Edith was born into a different world. But her rebellious nature brought her to the seedy glamour of the music hall, where she plays the piano by night. Oliver is an illusionist. And he is a man of ambition. He wants to tour the world, to pioneer ground-breaking illusions.
History and fate have other ideas. When Edith and Oliver meet they fall headlong in love. But their children arrive as the world begins to change, as cinemas crowd the high street and the draw of the music hall wanes. What follows is a struggle: against the trials of marriage, against the march of time, and against Oliver’s flaws – flaws that may cost them everything.
We meet Edith and Oliver the morning after what appears to have been a lively party the night before. Amidst the remnants of chaos the pair stand together ‘one a fulcrum for the other’ – does this steadying effect go to the heart of their relationship?
Edith and Oliver are life’s double act, both on and off the stage. When they first meet they are drawn to one another in equal measure –Edith to Oliver’s charm, his intelligence, his ‘brutish presence’ as an illusionist; Oliver to Edith’s feistiness, her tenderness, her talent as a pianist. Together they discover a blossoming of ‘some forgotten joy’. However, as circumstances change they find themselves side-lined in the world of entertainment and they struggle to cope with unemployment and mounting debts, as well as with a quickly changing social, cultural and political landscape. As the years pass they become more and more adrift in a world which conspires to debase their relationship as husband and wife and as mother and father, and the steadying force which was once at the heart of their marriage finally comes under threat.
Edith and Oliver is set in the twilight days of the Music Hall and explores reasons for its decline in popularity. Could you tell us a little about this?
Music hall reached its peak in the 1890’s. By 1906 – where I begin story of Edith and Oliver – the art form was still vibrant but its steady decline had already begun. It was the new rival attractions developing alongside music hall which were increasingly dominating public taste and pulling in the crowds. There was a growing love among audiences for musical theatre, farce, revue-style shows and variety, and theatre owners could book one single production for a long run rather than hiring individual music hall performers every week. With the advent of cinema, theatres mounted short visual presentations to spice up their programme (at one point in the story Oliver reads an article in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner about what claims to be the first purpose-built cinema to open in Colne, Lancashire). Audiences were flocking to see music hall performers like Charlie Chaplin and George Robey star on the big screen. Ragtime and jazz also caught the public’s imagination and when radio test transmission licences were issued in 1920 entertainment was brought right into people’s homes. By 1921, as the book closes, it is clear to Oliver that the heyday of music hall is well and truly over.
Oliver seems to me to be a very complicated man, one of extremes. He is capable of great love and tenderness, but also of indifference bordering on cruelty. Was he an interesting character to write?
As a character Oliver was incredibly interesting to write. His energy is central to the novel because he cannot find a point of rest and so he propels the narrative forward. He also has a mercurial quality about him which meant that I could frequently push the action beyond the predictable. A traumatic childhood experience means that his adult self is entrenched in a sense of its own powerlessness and this sets him at odds with the world around him allowing a kind of narrative friction to happen. In terms of themes I was interested in how families often get caught in repeating patterns of behaviour and so I explored how the difficult relationship Oliver had with his father plays out on his own son and daughter, overruling his capacity for better judgement. He is not, however, completely ensnared by his own flaws, he also has the capacity to be magnanimous and charming, to be thoughtful, to love greatly. The difficulty is that his expression of those qualities tends to be sabotaged by his lack of self-worth and he ends up hurting the very thing he loves.
I loved Edith’s spirit; there’s a scene early on when she refers to her knitting as representing ‘the washted [sic] moments of my life in regular and pearl.’ Motherhood has a profound effect on her, in a way far beyond the impact of fatherhood has on Oliver, was this something you purposely wanted to address?
Yes, I did. Oliver comments early on that he thinks Edith is a little too cocksure of herself. And she is, and she’s funny too. But that perky personality is also balanced with a sense of life’s frailty. Within the world of the music hall Edith has economic independence (at a time when that was difficult for a woman to have) and can flex her creative muscles as much as any man. But when she gives birth to Agna and Archie she steps out of that world to take on the more traditional role of a woman at home. I was interested in this. To me it was a kind of reversal to what we expect today, where in the process of self-actualisation a woman is expected to step out of the home into the wider world. For Edith motherhood becomes a hugely transformative experience principally because she allows it to transform her, she embraces it fully and becomes the richer for it.
I was struck by the sense of community, both within the world of the Music Hall and more widely in the neighbourhood. At times, Edith and her family rely on this kindness for survival. Do you think we have lost this community spirit in the 21st century?
Regarding a sense of community in the 21st century, I think we think we have lost it, but it’s still there, perhaps more so now. In the world which unelected big businesses and dubious elected governments are creating for us today I’m hearing more people expressing the need to connect with each other at a grassroots level and to talk about and act on the things which matter to them, and that can only be a good thing. These smaller communities are almost like micro-solutions to the challenging, and often damaging, policies governments appear to be offering us. Also, having a background as an actor I know how disparate groups of people can find a commonality and become very close. Theatre brings people together and the friendships they forge last. Of course no community is without its moments of friction between people, as Oliver will testify, but I wanted to convey the connectedness and the warmth which I have experienced as a theatre actor in my depiction of the music hall world.
Food features frequently in the novel: beef shirt and onion pie, meatloaf and champ, nettle soup, scallions – is this a way of cementing the time, place, and even social class of your protagonists?
Yes, it was a conscious thing for me to do that. Describing food and cooking and the complexity of association it holds for all of us creates a very rich palette for a writer to play with because we all have a visceral relationship with food. I can still conjure up the smell and taste of champ from my childhood growing up in Northern Ireland at a moment’s notice –that wonderful buttery mixture of scallion and potatoes. Within the narrative it was an extremely useful tool in evoking the time, place and social class of my characters in a particular and immediate way. It was also useful in adding interesting detail to character – the lump of custard for example which sits ‘like a pustule’ on the fat lips of the odorous Sydney Brown. Mmm, delicious…
As well as Oliver’s illusions, there are little drops of magic sprinkled throughout the book such as snowflakes falling or the appearance of the beautiful and comforting Eurielle Hope. Did you intend these to have a talismanic quality?
The creation of other worlds which have talismanic qualities and exist in parallel to Oliver’s own conjuring tricks and illusions is a crucial device in the novel. For Agna particularly these other worlds take on a poetic resonance and help her to manage the sometimes frightening real world she lives in. As a child who has a fraught relationship with language she is able, through her images of snow and snowflakes, to not only make sense of her experiences and find comfort from that but also to discover a way to ‘be’ in the world. In the same way Eurielle Hope, the exotic cross-dressing performer who appears to Oliver at times of crises, acts as a harbinger to warn him of danger and is a manifestation of Oliver’s own deep need to find solace.
There is a beautiful line about storytelling in the book; it’s not truth that matters but ‘intent and… generosity in giving them’. Is this your philosophy of storytelling?
I guess it is. It’s never really about the truth of a story, it’s about the exchange which happens when a story is told, it’s about the connection between people, and it’s about the possibilities of self-discovery which it affords both to the person who tells the story and to the person who hears it, and that’s why fiction works.
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