The Prodigal Wife


2011 1951

If you remember, I wrote the following at the end of the piece on The Way We Were: ‘The strange fact is that she always knows the first and the last line even though there are ninety odd thousand words in between which remain a mystery at that time. We often talk about how this can be and the only conclusion we have come to is that deep in her subconscious lies the finished book just waiting to be revealed.’ Now I want to explore this a bit further.

Because I am a great fan of historical naval fiction, it follows that I am a fan of C S Forester and I was delighted when Chatham Publishing brought out ‘The Hornblower Companion’. (For those of you who don’t recognise that name, Hornblower is one of Forester’s great characters). At the back of the book is a section headed ‘Some Personal Notes’ which I considered would be of interest to Marcia and so it proved. This section starts thus:

there are jellyfish that drift about in the ocean. They do nothing to seek out their daily food; chance carries them hither and thither, and chance brings them nourishment. Small living things come into contact with their tentacles, and are seized, devoured, and digested. Think of me as the jellyfish, and the captured victims become the plots, the stories, the outlines, the motifs – use whatever term you may consider best to describe the framework of a novel. In the ocean there are much higher forms of life than the jellyfish, and every human being in the ocean of humanity has much the same experience as every other human being, but some human beings are jellyfish and some are sharks. The tiny little food particles, the minute suggestive experiences, are recognized and seized by the jellyfish writer and are employed by him for his own specialized use.

We can go on with the analogy; once the captured victim is inside the jellyfish’s stomach the digestive juices start pouring out and the material is transformed into a different protoplasm, without the jellyfish consciously doing anything about it until his existence ends with an abrupt change of analogy.

In my own case it happens that, generally speaking, the initial stimulus is recognised for what it is. The casual phrase dropped by a friend in conversation, the paragraph in a book, the incident observed by the roadside, has some special quality, and is accorded a special welcome. But, having been welcomed, it is forgotten, or at least ignored. It sinks into the horrid depths of my subconscious like a waterlogged timber into the slime at the bottom of a harbour, where it lies alongside others which have preceded it. Then, periodically – but by no means systematically – it is hauled up for examination along with its fellows, and, sooner or later, some timber is found with barnacles growing on it. Some morning when I am shaving, some evening when I am wondering whether my dinner calls for white wine or red, the original immature idea reappears in my mind, and it has grown. Nearly always it has something to do with what eventually will be the mid-point of a novel or a short story, and sometimes the growth is towards the end and sometimes towards the beginning. The casualty rate is high – some timbers grow no barnacles at all – but enough of them have progressed to keep me actively employed for more than forty years.

Examination completed, the timber is dropped back again into the slime, to be fished out every now and then until the barnacles are found to be quite numerous. That is when the plot is really beginning to take shape; that is when the ideas relating to it recur to me more and more often, so that they demand a greater and greater proportion of my attention as the days go by, until, in the end, the story might almost be described as an obsession, colouring my thoughts and influencing my actions and my behavior. Generally some real work is called for at this stage, to clear up some mechanical difficulty. At some point in the plot it may be essential for the Lydia and the Natiuidad to be at the same place at the same time – what forces (other than pure coincidence) can bring this about? What has happened earlier that makes it quite inevitable ? A different kind of inventiveness has to be employed here.

This sort of difficulty is sometimes cleared up in a peculiar and often gratifying fashion – I have known it to happen half a dozen times. I have been developing two different plots, both of them vaguely unsatisfactory, and then suddenly they have dovetailed together, like two separate halves of a jigsaw puzzle – the difficulties have vanished, the story is complete, and I am experiencing a special, intense pleasure, a glow of satisfaction – entirely undeserved – which is perhaps the greatest reward known to my profession.

Exactly right’, said Marcia when she had read that passage, ‘but is Jolyon going to be one of the casualties?’

It was not a casual question. For some time Jolyon had been nudging at Marcia’s elbow but there were other stories demanding to be told. Now, however, she was beginning to worry about whether or not she had held him at bay for too long and that his story would be lost. Clearly not: in The Prodigal Wife he is a very successful adult more than capable of dealing with his far less mature mother.

As this book revisits the Chadwick family we had little to do in the way of exploration apart from finding out where Cordelia lived and where her daughter, Henrietta, was staying. We found both locations with far less trauma than usual.

Some very dear friends of ours live in a coastguard cottage on the south coast of Cornwall. The view from just outside their door is fantastic if, as the picture above suggests, often wild and forbidding. It happened that we had lunch with them shortly after Marcia had told me that the next book would be about Jolyon and we had already discussed the slightly scatty writer, Cordelia. As we drove home that afternoon, Marcia announced that Cordelia lived in a coastguard cottage below a footpath just like Anne and John’s but in Devon as Kingsbridge would be where Cordelia shopped and her cottage had to be fairly near Dartmouth.

Oh! Why?’ I asked. It was a silly question, I already knew the answer.

I don’t know but it has to be.’ Yes, quite.

Then there was the little matter of where we would find Henrietta. First that particular log had to sink to the depths and grow a few more barnacles. When it surfaced again, the ‘London connection’ had become clear and Marcia was sure that Henrietta was in Somerset. At various times, when Marcia has not been able to find what she was looking for, we had driven over the Brendon Hills and the Quantocks visiting villages such as Bicknoller and Crowcombe. Now those trips paid off and Henrietta was to be found somewhere between those two communities.

For some notes and photographs describing The Prodigal Wife country the link is TPW Country.