Inspirations – The Novel In The Viola/ The House at Tyneford
I’d always wanted to write something set in the ‘ghost village’ of Tyneham in Dorset, which was requisitioned by the War Office in 1943. The villagers were forced to leave their cottages on Christmas Eve. They left pinning this note to the church door:
‘Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.’
But, they were never allowed back and the village is now a ruin. It is situated on one of the most beautiful stretches of England’s coast – but the land is still owned by the Ministry of Defence and visitors are only allowed occasionally.
While I was pondering Tyneham, I read an article in a magazine about Jewish women who managed to escape Nazi Europe by becoming domestic servants in Britain. Many of these women had led privileged lives with servants of their own and had to come to terms with their new positions. In a ‘eureka moment’ I realised that I needed to tell the story of Tyneham and the last days of an English country house, through the eyes of an outsider and a servant– a young Jewish girl from Vienna.
When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
When I started writing ‘Viola’, I realised that Elise wanted me to get out of the way and let her tell her own story. I think in this instance I felt rather like I was the reader.
Did you know this part of Dorset – and this period – well before you started the book? How much research did you have to do?
I immerse myself in literature of the period. I had such fun working my way through a shelf of Persephone books. I spent weeks in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden, reading everything from Marianna to Molly Panter Downes’ Wartime Stories, as well as lots of Daphne Du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh and non-fiction accounts of life in service and the country house tradition. My husband and I also had a season watching old movies like Brief Encounter and In Which we Serve – movies really help me tune my ear to the speech patterns. I like to be gently marinated in the culture and time period before I start to write, then I find it feels instinctive.
As for Dorset – I grew up here, and I love the countryside so much. It’s always changing. At the moment the daffodils are out, and next it will be the apple blossom and the horse chestnuts and then, best of all, the bluebells in the woods.
Tyneford – the great house on the bay where most of the story is set – felt utterly real to me. Is it based on a real property? Would you like to live somewhere like Tyneford?
Tyneham, an abandoned village on the Dorset coast, is the inspiration for Tyneford. The story in the novel of how the village was emptied is based on fact. There was a manor house there, but I’ve never seen it – it lies deep within the MoD lands. I found some old photographs and floor plans of the house in a book, which I pinned above my desk and my husband discovered a Victorian print of it in a little shop and had it framed for my birthday. I think that houses like Tyneford belong to a period with staff and servants. I love the romance, but I think my stone cottage is a bit more manageable. Saying that, I do love a mullioned window…
Elise didn’t practice her Jewish faith, but was unwilling to become even peripherally involved in any other church services or ceremonies. Is faith important to you?
Like Elise, I feel terribly uncomfortable around religion. I like the sound of the Cantor singing, and I love choral music – some of the world’s greatest music has been written in praise of God – but for me, the music is enough.
Do you think that everyone can love more than one person?
There are so many different kinds of love. I think that most people experience many of these: platonic, filial, romantic… and I certainly hope that most people can love more than once – the world would be rather lonely otherwise. After grief it can take time to fall in love again, and every love is different.
Where and how do you write?
In spring and summer I mostly write in a little painted summerhouse at the bottom of the garden. On cold days, I have a study under the eaves. And on very cold days, I write by the fire.
Is reading important to you? Which books have influenced you most and are there any books which you feel that everyone should read?
I love reading. Like most writers I am obsessed with stories: whether novels, films or simply an anecdote. I am a huge Jane Austen fan. I often re-read her novels, and find that my readings change with time. As a teenaged girl I loved ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the romance, while as an adult I adore the melancholy and compromised happy ending of ‘Persuasion.’
I don’t think I ascribe to books that ‘everyone must read’. The joy of literature is that we all love different things. While I adore Austen, I realise that some people don’t and forcing them to read ‘Persuasion’ probably isn’t going to convert them.
There are so many books I love. The ones that influenced ‘The Novel in the Viola’ the most were probably ‘Rebecca’, ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘Moontiger’, ‘Atonement’, ‘The Remains of the Day’ and, of course, the grandmother of all country house role/ reversal novels, ‘Jane Eyre’. I remember the pleasure and intensity of reading the Brontes as a teenager and I wanted to try and create the fervour of that experience – even if it is just for a single reader.
Do you have any books from your childhood? Which was your favourite?
‘The Magic Faraway Tree’. When I was about six I wrote to the TV show ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ asking Jim to introduce me to Moonface and Silky and the Saucepan man and Dame Washalot. I really, really wanted to climb the Faraway Tree and visit the Land of Sweets at the top.
You’ve got one wish. What’s it to be?
To find the Magic Faraway Tree and visit the land of sweets and eat anything flavoured ice cream.
What’s next for Natasha Solomons?
I’m just starting to research book 3, so I’ll be sitting at the bottom of the garden lost in books.