Julia Gregson Interviews

A Conversation with Julia Gregson, Author of East of the Sun

How did you come to write the story of three women in the Fishing Fleet? The novel captures three characters and three distinct points of view. Did you base them on real women?

I have always been fascinated by India. When I was a child, our family rented the top floor apartment of a large and freezing country house in Hampshire that belonged to a woman called Mrs. Smith-Pearse. She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of the Fishing Fleet, married there, stayed for close to thirty years, and had only recently returned to England. I was five when we first met; she was sixty. I loved everything about her: her battered tweeds, her honking laugh, her wonderful stories about snakes under the bath, tiger hunts with maharajahs, the three-day treks on ponies up to Simla. I followed her around like a shadow, and sometimes she’d let me dress up in tiny silk saris, spice-scented tunics and salwar kameeze, produced like magic from her mother-of-pearl trunk. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a box of tape recordings she’d made when she was very old. It was then I realized how hard her life had been in India, too.

My other influence was my husband’s mother, Violet, another Fishing Fleeter, who’d had the time of her life in India and who missed it for the rest of her life. Both these women fired my imagination, but none of the characters in East of the Sun are exactly based on them. My aim was to bring to life take three very different young women and imagine the terror and the excitement they would feel at being sent halfway across the world, often unchaperoned, to find husbands. I wanted to show the madcap speed with which some of them married, to think about the humiliation of failing and being shipped back home a “Returned Empty.” As a marriage market, the system left a lot to be desired.

Rose and Tor arrive in India with everything they’ll need for parties and social events, but little practical information. Building marriages and lives must have been difficult, especially in unfamiliar territory. Based on your research, what do you think were the biggest challenges that faced women arriving in India? How did they overcome them?

For young girls, the immediate challenge—rarely stated or acknowledged—was to find a man. To do this, one had to meet the right people, to go to parties and polo matches, to fit in with a very small, enclosed, and sometimes frightened group of people. Lots of fun on the surface, but the rules of engagement were clear: you had to conform, to look good, to dress well, and not to say anything that might frighten the horses. Bluestockings and eccentrics were not well tolerated. India itself was another challenge. Some women fell in love at first sight, others hated it: the stinks, the poverty, the heat, the feeling of being cut off from Europe.

Marriage brought a new set of problems, and the realization that the India that could give such pleasure took in equal measure. My childhood heroine, Mrs. Smith-Pearse, spoke on the tapes of the agony of sending children sent home to be educated.

“It was the biggest decision we all had to make: husband or child.”

Passionately fond of nursing—she’d served with distinction in France in 1917—in India, she was allowed only to run a few village clinics. Working memsahibs were frowned on.

Other women of the Raj spoke to me of botched births in remote areas, of burying young children, of flies and heat and snakes, of runaway or workaholic husbands. All of this made me determined in East of the Sun not to make my female characters into the usual caricatures of the memsahib—ginswilling, narrow-minded snobs. Some were magnificent; some deserved our contempt; most didn’t.

Your descriptions of Indian cities and riding the trains feel vivid and authentic. Did you travel to all the places you described?

I’d been to Bangladesh as a foreign correspondent after the war there in 1973 to do a series of stories on orphanages and to interview women who had been raped after the war. My description of the orphanage at Tamarind Street in East of the Sun drew on these experiences.

While I was writing the book, I went back to India twice: once to Rajasthan and Shimla with my husband and daughter, and once on my own to Bombay. I love this kind of travel, with all your antennae out. I went up to Poona to see the polo fields, the ghostly old Raj houses where the British had lived, and to the military hospital where my husband was born.

The India you describe was at a turning point, and the novel is set against a backdrop of unrest and resentment of the British. Was it difficult to capture the intimacy of these women’s lives and also the sweep of the historical events?

I thought very carefully about this. I spent months reading about the history of India at that time and then (maddening!) had to discard most of my research because my girls were very young and often entirely oblivious to the great changes going on around then. In order to be authentic, historical events had to be glimpsed at—a sudden glare from a native; an unwelcome protest on one’s way to a party; a bore at the club going on about unrest. It would have been out of character for them to discuss politics in any depth or with any great understanding.

What happened to women like your characters as the Indian-British relationship shifted? Were the women who had been part of the Fishing Fleet able to maintain the same lifestyle?

At midnight, on August 15, 1947, India became an independent nation.

Although many members of the Raj had started to see the writing on the wall during the ’30s and ’40s, for others going home must have been a terrible shock. Most of them had been living above their means in India, a comparatively luxurious life impossible to replicate in the United Kingdom on small pensions and without servants. Some went to Spain, attracted by a better climate and a lower cost of living; others had to make do in an England worn out by war and suffering the worst winter of the century.

Most of the maternal relationships in the novel are distant or absent, and there’s very little communication between the generations. Was this the cultural norm or a conscious choice for women at the time? Looking back now, what impact do you think this had on mothers and children?

It was the cultural norm when children reached the age of five or six to send them home to boarding schools in England. Many parents, who’d been sent home themselves, believed that if their children stayed with them in India, they might catch some awful disease, or be spoiled by their nannies, or pick up what were called chi chi accents—the singsong voices that their ayahs spoke to them in.

This system, although accepted, caused a great deal of inarticulate suffering on both sides. Boarding schools were tough places: boys were beaten, rooms generally unheated, and holidays, where you were farmed out to relatives or friends, often joyless and tricky.

After years apart, relationships between parents and children were often fractured, formal, and at arm’s length. One of the few positive things you could say about this system was that it did make children very self-sufficient, and that, occasionally, if they didn’t like their parents to start with, they found families they preferred in England.

Daisy Barker, Viva, and the enterprising women like them offer a surprising contrast to the high society of Bombay. Was it common for women to teach and live independently? Would you tell us a little more about Indian women, like Viva’s neighbors, who were choosing education and a more liberated path at this time?

Women like Daisy Barker and Viva and others who went out as social workers, teachers, nannies, and secretaries were in the minority in India in 1928. Most middle-class English women of that era didn’t have careers or professional qualifications or go to university.

One woman put it to me like this: “We had no keys, darling: no keys to a house, or a car, or a job, or an education.”

As for Indian women of that time, although most were illiterate, in cosmopolitan cities like Bombay, among the professional and upper classes, a small but determined feminist movement was growing, and women like my characters Dolly and Kaniz were starting to be trained as teachers, lawyers, and social workers.

The novel offers a wonderful portrait of female friendship and how it can sustain us. Was it important to you to display what a powerful force friendship can be in women’s lives? Why do you think this topic, though not unfamiliar, has such eternal appeal to readers?

While I was writing this book and trying to pull together its various strands, I had a moment of truth when I realized that it was about friendship. I thought about how much we need our friends, not just for laughs and what-the-hell days (all of which I absolutely approve of ), but to see us as we are and to understand our dreams. These are the friends who encourage and bully us to move from one stage of life to another. And of course, when you were in India, and thousands of miles away from home and family, friends were even more crucially important.

Would you describe your writing process? How long did you spend working on this novel?

The novel took me two and a half years to write, but I was also doing some teaching and short story writing in between in order to make a living.

My husband and I live in the country in Wales, in a very ancient farmhouse by a stream. We have a horse and two dogs, and bizarrely, they are all part of the writing process. It’s often while walking along the riverbank or taking my old Welsh horse for a ride that my mind is freed from shopping lists and plans and feels most connected with what it is I’m trying to say. But much as I love the idea of the muse striking, she’s famously unreliable. You do have to develop a sort of peasant-like doggedness and show up in your study each morning and get the stuff down. On bad days, I feel as if I am, to quote Graham Greene, “doing nothing badly.”

On good days, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do work I love and to make a living out of it.
A Conversation with Julia Gregson, Author of Band of Angels

Your last novel, East of Sun, took readers through India. What prompted you to tackle the Crimean War and the world’s introduction to modern nursing?

In 2005, I went on a long-distance horse ride across Wales, along the drover’s routes and the foothills of the Snowdon Mountains. On my way home, I stopped at a place called Pumpsaint in mid-Wales where I saw, outside a tiny church, a plaque commemorating a woman called Jane Evans. She’d run away with the Welsh cattle drovers in 1853 in order to nurse with Florence Nightingale. I was completely intrigued. What bravery! What madness! What kind of woman would do this? At first, I thought I might try and write a biography of her, but could find almost nothing on her. Attempts to find firsthand accounts from other nurses in the Crimean War drew a blank—most of them were illiterate. I decided to write my first novel.

Elizabeth Herbert has a very minor role in the novel, yet the scene with her husband Samuel is poignant because of the way she manipulates his ego to acquire a task. Do you think women still have the task of managing male egos to achieve what they want?

I think many women learn, almost instinctively, to manage and massage the male ego in order to get what they want; but it’s dangerous to generalize about this. My daughter and her friends are far more straightforward in their approach. They have grown up with a greater sense of entitlement, because, generally speaking, they are better educated and more confident than women of say, my mother’s or Catherine Carreg’s generation.

As written in the novel, and in historical records, Florence Nightingale seemed particularly sexless. Do you think that’s attributed to her success? Does her lack of patience for women make her less of a feminist icon?

Florence Nightingale was an aristocratic, beautiful woman, who had love affairs and a marriage proposal before she dedicated herself to nursing. As a reformer, she used her considerable feminine wiles to get what she wanted from the politicians in power; at the same time she was incredibly tough with the nurses. I see no paradox here. Many of these women were rough and undisciplined; they had a poor reputation as slatterns and drunks. This was the first time in English history that nurses had been asked officially to go to war with men. Their behavior had to be seen to be beyond reproach.

The idea of the physical journey, moving from place to place, is a common narrative thread for you. What intrigues you about that element of the coming-of-age tale?

One half of my family has stayed put in the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands: a warm, closely knit, old-fashioned, extended family strongly rooted in one place. The other side of my family are globe spinners. They’ve traveled, endlessly between England, Canada, America, and Australia. They’ve taken weird and wonderful jobs en route, lived apart from their families for years. The contrast interests me. What is lost? What is gained? What is learned by leaving home?

You often contrast the dangers of freedom and the desire for independence with the securities of convention. Catherine seems to struggle with these two concepts. While writing, were you conscious of those elements? Do you think this is still a common conflict for women?

I recognize in myself a split: I like frightening myself, I like feeling free, I also like home and hearth and family. I wasn’t particularly conscious of these conflicting desires while I was writing the book, because they are part of me.

You include detailed descriptions of the drove, horses, the war conditions, and nineteenth-century medical facilities. How long did the research take? Did you get your information from primary sources? From books? The internet?

The research took the best part of a year. One of the best bits was actually riding along the old drovers’ routes on a retired show jumper called Fred who seemed to love it, too. I also went to Turkey and then Scutari, to check out the hospital, now a military barracks. Amazingly, there is still a room in the nurse’s tower that must have been Florence Nightingale’s office. There was a dusty chaise longue still there and her desk. It was almost exactly as I’d imagined it. I also read as many histories and personal letters and accounts of military hospitals as I could. I hardly used the Internet at all.

Were you able to include everything you learned about nineteenth-century medical treatment?

No, sadly! Very tempting because it was riveting and often thrillingly gory to read, but I didn’t want to overload the book with medical details.

The nature of Catherine’s childhood—the lack of parenting from her mother, the rides with Deio—seem to aggravate her desire to take the expected position of wife and mother. Is that the juxtaposition readers are meant to take from the book? Does Catherine’s childhood plant the seed for her journey?

One of the greatest traumas of Catherine’s childhood was that she felt she had let her mother down when she was dying in childbirth because she was too squeamish and too ignorant. This made her long to grow up, to be better educated, less useless. Her other strong impulse was to be Deio’s mate, and these twin desires caused, for years, a split in her.

Like Catherine, you live in Wales. How much of the setting is based on the area you live in?

Wales is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom, very wild in its center with lots of rivers and mountains and wide green tracks where the drovers once rode. I live in an old farmhouse that’s been on this site in one form or another since the fifteenth century. From my window, I can see two huge pine trees, a traditional sign for the drovers that they could bring their animals here. So, yes, I’m hugely influenced by where I live.

Are you working on anything new? Any particular time period?

My new book, Jasmine Nights, is set in the Middle East during the war. I went to Cairo a couple of months ago to do some research.

There are many variations of the Water Horse legend. How did you come to the legend of the Water Horse? And which one did you have in mind?

The Water Horse, sometimes called the kelpie, is a supernatural creature that appears in Celtic folklore and was thought to inhabit the rivers and lochs and seas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In some versions, the Water Horse is a terrifying all-consuming creature that rises out of the sea, which wants nothing more than to drown you. In others he is a more benign presence who will let you ride him and share his powers. In some versions of the legend he is a handsome young man who wants to lure a woman into his trap.

Also, the Scottish version of the legend seems like a metaphor for Deio and Catherine’s relationship. Towards the end of the book they seem to settle in a comfortable acceptance of each other. Have they in essence tamed each other?

In my book, I saw the Water Horse as a creature on which Catherine and Deio could project the wildness, the terror, the longing for mastery of youth. It was only after I’d finished the book that I read that in the Scottish version of the legend the Water Horse rises out of the water seeking a wife. I loved that and would have used it had I known about it earlier!

Was in difficult to plot a romance in the face of war and maintain those elements throughout the writing process?

I was aware that Catherine and Deio’s overwhelming need to see each other again might feel selfish in the face of all the catastrophes that were going on around them. However, the truth, uncomfortable or not, is that war is a great aphrodisiac: it intensifies desire, it makes people understand what really matters to them. I held fast to this idea.