Our Anne Miller meets author Sophia Bennett and hears about the challenges of writing historical fiction, and being aware of the impact of your words.
Sophia Bennett’s eighth YA novel Following Ophelia hits bookshops today. Set in 1850s London, it follows the story of Mary Adams, who moves to London to work as a maid in a grand house. A chance encounter leads her into the art world where she becomes a muse to pre-Raphaelite artists.
Both Sir John Everett Millais (who painted the eponymous Ophelia) and Elizabeth Siddal (on whom it was modelled) appear in the novel. In it, as in real life, Siddal floated in a bathtub so Millais could capture the image. Mary comes across the painting and finds it somewhat discombobulating.
Bennett says, “If I was a teenage girl and I looked at that painting, with a girl who looked like me on the verge of death, I wouldn’t feel thrilled – I would feel utterly freaked out!”
Mary eventually agrees to be painted and adopts the name Persephone Lavelle, but she is not the sort of muse who wafts around in scarves. She is bright, full of mettle and a talented seamstress with an artist’s eye. Bennett says that it would have made for a pleasing narrative if Mary had turned out to be a talented artist herself – as indeed Siddal did.
However, she adds, “If you’re going to be really good at something, frankly, you have to do a lot of it – and she doesn’t have the opportunity to do a lot of drawing so I can’t suddenly make her into a brilliant painter because it wouldn’t be true. I’d be saying to girls you can pick something up and 10 minutes later you’ll be fantastically good at it! And if you’re not then you’re a failure, because the girl in the book can do it – and I hate it when that happens.”
We meet the week of World Book Day: Bennett has been in and out of schools talking to pupils and is very aware of the impact words can have. Her debut novel Threads won the Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2009 and was published later that year.
Having spent the previous years combining freelancing with writing, being shortlisted for the competition was when things started to change, “it was that classic thing of being rejected for 10 years and then my life just changed when I was told that I was shortlisted. Because that’s when I knew that one day I would definitely be a writer.”
Bennett is not one to shy away from the work involved in producing a novel. Threads went through 34 drafts before the finished version was sent to the printers and she is a subscriber to John Green’s writing advice to let your first draft “suck”.
However, Bennett also adds that if anyone looks at a finished book and thinks they could never create something like that, it is worth remembering that “the person that wrote it could never do that either until the 15th time that they looked at it!“
I especially enjoy novels where there is real-world knowledge woven around the story and Following Ophelia does this in terms of Greek myths, the pre-Raphaelite art movement and 1850s London.
To get the world right Bennett did “So. Much. Research… If she walks around London – is Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square? Can you walk past Buckingham Palace? Literally every single thing – check, check, check!” The scenes are skilfully set, always making 1850s London seem incredibly close but never getting bogged down in details.
Bennett says she has learned to use her knowledge sparingly as otherwise, “[I] start to approach things as an academic – you do a lot of research before but then I find I write a textbook. And so over the years I’ve learned to just do it on an ‘as needs’ basis.”
I was completely swept up in Mary’s life. Bennett is currently working on her ninth book, the sequel to Following Ophelia, where Mary heads to Venice and I can’t wait to see what adventures she encounters there.2086 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne