The Walled Garden is F.M. Parkinson's debut novel, so of course I asked her how she came to choose such a fascinating setting, and that other burning question authors often get: why?
Why did I write the novel? Some years ago a friend and I spent part of a morning attempting to write a story about a man living in the Victorian England of the 1850s. My friend wrote a page of splendid prose, all about a horse and carriage driving through the cobbled streets of a town; I managed three lines of absolute drivel, because I had no real idea of what life was like at that time. But the idea wouldn’t go away and I decided to continue with my efforts.
The novel began life in a different version, and the first scene was one in which two men were confronting one another. One of the characters had just behaved in a stupid and irresponsible way; the other was livid over this. I then realised that while I knew a bit about one of the men, I had no idea as to how the other had ended up there. And although I knew where I wanted my characters to go with their relationship, I had no clue as to how to get them there. So I had to go back and create a story to get them both to that point.
As I continued writing, I realised that I needed to find out far more about life at that time, in particular the law regarding homosexuality, as it changed several times in England during the nineteenth century. I also wanted to know about public and private attitudes to sex in its many variations. It was fascinating to discover that whatever face Victorian society presented to public gaze, in private people were as uninhibited and passionate in their love as anyone today would be.
I’ve also always had a fascination with the high-walled gardens found on most country estates. (I’m sure that The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was an influence.) Most of these gardens were kitchen gardens for growing the vegetables and flowers used in the owner’s house, though other ones were designed as gardens to be used as places for the owner of the property to take his leisure. All of them, whatever their function today, have an air of mystery, secrecy and seclusion about them that, to me, conjured up a place where two men could shut out the world and its demands and be quite private with each other for a while, the high walls and locked door to the garden cutting them off from the rest of society.
Before I started to write this story, I had only attempted short pieces of fiction set in the contemporary world. I couldn’t write this story in the same manner – I had to find some other style. I therefore tried to echo the style of English novels written at that time, not just in language but in the slower pace of telling the story, while still making it acceptable to the reader of today. And once I had got my characters to that scene of confrontation, I found I still had a long way to go, with many twists and turns, before I could bring the novel to a close.
It was fascinating to find out about that time - about households and servants; about clothing (right down to men’s underwear); about the workings of parliament (quite different to today); about railways and stations, and what certain towns and cities looked like at the time. I studied newspapers, magazines, books, plans, paintings and photographs of the time; wrote to various august bodies for information, and visited the places I used as settings in the novel. Every aspect of life needed research.
I enjoyed discovering all about my characters and their respective lives. I hope that readers of the story may do so too.
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