Elaine di Rollo is the author of the heart-warming novel, Bleakly Hall published by
Chatto & Windus. Set at a hydropathic in post-WWI Britain, we see old values change, and meet a range of characters who are dealing with the aftermath of war.
I know that you have a PhD in the Social History of Medicine; how did you first become interested in writing fiction?
I was always interested in writing fiction. Early attempts included The Fox Who Lost His Tail and How Bunny Got His Bounce when I was six or seven. Shortly after, I went to secondary school and gave up such foolish ideas. However, I read all the time; there was nothing else to do in Lancashire in the 1970s and 1980s apart from watch the sprout fields grow. When I began my PhD I tried again – I think I felt constrained by the requirements of academic writing.
Bleakly Hall is set in post-WWI Britain with episodes on the Front; what was the research and writing process like
for this novel?
At first, I didn’t want to set any of the book at the Western Front – with books like Birdsong and Regeneration, it seemed a risky undertaking, but it proved impossible to ignore. Mostly, I read first-hand accounts from people who had been in the trenches or at the Front in hospitals. I visited the Imperial War Museum and spent the entire day in the First World War exhibits. One source I found particularly interesting was the Wipers Times – a trench newspaper, printed on an old press culled from the wreckage of Ypres. It’s unique and poignant, but filled with wit and gallows humour. I was afraid to write the sections set in the trenches, but they came together much easier than other parts of the book. War is so extreme, so dramatic, that it writes itself, but I only wanted sections at the Front. It would have been too intense, too overwhelming otherwise.
A hydropathic is an unusual setting for a novel; can you tell me more about the decision to base the book at Bleakly Hall?
I work in a building that used to be a hydropathic hotel, and which became the famous Craiglockhart Hospital. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met there. After the war, the place never really managed to get itself back on its feet as a hotel. I liked the idea of a crumbly institution representing “the establishment.” Perhaps I had Arthur Marwick’s The Deluge: British Society and the First World War at the back of my mind when I chose the watery location. And hydropathy is so bizarre – it seemed fitting to contrast the older generations’ preoccupation with trivial health ailments against the real issues of life and death, pain, loneliness and loss. At the same, time it provides some of the main comedy moments.
WWI is often under shadowed in fiction, television and film with more of the emphasis and storytelling focused on WWII, can you tell me why you decided to focus on this period?
I chose this period because it was the end of an era. The British Empire was in terminal decline, the Victorian values, which had dominated the previous century had been undermined, the lives and roles of women were changing, social class was becoming more fluid, social and political change seemed imminent and the prospect of this was frightening to some. I didn’t address all this, but I tried to be aware of it when creating the strange world of Bleakly.
Your first novel, The Peachgrowers’ Almanac / A Proper Education for Girls is set between England and India in 1857. You are drawn to the past, can you tell me about this decision to explore events in history?
Sometimes fiction can remind us of significant past events, or make us see them in a different light. Fiction can make historical figures more real, it can generate sympathy or fear, or remind us of the importance of love, or hope. Simply reading history books doesn’t always make our own past meaningful to us. The best historical fiction should at least try to, and the past can seem more reassuring than the present. At least we know what happens next!
Each character has a specific role, how did you determine their personalities, and more specifically how they would interact with each other?
The characters evolved over a few drafts. I knew I wanted to have people whose experiences of the war were all very different. Some were to have hope, and some were not. Ada was the most interesting character for me. She began as a maid with a walk-on walk-off role with a tea tray. By the time I’d re-drafted the book a couple of times she was an important character, and one of the most optimistic.
How do you feel the novel explores each character’s personal narrative?
Each character has been changed or damaged by the war, some more obviously than others. Their experiences are deeply personal, but they are all united by their common understanding. I thought the idea of a sort of reluctant comradeship due to their shared experiences of the war was interesting – I tried to show this comradeship as supportive, and necessary, but also as stultifying (the hydropathic overheats badly) and as something that might prevent one from moving forward, to better times, but breaking out can be hard, and lonely, as the characters in the book show.
You use humour to explore complex relationships and the aftermath of war; can you tell me more about your
use of language?
I’m glad you mentioned it as Bleakly Hall must sound terribly depressing, but it’s not. Your question takes me back to the Wipers Times, I suppose. I’ve always admired its gallows humour; its satirical tone doesn’t diminish the events it describes. I was interested in the way tragedy and comedy can sit together. Do we feel relieved that we can laugh after or during a tragic event? Do we feel guilty when we are amused by something that we know is awful? I’m not sure what the answers are, but the questions interest me. I tried to use language, rather than events, or situations, to generate the comedy.
If you had to choose your favourite character in the book, who would it be and why?
Grier Blackwood. He is weak and indecisive, and ultimately is unable to move forward alone. But he was brave, ended up playing a part he had no stomach for, and is the one who tries, and fails, to keep everyone happy – including himself.
What are your plans for the future?
I have almost finished the first draft of a new novel, set in a department store in the 1880s. Like Bleakly Hall and A Proper Education for Girls it’s serious and humorous at the same time. It’s about consumerism, which is an absurd way to behave, when you think about it!