Cardiff Book Talk: with authors John Harding and Gaynor Arnold

Lewis Carroll writer

Self Portrait of Lewis Carroll

Cardiff Book Talk is run by Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. Described on their website as “a University book group with a difference”, it is certainly nothing like any book group I’ve been to before. I was impressed that their events are entirely free and open to anyone. Most seem to be discussion-centred, with academics from various disciplines addressing the literature from their perspective. However, this particular session was an opportunity to actually meet the authors in question: John Harding and Gaynor Arnold.   

The theme of this particular event was Neo-Victorianism (historical fiction, set in the Victorian period, which addresses a modern audience). As described on the Cardiff Book Talk website, it “offers an ironic re-interpretation of history based on the gap between past and present”.

The event focused on the authors’ most recent work:

Florence and Giles by John HardingFlorence and Giles by John Harding is a re-imagining of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, written from the viewpoint of 12 year old Florence. Living in a remote gothic mansion, with nothing but forbidden books and her younger brother for company, Florence dreams that a mysterious woman will come and harm her brother, Giles. The arrival of a new governess seems to confirm her worst fears.

After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold, is a fictional tale inspired by the close relationship between Lewis Carroll and the young Alice Liddell. The Carroll figure (John Jameson) gets to know young Daisy, the daughter of his friend, and their relationship develops as he makes up stories and riddles for her. Years later, the older Daisy reads her childhood diaries and attempts to understand what happened that summer.

Neo-Victorianism – A Modern Craze

The event began with an introduction from Professor Ann Heilmann, from Cardiff University. She described the current trend of Neo-Victorianism in literature and television. She then showed us a clip of The Illusionist, introducing the idea of the mirror, both as a symbol of Neo-Victorianism (we see ourselves through the mirror of the nineteenth century) and because ‘seeing’ is central to both Harding’s and Arnold’s work (in Florence and Giles Florence is wary of being watched through mirrors, in After Such Kindness the diary represents a window through which to view the past).

The authors each read passages from their books, followed by discussion about their work. Heilmann began by asking them both about their inspiration.

Harding talked about the first time he read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. He found it “terrifying”, particularly the scene of the vision across the lake. He described how he “had to stop reading at that part” until his mother came home, even though he was 21 years old at the time! That scene, he said “haunted me”, it was “always something in my unconscious”, bound to “surface” at some point. He also described the scene in the film The Gospel According to Matthew, where the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. “What fascinates me about writing,” he explained, “is how things come up when you’re not expecting them to.”.

The Writing Process

After Such Kindness by Gaynor ArnoldArnold explained that, after writing Girl in a Blue Dress, she did not intend to write any more novels set in the Victorian period. It was a post-it note, stuck to her computer: ‘Alice from the point of view of the child’, which started her off on this path. Her original plan was to write the whole book from the viewpoint of Alice Liddell (or Daisy), but she also wanted to get into the mind of the Carroll figure (John Jameson), so her next plan was to alternate between the two.

It wasn’t until she was part way through that she thought about the discovery of the diary, and decided there was a need to have a more adult version of the girl, looking back on what happened to her as a child. So the grown-up Daisy (now called Margaret – same character but with a new name, after having had a mental breakdown) has a “sense that something happened that summer” which she can’t quite remember.

Not until chapter eight, Arnold explained, did she realise that other characters such as Daniel Baxter, would want to “have their say”. And so the novel began to take shape.

Forbidden Reading

It was fascinating to hear Harding describe how he began to write, without any kind of structure or direction. He began the first page, starting simply with the character of Florence, and then “she started to talk in this language because she admired words” which led to the idea that she was a reader, and then the notion that she had been banned from reading.

It wasn’t until a few years after writing the novel, Harding explained, that it occurred to him where this idea of forbidden reading had come from. He was in the middle of speaking to a group of school children when he remembered that, as a child, whilst his mother worked as a cleaner in his school, he would stay behind and read in the Junior School library, where infants were not allowed during the day, and would make sure he put all the books back carefully, in the correct place on the shelf, for fear of being found out.

Harding reading from his book 'Florence and Giles'

Harding reading from his book ‘Florence and Giles’

A Book about Books

Florence, the protagonist of Harding’s book, does something shocking (you’ll need to read it to find out what) which, he said “quite surprised me” and “horrified readers”. But, Harding explained, this is because Florence is “a child of her imagination” who reads gothic novels and “has lived in a gothic world where this kind of thing happens, not in real life”. The novel is really “a book about books”, Harding explained. He himself has “always lived” through books and films, and Florence and Giles is influenced by books he read as a child, such as The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre.

Girls on Their Own

Speaking of Florence’s shocking decision, Harding explained that it reveals something essential about her and the situation in which she finds herself. It is because she is “a child alone” with “no adult to turn to” that she ends up doing what she does.

This is similar, in some sense, to Arnold’s novel, which also centres around a girl who is essentially ‘on her own’. Arnold described how both girls “don’t have adults who are able to protect them” and Harding agreed that this illustrates the problem of adults who “never get it when children are trying to tell them” what’s going on.

Discussing photographs at Cardiff Book Talk event

Gaynor Arnold explains how the right hand photograph (apparently showing Lewis Carroll kissing Alice Liddell) is actually a fake, but the middle image is a photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Carroll himself, who was a keen photographer.

Writing from another Perspective

Photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll

Photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll

A member of the audience asked the writers whether they found it difficult to write from the perspective of someone from the opposite sex. Arnold said that she actually found it “liberating” to write from a male viewpoint, and described how her previous experience as a social worker helped her to try and get into the mind of someone who grooms a child: “the distorted thinking, the justification, and the difficulty people have in believing things”.

Harding spoke about how, having “got” Florence’s unique language, he “felt the character very strongly”; he wanted to make her feisty and strong, to subvert the traditional idea of a Victorian woman. In fact, he “loved being Florence”, and talked about the “period of mourning” for your characters which comes after finishing a book.

Ambiguous Endings

Harding said that The Turn of the Screw’s success lay in its ambiguity, but he realised that a modern audience does want an ending. So he tried to find a balance between satisfying readers and leaving things open to interpretation.

Arnold described how, at one point, she wrote extra pages which were “more explanatory”, but then decided not to include them, leaving readers instead with a sense of not knowing exactly how Margaret (the grown-up Daisy) would deal with what had happened in her past.

Work in Progress…

Arnold is currently finishing off another novel set in the Victorian period, based on a real murder trial which took place in 1875, about a woman accused of murdering her husband.

Harding has recently published a sequel to Florence and Giles: “I didn’t want to spoil its wholeness,” he explained, “but lots of people were saying that they wanted to know what happened next”. So The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a “stand-alone book” but also carries on with the story.

Visit the Cardiff Book Talk website for more thoughts about these two books and details of upcoming events.

3 thoughts on “Cardiff Book Talk: with authors John Harding and Gaynor Arnold

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Florence and Giles by John Harding

  2. I don’t suppose I’ve read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. Really thank you for starting this up. This website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!

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