Guest Post by Linda Newbery
Usually the idea for a novel comes to me slowly, over weeks or months; it’s unusual for me to know the precise day, and even time, when I first started thinking about it. But for The Key to Flambards I know precisely. I was about to set off for Cornwall and Scilly; awake very early, for some reason I found myself thinking not of holiday packing but of sequels to classic children’s books. There’s Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet, for instance; Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, and several additions to The Wind in the Willows. What would I choose, given the chance?
Flambards, of course! I’d loved K M Peyton’s quartet since finding the first volume in my twenties. It could have been written just for me: wonderful evocations of countryside and weather; an admirable, fallible heroine; complex relationships; social injustice in the years before the First World War. Although I loathe fox-hunting, I’ll willingly read about it when it’s safely in the past, and no one writes about horses better than Kathy Peyton. As a reader you know their differing personalities and how it feels to ride them, and in Flambards you’ll grieve for poor Sweetbriar (Kathy is great at names) when she’s carelessly ridden and permanently injured. Accompanying Christina through three more novels, we go into the First World War and beyond; we experience the thrill and terror of early flying, alongside Will, the bold, inventive, often inconsiderate young pilot who becomes her first love; through her close friend Dorothy we hear of the terrible conditions facing nurses and their charges in inadequately-supplied hospitals close to the front. We share Christina’s loves and losses, her hopes and dreams and determination.
So. Flambards. How could I follow that? Well, obviously I couldn’t. Flambards Divided leaves Christina in her twenties, a mother, widowed, divorced and about to remarry; I couldn’t continue her story in a novel for young readers. Then I wondered what Flambards, the house and its land, would be like now, and from there my idea took root.
That same day, during the long drive to Cornwall, this grain of a story gathered detail. Flambards in Christina’s day was a Victorian house that had fallen into neglect, owned by her Russell relatives. I didn’t want to write about wealthy land-owners, but Flambards in 2018 could be a residential arts centre, owned by a Trust. As in Kathy Peyton’s books it suffers from lack of funds, and its future is in doubt. My main character, Grace, is Christina’s and Will’s great-great-granddaughter (Peyton fans will recognise Grace as a Russell name) and I wanted her, like Christina, to arrive at Flambards for the first time; so she’s visiting for the summer holidays with her mother who’s temporarily employed there as publicist. A year earlier, Grace was involved in a life-changing accident which gives her a particular empathy with others, past and present, faced with physical or mental disturbances. With the centenary of the 1918 Armistice approaching, the centre manager, Roger (great-grandson of Fergus Ashley-Clarke, the disfigured pilot who appears in Flambards Divided) is planning a commemorative event, through which Grace discovers her links to the place and its people. And, like Christina who becomes variously involved with Will and Mark and with gentle stable-boy Dick, Grace makes friends – reluctantly at first – with nature-loving Jamie and the troubled, perplexing Marcus.
What I haven’t yet mentioned is that through my admiration of her books I’ve become good friends with Kathy Peyton. We first met when I interviewed her for Books for Keeps magazine, for which I reviewed at that time. She invited me to her Essex home, where I was thrilled not only to meet her but to sit chatting in the large workroom where she writes. We stayed in touch, often meeting for coffee before publisher parties in London, and I’ve stayed with her on several occasions, walking in the wood she’s planted and watching ducks on the pond outside her kitchen.
All the same, it was with some anxiety that I asked if she’d agree to me writing The Key to Flambards – it seemed such a cheek! Luckily she agreed at once, and my publisher and agent were also keen, so off I went.
Only then did I fully realise what a challenge I’d taken on. There’s a lot of plot in those four books – and I wanted my story to be satisfying to readers who love the originals, while working as a one-off novel for those coming to it fresh.
Grace’s new disability – she lost the lower part of a leg as a result of the accident – gives her enormous adjustments to make in how she sees herself and how she thinks others see her. Meeting strangers at Flambards is daunting. She’s at first frightened by, then sympathetic towards, Marcus’s deeply disturbed father, an ex-soldier whose violent outbursts echo those of Christina’s Uncle Russell. Like Christina, Grace learns to ride, but for her this new skill and independence has a different emphasis. I did find a way of continuing Christina’s story, too, through the memories of someone who knew her in old age and through letters kept by Roger’s great-grandfather; and there’s one plot element suggested by Kathy herself, long before I thought of writing my book.
I was delighted that Kathy was Guest of Honour at the launch last year (at Copped Hall, the real-life setting of another of my novels, The Shell House). How many authors have had publishing careers spanning eight decades? Having published her first novel, Sabre, the Horse from the Sea, while still in her teens, she produced Wild Lily in 2016, well into her eighties. She’s just celebrated her 90th birthday and is fit and well, so who’s to say Wild Lily was the last? It’s an achievement few will ever match.
The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.