Q&A with Emma Henderson about ‘The Valentine House’

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Questions by Annabel

Annabel: Taking the cog railway up the mountain and then a hike from the station brings back happy memories for me of summer holidays at Caux on the Rochers de Naye above Montreux. That was summer though and idyllic – you lived in the French Alps – the Haute-Savoie above Geneva where your book is set for several years – how is it to actually live there?

Emma: I lived there for six years, running a ski and snowboard lodge during the winter months and a B&B for walkers in the summer. While the lodge was open, the hours were long and the work both physically and mentally very demanding. However, there was still time to appreciate the beauty of the mountains and participate in the myriad sporting activities they offered: skiing, snowboarding, walking, climbing, rafting… There was a short spring period between the winter and the summer season and the place was, I think, at its best then, with the vibrant colours of the alpine flowers and the bright green grass of the alpine meadows. The longer ‘interseason’ as it was called, from September to December, had its low points, at least weather-wise, when an icy mist might descend for days on end. People tended to keep themselves to themselves during this time and it could be lonely. But then, preparations for the winter season would begin and an enormous sense of excited anticipation took over the village and the valley. The countdown to the opening of the ski slopes was like the run-up to the opening night of a play in a theatre.

A: When I turned the page to the first chapter proper of the novel – I admit I was a little shocked to see Sir Anthony’s erotic writing about the mountains and valleys! Then I had a good laugh – it was a brave way to start the novel. How did you come up with such a memorable beginning?

E: During the early stages of writing, phrases go round and round in my head. They all feel like potential openings. They all feel essential somehow to the spirit of what I have in mind. With The Valentine House, these phrases included ‘There’s a small pear-shaped mountain in Haute Savoie…’, ‘Only we uglies went to work for A., and I was uglier than most…’ and ‘The valley is a vagina…’ It didn’t feel brave at all to plump for the latter as the opening. It just felt ‘right’. And I was glad that the other two phrases found their way in to the novel too, a bit later on. It’s hard to explain, but it’s to do with hearing a sort of musical note, a certain rhythm, a tone. And then it feels as if you have no choice but to follow it. Laughter is an appropriate response to Sir A.’s erotic writing. It is definitely, intentionally over the top!

A: The character of Sir Anthony is inspired by a real-life British mountaineer, Sir Alfred Wills. How did you discover his story?

E: I came across, quite by chance, the chalet he built, high up in the mountains above the village where I lived. When I later looked him up and discovered his fame, both as a mountaineer and as one of the judges in the Oscar Wilde trial, I was, for a while, stymied. The material was fascinating, but I’m not a historian. I made the decision, quite early on, to ignore a lot of the available material and move my fictional character quite a long way away from the real-life Sir Alfred Wills. You’re right: my Sir A was inspired by Sir Alfred Wills, but he’s not based on him; it’s an important distinction.

A: Can you tell me more about ‘Paideia’ in the sense of how you’ve used the concept in the novel? It has Greek origins, referring to a broad, cultural education of a body of people – your take is more like scouting perhaps?

E: Yes, that’s a helpful analogy. Originally, I intended to make more of the notions of ‘arete’ and ‘paideia’. I even, at one point, early on, considered calling the novel Arete. However, as I wrote and the characters began to take on a life of their own, it became more appropriate to tone down the Greek references, to lighten them, particularly since we only really hear about them from George, more than a hundred years after they were used by the first family members to inhabit the chalet.

A: Apart from the house itself, Mathilde is the undoubted star of the novel. She was treated very differently by the men and the women she worked for at Arete. Sir Anthony’s daughter Beatrice called her ‘an educated cretin’, and of course, Daisy would seek to undermine her at the drop of a hat – why were the women so nasty?

E: They are both women of their time, leading privileged, sheltered lives. Beatrice can’t see anything beyond the surface of Mathilde and she is, herself, rather an unhappy woman. Daisy is, in addition, a highly strung and egocentric person.

A: You don’t tell the story chronologically, jumping between earlier sets of visitors to Arete, and George’s visit in 1976, which really makes us long for the reveal of the secrets which we know will come in the end. It also mixes up the generations a little to keep us on our toes as there are about five generations in this story – George being Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson. Keeping the continuity between the generational strands must have been a little tricky at times?

E: It was. At one point, my workspace consisted almost wholly of charts and diagrams and family trees covered in dates and arrows. Any tiny shift in a date meant a rejigging of the whole thing. Even in the final stages of editing, there was an awful lot of double-checking and cross-referencing required.

A: The Valentine House is almost all set during the summer. Did Sir Anthony, his family and visitors never go there for skiing – or was it just that things happened during the Alpine summer?

E: No, they never went there for skiing. They couldn’t. The chalet was too high up in the mountains. It was totally cut off in the winter. I did toy with the idea of having them come and stay in a hotel in the village in the winter, once the skiing industry got under way, but I’m glad I didn’t. The chalet was a summer home, pure and simple.

A: Finally, we always ask this… Which books have you recently read and loved?  What are you looking forward to reading next?

E: I’ve recently read and loved Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which I think is beautiful and brilliant on every level. I’ve also just finished Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days. I started reading this as research for my next novel, but it’s so good, I forgot that’s why I was reading it and became completely absorbed by its complexity and breadth of vision. I’m about to read Naomi Alderman’s The Power. I haven’t read any of her other work and I’m very excited about it. The startling red paperback cover is incredibly strong and I couldn’t resist Margaret Atwood’s endorsement: ‘electrifying!’

Thank you Emma.

Read Annabel’s Review of The Valentine House here.

Emma Henderson, The Valentine House, (Sceptre, 2017) ISBN 9781444704020, Hardback, 352 pages.

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