Thomas brings colonial mystery to life

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October 8, 2014

Audrey Thomas’s latest novel is in the running for the City of Victoria Butler Prize. Thomas, who lives in Victoria and on Galiano Island, recently talked with Lynne Van Luven about Local Customs (published by Dundurn), which is based on four historical figures: Letitia Landon, George Maclean, Brodie Cruikshank and Thomas Birch Freeman.

The author describes the research that went into this new novel as  “exciting, but also dangerous, unless you exercise some self control.  It’s a bit like sitting next to a big bowl of peanuts; can you limit yourself to one or two?” Although Thomas first learned about Landon in the 1960s, she says, “it took me almost 40 years to get back to her.” Proof that no fact or experience is ever wasted on a writer.

It’s fair to say that no aspect of colonialism in Ghana goes unremarked in Local Customs, so I am guessing your family’s residence there in the mid-1960s left an indelible mark on your memory.  Was there a particular catalyst that impelled you to take up this terrain again, so many years later?

I do think those two years in Ghana had a profound effect on all of us, and once I saw Letty’s grave, in the courtyard of Cape Coast Castle, I knew that someday I would write about her.  In the end, she became part of what I like to think of as a trilogy: Isobel Gunn, Tattycoram and now Local Customs.  I would like to get the rights back to all three and present them as a set: Three Women.

It’s interesting, to me, that Virago Press turned this novel down; I think it would have done well in Britain.  All that Colonial stuff, plus Scotland, women writers etc.

Another interesting thing: I was on what I hoped would be my final draft, when there was an article in The London Review of Books about a young scholar who had discovered Letitia did have a child by her publisher; there had been rumours about this, but nothing had ever been proven.  This woman found the birth certificate.  This was too good to pass up, so back I went to the drawing board.

I have read Local Customs twice and I have a confession to make:  I did not entirely like Letitia Landon Maclean as a character. I admired her feisty nature, and her ability to support herself and her family, but I also reacted to something closed and smug in her nature. (I am actually rather disappointed in myself; after all, she is a feminist of her era.) Can you talk a little about the challenge of recreating characters from history?

First of all, you are not meant to like Letitia Landon. I think you can admire her, without liking her. Like many of her class, she is a snob, and her attitude to Mr. Freeman isn’t at all nice. I don’t think of Letitia as a feminist, rather as an eccentric, with a modicum of talent. She knew what her public, mostly women, wanted and she gave it to them. Her letters, on the other hand, are brilliant.

I love the ending of your novel, the way the “mystery” of  Letitia’s demise is left cloudy. Did you have to fight an urge to “solve” the story or was the uncertainty more interesting to you as a writer?

I think I left Letty’s death as a mystery, so that the reader could ponder it. I have my own theory, but I’ve never tried to articulate it to anyone else. She DID take drops, but George insisted she was always very careful to measure them out exactly into a glass of water. It’s interesting that in one of her novels, Ethel Churchill, the heroine poisons herself. And I think it was with Prussic acid. (My notes on that book are over on Galiano, so I can’t say for sure). I can say that I am interested in fear, in what makes people afraid. One reviewer of the novel suggested that Letty might have had yellow fever, which she said can cause hallucinations. I don’t think she had yellow fever; there is no mention anywhere of her looking as though she had it. It is curious that both her own physician and the chemist who made up her medicine chest insisted they had never prescribed Prussic acid or made up a suspension of Prussic acid, yet that was the official verdict, that she accidentally took an overdose of her drops, which were Prussic acid. There was no autopsy, just a hastily assembled inquest.  Her death will always remain a mystery.

The Methodist preacher, Mr. Freeman, seems a particular thorn in Letty’s side once she arrives at Cape Coast Castle. In theory, he sounds like an admirable character: a free black man whose father was a slave, made something of himself and set his son on an educated path.  Why does Letty so heartily dislike him?

I’m surprised you like Freeman. As a character in this novel, he sets himself above the people he has come to “save,” and sees no real connection between himself and the natives of Cape Coast. Letitia is quite right to call him on his Noah and Mrs. Noah figures; in a way, they represent how he feels about himself, a metaphor? The real Thomas Birch Freeman was no doubt all the things you say, but not the Freeman in my book. The real one did get George in a lot of trouble when he sent his monthly newsletter after Letty’s death, saying she had seemed perfectly well the night before at the dinner party. His papers are in the archives at the University of London, and the correspondence between him and George Maclean is there. (Freeman’s remarks led to the rumours in London that George had poisoned Letty.)

Overall, you set yourself a task, I think:  to write Local Customs within the strictures of 1836-38, and that means avoiding anachronisms, maintaining the diction and attitudes of the era. Was that particularly difficult?

I did not think it was difficult to maintain the diction of the times. I had a book called Maclean of the Gold Coast, plus Brodie Cruickshank’s Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast, plus the Freeman archives. Plus Letitia’s letters. And I have lived in both England and Scotland. I had lots of stuff to look at.

I had lots of fun with Mrs. Bailey and wondered exactly who was the original for her, not the real woman who accompanied Letitia  — there wasn’t enough to go on  — and then it came to me. In my early twenties I taught school in Birmingham, England, in what would now be called an “inner city” school. There were a couple of women teachers there, and one in particular was a lot like Mrs. Bailey, except for the knitting! She was very forthright and could handle the children a lot better than I could. I think that’s who Mrs. B. is modelled on, along with other intrepid Englishwomen I have met. (Women who could “cope.”)

The Butler awards will be presented Oct. 15 at the Union Club. Other books nominated are Michael Layland’  book of non-fiction, The Land of Heart’s Delight, Catherine Greenwood’s book of poetry,  The Lost Letters, and fiction by Dede Crane (Every Happy Family) and M.A.C. Farrant (The World Afloat). Nominees for the Children’s Book Prize are Day of the Cyclone by Penny Draper, Petrosaur Trouble by Daniel Loxton and W.W. Smith and Whatever by Ann Walsh.

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