Q&A with Nicola Upson on Stanley and Elsie

Questions by Harriet

Nicola Upson

Harriet: Thanks for agreeing to do this, Nicola. I have recently finished reading and reviewing Stanley and Elsie and enjoyed it tremendously. So my first question has to be – when and how did the idea for the novel first come to you?

Nicola: About ten years ago. I’ve loved Stanley Spencer’s work since I was a child, when I remember being very taken with a postcard of his Cookham Resurrection. I’m lucky living in Cambridge because the Fitzwilliam Museum has a fine collection of his paintings, and in 2009 they held an exhibition called ‘Sargent, Sickert & Spencer’, which was my first introduction to Elsie. There was a small pencil sketch of her – a young girl in a maid’s uniform, flirting at the door with a postman or delivery man, and I was very touched by the affectionate way that Spencer wrote about her; he described their life while she was working for him in Burghclere as ‘light as the air’, comparing them to ‘a couple of rooks blowing about in that cottage in the field by the railway cutting’. For me, that showed a different side to Spencer, and I also knew that Elsie – living with the Spencer family through a crucial period in their lives – would be the perfect, intimate witness to both the creation of the Sandham Memorial Chapel and the simultaneous breakdown of his marriage and family life. Spencer’s personal life has been described as the greatest soap opera in the history of art, but I hope that seeing it through Elsie’s eyes (and through the eyes of two of the other women most affected by it) gives it a human, emotional quality that’s often eclipsed by the scandal.

H: Although this is a novel, it is clearly very firmly tied in to the biographical facts. How much research did you need to do before you started writing?

N: As much, if not more, as I’m used to doing for each Josephine novel – but I love that stage of any book and this was no exception. I read all the biographies and lots of Spencer’s writings, and became obsessed with that part of his life in the same way that I became obsessed with Hitchcock while writing Fear in the Sunlight. I spent a lot of time in Cookham and Burghclere, especially in the Chapel itself, and of course I studied the paintings, which was no great hardship! But the most important preparation for the writing was the same as any crime novel – trying to understand people’s motives for what they do; as you say, the plot for this book was written for me by history, and lots of people reading it have commented that you couldn’t make it up – but the important part is to make it human and credible, and to do that you have to do your best to understand where each person is coming from.

H: In the novel Elsie comes vividly to life, though presumably there are no existing documents relating to her. Were you able to talk to any of her descendants? Or did you imagine her fully from the paintings and whatever was said about her in letters?

N: Elsie contributed a short passage to a book of reminiscences on Spencer, and although she doesn’t say much, her affection for the whole family, especially for their two little girls, comes across very strongly, so it was important to me that the book reflected that. She says, too, that Stanley spoke to her all the time about his work but that she didn’t always understand – and her sense of wonder and excitement as she sees the Chapel gradually completed gives the book its structure and is the reader’s way into paintings they might not have seen for themselves. I was lucky to have a fabulous correspondent in Elsie’s son, Gordon, who shared precious memories of his mother in later life; interestingly, with typical discretion and loyalty, Elsie didn’t tell either of her children about her life with the Spencers until they were grown and married themselves, and then they took her to see her own portraits in the various collections around the country. And there’s a personal side to her character in the book; like Elsie, my grandmother was a country girl born on the threshold of the twentieth century, and she worked in service too; I remember very clearly her fondness and respect for the people she worked for, and that had a big impact on the book.

H: I’ve been looking at reproductions of the two paintings of Elsie which, as you describe in the novel, were done by Stanley and Hilda at the same time. Which one do you prefer and why?

Elsie by Hilda
Carline, Hilda Anne; Elsie; Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/elsie-74516

N: Definitely Hilda’s. I find it very poignant that Stanley kept that picture until the day he died, testifying both to his affection for Elsie and his respect for his wife as an artist. It’s a beautiful portrait, rather like one of those grand studies of a king or queen, where the monarch is surrounded by everything that makes him or her great; in Elsie’s case, that isn’t a crown or symbols of divine right, but a perfectly polished hearth and an ordered household. It’s on display now in Brighton Art Gallery and Museum, and is absolutely stunning.

H: Although this is a very different book from your Josephine Tey novels, it’s set in more or less the same historical period. Is there something about the 1930s that particularly appeals to you?

N: Yes, I love those years and I’m for ever grateful to Josephine for living through them and dictating when my books are set. It’s a period of great social change, especially for women, and I’ve come across so many pioneering people to write about who deserve more recognition for their achievements. And I find the tragedy and consequences of the First World War a very moving subject to explore in different ways, trying to reflect how deeply everyone was affected. Stanley’s cycle of war paintings in the Chapel is unique and exceptional, but they’re a hidden jewel in many respects, and I’m delighted that people are inspired by the novel to go and see them or look them up on line.

H: People always like to hear about a writer’s working habits. Where and when do you like to write? Pen, pencil or word processor? How disciplined are you?

N: I’m nomadic with a laptop – study or kitchen table or summer house, Cambridge or Cornwall. I almost always work to music – or Test Match Special in the summer – and I drink a lot of tea and coffee. I’ve written all my novels on the same computer, which is called Leonard and never connected to the internet. I’m extremely superstitious about Leonard’s role in my work, and the idea of ever using anything else horrifies me! The keyboard is full of fur from a series of long haired tabbies who have been my writing companions over the years, and the current incumbent is Betsey Trotwood, who always gets far more likes on Twitter than I do! How disciplined I am depends very much on how close I am to a deadline – the first third of a book is always the hardest and I will take any distraction I’m offered; after that, I’m quite well behaved!

H: What are you reading at the moment? Anything you’d like to recommend?

N: I’ve just finished Lanny by Max Porter, which I absolutely loved, and I’m a shamefully late convert to Celia Fremlin’s dark and elegant crime novels through the Faber reissues. At the moment, I’m reading for some events I’m chairing at the Felixstowe Book Festival later this month; Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living and Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground are astonishing, beautiful novels and I’m so glad to have discovered them. And my partner, Mandy Morton, writes a series of funny and dark crime novels, so the book I’m looking forward to sitting in the sun with for sheer pleasure is her latest, Beyond the Gravy.

H: Finally, what’s next for Nicola Upson? Are we likely to see any more of Josephine?

N: Oh yes! The eighth in the series, Sorry for the Dead, is out in the autumn and is set partly at Charleston during the First World War, so we get to spend time with Josephine as a much younger woman. In many ways, it’s a tribute to The Franchise Affair, which was the first Tey novel I read and is still my favourite. And there are two more Josephine books contracted; it’s still such a treat for me to sit down with those series characters, so as long as the readers feel that way, too, I’ll keep writing them. 

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Read Harriet’s review of Stanley and Elsie here.

Nicola Upson, Stanley and Elsie (Duckworth, 2019). 978-0715653685, 310pp., paperback.

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