The Very Thought of You: Readers’ Notes

Notes For a Readers’ Group (May 16th 2010), by Rosie Alison

The Very Thought of You
by Rosie Alison

1. How would you describe the story of The Very Thought of You?

A young girl from London is evacuated to a Yorkshire country house during World War Two, where she finds herself part-witness, part-accomplice to a love affair, with unexpected emotional repercussions through her adult life.

2. What inspired the story behind The Very Thought of You?

Ten years ago I was trying to write a contemporary novel set it in London, where I have lived all my adult life. But something was holding me back. I kept finding myself diverted back to my childhood, and in particular to a somewhat run-down stately home on the North York Moors where I spent my formative years (aged 8-12). But I felt very resistant to converting my 1970s boarding school experiences into a novel; that would have been too direct and personal.

Yet all that changed when I was researching a documentary about the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, and watched some footage of two nervous evacuees smiling for the camera on a London station platform. I remember feeling an instant pang about these small children leaving their parents behind – perhaps partly because I had two daughters exactly that age, but also because I remembered the ache of leaving my own home behind at eight. There was an extra resonance for me because I knew that my mother had been evacuated as a wartime child, and that her own separation from her parents had been a factor in sending her own children away from home at a young age.

Not long after that, I visited a glorious stately home in Cornwall called Llanhydrock, where they have devoted a special archive to the evacuees who lived there during the war. Again, I found myself gripped by the photographs of these displaced children with their brave smiles. It struck me then that there was a way of writing about the Yorkshire house which had haunted my childhood, but setting it during World War Two. Ashton Park began to form in my mind as a place in which a series of elective affinities play out during wartime, as witnessed by a visiting evacuee.

On my own first night at boarding school, I sat in the chapel near the wall-mounted helmet of the earl who had died at the Somme, and I couldn’t help noticing the bullet holes. Over time, I became fascinated by this helmet, such a vivid symbol of the ghostly family who had once occupied this house: we all learned that it was in the wake of this earl’s death that his widow had leased the house to a school. I remember thinking how strange it was that because of that death on the Somme, his house had been haphazardly converted into a boarding school, into which came all these random children, chance visitors in a house still packed with his old family paintings and furnishings. I spent three or four years in that house soaking up a sense of its lost past – perhaps that elegiac mood merged with my own family’s losses, because both my parents’ childhoods had been disrupted by the war, which had led to my own educational ‘evacuation.’ My 1970s boarding school childhood was part of the war’s aftermath, if you like.

3. Why did you choose to set your novel during World War Two?

The repercussions of that war have been endless, over several generations, and it felt oddly familiar to me. It cast its shadow over my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, and it took me some years to recognise that, through them, it had an invisible hold over my imagination too. My novel tackles the domestic side of the conflict, and home front experiences such as the Blitz.

I wanted to write about a wartime evacuee because I felt there was something so moving about their journeys. An evacuee is the quintessential displaced or lost child. If ever there were children at crossroads, it was evacuees, who set off on their trains to unknown destinations, and found their lives changed forever by the new families they joined. The emotional consequences still trickle down the years. And yet to be a child separated from your parents, and thrown into the deep end of adult life – that seems to me a situation both particular to evacuees, yet also a rite of passage which everyone knows in some way.

The book also features a pair of diplomats who act as a kind of occasional chorus on the frontline world of the war. That couple – called the Nortons – are the only ‘real’ characters in the book: they were my cousins who were posted in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded, and I drew from their war diaries.

As I worked in documentaries for ten years, the research for this novel came very naturally for me. Whilst interviewing writers for a documentary about literature in the Second World War, it was Penelope Fitzgerald and Joan Wyndham who sparked my interest in the wartime routines of the BBC, with its Fitzrovian pubs nearby. The poet Stephen Spender talked to me about the eerie atmosphere of London during the Blitz, whilst the poet Roy Fuller spoke of the strange inaction of the soldiers and sailors in their training camps, often just waiting for something to happen – and he also led me to the poems of Keith Douglas from the Western Desert. Whilst making a film about Elizabeth Bowen, I watched whatever footage I could of London in the Blitz, and there was one particular reel by an amateur film-maker – in lurid colour, showing the scars and gashes of the cratered streets and buildings – which was branded on my mind. It was a woman in this reel who inspired the vision towards the end of the novel, when Anna thinks she sees her mother on television, walking away from the camera in archive footage of the Blitz.

The Second World War was the single most drastic upheaval of the last century; quite apart from the 55 million deaths, its aftermath reached everywhere. I think I wanted to write about that counterpoint which is always with us, between the front line and the home front – between the wider world of politics and the intimacy of personal relationships. Ashton Park is specific and actual, but it is also a metaphor for our private lives existing at a remove from the world of war and devastation which is always raging somewhere outside our daily existence.

4. What’s the significance of the song title, The Very Thought of You?

Quite apart from the wartime setting, my guiding instinct was that I wanted to write a story about love. The impulse to find intimacy with somebody else is surely the most universal preoccupation, and I wanted to write a story which explored different kinds of love – not necessarily just romantic love, but two people reaching out to each other in some way. This is a book in which most of the characters are holding the thought of somebody in their heads and hearts – but whilst some of them find reciprocation, others remain as emotional witnesses only, stranded on the sidelines of their own lives. I have tried to tease out that invisible thread which runs between potential lovers – delving into how love takes root and evolves, all those elusive staging posts. The heart of the novel is an adult love affair, and much of the time I was trying to get inside these two lovers as they feel this unspoken connection between them, but don’t know whether it’s their delusion or not. This affair is framed by the more unusual story of the young evacuee, Anna, who develops her own complicated attachment to one of her hosts, which endures through her life in unexpected ways.

5. Who is your favourite character in the novel?

In many ways, the novel actually grew around Thomas Ashton, and Anna only crept into the picture later. Thomas Ashton begins his life with considerable blessings, but undergoes many reversals of fortune – yet he’s sustained and consoled in the end by his enduring capacity for love, which becomes an act of faith for him, even after his lover Ruth has died. I was drawn to writing about a character who is emotionally disconnected or blocked at the beginning – but who finds himself transformed by love, which endures despite his loss, in an inspiring way.

Anna Sands, the central figure of the novel, has a different fate. Unlike many evacuees who were deeply scarred by their wartime experiences, nothing terrible happens to Anna; she seems lucky. She ends up at a beautiful house, with kind teachers, safe from the war. And yet in the absence of parental love, she develops an inappropriate attachment to one of her teachers which skews her emotional development, with unexpected repercussions right through her life. She ends up as one of life’s emotional witnesses, stranded on the sidelines of other people’s lives, always hankering after a relationship which could never be hers. It was this notion of becoming a witness – somebody with a face always pressed against a window, instead of joining in – which interested me in Anna. That’s the poignancy of the Raymond Carver epigraph for me – that everyone longs to be ‘beloved’, yet some people are fated not to be.

6. Who are the authors who have inspired you?

My taste in fiction is very catholic, ranging from William Trevor to Don DeLillo to Iris Murdoch. But I do have a few distinct favourites. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Each of these novels is very different, but what they all share are characters driven by an intense love. I’m wary of the term ‘obsessional love’ because it has derogatory overtones, yet I find that the novels I return to are ones which explore enduring love and longing. For this reason I have always responded to all those unspoken connections between characters in Iris Murdoch’s novels. I am also very drawn to fiction with a child’s eye on adult entanglements, such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Go Between by L.P. Hartley or The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. And I relish writers who conjure up the spirit and atmosphere of a place or a landscape, so I am very attached to the novels of Thomas Hardy, for example.

7. Did you always want to write? How long did it take you to finish the novel?

I always assumed that I would write a novel, but somehow the years vanished and I never seemed to carve out enough time from my various jobs. I think part of the trouble was that whenever I sat down to write, I was too self-conscious and everything I wrote was over-polite. It wasn’t until my thirties that I dared to excavate more deeply – I think that seeing the world again through my children’s eyes unlocked something in me. Kafka wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” and that was very much the case for me, it took me a while to crack through my own ice. My novel had a very slow gestation over eight years, on and off. I wrote it outside working hours, during intermittent evenings after the children had gone to bed. But I think there are advantages to a slow-grown novel: you really have the chance to distil and clarify your world, and your coastal shelf only deepens over time. It was a joy to write this novel outside my work life, inside my own private bubble.