A patchwork of memories
Louise Denyer talks to Liz Trenow about her second novel, The Forgotten Seamstress
A patchwork – something assembled from miscellaneous or incongruous parts – is an appropriate metaphor for the way in which our lives are gradually made up of apparently disparate memories that only really make some sense when you reflect on them as a whole.
The Forgotten Seamstress, Liz Trenow’s second novel, is as much about memory as it is a mystery of royal scandal, mental health and the search for truth.
The novel looks at how we’re shaped by experiences and the choices we make, or that are made for us.
It contrasts two women from different periods – modern day Caroline Meadows and late Victorian orphan Maria Romano, a highly-regarded seamstress at Buckingham Palace during the reign of King George V and Queen Mary.
The two women appear to be worlds apart. Ambitious thirty-something Caroline is coming to terms with redundancy from a high-powered job in the city, creating a new life for herself by pursuing a deep-rooted interest in interior design.
Maria’s more sombre story is of her alleged illicit affair with a prince and her incarceration in a mental asylum for an unplanned pregnancy.
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What I liked about this book is the juxtapositioning of the two women’s lives and the way it shows the similarity between Caroline and Maria, regardless of the age they lived in.
The key themes of the novel traverse the generations. Both characters experience the loss of a parent and a child. They also share a passion for textiles and the contentment this brings to their lives. Another significant aspect of the novel is the depiction of mental illness in Maria’s assumed ‘madness’ and in Caroline’s mother who appears to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
The dismissive treatment of Maria, references to ECT and narcosis therapy demonstrate how, until fairly recently, mental health was a misunderstood and taboo subject.
The grand asylum in the novel is based on the old Severalls Hospital in Colchester, which Liz Trenow experienced first-hand as a teenager and where she underwent a minor operation before its closure in the early 1990s. The building looms oppressively throughout the novel.
Caroline is drawn to Maria’s story because she sees in her aspects of herself. By delving into the past, not only does she hope to solve the mystery of the quilt, she is also hoping to understand herself better and to feel a connection with this strong, feisty woman.
After a successful career in print, TV and radio journalism, Colchester-based Liz Trenow completed an MA in creative writing and wrote her first book, The Last Telegram, drawing on personal experiences, her own family history and Suffolk’s silk industry. Her fascination for both helped her write her second book.
How did you blend fact and fiction in The Forgotten Seamstress?
I learned a lot about using facts when writing The Last Telegram, but soon realised you can’t depend solely on them because the story can become bland if nothing bad happens. Although The Forgotten Seamstress uses the historical framework of Queen Mary, the May Silks, the First World War and Edward VIII, everything else had to be fictional.
When you visited the Warner textile archive, did you know you wanted to write a book about the May Silks?
When my agent told me that a publisher was interested in The Last Telegram it was as part of a two-book deal. I’d recently been to the Victoria & Albert Museum Quilt Show and liked how quilts contained so much history, but realised such a story would need to be unique. Then I remembered the May Silks, so after a bit of brainstorming I submitted a synopsis about how a woman finds a quilt and discovers a secret about her family.
I knew that if the novel was going to be read by experienced quilters I would need the help of an expert to get the details right. A friend put me in touch with Lynne Edwards, an internationally-acknowledged patchwork quilter, teacher and author, who was intrigued by the notion of a fictional quilt. Her professional expertise helped me to understand the fabrics and techniques Maria would have used.
How did you develop the characters of Caroline and Maria?
I wrote Maria’s story first and found that her character came to life really easily. I wanted the novel to be about a mystery and as I wrote the ‘reveal’ I realised Maria had to open the story. I started researching Severalls Hospital in Colchester, which when it was built in the early 1900s was a state of the art facility. That’s when I discovered Diana Gittins’s book, Madness in its Place, and her references to recordings with staff and patients. This was a lightbulb moment – I was able to base the character of Patricia Morton on Gittins and then Caroline’s character, which was harder to develop, began to be more real.
What do you hope people will gain from your novel?
My books are mostly about the nature of memory and how it impacts on the way we are today as individuals. Mostly, however, I just want to write a good story that’s slightly different and fun to read, yet leaves something in the reader’s head for them to return to.
Tell us about your next book, The Poppy Factory
This has been commissioned by Harper Collins as part of the First World War centenary commemorations. It was suggested that it could be set it in the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory in Richmond. After visiting the factory I decided I would juxtapose two stories, one modern and one set at the end of the First World War. The main character of the latter story is someone whose husband has been fighting in the trenches and the narrative is about how the factory helps him to recover. For the story set in the present day the central character will be based on interviews I have done with female medics who have served in Afghanistan. The book will be published in autumn this year.