Unspoken Grief is a Dangerous Enemy
A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
‘With an eye for precise detail balanced by a sweeping imagination, this beautifully constructed book is built on deep foundations.’ - JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs Series
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…
‘Life as it is, in all its terrible beauty.’ - Jean Gill, author of Historical Fiction series The Troubadours Quartet
Some writers take expensive (but tax-deductible) research trips. Not me. For my tenth novel, Small Eden, I took as my inspiration the house I’ve lived in for the past two decades. Known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’ it seems to demand to be written about.
When we set about looking for a property, we drew up a checklist. An upper price limit, a minimum number of bedrooms, good transport links, off-street parking, gardens, front and back, and so on.
These were the days before Rightmove and Zoopla. You registered with the estate agents in the area you’d stuck a pin in, and kept an eye on the local papers.
"In the end, Robert selects his winning entry on the strength of the drawings for the buildings. The land he has come to know, but the nature of the structures he might lay foundations for has evaded him. Here they are. A charming T-shaped cottage will sit on a raised area to the left of the gardens: a chimney at its heart, steep roofslopes, dormer windows facing north and south and deep overhanging eaves to offer shelter from the elements."
Our appointment at Rossdale wasn’t with an estate agent but with the vendors, a couple who’d decided to retire on the south coast. I noticed immediately that the road was a cul-de-sac, because I grew up in a cul-de-sac and recognised that sense of enclosure and safety. I also noticed that the cottage was completely different from any of the surrounding houses. Victorian railway workers’ cottages at the end of the road gave way to pairs of semi-detached houses dating from the 1920s and detached bungalows which seemed to have been built later. It was the odd one out.
“Approached via a broad, verdant expanse and a stepped path, the cottage stands alone, to the left of centre of the gardens. As Robert surveys the scene, it strikes him how right it looks. He stands under the eaves and flattens his hands to the brick walls – solid and true, he has made them a reality. He cranes his neck to better examine the wooden struts, each exactly as it ought to be. It isn’t just that the building is perfectly proportioned, though that must be part of it. From the sheltered porch with its black and white tiles – perhaps a bench should go here – he can visualise the rest; the tennis courts are already marked out, the concrete slab on which the pavilion will sit has been poured. And there is the beginning of the path that will meander through the alders and oaks, where Thomas and his Gerrard will stumble on hidden sculptures.”
The entrance hall (if you could call it that) had standing space for four adults, but only just. “The house talks to us,” the wife told us. She did most of the talking. The husband was on hand mainly to agree. And despite wanting to retire elsewhere, she seemed to be under its spell. They had brought three boys up in the cottage, the wife told us as she led us upstairs. (Dark brown stair carpet, anaglypta wall paper.) Exactly where they put them, I wasn’t quite sure. Both of the bedrooms had sloped ceilings. I struggled to imagine bunk beds. “I don’t need to sell the house to you. It will sell itself,” she said as she opened a door into a triangular-shaped cupboard, which turned out to be the upstairs toilet. “The ‘main’ bathroom’s downstairs,” she explained, and so it was. Accessed through the kitchen, it was big enough for a shower, basin and toilet, but only just. The sitting room and dining rooms were smaller than the rooms in my flat, the ground floor of a substantial Edwardian property. But this was a house. A detached house!
When I asked about the history of the place, the wife showed us a reproduction of a woodcut depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of double in front of the cottage. She told us they’d bought the house from a retired sea captain, who told them it was the gatehouse for the local manor house, and this was certainly the received wisdom in the street, but it didn’t ring true. Even before we moved in, the cottage was speaking to us.
Some time after moving in, we joined a guided tour of the manor house (now a girls’ school), its hermitage and the water tower. We asked our about the possibility that our cottage was the original gatehouse for the estate and were told no. But he was intrigued enough to do some research of his own, and what he had to tell us was far more interesting. It was built (as far as he was able to ascertain) by a Mr E Cooke as the ticket office for pleasure gardens which opened at the turn of the century.
What led a man to embark on such an endeavour after the last of London’s pleasure gardens had failed isn’t written in any history books. It’s clear from Ordnance Survey maps that Mr Cooke didn’t give up on his gardens easily. There was a gradual selling off of plots, the creep of housing, the loss of a stand of trees. My instinct was that something in his past had driven him, something personal, and that same thing that made him so reluctant to let go of his dream.
Of course, had our research been more successful, there would have been no story to write.
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners with razor sharp dialogue and a strong commercial edge.
She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.
Her first novel, 'Half-Truths and White Lies', won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with 'An Unknown Woman' being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with 'Smash all the Windows' winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, 'At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock' was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of 'An Unknown Woman'. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?
When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.