This reading group guide for Amy Snow includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tracy Rees. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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Eight-year-old heiress of Hatville Court, Aurelia Vennaway, finds an infant abandoned in a snowbank and names her Amy Snow. Her parents, Sir Charles and Lady Celestina, reluctantly allow Amy to be raised with their only child. Years later, Aurelia dies and Amy is cast out of Hatville Court, facing an uncertain future. But Aurelia has left Amy a small fortune and a bundle of letters with a coded key, a treasure hunt that only Amy can follow. As she travels around England in pursuit of Aurelia’s messages, a life-changing discovery awaits . . . one that will enable Amy Snow to discover who she really
is. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How do the mysterious circumstances surrounding Amy’s birth link her to the Vennaway family? Given Lady Celestina’s tragic history of miscarriages, why do she and her husband prefer to turn Amy over to an orphanage rather than rear her as their child?
2. “What am I?
Respectable young woman or guttersnipe? Servant, sister, or friend? My role in the tale of Aurelia Vennaway puzzles no one more than me. . . .” At the start of the novel, how is Amy’s identity inextricably tied to her relationship with Aurelia? How would you characterize the nature of their connection—is Amy more like a sister or a daughter of Aurelia’s?
3. What aspects of Aurelia’s affluent upbringing does she accept and what does she reject? What does her rescue of Amy against the wishes of her parents indicate about her? How would you describe Aurelia’s relationship with her parents?
4. Aurelia’s character is mostly revealed, through her letters to Amy, through Amy’s recollections of her, and through the details provided by the many friends and acquaintances Aurelia made during her time away from Hatville Court. How do these details add up and define Aurelia? How would you describe her temperament, personality, and preoccupations? In what respects does Amy seem like a good companion for Aurelia, and vice versa?
5. As Amy grows up, she finds herself reared by some of the staff at Hatville Court, including Cook; Robin, the undergardener; Benjamin, the groom; and Mr. Henley, the tutor. How well do they substitute for parents? How does Aurelia improve Amy’s quality of life?
6. “[Aurelia] knew that if any one thing on earth could compel me onwards, it would be my sense of devotion to her. She could be dead a thousand years and I would still want to please her.” How does the theme of devotion recur in this novel? How does Amy symbolize devotion in all that she does to follow Aurelia’s posthumous instructions? How does her burgeoning independence threaten her devotion?
7. Much is made in Amy Snow
of the rise of Queen Victoria and the condition of women. Discuss some of the feminist themes and concerns that emerge in the book. Consider, for example, the feminist Mrs. Bolton, the decidedly antiman sentiments of Mrs. Riverthorpe, and the marriage predicament of Aurelia as the terminally ill only daughter of landed gentry.
8. How does Amy’s arrival at the home of the Wisters in Twickenham mark her transition from nobody to somebody? What role does Aurelia play in that transformation? How does Amy’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan change how others see her? To what extent does it alter how she sees herself?
9. How does the character of Quentin Garland illustrate the old idiom: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? How do Amy’s naive interactions with Mr. Garland serve as a romantic education of sorts?
10. “Even if I could tell you in person, how would I choose my words? We are not given a language for it, in our chaste society.” How does Aurelia’s premarital relationship with the gardener Robin defy social expectations for a young woman of her standing? How do the mores of this era, with its emphasis on female chastity rather than sexual pleasure, affect men and women differently?
11. How does Henry Mead’s presence in Bath change the quality of Amy’s stay at Hades House and her perception of life in general? What qualities does Henry have that mirror Amy’s personality? How is Henry more compelling than Quentin from Amy’s point of view?
12. At separate balls in Twickenham and Bath, Mrs. Ellington and Mrs. Beverley confront Amy and condemn her publicly for flaunting herself before society and mingling amongst respectable people. How would you characterize the importance of class and social status in this era? How far does Amy’s newly inherited wealth go in securing her social status?
13. Why does Amy resent Aurelia’s final imperative, “Go to York”? How does Amy’s love for Henry threaten to topple her commitment to concluding Aurelia’s treasure hunt? What do Amy’s irritation and frustration suggest about her emergence as a person in her own right? How does the interrupted nature of her departure from Bath hint at the different forces at work in her life?
14. How does Amy’s journey to York alter her grief for Aurelia? What does the Louis Josslyn Capland represent to Amy ? How does her encounter with Louis and her implicit obligation to him, bring Amy’s relationship with Aurelia full circle?
15. How does the epilogue of the book affect your understanding of Lady Celestina? Does it make you agree with Aurelia’s decision to conceal her child from her parents? How does the epilogue shed light on Amy? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Amy’s relationship with Aurelia changes her life forever. Have members of your group discuss the family, friends, and acquaintances who have changed their lives indelibly. Your group may want to analyze the kind of devotion that stems from these connections and compare it to the bond that Amy and Aurelia shared. How can the relationships we have with friends sometimes feel as strong and unbreakable as those we have with family?
2. As Amy navigates the strange new world of romantic attachments, she becomes aware to herself as a sexual being, an object of desire, and—as a wealthy woman—of possessing a new kind of social currency. Have members of your group talk about when and where they first experienced romantic love. How did it shape their feelings about love in general? How did the prospect of commitment affect their feelings? Consider discussing disappointments or unexpected discoveries in the course of their romantic journeys.
3. Over the course of Amy’s journey through England, she experiences a gamut of emotions, encounters a variety of landscapes, and makes new friends and enemies. Ask members of your group to recall trips that have forced them into situations they couldn’t have anticipated. How did those trips affect them? How do they look back on them now? Would they ever willingly take a trip without knowing the ultimate destination, as Amy does? A Conversation with Tracy Rees Amy Snow is your first work of fiction. Please describe how the unforgettable opening image of the book—that of a newborn baby left in the snow—first came to you?
I wrote the first few pages of Amy Snow
about six years ago, when I had a month off between jobs. At the time it felt as though she—and those opening scenes—just tumbled into my brain out of nowhere. It was as if Amy existed
—albeit in a fictional world—and all I had to do was catch her and write her down.
Looking back now, it’s fascinating to see the factors that probably interwove in my subconscious. For instance I wrote those first pages in a house I’d moved into a few months previously, when there was thick snow for several days. I hadn’t had time to get a phone or the Internet installed, and I had no cell phone signal, so I spent a large part of those first days in my new home in silence, alone. I went for walks in the snow and spent hours gazing out of the window at the snow, at its beauty, blankness, mystery, and difficulty. It was a very magical time and clearly impressed itself on my memory. That’s probably why Amy suddenly appeared, as a baby in the snow, all those months later. I think the image of the snow offered a true blank page for me as a writer and for Amy as a character.
Then I started my new job, and didn’t write any more of Amy until the Search for a Bestseller competition came along. What led you to set your novel in nineteenth-century England, and what were some of the challenges you experienced in creating realistic historical fiction?
The nineteenth century is a time that I’ve always found irresistibly romantic, in the broadest sense of the word. The dresses, the manners, the elegant speech . . .
When I was little, Jane Eyre
was one of my favorite books—and remains so now. I also absolutely adore Charles Dickens’s novels—I had great fun projecting that passion onto Amy and Aurelia. More recently I’ve come to learn what a fascinating time the Victorian era was in so many respects: the incredible pace of change in almost every aspect of life, the many great minds that set to grappling with the problems of the day, the quirky customs and ideas that abounded. There’s so much to capture the imagination.
As for the challenges of writing historical fiction—the obvious one is the time involved to do the research. Whatever deadline you’re working towards, you can just knock off a month or so for research—and that’s a minimum. As well as all the obvious things to get right, writing historical fiction means you also have to second-guess your vocabulary throughout. For instance there’s no point having a character comparing something to a Fabergé egg if the novel is set before Fabergé eggs had ever been made!
Then there’s the challenge of not going off on tangents. I found myself unexpectedly carried away on a massive railway tangent when I was doing my research for Amy Snow
—it was absolutely fascinating! In the 1840s train travel wasn’t new but it was developing at an unprecedented rate. People wanted to invest in railroads, speculate on them, and generally get involved. As a result, management companies formed and re-formed about every five minutes. Amy arrives in London at Bricklayers’ Arms, but a few years later this terminus had fallen into disuse and London Bridge was used instead. I learned that building a railway line and station sometimes meant razing whole residential neighborhoods, which is quite staggering! As with every social change there were those who were skeptical and those who welcomed it. The Begleys, whom Amy meets on her train journey from Ladywell to London, embody these attitudes. How did you decide to use an epistolary form to tell Aurelia Vennaway’s story? Are you fond of writing letters or of reading epistolary novels?
I love writing letters, yes. As a child I always had a pen friend or two. I love pretty stationery and the feeling of putting pen to paper and sharing your thoughts, your life. Nowadays of course e-mails make for efficient correspondence with friends all over the world, but when there’s time I still love to write—or receive—a letter. Henry Mead describes his own uncertain progress into adulthood in terms that practically echo Amy’s description of herself as a carriage being driven by Aurelia’s wishes. Are you attracted as a writer to the themes of metamorphosis and reinvention?
I would say definitely yes. For me the most fascinating thing about life—and people—is that we’re constantly developing, discovering, and expanding our true selves and potential. Life is difficult in many respects, and for young people—like Amy and Henry in the book—growing up, assuming responsibility, becoming the person they want to be is an engrossing process and challenge. Of course, it doesn’t end there. Anyone at any age has the opportunity to look at their life and assess what they’re happy with and what they’d like to work on, and that keeps things interesting. I suppose, too, that as I used to work as a therapist, I have seen over and over again what a powerful tool the intention to change can be. Your narrative examines the many challenges facing women of that era through a series of strong female characters. Is it fair to say that Amy’s personal development involves an increased awareness of the social inequality faced by women?
I would say so, yes. Amy begins life in a very sheltered world with a relatively small cast of characters. Therefore, although she is aware from a very young age of the issues that confront Aurelia regarding her marital prospects, these difficulties have an intensely personal feel for her. As the book progresses, however, Amy meets more and more people who show her different ways of being and different ways of thinking about the world. As such, she begins to think of many things in a new light. Certainly Mrs. Riverthorpe is very outspoken about these issues. Amy’s journey also increases her awareness of how she is viewed as a young woman traveling alone and brings home to her the limited options available to a woman who wishes to be entirely respectable. This is a desire she has to abandon to some extent to be able to do what she needs to do. Quentin Garland’s portrayal as Amy’s knight in shining armor gets dashed by the surprising revelations of his philandering. Why did you decide to have Amy discover the disturbing truths about Mr. Garland secondhand rather than witness his deception firsthand?
The reasons for this were mainly narrative considerations. By the time Amy leaves Bath, there are two pressing questions: Will she uncover Aurelia’s secret, and how will her relationship with Henry resolve itself? If she had witnessed Quentin’s deception firsthand, she would really have had to confront him, and this would have taken the narrative in a different direction at that point. This in turn would have slowed down the resolution of the two main plot lines at a stage where the reader has already followed Amy through a considerable number of ups and downs. I felt it was important that Amy had the information she needed about someone who was, after all, a central figure during her time in Bath, to validate the intermittent reservations she had felt about him throughout their acquaintance, without taking her into a new avenue for drama. Your examination of the devotion that exists between friends after death is profoundly moving. By any chance is it grounded in your own experiences of loss?
My friends are deeply central to my life, and so the importance of friendship and devotion is absolutely grounded in my own experience. I honestly don’t know what I would do without them. Therefore I feel very blessed and grateful to be able to say that I have not lost a friend of my own. However, at the time that I wrote those first pages of Amy Snow
, I was working as a therapist for people with cancer and their families, so the emotional and practical impact of losing a loved one was very much a preoccupation for me; something I was working with every day. So in retrospect it’s not surprising that the book starts with Amy’s grief at Aurelia’s death. How did you decide to close Amy Snow with an epilogue from the point of view of Lady Celestina, arguably the novel’s most unlikable character?
I was intrigued by Lady Celestina throughout. Many of Amy’s questions about her were really my own, for example, how can people treat someone else, especially a child, so unkindly? Cook says to Amy that, no matter how unlikable someone appears, everyone has their story. I wanted to capture something of what Lady Celestina’s story had been so that she wasn’t just a stock villain with no more function than to thwart our heroine. In my first draft Lady Celestina’s story was much longer and sat in the middle of the novel, but this didn’t quite work, as it slowed the narrative down too much when the reader was wholly invested in Amy’s story, so I shortened it and moved it to the end. Of course, Lady Celestina is also the only person who knows the truth of Amy’s parentage. By giving her the last word, I was able to end the book on a poignant note where the reader has information that Amy does not, though she would dearly love to know it. With the love story and Aurelia’s secret both brought to satisfying conclusions I like to leave something
open and unresolved . . . it also means I have scope to write a sequel one day. . . . You have said that you write fiction “without a detailed plan.” Does your process involve any mapping out of plot, or does that, too, develop organically as you go?
It’s pretty organic, I have to say. I think that, broadly speaking, writers tend to be planners or nonplanners and I am definitely one of the latter. I find that if I spend too much time at the start trying to think through what a story might be, it puts me in an intellectual frame of mind rather than a creative one and ideas soon dry up. By simply launching in at a starting point—whether that be a character, an image, or even a name—I am able to follow the idea where it wants to go and allow myself to be as surprised as anyone as to how it unfolds. Then, when I have that first draft, I can look at what works and what doesn’t work so well and adjust it accordingly.
I usually do have the end point in mind too—for instance in Amy Snow
I knew what Aurelia’s secret would be and that Amy would succeed in discovering it. The rest of it—the friends, the love interest, the personal development, the specifics of her journey and the treasure hunt and Aurelia’s backstory—all came to me along the way. Having said that, I find that every book is different and the demands and experience of each story are different, so I’m not saying I’ll never
want or need to plan a book. It’s just that, so far, I’ve done it this way. Can fans of Amy Snow expect to see more of your fiction going forward?
Oh yes! The best thing about being published is that I get to keep writing. I never feel fully at my happiest when I’m not. Quercus, my UK publishers, have offered me a further two-book contract, to my utter joy. I’ve just delivered the manuscript for my second book, which is due to be published in the UK in summer 2016, and book three will follow a year later.
My next novel is once again set in the nineteenth century but a little bit later than Amy Snow
—it’s set in the 1850s. It takes place in Cornwall and London and, like Amy Snow
, is named after the heroine: Florence Grace. I’m very excited about it.
Looking ahead, I definitely want write more historical fiction, including a sequel to Amy Snow
, but I also want to write contemporary fiction and fairy tales. So I’m hoping that over time I will have quite a varied back catalog. And I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has read and enjoyed Amy Snow
, as this is what’s made this possible!