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Original Essays | May 3, 2013 2 comments
When it happens, it feels like winning the lottery. An email arrives out of the blue, from one of my publishers or a festival director or a member... Continue »
The Darker Sideby Elena Forbes
In the case of my crime novel Die With Me, a place was enough to kick-start my imagination. I was standing in the churchyard at Haworth, in Yorkshire, where the Brontës used to live. It was a lovely, hot, sunny day in mid July and I had laboured on foot from the busy car park up the steep, narrow, cobbled street to the village. In the Brontës' time, Haworth was a remote and surprisingly dangerous place to live, with poor sanitation and sporadic outbreaks of typhoid, one of which supposedly claimed a pregnant Charlotte Brontë. Nowadays the village is awash with colourful hanging baskets, glossy, painted signs, souvenir shops, and cafés. The Black Bull, where Branwell Brontë drank himself to death, is just another tarted-up pub. It is almost impossible to picture Howarth as it used to be.
I spent a good hour or so visiting the Brontë house and museum and then walked out into the sunshine and through the small, neat garden into the churchyard beyond. Even on a sunny day, in the height of summer, the graveyard is deeply shadowed by a dense canopy of tall trees. There is surprisingly nobody in sight. What strikes me is how melancholic the setting is, now just a place of pilgrimage and a reminder of times past. Perhaps I see it this way because of its association with the Brontës and their short, talented lives. However, the physical location is striking, set high up on the hill, above the houses, with an open expanse of moorland just behind. In winter, it must be a cold and bleak place, with a bitter, driving wind coming down off the moor.
A path tightly bordered by iron railings leads up from the village street through the graveyard, forking off towards the church and up to a stile at the top of the hill, which gives on to the moor. On either side of the path, the ground is almost entirely paved with greyish brown tombstones, commemorating people long dead and forgotten. There are no recent graves anywhere, nor floral tributes, and the lush, green grass which pokes up between the stones is the only touch of colour in an otherwise monochrome landscape. Many of the inscriptions are so worn and moss-covered that they are unreadable. It is worth remembering that in the Brontës' day, the average mortality was twenty-five, the same as for the most desperate parts of Victorian London. Walking around, I find an inscription on a headstone that captures this succinctly: "How short is life, how soon comes death."
Like the village, the church is also a bit of a disappointment, at least to a Brontë fan. It dates from the late Victorian gothic era and replaced the much more ancient one where the Brontës worshipped, which was pulled down for some reason. However, as I stand at the entrance to the church and look through the trees, up towards the moor, I see ranks of huge, tightly spaced headstones on the slope of the hillside, like a silent battalion of soldiers. The impression is instantly bizarre and threatening.
A sprinkling of coloured confetti dots the ground in front of the porch, left over from a recent wedding. Listening to the breeze stirring the leaves of the trees, I imagine a man waiting under the stoop for his innocent young bride. She is late. He is starting to feel nervous. Has she stood him up? In my mind, the bright summer day changes to a cold and wintry afternoon and he shivers as he waits. It is getting dark. The romantic scenario withers and something more poisonous and deadly takes its place. I picture him there, handsome, huddled up in his overcoat, vampire-like, as he hovers by the door not wanting to be seen, waiting for the impressionable and lonely young girl he has courted. Unfortunately, she has reached out to the wrong person. I call him "Tom"; he is the anti-hero. From here the story takes flight.
I have loved the Brontës ever since first reading Wuthering Heights at the age of twelve. I imagine Emily, Charlotte, Anne, and Branwell, first as children then later as adults, all living on top of one another in the cramped but apparently cheerful parsonage. It is amazing that any of them found the space and silence to write, but maybe their powers of concentration were more developed than mine. Their father, Patrick, was vicar at the church and every day they would look out through the pretty Georgian windows onto the graveyard just beyond the garden, where their mother and two sisters were buried. Death was an ever-present thing, the churchyard a constant reminder. It is depressing to remember that none of them lived beyond their thirties and that their poor father outlived his entire family. Surrounded by death, maybe it is not surprising that much of their early writing and poetry is infused with a darkness and a morbid quality that I, as a young teenager, found instantly appealing.
I have always been interested in the darker side of life, which is why I was naturally drawn to writing crime fiction. I could easily turn Pride and Prejudice or Madame Bovary into crime fiction. Wuthering Heights is not only a great and haunting work, but is also a potentially fabulous crime novel, if only someone no doubt Isabella had actually murdered Catherine Earnshaw.
Ever since I was a child, I have had stories spinning around in my head. Where some girls might dream of princes and princesses, in my imagination there was always a body, or at the very least some sort of mystery that required solving. I was brought up on a diet of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, followed swiftly by Dorothy L. Sayers, Georges Simenon, and Barbara Vine. Classical mythology and my favourite fairy stories by the Grimm brothers also had more than their fair share of violence, darkness and death. It is probably inevitable that if I stand in an empty churchyard in Yorkshire on a hot summer's day, I will imagine someone like "Tom."
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Elena Forbes has lived most of her life in London. After reading Modern Languages at Bristol University, she worked as a portfolio manager for international investment banks. She now writes full-time and lives in Notting Hill with her husband and two children. The first chapter and synopsis of Die With Me was shortlisted for a debut Dagger in 2005.