Can you tell our readers what to expect from your current novel The Painted Bridge?
I hope that readers of The Painted Bridge can expect a gripping, involving, emotional journey through a time of crisis in a woman’s life, at the end of which she is changed forever.
At the same time, readers will find themselves in the world of the Victorians – where although some things are very different others are totally recognizable now.
Twenty-four-year-old Anna Palmer is trapped by her new husband in a shabby private madhouse on the edge of London, in the year 1859.
Anna at first believes that her husband will see reason, then that her sister or the photographer conducting an experiment in the asylum will come to her rescue.
Finally, it becomes clear that only she can save herself, by a difficult process of facing the truth about the past and the present.
The story is dark in places. I’ve evoked the claustrophobia of the madhouse, and the horror of some of the treatments. But Anna makes surprising friendships inside Lake House and ultimately finds the means and the courage to reclaim her life.
To what extent did you have to research the time and placing of this novel?
I did a lot of research before starting the novel and continued while writing.
It was fascinating to find out about the dresses and corsets and boots and cosmetics that women used in the mid-Victorian period, and to read texts from the times, in the form of novels, medical books, diaries and magazine articles.
I enjoyed exploring grand old Victorian houses and gardens, especially run-down ones with the same Gothic atmosphere as Lake House.
A key part of the research was studying the black and white photographs of patients made by Dr Hugh Diamond at Springfield county asylum. They are haunting images and without the Victorian clothes and hairstyles, the women could be looking out at us today. I found them very moving.
There’s more on all of these aspects on my blog.
I drew insights from some of the feminist academics who have written on women and the Victorian asylum, and from the few first-person accounts I could find of Victorian women who’d emerged from madhouses to tell their own stories.
In the end though, the research is secondary to the story. It works on the iceberg principle; you finish by using a very small part of what you’ve learned.
To what extent did your freelance journalism affect your writing?
Having been a journalist for many years, I strove for accuracy where it was relevant – for instance in the way the madhouse is licensed and inspected, in Anna Palmer’s admittance procedure and the types of treatments and diagnoses.
The photography aspect of the story is based on a real phenomenon; Victorian alienist and keen amateur photographer Dr Hugh Diamond proposed that photographs could be used to gain access to patients’ minds. My protagonist Lucas St Clair aims to develop Dr Diamond’s theory further.
I’d like to think that my background in journalism helped make the story well-paced and fast-moving!
How much did your background in photography affect the inclusion of the physician's medium in your novel?
I’m married to a photographer and was once one myself; I’m very interested in photography.
In the novel, photographer Lucas St Clair uses the wet plate collodion technology of the day.
As part of the research, I did a short course in collodion photography so that I was familiar with what the chemicals smell like, how the image appears upside down on the ground glass of a large format Victorian camera, and what it feels like to hold in your hand a portrait on a glass plate.
I’m also interested in photography as a metaphor. One of the main themes of the book is learning to see clearly - I explored ideas about that process through the character of Lucas St Clair, and his experimental attempt to use photography to look into women’s minds.
The Painted Bridge has been compared to that of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Woman in White, how does this make you feel as a writer?
I should point out that it is someone from my own publishers, Simon & Schuster, who made that flattering comparison!
Perhaps because it’s a potent subject, quite a number of novels that look at Victorian women and madness have entered the culture.
As well as The Woman in White, written by Wilkie Collins in 1859, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, we might think of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, and - in contemporary novels - of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - among others. The last two novels are set later, but some of the same issues - about women losing their lives to institutions – still prevail.
Obviously, I’ll be delighted if The Painted Bridge resonates with readers and makes a contribution to this luminous body of work.
You have previously written short stories, when did you make the transition to wanting to write a novel?
I’ve been a hungry reader all my life and always wanted to write novels. I studied journalism at college and worked as a feature writer in my 20s. I wrote my first published short stories when my two sons were very young.
As they were growing up, I continued as a freelance journalist, writing mainly about education and social issues, which have always interested me.
The transition to fiction came about mainly through my two non-fiction books. The second one in particular – Daughter of Dust, a memoir of a Sudanese woman - gave me the confidence to embark on a novel.
The Painted Bridge took me two years to write. I’ve been greatly helped and encouraged throughout by my agent, Ivan Mulcahy of Mulcahy Conway Asociates, and my very supportive husband and family.
What does the future have in store for your writing?
I’m writing another novel, titled Magic for the Living. It’s loosely linked to The Painted Bridge, and is set just over 20 years later.
Anna Palmer’s sister Louisa is a minor character in The Painted Bridge and a major one in the new book; Louisa’s daughter Harriet - the fractious newborn baby that Anna first sees swaddled on the sofa in January 1859 - is now a young woman approaching 22.
Harriet, Louisa, and Harriet’s aunt Yael set off together on a trip to Egypt intended to save Harriet’s life. Events triggered by a chance encounter on the voyage out mean that none of the women can return unchanged. One will never return.
As in The Painted Bridge, I’m interested in times of crisis and change in women’s lives.
How do you go about achieving the fine line between madness and sanity within your novel?
I’m not sure that as a writer you necessarily know how all aspects of a work come about. The period that Anna Palmer spends finely balanced between madness and sanity was actually one of the easiest parts of The Painted Bridge for me to write and appears more or less as it was in first draft.
Perhaps we have in us a greater capacity than we sometimes realise - to empathise with a wide range of emotional states and human conditions.
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace is published by Simon & Schuster, price £14.99 hardback
Interview by Lucy Walton