In her novel We That Are Left, Clare Clark tackles the topic of World War I, which due to the large number of lives it claimed, was given the name of “The Great War.” The Melvilles, an aristocratic English family with old-world traditions, experience first hand the devastation of the war with the loss of their son and sole male heir Theo. His death, not to mention the impending financial frailty of the centuries-old family estate, Ellinghurst, changes their lives in ways they couldn’t foresee. The surviving Melville siblings Jessica and Phyllis are granted an independence they never thought they would have, but still struggle to find their place in a world that is transforming and changing.
An indirect member of the Melville family, Oskar Grunewald, Sir Aubrey Melville’s godson is experiencing changes of his own. Oskar has always been enthralled by math and physics, which began to thrive during the war in the form of revolutionary scientific discoveries. Oskar sets his sights on academia and a broadening of his once limited prospects; but as the war rages on and decades-old Melville family secrets are revealed, Oskar, Jessica, and Phyllis find that their lives can change in an instant.
I asked Clare Clark why she chose to write about The Great War for We That Are Left, and to delve a little deeper into the characters and their world changing as a result of the war:
What inspired you to write We That Are Left?
It really started with spiritualism. I had written about spiritualism in a previous book and had always thought it was a Victorian phenomenon but, as I read, I discovered that the high point of spiritualism was during World War I, as grieving mothers, wives, and sisters tried desperately to reach out those they had lost.
Nowadays it is easy to dismiss spiritualism as mumbo-jumbo, a hoax cooked up by unprincipled swindlers to exploit the vulnerability of the bereaved, but that was not how many saw it at the time. The first decades of the twentieth century were the age of X-rays, of radio waves, of the first experiments with radioactivity. If it was possible to pick up the voice of someone many hundreds of miles away by means of a crystal set, why not a contraption that could pick up the voice of someone who had passed on?
Marconi, the Italian inventor famous for his work on radio transmission, was working on such a device when he died. Meanwhile Pierre Curie, who with his wife Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for their work on radioactivity, attended a series of séances in the belief that they might assist with his scientific researches. I am a skeptic but I was not at all sure that I too would not have chosen to believe.
And yet, as always, that was not the whole story, because, at the same time, in laboratories across Europe, physicists were making extraordinary discoveries. For the first time it was becoming clear that the atom was not the smallest unit of matter, that in fact an atom was formed of a nucleus around which electrons moved in pre-ordained orbits. According to the rules of classical physics this should have been impossible.
Even more startlingly, experiments seemed to prove that the electrons ‘jumped’ from one orbit to another and, while the probability when and in which direction they might do so could be calculated mathematically, it was impossible to know absolutely when it would happen. In the subatomic world, it seemed, there was no such thing as cause and effect.
This struck a huge chord with me, that, as millions of young lives were lost to the senseless slaughter in the trenches, science was declaring the world to be random at its core. The structure of the newly discovered atom also seemed to me to be a powerful analogy for the devastation of war, albeit a very unscientific one.
So many families lost their vital centre or nucleus, leaving the electrons who were left behind were left to describe orbitals that no longer had a centre. With the golden boy gone, what happened to the father who would have handed down the family house or business, the obsessively adoring mother, the sisters who, for better or worse, had always lived in the shadow of their idolised big brother? Those were the seeds from which this novel grew.
Why Herman Melville and his fictional descendants as your characters?
Actually I never intended readers to think of the Melvilles as descendants of Herman Melville. The connection was simply one that I imagined American visitors might make when thinking of an appropriate gift to bring to an English family.
I do like the connection though. Moby-Dick seemed relevant to this story because the elusive unknowable white whale in Melville’s novel is the centre of everyone’s preoccupations and yet means very different things to different people, just as the dead Theo represents such different things to the family and friends he leaves behind. As his sisters, Jessica and Phyllis have defined themselves, albeit in very different ways, according to his shape: with his death and all the changes that war has wrought, they suddenly have to face the possibility of lives that will be quite different from the ones they had been brought up to expect.
One is grateful for the freedom the new world offers, the other shattered by the destruction of her dreams. As for Oscar, as he is drawn into the Melville family, he becomes the person everyone increasingly looks to substitute for Theo, even though the two boys could not have been more different. The ways these three contrasting characters find to deal with the grief of loss and a new, upside-down world provides the centre for my story.
The Melville siblings and Oskar share a close bond but they also keep many secrets from each other about their lives, dreams, desires, and fears. Why is that?
Partly I think that is reflective of the times. As we have all learned from the documentary Downton Abbey, it was not customary in the early 20th century for the English, especially the more upper-class in society, to talk openly about their feelings. This was a time that preceded therapy and self-analysis was considered irrelevant, even vulgar. Some of the secrets in the novel are of course deliberately withheld; we all have those. But more are secrets almost accidentally, born less from a desire to conceal and more from fear or a lack of self-awareness.
I don’t think that either Jessica and Oscar understand themselves very well, though I suspect Phyllis has a pretty good idea of who she is and what she wants. But there are such differences between the siblings, and such a gulf between them and the bookish Oscar, at least when they are children, that it is difficult for them to change that when they grow up.
Sir Aubrey is obsessed with the fate of Ellinghurst, the Melville’s ancestral home, and has a true fear of losing it to strangers. Is his fear fueled by an unwillingness to face the changes in society after the war or is it perhaps more a desire of self-preservation?
I think it comes predominantly from a deep attachment to the place which is reinforced by a sense of history, of legacy. It doesn’t matter to Sir Aubrey (as it matters rather to me) that the house is a fake, a Gothic fantasy of a castle rather than the genuine article. It is his family home, in which he has lived all his life. He inherited it from his own father and he has always expected to hand it down to his own son in his turn. Not to preserve this continuity feels for Sir Aubrey like a personal failure. He cannot understand why Phyllis would regard it as a burden, a way of imprisoning her and denying her the right to choose her own path. For him, inheritance is a privilege.
He feels a huge responsibility for the place, for its land and its tenants, and, yes, possibly for the bastion it offers against the unstoppable tide of change which is engulfing the country. At Ellinghurst, behind the high castellated walls, it is possible to imagine that nothing has changed. Sir Aubrey would certainly have liked that to be true.
Why is the library at Ellinghurst such an important focal point for Oskar when he is growing up, and even later as an adult?
Because libraries are wonderful! I think libraries are a huge comfort to anyone like Oskar who find human relationships complicated and hard to navigate. Books, on the other hand, are reliable and consistent and endlessly absorbing. They don’t demand what you can’t give. As a boy Oskar is most himself in the library where he does not have to worry about what other people think of him – and as an adult books continue to provide enormous solace, not just the science books he loves so much but novels like Moby-Dick, which his friend Kit demands he read. The window seat in the Ellinghurst library is also the perfect hideout. As a girl who spent a lot of her childhood with her nose in a book I would have given a lot of money for a spot like that!
The novel pointedly touches on the subject of ‘The Lost Generation’ and the tragedy of losing so many young men to World War I. How does the war affect Phyllis and Jessica’s independence?
The most obvious and immediate effect of the war on young women was the loss of so many young men. In England alone nearly 900,000 men lost their lives and millions more suffered devastating injuries, and the war left the country in deep shock. More than that, four long and catastrophic years of war challenged or destroyed almost all of the fundamental assumptions of Edwardian life: socially, culturally, politically, economically.
The war left women like Jessica, who had been brought up to be wives and mothers, high and dry; after the census in 1921 the Daily Mail newspaper ran a headline bemoaning the “Surplus Two Million” who would never find marry. Instead they would have to work to support themselves. This suits Phyllis who had always wanted to make her own way in the world; it becomes easier, though certainly not easy, after 1918 for women to pursue careers. For Jessica it is a disaster.
In addition to that, the old ways of living were disappearing. Factory work had liberated the working class from the bondage of domestic service and they had no intention of going back. Without servants the grand houses of England were impractical white elephants, while crippling taxes on inheritance made it harder and harder to keep them going. Houses like Ellinghurst were sold as hotels or simply allowed to fall down and girls like Phyllis and Jessica, who might have depended on allowances from their parents, suddenly found that there was no money to spare. Girls like Jessica had to choose between living at home (a kind of imprisonment for a young girl with a sense of adventure) or making their own way in the world.
Who were your favorite and your most complicated characters to write?
I loved writing Jessica as I found her so impossible and yet so impossible to resist. Oskar was possibly the hardest to get into at the outset as I do not think as he thinks, I am a words person and not, like him, absorbed by numbers. I read a lot of accounts of mathematicians to get inside his head but once I was there his particular blend of intelligence and sensitivity appealed to me very much, I liked living in his skin and looking out of his eyes. In the end I think a novelist has to feel a bond with all their primary characters, has almost to love them, in spite of or perhaps even because of their flaws. Unless you feel them deeply, they never truly come alive.
Not to give out spoilers, but the ending is entirely unexpected. Did you know from the beginning how the novel was going to end?
I always knew that Oskar had to be tied up in the fate of Ellinghurst since his feelings for the place were so strong, so right from the start I knew that that part of the plot was central to the novel. What surprised me was how the book developed its own ways of getting to that outcome. The characters grew so real to me during the writing of this novel that they kept doing things they were not supposed to and I had to work quite hard to rein them in.
How much research did you have to do while writing the novel?
I did a huge amount. With each of my novels it has taken me between six months and a year to feel confident about a period before I know it well enough to live there while I write. As well as the history required for this novel there was the very specific challenge of trying to teach myself about the beginnings of quantum physics. I found it extraordinarily difficult but also immensely rewarding. It is always sobering to realize how very much you do not know.
As for some of the more specific details of the novel Ellinghurst was an amalgam of a (since demolished) Gothic Victorian castle that I found in a wonderful book of photographs loaned to me by a conservator friend and my grandparents’ house in Wales where I spent all my childhood holidays. The folly however, which I know some people think of as a pure flight of fancy, I borrowed directly from real life. Sway Tower is in Hampshire, four miles from the south coast of England in the middle of the New Forest. Just as in the novel, it was built in the 1880s out of un-reinforced concrete and Christopher Wren (via a spirit medium) was said to have contributed to its design. It is currently on sale for £2 million if anyone cares to snap up a 13-story building with no elevator and only one room on every floor!
Why do you think readers may feel drawn towards this book?
In a wonderful review in The New York Times, Michael Upchurch wrote that this is a novel ‘that doesn’t just recreate the past but alters your perception of it’. I hope that readers might be drawn by the possibility of looking at this cataclysmic period afresh and remain there because they care too much about Jessica, Oskar and Phyllis to let them go.
Do you have a new novel in the works?
I don’t really like talking about a new project as I don’t like to jinx it but I can say that it is set in Weimar Berlin in the 1920s. Having explored the aftermath of World War I in We That Are Left, I really wanted to look at the other side. How did the Germans come to terms with their equally devastating losses, given that they did not have the comfort of having won the war? It is also a novel about art and the creative impulse which I have wanted to write about for a long time. Watch this space!