In Their Footsteps: The Brontë Sisters

If London’s smoggy skyline, bright lights and bustling pavements aren’t helping you put pen to paper, maybe it’s time to leave the capital for greener pastures. Follow in the footsteps of Britain’s literary greats for a spot of creative inspiration…

People have often wondered how one little corner of 19th-century Yorkshire—the tiny, time-warped village of Haworth—could have produced an entire family of ground-breakingly successful female writers. If you’re suffering from writers block, it may well be worth visiting. Who knows, you might uncover the secrets of the vicarage that produced the Brontë sisters, or stumble across a rugged inspiration for the gothic setting that features in many of their novels.

Considering where they were brought up, the Brontë sisters were radically modern for their time. Nestled in the West Yorkshire moors, the hilltop village of Haworth is home to the parsonage where the Brontë family lived and where the sisters penned their most famous novels. The building is now home to the world famous Brontë Parsonage Museum, which has opened each of the rooms and carefully presented them as they would have looked whilst the Brontë family lived there. The dining room is reported to be the room in which the sisters did most of their writing so bring a notebook with you in case you are suddenly gripped with inspiration whilst you’re there. Teeming with Victorian artefacts, the museum also showcases what remains of the Brontë family possessions.

The region around Haworth is generally assumed to be the setting for most of the Brontë’s novels. The heather-topped moors and crags of Brontë country are markedly different from other parts of Yorkshire, giving the area a bleak, desolate, and inhospitable feel. When in Haworth, a short walk into this landscape to visit the Brontë waterfall is a must. Consisting of a stream that rushes over rocks, a little bridge, and a stone shaped like a chair, the sisters often came here to write. The stone, now known as the Brontë Chair, was allegedly shared by the sisters who started each of their novels while they sat on it. If the rumours are to be believed, the chair might have helped the sisters come up with the ideas for their beloved characters and gripping story lines. Giving it a go yourself is definitely too good an opportunity to miss!

I wouldn’t recommend following in the footsteps of Branwell Brontë, the least successful or creative of the siblings, but if you fancy a tipple during your trip you should really visit the Black Bull pub where Branwell is alleged to have begun his drinking and opium-smoking habit.

After that, hunt down the places which inspired the most famous novels to come out of Haworth Parsonage, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre.

Initially rejected by publishers, Wuthering Heights was eventually printed under a male pseudonym. The novel, due to its depictions of extreme emotion, lust and madness, was considered controversial when it was published and, probably for this reason, has only increased in popularity over time.

The word “wuthering” means turbulent weather and you’d be lucky not to experience a little of it when visiting Yorkshire’s moors. No doubt Emily was inspired by the cruel winds and bitterly cold winters that this part of England is still subjected to. Just a short walk away from Howarth, the Top Withens farmhouse is thought to be the inspiration for Emily’s gothic house in Wuthering Heights. Even on a sunny day it is easy to see how Top Withen’s isolated and windswept location could have inspired Emily’s desperate and dismal love story. The farmhouse Emily Brontë knew is now in ruins overlooking the desolate moors but it is still a popular walking destination and well worth a visit. In its depleted state, lying on the picturesque Pennine way, the location could inspire any writer to put pen to paper.

Follow the Pennine way a little further and you’ll come across Ponden Hall. The listed Elizabethan farmhouse is situated in the wild hill farmland above Haworth and is believed to be the inspiration for Thrushcross Grange.

The moors themselves though were arguably what Emily took most of her inspiration from. To submerge yourself fully in the passionate and exciting world Emily created, take a map (and a waterproof), pop Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights on your iPod and wander around Yorkshire’s “wiley, windy moors”.

Considered to be a pseudo autobiography, it is easy to uncover Charlotte’s inspiration for her bestselling novel Jane Eyre in her own experiences. Charlotte’s inspiration for the cold and cruel Lowood School came from the Clergy Daughter’s School in Cowan Bridge where Charlotte and her sisters Emily, Elizabeth and Maria attended as children. The death of Jane Eyre’s dear friend Helen Burns is often thought to be a reference to the traumatic deaths of her older sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, whilst at the school.

Many places have claimed to be the inspiration for the gothic manor of Thornfield, though it is most likely to be North Lees Hall. The sixteenth century house is situated in the Peak District and was visited by Charlotte and a friend in 1845. The impressive building has historically been inhabited by the Eyre family and boasts a history filled with mysterious occupants; the first owner, Agnes Ashurst, was allegedly confined in a room on the second floor due to her insanity in a similar way to which Bertha was in Charlotte’s famous novel. If you’re feeling extravagant you can stay a night in this historical house. Just remember to lock your door before you blow out your candle.

Norton Conyers has also been suggested as the setting for Thornfield Hall as Charlotte visited the property in 1839. Another property with a legend of a madwoman in the attic, the house certainly provides a suitable setting for a mystery novel. The discovery in 2004 of a blocked staircase connecting the first floor to the attic, similar to the one described in Charlotte’s novel, provoked many questions about which house really inspired Mr Rochester’s abode. The house is currently shut to the public though so unfortunately, rather than seeing the attic for yourself, you’ll still have to use your imagination…

If you feel like you still need a little more inspiration, visit in September and go to the Brontë Festival of Women’s Writing (16-18 September). The festival weekend will include talks by prominent and emerging women writers and creative writing workshops that are sure to inspire.

In Their Footsteps: Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall

If London’s smoggy skyline, bright lights and bustling pavements aren’t helping you put pen to paper, maybe it’s time to leave the capital for greener pastures. Follow in the footsteps of Britain’s literary greats for a spot of creative inspiration…

Seeing as it’s July and the weather forecast is looking promising, this week I’d recommend following Daphne Du Maurier down to the craggy cliffs of Cornwall. The writer famous for her haunting and romantic novels was notoriously secretive in real life, spending much of her time hiding away in the West Country.

Cornwall’s mysterious and myth ridden moors, secluded coves and changeable seas – the county’s Celtic landscape is present in much of her work. Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn and, most famously, Rebecca are as ingrained in Cornwall’s identity as pasties and fudge. Well, maybe not quite… but travelling around the coast of Cornwall, it is just as easy to stumble across the houses, towns and views which inspired Du Maurier to put pen to paper.

There are undeniably similar names: Menabilly, near Fowey on the south coast of Cornwall, is often considered to be the inspiration for Manderley, the gothic setting for Rebecca. Like the fictional Manderlay, Menabilly, though edging onto dramatic coastline, is hidden in trees and cannot be seen from the shore. The Elizabethan house in which Du Maurier and her family lived for twenty-six years is still private, but two cottages on the estate are rented out as holiday homes if you fancy a longer stay.

Fowey itself, a place beloved by Du Maurier, is definitely worth a visit. Though much more commercial than it was when Du Maurier first visited, it still has an inspirational air to it. The Annual Literary Festival held in the town each May sees many a Du Maurier enthusiast flock to the pretty seaside town in search of a glimpse of the novelist’s Cornwall.

Port Eliot, one of the oldest houses in Britain, also claims to have inspired Du Maurier’s Manderley. Set in acres of Grade 1 listed garden, the large estate fits the fictional description of an impressive mansion fit for entertaining and also boasts a meandering two mile long drive similar to the one which Du Maurier vividly describes in Rebecca. The house grounds are open to the public during June and July.

Port Eliot is also home to Cornwall’s biggest creative festival, dubbed the Glastonbury of the literary world. From the 21st – 24th of July, the estate fills with the best art, music, literature and creativity Cornwall has to offer

The Jamaica Inn, the haunted setting for Du Maurier’s novel of the same name, is one of Cornwall’s many must visit pubs. Sat on the Bodmin Moor, the legendary coaching house was once on the main road from London to Cornwall and, aside from its literary connections, is teeming with enough history and mystery (excuse the rhyming) to spark your creativity and maybe even inspire the beginning of a ghost story.

Filled with plenty of swashbuckling pirates, countless moonlit encounters and lashings of seventeenth century passion, another of Du Maurier’s famous novels, the romantic Frenchman’s Creek, is again set on Cornwall’s coastline. The Helford Estuary is the perfect place to while away a summer’s day following in the footsteps of Du Maurier and her fictional lovers. The still pace of life and rural surroundings provide the impression of a time warp which inspired Du Maurier’s historical romance. Take life slowly for the day and wander through the estuary’s overgrown pathways, lush greenery and dappled sunlight. The setting for Frenchman’s Creek is still the ideal location for an illicit encounter, fictional or otherwise…

Nearby St Ives is certainly worth seeing if you are still suffering from writer’s block. An artistic haven, the town’s cobbled streets are edged with art galleries, book shops and vintage stores. Du Maurier herself also frequented St Ives during the forties and stayed in a tiny white washed house in the middle of the town that can now be rented out for holiday stays.

Du Maurier once admitted that she could only really write in Cornwall which perhaps explains why she spent so much of her time there. The county has fuelled the creativity of writers and artists for generations, so if you are struggling for inspiration a trip around Cornwall should really do the trick. And even if it doesn’t and after all of this you still can’t string a sentence together, you can always just take advantage of all the good ale, wonderful food and sandy suntraps the county also has to offer.

In Their Footsteps: Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex”

If London’s smoggy skyline, bright lights and bustling pavements aren’t helping you put pen to paper, maybe it’s time to leave the capital for greener pastures. Follow in the footsteps of Britain’s literary greats for a spot of creative inspiration…

Thomas Hardy’s novels are primarily set in his fictional ‘Wessex’ but luckily for those wanting to follow in his footsteps, Wessex is based on the South West of England. Open up one of his novels and most editions contain a map of his pseudo fictional land. Spanning the coast between Hampshire and Devon, and venturing up to Oxford in the north, Hardy’s Wessex contains some of the most beautiful parts of England.

Dorset, the county famed for its dramatic coastline and packed beaches, is known as Hardy country. Born in Dorchester, Hardy lived nearby for most of his life.

Now a National Trust property, the thatched cottage where Hardy was born is well worth a visit. Hardy himself lived here until he was 34 and penned Far From The Madding Crowd whilst within its walls. The cottage is sat on a charming cottage garden which is sure to spark a little creativity.

Another must visit is Max Gate. Again owned by the National Trust, Hardy designed and built the house himself. Hardy lived at Max Gate until his death and wrote some of his most famous novels, namely Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge, whilst living here.

Venture further into rural Dorset and you can follow in the footsteps of Hardy’s most famous character. The Thomas Hardy Society take regular walks around Dorset following in Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ fictional footsteps. Starting in the tiny village of Marnhull, where the cottage that inspired Tess’s Marlott home resides, you can traipse around the lush and undulating countryside that Hardy describes in much of his work.

Dorset’s green valleys and wooded hills quickly turn into a dramatic coastline dotted with geographical marvels (a trip to Durdle Door and Chesil Beach, though unrelated to Hardy, is well worth doing!) A leisurely walk along the top of Dorset’s cliffs, perhaps even prance about in a white dress Tess-style if you are feeling frivolous, is bound to inspire you a little. Whilst there, take a moment to pause and look out over the sea that was sure to have inspired Hardy whilst he was writing.

A tour of Hardy country wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Dorchester itself and the Dorset County Museum. The museum boasts a fine collection of Hardy artefacts including the desk where he penned his most famous works. The museum acts as a celebration of Hardy’s life and literary achievements and often holds Hardy themed events that will inspire any budding writer to get scribbling.

In Their Footsteps: Jane Austen’s England

If London’s smoggy skyline, bright lights and bustling pavements aren’t helping you put pen to paper, maybe it’s time to leave the capital for greener pastures. Follow in the footsteps of Britain’s literary greats for a spot of creative inspiration…

Just an hour outside of London you can immerse yourself in the rural haven that inspired Jane Austen to pen some of the nation’s favourite novels.

The small Hampshire village of Chawton is a short train and a bus trip outside of London. The village boasts both the 17th century house in which Austen spent the last eight years of her life and a museum which tells the story of Austen and her family. Set amongst beautiful countryside, the house in which Austen was inspired to write Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park is bound to hold some of the secrets to literary success. The museum is now open daily 10am-5pm until the end of August.

Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex, is home to Austen’s final resting place. The house in which Austen died can be found behind the cathedral on quaint College Street. The building, adorned with a modest plaque, is next door to P & G Wells. One of Britain’s oldest book shops, it can trace its history well back into the eighteenth century. As well as being a gem of a book shop, you can be certain that Jane Austen herself frequented the shop whilst she was living on the street.

Austen is buried inside Winchester’s impressive cathedral in the north aisle of the nave. Have a seat where Austen herself might have sat and spend an afternoon people watching in the Cathedral Grounds for a little inspiration.

If you fancy getting a little further away from the fast pace of London, a trip to Bath might just do the trick. Bath’s cobbled streets, sweeping crescents and stone houses could shift even the most stubborn cases of writers’ block. Act like a member of the Georgian gentry and take a leisurely walk down one of Bath’s winding alleyways or scribble away beside the Royal Crescent.

If you are still in need of some Austen magic, take a trip to the Jane Austen Centre. Situated on Gay Street, where Austen is known to have stayed during her time in Bath, the centre prides itself on its period atmosphere and collection of exhibits, films and costumes. Afterwards visit the Regency Tea Rooms or buy yourself a copy of an Austen classic from the gift shop. Over the summer it is open 9.45am-5.30pm every day.

Books for Father’s Day

In case it slipped your mind, Sunday the 19th of June is a pretty important day. For a whole twenty four hours we are not allowed to ask our fathers for a little extra cash, make him superglue our broken possessions or get him to, once again, explain how to use the printer. It’s easy to buy him a suitably amusing card, perhaps with a reference to his hygiene or drinking habits, but deciding what gift to buy him is a little trickier. Dads are notoriously difficult to buy for. My father in particular tends to buy himself things he fancies rather than waiting for his brood to purchase it for him. In fact he is renowned for turning up days before a present giving occasion, replica of your purchased gift in hand.

This year I’d suggest you steer clear of the tacky tie, the cheap cufflinks or the bottle of whisky and buy your dad a book. Whether your father is an avid or a reluctant reader, a lover of science fiction or a murder mystery addict, this list will hopefully give you the literary inspiration you need to select the perfect read for the paternal presence in your life. Avoid the tempting displays of dad-appropriate golfing/civil war titles and take inspiration from my selection of literary greats and new releases:

–          The Finkler Question RRP £7.99. The recent Man Booker winner is a story of friendship and reminiscence. Following Julian Treslove and his old school friend Sam Finkler, and described as containing some of the “wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language”, The Finkler Question is a tale concerned with ageing, acceptance and the power of humanity.

–          To Kill A Mockingbird RRP £6.99. International bestseller and Pulitzer prize winner, this literary great is the tale of a father defending the truth and struggling to fight for justice whilst bringing up his two children in a state steeped in prejudice and hypocrisy.

–          About a Boy RRP £7.99. At times laugh out loud funny, About A Boy is the story of Will, a terminally hip unmarried and directionless man from North London. When he meets Marcus, a twelve year old target for bullies, Will’s life changes beyond recognition. About A Boy follows Will’s discovery of a new responsibility whilst he struggles to become a worthy role model for Marcus.

–          The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy RRP £7.99. “On 12 October 1979 the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor (and Earth) was made available to humanity”… need I say more?!

–          The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – RRP £8.99. Set during the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the ultimate spy story. Graham Greene himself even gave it his stamp of approval describing it as the best spy novel he had ever read.

–          The War of the Worlds – RRP £7.99. Aliens from Mars land near Woking (coincidently where my own father works) and chaos ensues. The novel, which is indescribably better than the film, tells the story of mankind’s fight against the menacing extra terrestrial tripods!

Nonfiction: Red Sky at Night by Jane Struthers

Jane Struthers’ Red Sky at Night is a delightful compendium of countryside wisdom. Filled with fascinating facts, it covers such things as predicting the weather prediction, reading tea leaves and everything in between. The blurb reads, “Ever wondered how to navigate by the stars? Or wanted to attract butterflies to your garden? Is there a knack to building the perfect bonfire? And how exactly do you race a ferret?” Now, I can honestly say that I’ve never wondered about or wanted to do any of these things—at least, before I read this book.

Despite being born in London, I’m a country girl through and through. I need to be surrounded by green and grass and I actually don’t mind the smell of a farmyard. That doesn’t mean that I’m a countryside expert; I know the difference between a tree and a shrub… but my knowledge ends there.

Reading Red Sky at Night, however, made me want to know more. This wonderfully evocative book, filled with instructions, lists, customs and old wives tales, aims to reconnect its readers with the world around them. Struthers’s book is painfully nostalgic for the Britain that existed before, as she puts it, “we went inside and turned on the TV”.

Nowadays we rely on weather girls and the internet to tell us whether we should wear flip-flops or a pac-a-mac, but a hundred years ago we would have been a lot more in tune with what the skies were telling us. Read Red Sky at Night and you’ll be able to identify high cloud from low cloud and determine whether that dark shadow on the horizon is signalling heavy rain or approaching cold weather. Learning to keep an eye on your surroundings could also prove infinitely useful when you’re on a summer picnic; if daisies start to close up and all the bees and butterflies disappear, it’s time you did too.

Now, though I’ve saluted a fair few magpies in my time, I wouldn’t consider myself to be an especially superstitious person. But after reading Struthers’s book, I’m afraid to say I’ve adopted a few strange habits. I’ve started throwing salt over my shoulder, for one, and bashing holes in empty egg shells, and feeling strangely suspicious of owls.

These are the notions and traditions that our fore fathers lived by. Old wives tales were the old-fashioned equivalent of the NHS website, folklore were our ancestors’ version of online dating, and the stars, when understood, are as good as a satellite navigator. If you’ve ever argued over the true rules to Pooh sticks (if you’ve never played, you really should start) or worried that you’ve hung a horse shoe the wrong way round (keep it pointing upwards or all the luck will fall out), Red Sky at Night is definitely for you. After reading Struthers’s book you’ll know how to tell if an egg is fresh, how to brew your own beer, and which flowers make the best honey. You never know, sometime in the future I might take to bee-keeping, making my own jam or dabbling in a bit of harmless witchcraft. When I do, this book will certainly be the first I reach for.

First published 3 September 2009. Available in hardback from Ebury Press.

If you love your books, let them go

One day on a bus home from my sixth form college, I found a book underneath my seat. White, gold-edged, and claiming to ensure that your chosen man falls head over heels in love with you, this book was titled The Rules: Time Tested Secrets For Capturing the Heart of Mr Right. Scrawled on a pink post-it stuck on the cover were the intriguing words: Free book. Look inside for details.

Now, with advice like “Don’t leave the house without wearing makeup. Put lipstick on even when you go jogging!” and “If you have a bad nose, get a nose job”, I’m not sure this book has been especially useful. In fact, it probably filled the head of my 17 year old self with some very questionable notions. Even now, the feminist in me wants to cry when I read phrases such as “Men like women who are neat and clean… why not please them?” and “Wear black sheer stockings and hike up your skirt to entice the opposite sex” (some classic advice there!) but I like the concept. Somewhere out there is a person who has been affected by this book. Maybe (though I doubt it), they’ve even found “Mr Right” because of it, and with the help of BookCrossing they have been able to share the book they love with others.

This, alongside March’s World Book Night, where the tagline was ‘Do you love a book so much you want everyone to read it?’, got me thinking. Some people believe that there is nothing sadder than a book that will never be read again. They think that we should rehome our read books rather than leaving them sat lonely and dejected on our book shelves. I, however, have to disagree. As a rule, on the odd occasion that I actually love a book, I’m strangely possessive over it. When I love a book, rather than sharing the literary joy, I take pleasure in adding it to my ever-growing collection. However, after visiting BookCrossing’s website, I’ve started to change my mind. With the inspired tagline ‘Welcome to the world’s library’ their website has got me in a sharing and caring frame of mind. So I’ve picked a book that I know in my heart of hearts I will never read again, I’ve printed off a BookCrossing label, and I’m going to let go. Tomorrow I’m going to release my book into the world of book sharing and leave it on a train.

All you have to do to join me and start sharing your favourite books is visit the BookCrossing website. You can set up an account for free, print off labels (you can even personalise them with photos of your beaming face if you like) and start releasing your books out into the wild. Share a well worn book, an old favourite, or maybe one that you think other people could appreciate more than you. With BookCrossing’s website you can track how far your books have travelled, who is reading them and whether or not they are enjoying them.

If you love your books… it’s time to let them go. Happy sharing!

Ellie Walker-Arnott

Summer reads, whatever the weather

The British summer is almost, but not quite, upon us. April taunted us with the promise of a long, hot summer, only to pull the carpet out from under our flip-flops and replace the cloudless bank holidays with grey and drizzly 9-5s.

Maybe you are in the middle of exams or just plain sick of work? Perhaps you’re eagerly awaiting your summer holiday or maybe, like me, your student bank account won’t let you book one. Either way, while we are all stuck inside dreaming of the sunshine, here are a few books to give your imagination an ash-cloud free holiday.

Cider with Rosie (rrp £7.99)

Who needs to go abroad this summer? Cider with Rosie is a beautifully written memoir of Lee’s childhood spent in the lush Cotswolds. Lyrically written, Lee evokes a postcard worthy picture of rural England before high speed trains, mobile phones and the internet. Reading Lee’s gentle descriptions of sunlight speckled fields, rural festivities, and long summers is almost as good as being there and will certainly make you want to don a daisy chain and lie in a British meadow.

A Room with a View (rrp £8.99)

Perhaps a staycation is not quite your thing? E M Forster’s A Room with a View has the best of both worlds. Opening in Florence, Forster’s tale follows Lucy and her troublesome love life through rustic Tuscany back to Surrey’s undulating countryside. Forster’s descriptions of love in Italy will undoubtedly distract you from your dreary your office and the dribble of rain on your window.

Eat Pray Love (rrp £7.99)

Fancy a more extended trip? Elizabeth Gilbert’s international best seller, Eat Pray Love, takes you on a journey through Italy, India, and Bali. Satisfying even the most demanding holidaymakers’ desires, (gorging on ice-cream, achieving spiritual peace, and toying with a summer romance) after finishing Gilbert’s autobiographical journey of self discovery you’ll feel like you’ve been away too. On top of that, Gilbert’s descriptions of her exploits with Italian cuisine actually made my stomach rumble; I’ve never felt more like dropping everything and finding a cheap flight to warmer Italian shores.

These books will give your imagination a well deserved break while we wait for the British summer to start, but if an imaginative holiday just won’t cut it, pick up a travel guide.

Ellie Walker-Arnott

Novel: The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

Moving and bitterly sweet, The Hand That First Held Mine is Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth novel and winner of the 2010 Costa novel award. Exposing the fragile nature of our human relationships, O’Farrell’s novel paints two compelling portraits of women separated by fifty years.

O’Farrell’s novel cuts between two timelines; following the life of beautiful and headstrong Lexie as she struggles to find her place in 1950’s Soho alongside a haunting depiction of Elina’s attempts to cope after the traumatic birth of her first child. Effortlessly constructing the tales of these two women, O’Farrell calls into question the relationship we assume to be the most stable of all, that of mother and child. Although the connection between the two women isn’t revealed until the very end, these two storylines are seamlessly sewn together throughout. Whilst Lexie falls helplessly in love, Elina battles with the bumpy terrain of motherhood. Lexie’s chapters are dynamic whilst Elina’s sections, though intensely absorbing, are disorientating; as Elina cautiously navigates the first few weeks with her child, O’Farrell creates gaps in the narrative which leave us reeling. As Lexie’s life and loves are told in fast forward, her vibrancy set against the static nature of Elina’s chapters, with painful empathy we, like Elina, feel confused and overwhelmed.

O’Farrell’s honest depictions of life’s darknesses and pleasures are at times almost too poignant to read (her depiction of Lexie’s suffocation after returning from university verges on painful for a soon-to-be graduate!) We are led through Ted and Elina’s story at the same pace as they are, acutely aware of the gaps in our own knowledge. But in Lexie’s chapters the narrator intriguingly hints at her fate. Leaving us uncomfortably more knowledgeable than our loveable protagonist, we know from the beginning that she is heading for disaster: “She has no idea that she will die young, that she does not have as much time as she thinks. For now she has just discovered the love of her life, and death couldn’t be further from her mind”.

As O’Farrell herself has recognised, there are more than just our two female protagonists in this tale. The Hand That First Held Mine constructs a picture of bohemian Soho as vivid as the John Deakin images that initially inspired O’Farrell to write. Connecting these characters through the streets they walk on and the buildings they enter, London acts as a reminder of the stability of stone and the fleeting nature of our human existence. As Ted goes for coffee in the very same building where Lexie works we are reminded of the way in which each building must house the imprint of its past. The nostalgic portrayal of London is tainted by our knowledge of Lexie’s fate and O’Farrell’s focus on how our capital city has itself changed beyond recognition in a mere fifty years.

Elina’s visit to a John Deakin exhibition cleverly exposes both the connection between O’Farrell’s two main characters and the ultimate reason why this tale is at times so uncomfortable to read. As we see Lexie, our bright and vibrant protagonist, transform into an unidentified woman in a black and white photograph, we are reminded of the inevitable passing of time. Elina describes Deakin’s photography of 1950’s Soho as being “kind of melancholy…because they capture something that’s gone” and I think that O’Farrell’s novel could be described in the same way. Littered with references to loss and the unreliability of memory, The Hand That First Held Mine forces us to question our own fragile existence. Just as Lexie’s ghost haunts Elina’s London, this novel will stay with you long after you have finished its last page.

The Hand that First Held Mine is published by Headline Review, RRP £7.99.