14 August 2020
Elizabeth Brooks describes how her obsession with the Brontës led to her writing gothic-tinged novels
I’ve wanted to write ever since I read Jane Eyre for the first time, at the age of thirteen.
Everything about Jane Eyre struck a chord in me: it was as if I’d opened a door into another world and gone to live there for a while; when I’d finished it I felt homesick and sad, as well as overjoyed and inspired. As much as I’d loved reading up until then, I hadn’t realised that a book could offer such an intense experience. I wanted to recreate that, so I started writing diaries, poems and stories, all of which are deeply embarrassing to read now (a sort of Charlotte Brontë / Adrian Mole hybrid) but I suppose I had to start somewhere!
The Whispering House is my second novel. It’s a psychological mystery, set in the modern day (if the era Before Covid-19 still counts as modern), and it’s about two sisters who become embroiled with the owners of an eerie house, called Byrne Hall.
I’m sure it’s because of my lifelong Brontë obsession that my writing has such a pervasively gothic flavour. I’m forever drawn to old houses, dark secrets and characters haunted by their pasts. Other authors inspire me too, of course, and The Whispering House owes a huge debt to Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca is the ultimate ghost story, as far as I’m concerned, because it chills its readers to the bone without requiring any suspension of disbelief. There’s no need for any clanking chains or figures walking through walls: the first Mrs de Winter is dead, yet she is absolutely present in Manderley’s day to day rituals, in the way it looks and feels, and in the minds of the people who live there. At their best, haunted house stories offer so much more than a cheap thrill: they can be an exciting way to explore the mysteries of human nature, and the secrets that people hide.
The house in my book was inspired by a visit to Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon – the evocatively named Greenway - which is now owned by the National Trust. I took a lot of liberties with Greenway when I turned it into Byrne Hall, so that it’s gone from being a warm, lamp-lit, book-filled interior to something darker, emptier and more echoing. One aspect I’ve kept intact is the Queen Anne style façade, with its elegant pillared porch and white stuccoed walls. I love the idea of pairing a serene exterior with a sinister interior, and I suspect it was the connection with Christie herself – the mild-mannered woman with the dark imagination - which pulled my thoughts in that direction.
Places often provide me with that first spark of inspiration: Greenway prompted The Whispering House, while the salt marshes of the Dee estuary inspired my first novel, Call of the Curlew. It’s only when I’ve found a setting for my characters that I can settle down to think about who they are, and what they will do. Often they seem to find themselves overwhelmed by the landscapes I set them in: literally so in Call of the Curlew; more insidiously in the apparent idyll of The Whispering House.
One of the greatest joys of writing has been finding out what inspires me; what themes recur; what interests me at the deepest level. It’s not something I’ve discovered overnight, but a gradual process involving lots of reading, gallons of tea, and mountains of balled-up papers on the floor round my desk.
If you have a passion that you want to incorporate into your writing – like me and my Brontë mania – my advice would be to let it come through of its own accord rather than being self-conscious about it. When I read my teenage diaries now (which I don’t, if I can help it) I know why they embarrass me: it’s because I was so desperate to be The Fourth Brontë Sister that my writing took on a mannered, hammy, faux-Victorian tone.
At the age of thirteen I didn’t realise that the books I spent time with would colour my mind whether I liked it or not, and that by absorbing the words of the authors I loved, I would end up – eventually - with an authentic voice of my own.
The Whispering House by Elizabeth Brooks is published by Doubleday
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