Article published on April 21, 2017.
Berwyn Peet was already a fan of Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud!) so it wasn’t a surprise to find she really liked Emma’s new book – The Valentine House
So when we wondered if Berwyn would like to put her questions to Emma, she jumped at the chance.
Berwyn Peet: The book is set in the French Alps and I loved the descriptions of mountain
scenery. What inspired you to use this setting?
Emma Henderson: I have always been fascinated by the Alps and, between 1999 and 2005, I lived and worked in a small village in the French Alps, running a ski and snowboard lodge in the winter months. I didn’t go there with the intention of writing a novel set there. I went there with the intention of writing my first, very different novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud. While I was there, however, I became interested, not just in the place, but in the relationship between the people who were born and bred there and the rest of us who were seen as ‘tourists’ or incomers, even if we’d put down roots and settled. I wished I had the skills and powers to create a documentary film of what life ‘behind the scenes’ was like in a busy winter ski resort that became, in the interseason, a sleepy mountain village. And then I came across a chalet, high up in the mountains, built in 1858 by Sir Alfred Wills, an English mountaineer and High Court judge (who presided over the Oscar Wilde Trial) and used, for years, by his family as a summer holiday house. The chalet, from the outside, looked like a conventional chocolate-box style chalet. On the inside, though, apparently, it was kitted out more like an English country house, with a billiards’ room, a dark room, hot water and all sorts of things that, I imagined, would have made local tongues wag. Again, initially, I thought this was perfect material for a documentary or for a non-fiction account of the first English tourist to arrive in the valley. But I’m not a historian, nor a documentary film-maker. Over time, over years, more than ten years, I saw that I might be able to bring together my fascination with mountains, with outsiders and insiders and with this particular English family into a fiction that I and only I could write.
BP: What came first – the setting or the idea for the story?
EH: The two are inextricably intertwined. Some of the ideas for the story come from the very real presence of foreigners, outsiders, tourists in the place, but these people are there because of the place. They, like me, fell in love with the place. In The Valentine House, I’m interested in the relationship between people and place; I think of it as a love and land story; it’s a love story and a land story and the story of the conflict that can arise as a result.
BP: Mathilde is a complex and interesting character. Did you have her life story
planned out at the start or did it evolve as you were writing?
I didn’t have anything planned out at the start! Mathilde existed as a character, though, complete and complex from the start and I knew that she would work for the rich English family and be the main narrator of the story. Beyond that, her life story evolved, with the help of Benoit and Madame Tissot and, above all, Costa. Costa didn’t exist at all when I first started writing The Valentine House. But one day, when I’d written about a fifth of the novel and was struggling, he appeared. Like Daniel, in Grace Williams Says It Loud, Costa is pure invention; he leapt into my head and jumped onto the page fully-formed, and I fell in love with him. He felt like a gift. To the story, to the plot, to Mathilde. He enabled me to give Mathilde the full emotional life I wanted her to have and to make Mathilde’s personal story as much about him as about the Valentines’ shenanigans.
BP: The pacing of the story is done so well. How did you achieve the gradual
building up of tension?
EH: I think it helped to have George’s narrative, the 1976 narrative, in between Mathilde’s narrative, which takes place over decades. Once I’d got the hang of making the two narratives fit together – each chapter has to end in a way that looks forward both to the next chapter and to the one afterwards – the building up of tension came quite naturally; the narrative began to acquire its own pace, with the dramatic events of the summer of 1976 coming together chronologically with the denouement of Mathilde’s story.
BP: The events take place over about a century up to 1976. How difficult was it to
cover such a long time span? In some ways I would have liked to know more about
certain periods, perhaps how Mathilde managed during WW2. Did you need to be
very disciplined to keep to the main aspects?
EH: It was very difficult to cover such a long time span. The research involved was daunting, especially since the sort of research I needed to do often concerned the minutiae of daily life and, often, daily French life, daily French rural life, even. Even more daunting was the question of how to cover such a long time span. The temptation was to want to put everything in. I still feel as if I could re-write the novel, making it five times as long. I know exactly how Mathilde managed during WW2 and could tell you, even down to her expostulations at the Germans requisitioning her horse. Other people have said they would like to know more about the Valentines’ life in English. I could tell them. A lot. Everything. I lived in the world of the novel for a long time. So yes, I had to be very disciplined in order to stick to the story. There are boxes in my attic with thousands of unused words. The Valentine House is hewn from these.
BP: Of the characters from the 1976 part Jack and Thomas are the ones that the
reader empathises with most. What do you see as their roles in the story?
EH: Their roles in the story are to give a context to George’s experiences over the summer of 1976 in the mountains. They are also there to provide two contrasting views of the place and to enable George to understand both. Jack and Thomas are older than George and he looks up to them, while he struggles to find his own path. There are hints they have their own issues and problems, but for Thomas, at least, his sense of duty as a mountain guide, prevails over everything else.
BP: I felt there were various themes in the novel – identity, betrayal, the
contrast between the English upper classes and the hardship of the Alpine farming
community. Am I right? Are there others?
EH: Yes, you’re right, those are some of the themes. Closely related to the theme of identity is that of language – how closely identity is connected with place and with language. The scene between Mathilde and Sir A., during his last summer at the chalet, is important in this respect; I wanted to show how a sort of understanding between two people can, in exceptional circumstances occur beyond the barriers of language, of age, of class. It’s one of my favourite scenes.
Friendship is another theme; it’s not explicit, but it’s there in the transformation of Angelique, in Mathilde’s loyalty, ultimately and despite it all, to Daisy, and even in what we learn of the relationship between George and Graham. And love. Please don’t forget love. Underpinning most of the action of The Valentine House is love, of one sort or another – land love, unrequited love, betrayed love, forbidden love…
BP: I am really looking forward to your next book. Have you any idea yet what it
will be about?
EH: Yes, my next novel is about two good men (working title, Two Good Men!) and a woman, Sofia, who is the lover of them both. It is set in the present, when the daughter Sofia gave up at birth seeks her out, and in the post-second world war period, when the two good men are busy being pacifists and dreaming of building a peaceful new Europe. Like all my fiction, it’s been germinating for a very long time. The seed for this novel lies in my pacifist father’s PhD, which concerns the German pedagogue, pacifist and educationalist Adolf Reichwein. So there are my models for my two good men. But of course neither of these men is quite what they seem and only Sofia knows this. Sofia is my narrator. She’s the Daniel or Costa this time, i.e. she’s pure invention. In telling the story of the two good men in her life, Sofia is also telling us her story.
Many thanks to both Emma and Berwyn
The Valentine House is published in hbk on April 6th by Sceptre 9781444704020