In 1881 London, everything changes for the wealthy Jarmyn family.
Lucas Jarmyn struggles to make sense of the death of his beloved youngest daughter. His wife, Aurora, seeks solace in rigid social routines. Eighteen-year-old Dinah looks for fulfilment in unusual places. Only the housekeeper, the estimable Mrs Logan, seems able to carry on.
Meanwhile, a train accident in a provincial town on the Jarmyn's family-owned railway claims the life of nine-year-old Alice Brinklow. Amid the public outcry, Alice's father, Thomas, journeys to London demanding justice. But as Thomas arrives in the Capital on a frozen January morning, his fate, and that of the entire Jarmyn family, will hinge on such strange things as an ill-fated visit to a spiritualist, an errant chicken bone and a single vote at a boardroom meeting…
Maggie Joel found inspiration for writing Half The World In Winter thanks to the SBS family history program Who Do You Think You Are? The episode in question focused on the horrific death of a housemaid burned alive in a Victorian drawing room following an accident with a kerosene lamp, as well as the death of an engine driver in a train-crash in Victorian England. The horror of both incidents struck Maggie, so much so she began to study the many and varied ways in which people died in Victorian England – a time where, it seemed, the risk of death from tragedy or disease was a regular concern. Maggie's interest grew as she asked, -How did the average Victorian family dodge death, but also cope with death when it did strike? Did they deal with it differently to us today?'
Pouring over archival copies of The Times, court reports and historical research on Victorian England, Maggie began to gain a sense of that time – exploring and observing the differences and similarities between their era and our own. A labour of love, HALF THE WORLD IN WINTER took Maggie Joel four years to write, from draft to publication, and is a stunning, captivating drama of family secrets and tragedies.
Maggie Joel is a British-born writer now living in Sydney, with a Master of Arts (Creative Writing) from Macquarie University. She's been writing fiction and non-fiction for over 10 years with her first and second novel's The Past and Other Lies (2009) and The Second-Last Woman in England (2010) both chosen as SMH's -Pick of the Week'. Her short stories have been widely published and broadcast on ABC Radio.
Maggie will be joining Fiona Higgins and Kylie Ladd in a series of author talks along the East Coast of Australia for Wordy Women.
Half The World In Winter
Allen and Unwin
Author: Maggie Joel
Question: What inspired the story of Half The World In Winter?
Maggie Joel: The story was inspired by two incidents described on the SBS family history program -Who Do You Think You Are?': one was the horrific death of a housemaid burned alive in a Victorian drawing room following an accident with a kerosene lamp. The second was the death of an engine driver in a train crash (one of apparently dozens of such accidents), also in Victorian England. The horror of the first incident and, what appeared to be, the shocking regularity of the events described in the second incident, both struck me at the time and I began to study the many and varied ways in which people died in Victorian England – and often in ways that simply do not exist today. It seemed as though the average Victorian risked their life on a daily basis – if they were not dashed beneath the hooves of a galloping horse or shot in a hunting accident or drowned falling through the ice on the Thames, they would be struck down by one of a dozen grim diseases. How, then, did the Victorian family not only dodge death, but also cope with death when it did strike? Did they, I wondered, deal with death, with mortality, the same way we do?
Question: What research then went into writing Half The World In Winter?
Maggie Joel: A huge amount! Half the World in Winter is set in London in 1880-81. Going back that far in to the past demands research if you want to be authentic. I read a stack of books on every-day life in late Victorian London, on the war in South Africa and on railways and train crashes from the period, plus archive copies of The Times. I researched the houses, the fashion, studied etiquette books – anything I could get my hands on. And the research is not just about creating an authentic feel for your story, it often throws up all sorts of ideas and revelations that feed into the story.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Maggie Joel: The two incidents I described above are taken from real life so yes, that certainly inspired me. But I don't take inspiration from my own life or from people I actually know – that would be far too dull, and too restrictive, somehow. Inventing people and incidents is the stuff of fiction.
Question: What is the best thing about creating the Jarmyn family?
Maggie Joel: They tell my story for me and I love them for that. I have created a late Victorian family who reflect all that that period in history means but they also question it. They are of their time but they are still like us - merely separated by a hundred-odd years. My novel is set in nineteenth century London and is steeped in the conventions and atmosphere of that time. One of the challenges of writing this book was the evocation of the sounds, sights and rhythms of late Victorian life. Through the Jarmyn family I have attempted to establish the attitudes of the day and the events that concerned people at the time.
Question: What's next, for you?
Maggie Joel: I'm about 50,000 words into a new novel. It's set partly in the Second World War, a period I briefly visited in my first book, The Past and Other Lies. Writing in a wartime setting helps me, as a writer, because the tension is already there, your characters already have something at stake – their own survival.
Interview by Brooke Hunter