After reading the comments which followed Dan Holloway’s recent discussion of effective ways to promote independently published novels, where it was suggested that authors could use the first 100 words of their books as a promotional tool, I considered using this blog entry to explore this approach. So here they are, around one hundred words from the start of my novel Equilibrium.
May 1903. There is surely no more fitting place for a disgraced housemaid to take her life than on the hidden stairs that slide beneath the Wapping wharves into the Thames. Out of sight they plunge into the lower reaches of the river, flights of stone and wood that at low tide lead to quiet shores but, when the business of the river is in full flow, pass utterly unseen beneath significant exchanges played out on grand piles above. The tide is on the turn but Martha cannot see that in the darkness. What she sees is the detritus of a day’s unloading as it smacks and scrapes in waves against the warehouse walls…
But then it occurred to me that if an effective sample is intended to provide a good flavour of the book, then is it really possible to do that with just the first 100 words? Or any 100 words? After all, did you ever see a film trailer that only showed the title sequence? Did you ever go into a bookshop and just read the first paragraph of a book before buying it?
One solution could be to bring together several 100 word extracts from throughout the book – perhaps half a dozen – rather in the style of a trailer, though hopefully not a selection that either leaves you not bothering to go on to read the book, or leaves you knowing how it ends. But as I was leafing through the book in search of possible such extracts I realised that the line that summed up the story, the characters and the themes of the book perhaps better than any other was the epigraph which precedes the extract above:
“Servants were the other immaterialized ghosts of the Victorian domestic interior.”*
The source of the epigraph, William Brock’s excellent biography of the British scientist William Crookes, was also the source of the initial idea for the novel: the fascination a few Victorian and Edwardian scientists had with mediums and spirituality. This philos0phical, social, scientific, gendered and intellectual juxtaposition of two thoroughly different worlds drew together several themes I wanted to explore. As has been noted elsewhere in this blog, the Edwardian era is like the loosening corset beneath the Victorian dress, and though I did not set out principally to write a historical novel, nor a ghost story, nor a class-riven romance, I did want to capture the effect of that loosening, of those diverse tensions.
But in a much more contemporary vein, I also wanted to explore the collapse of social boundaries – not just in class and gender as experienced by the Edwardians, but in openness, secrecy, propriety and appropriate behaviour. As an inveterate eavesdropper, I am endlessly fascinated by the way people speak very publicly about the most personal things – on television, on the internet, on their mobile phones – and yet this is not a purely twenty-first century phenomenon. One hundred years ago and more, the Edwardians flirted with the ever-thinning boundary between the private and the public, perhaps following an example set by King Edward VII himself whose private enthusiasms were often enjoyed in public, even if that meant in Paris rather than London, or in the homes of his friends rather than in full view of his subjects.
Scandal is of course a good example of this porous boundary, representing as it often does the tension in marriages, and Equilibrium features its own modest social scandal, an affair between a housemaid and a Lord. But I wanted to set that against a different kind of information leakage that which might occur between the worlds of the dead and the living. Death is the last great secret from humanity. And what motivates so many towards religion or simply a spiritual faith in the possibility of an afterlife is perhaps a discomfort at the idea of something so important being so unknown. Loss is an unanswered question in itself, and when that loss occurs in distant or unexplained circumstances, then the desire for information, let alone truth, becomes very powerful. In Equilibrium, Countess Adelia Lyward has lost her brother Dacre in the Boer War, and though her husband Rafe survived the war, he is lost to their marriage. At the core of the story is the notion that the omniscience of the spirit world that Adelia sees demonstrated by the medium, Epiphany Fortune, can be so intoxicating that sometimes one cannot also see that when the spirits speak, just as when a scandal breaks, you may end up with more information than you really wanted.
The third main character in the novel, Epiphany’s sister Martha, is the ghost referred to in the epigraph. Martha not only plays the role of Epiphany’s spirit guide in their stage act, but has already tried and failed to materialize in the Lyward House beyond her existence as housemaid. Her affair with Lord Rafe Lyward, which ends in the opening scene of the novel, was her attempt to become tangible and substantial within a world in which she should have remained invisible. Yet on her return to Lyward House with Epiphany it is this very invisibility which makes it possible for her to orchestrate her sister’s act as well as unwittingly enable both herself and Adelia to find the truths they are seeking. Indeed each of the characters in Equilibrium moves in some way as ghosts do, unseen until they show themselves, revealing only what they wish to be known.
The knowable is epitomised by Adelia’s brother Hensall, who captures the essence of William Crookes, whose fascination with the spiritual was the inspiration for this novel. Hensall’s increasing obsession with Epiphany and her spirit guide, with proving their existence and with understanding it scientifically epitomises our natural desire to explain the inexplicable. But Equilibrium is not a novel about what is true and what is not. In an era of great change it is a novel about transitions and about the boundaries we cross when we make those journeys: from life to death, from the past to the future, from ignorance to understanding.
*’The investigation of Florence Cook’ in William Crookes and the Commercialization of Science by William H Brock (Ashgate, 2008: p.186)