Writing The Midwife’s Daughter and Aren’t We Sisters

By Patricia Ferguson

Patricia FergusonIt’s often awkward when someone asks you what your new book is about. They’re only being polite, but how can you possibly answer, especially if you don’t know yourself?

A few years ago I took to saying, “I’m just writing lots of beginnings,” rather plaintively, because these beginnings were all different from one another and none seemed likely to go anywhere.

I’d started them in 2009 or thereabouts. The approaching First World War centenary was on my mind, and I wanted to set my new novel in the immediate aftermath of the war, in those years when all over Great Britain memorials to the dead were going up in every parish, every town hall; in a country full of grieving parents.

When starting something I like to approach a potential subject sideways,  so I began while the war was still on with Joe Gilder, a wounded soldier;  I sent him to a stately-home convalescent hospital in Cornwall, but presently he got out of bed,  hobbled his way to the kitchens, encountered Grace Dimond, respectable black kitchen maid making currant buns there, and fell in love. I didn’t know she was Grace Dimond at the time. She had no name at all, though even then she was missing some of the fingers of her right hand. I wondered why. But mainly I just thought, as you do now and then – Where on earth did all that come from? I was discomfited by Joe’s behaviour, and completely at a loss to explain the presence, in 1918 rural England, of a lone young black woman with a Cornish accent.

Though I had seen her so clearly with her mismatched hands in the mixing bowl she was a dead end, I decided, not only too difficult but nothing to do with my original plan. I had written myself into a corner, something I do all the time. Disregard; start again.

I wrote about a young boy working very early one morning in a bakery; as he swept the pavement outside a sleek 1920’s Daimler passed slowly by, with the most beautiful young woman in the world sitting in the back. I was pleased when, catching sight of the boy with the broom, she blew him a kiss; I felt it was unwise of her.

For a while I tried to work out who she was. I put her in hiding in an isolated creepy old house in the country, and was intrigued to find that when she looked in the mirror she was bothered by the colour of her hair; she had dyed it too dark. So, I wondered, was she famous, for some reason? Why else would she need to dye her hair?

Perhaps she was an actress. I’ve always been interested in the silent cinema of the 1920s, and when I felt I’d arrived at another dead end I  started again with two women, not quite friends, and very badly off, going to the cinema together. This was great fun to write, as I was telling the wildly melodramatic story of the film they were watching at the same time. But I had no idea where to go next. Various attempts to find out misfired, so I started again with a midwife carrying out a really nice  home delivery.

midwifes daughterI can’t remember what prompted this, probably I’d seen yet another film in which birth is hinted at though never shown, but with lots of anguished screaming and blood and peremptory doctors shouting about towels and hot water. I thought: why not do a lovely one, just for a change, and without once pulling focus, but instead giving every extraordinary everyday detail? I trained as a midwife long ago so I’d actually seen all this many times, and made up the mother, made up the midwife, wrote down what they did with no trouble: the scene seemed to write itself, and it is almost unchanged in my novel The Midwife’s Daughter, (Penguin 2012) word for word, most unlike my usual method of endless re-drafting and tweaking.

But then what? Was the baby significant, was the mother? I didn’t know. I tried following the midwife home. It became clear that she had a twin sister, and that they got on very badly, even though they sometimes had the strange experience of dreaming one another’s dreams. One of them had a nightmare about a little girl, connected somehow to a small daughter, now dead.

The twins met up and argued; I lost interest.

“So, what are you working on at the moment?”

“Oh, I don’t know….it’s just a lot of beginnings, somehow…”

Plaintively. Because all this took many months, and it was a long time before I began to wonder if my difficulties lay with my first unexpected creation, the Cornish kitchenmaid Grace Dimond.  Perhaps she was the reason I kept losing interest in all the other people. I had dismissed her as too difficult, but I hadn’t forgotten her, just found myself constantly trying to fit her in with all the various other stories.

It seemed to me that she had been adopted as a very little girl; that was alright, I thought, I could write about adoption, especially as, while I had read many moving accounts of what it felt like to be adopted, I’d come across nothing about what it felt like to be the adopter. But this would be transracial adoption, a subject I knew very little about, and as author I would have to be the adopted child as well as the adopting mother. I could imagine being born in 1850, or being a lovestruck baker’s boy, or a blind man playing the piano in a 1920’s cinema; why not imagine being a black child in a white family? Could I do that? Should I?

But soon I felt I had no choice – that while I hadn’t come up with Grace on purpose I was somehow stuck with her, and wouldn’t be able to tell anyone else’s story until I had done my best to tell hers.

For a while, finally seeing some useful connections, I tried to pull all my different stories together, changing third person narration with every chapter, swopping between 1900 and 1919 and 1932, trying to find out who everyone was. I say find because when this business is going well it doesn’t feel as if I’m making things up but as if I am remembering them, remembering something that actually happened.

I knew from the beginning what was going to happen to Grace as an adult, but now I had to remember her childhood.  I knew one of my characters died violently, but couldn’t work out how, or who was responsible; the trip to the cinema was particularly maddening, as I kept changing my mind about whose point of view to use, and worst of all I couldn’t finish the tiny scene when nervous first-time landlady Norah Thornby meets her new lodger, the ruthless and not entirely honest Lettie Quick.

Aren't we sistersHave you ever done this, in writing –  re-written over and over again, changing every small detail, while still it seems all wrong? I kept seeing Lettie differently. I couldn’t decide what she was wearing and for some reason I was convinced I had to be precise. That woman changed her clothes and her hat and her suitcase over and over again, right up until the moment I realised that I was trying to write two novels at once, and that no reader would care to follow me through so many confusing changes of person and date and storyline.

Simplify, I thought. Tell it straight for once. No dodging about. Just tell the story of Grace Dimond; everything else, everything not about Grace, would have to be left for part two. This is why The Midwife’s Daughter ends as it does, with the installation of the stone soldier, the war memorial I had first thought of when I began, in the country of grieving parents.

It’s the end of part one. After that all I had to do was write part two, and decide who had murdered whom, and why; I had to choose which woman to concentrate on during the silent film (though it turned out I couldn’t, and so told the story of the film from the point of view of both women in turn; I was pleased with the scene when I finished, but does it work?)

Only readers can tell me that. And as to the impossible business of what Norah saw when she first opened the door to Lettie, of deciding exactly what that heartless and shifty young woman was wearing –  well, I got round it eventually. It’s in part two, the second novel, Aren’t We Sisters? (Penguin 2014).

I hope you like my solution. Do say.

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Patricia Ferguson is the author of The Midwife’s Daughter and its sequel, Aren’t We Sisters?, which was longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s prize, and six previous novels.

You can find her website here.

And her facebook page here.

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