Article published on April 7, 2017.
In June 1914 Sir Anthony Valentine, a keen mountaineer, arrives with his family to spend the summer in their chalet, high in the French Alps. This year, for the first time, fourteen-year-old foundling Mathilde starts work there as one of the ‘uglies’ – village girls picked, it is believed, to ensure they don’t catch Sir Anthony’s roving eye.
For Mathilde it is the beginning of a life-long entanglement with les anglais. Initially befriended by Sir Anthony’s granddaughter, Mathilde suffers a bitter betrayal and for decades keeps her distance. But in middle-age she returns to the chalet, and discovers a secret that subsequently proves vital – in 1976, the year Sir Anthony’s great-great grandson comes to visit.
Reviewer Berwyn Peet was already a fan of Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud – published to great acclaim in 2010, winning the McKitterick Prize and shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award, the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and the Wellcome Book Prize) so it wasn’t a surprise to find she really liked Emma’s new book – The Valentine House. She says:
“There are evocative descriptions of the grandeur and beauty of the alpine scenery as well as reminders of the dangers. Both stories are engrossing. The slow unravelling of the secrets is beautifully done with a clever building up of the tension. I was very impressed with the writing – intriguing plotting and yet there are deeper themes of love, identity and different cultures.
Highly recommended as a personal read and I think this might become one of the reading group favourites for 2017.”
When we wondered if Berwyn would like to put her questions to Emma, she jumped at the chance – the result is featured in the spring 2017 issue of nb magazine.
Here’s a taster:
BP: The book is set in the French Alps and I loved the descriptions of mountain scenery. What inspired you to use this setting?
EH: 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.
Read Berwyn’s interview with Emma in full in the new issue of nb!
About the author
Emma Henderson went to school in London and studied at Somerville College, Oxford and Yale University. She wrote publisher’s blurbs for two years, then spent a decade teaching English in comprehensive schools and further education colleges, before moving to the French Alps where, for six years, she ran a ski and snowboard lodge. She now lives in Derbyshire and is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Keele University.
Follow Emma on Twitter @__emmahenderson
Join the conversation with #ValentineHouse
The Valentine House by Emma Henderson, published by Sceptre on 6 April, 2017, in hardback