difficult. So far, I haven’t had any complaints!
Finally, which authors have influenced your writing Charles?
I have admired and read Theodore Zeldin’s work all my adult life – particularly The Intimate History of Humanity, a work of beautiful wisdom and insights into the emotional lives of women in particular, throughout history. Tolstoy’s ability to describe huge events and then turn on a sixpence to enter the corners of the human heart is incomparable. And for an almost perfect novel that I would aspire to, but fear I could never emulate, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
Thank you for being my guest today.
Charles (Charlie) Ellingworth went to Oxford where he read History – and otherwise wasted his time. He supported himself through university by working on oil-rigs.
He lived in Hong Kong for four years before starting Property Vision with a friend. They built the business over twenty years before selling it to HSBC. The management bought it back in 2012. He is a director of other companies, including the Cadogan Estate which is the owner of much of Chelsea.
Charlie married Amanda in 1987 and lives in Somerset with three sons and an assortment of other animals. He wrote a comic novel before Silent Night which did not get published – it obviously wasn’t funny enough. He has just finished a play about the forger Van Meegere. He writes regularly for the FT and other magazines. His latest novel A Bitter Harvest is set in 1919 in Dorset, the Paris Peace Conference and Scapa flow in the Orkneys. It is about the women who found themselves in a radically altered society where there were few men not damaged by war and what is was like to be an unscathed man in this new world.
A Bitter Harvest is published by Quartet (March 2019).
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