Archive for April, 2014

THE NIGHT FLOWER by Sarah Stovell

On the evening of 1st April, fourteen of us squeezed into the cosy side room of The Barrels Alehouse in Bridge Street. Ten of us – nine current members and one potential new member (it was good to meet you, Nicholla!) – were there to welcome Sarah Stovell, the author of The Night Flower. Three more had come in for a drink but decided to stay for the meeting.
Sarah – one of New Writing North’s Read Regional authors – had travelled up to Berwick from the Tyne Valley to talk with us about her ‘hugely entertaining Victorian gothic’ novel in which ‘a Romany girl and a disgraced governess are transported as convicts to Tasmania’. The genre, then, is historical fiction, but we were quick to point out the contemporary echoes. This was a story of ethnic cleansing, with Romany girls being specifically targeted for transportation as part of a deliberate campaign to send more women to Tasmania after the authorities had requested more female convicts to soften the brutality of the men already out there. Sarah agreed, stating her opinion that historical fiction must shed light on contemporary society otherwise what’s the point of writing it?
We began by chatting about the origins of the novel. Sarah had originally intended to tackle American slavery in the 1850’s but changed tack to write about female convicts being transported to Tasmania in 1842. Sarah began the novel while she was pregnant with her first child and so it is not surprising to find that the concept of motherhood is one of the main themes. Miriam, a Romany girl from Newcastle’s Lime Street slums, and Rose, a middle class governess from Fourstones near Hexham, have one thing in common; they are both young mothers who, because of their convict status, have no say in the fate of their children. Their children carried the ‘convict stain’ – in other words, they were believed to be infected with the ‘bad’ blood of their mothers. Trust and betrayal is another theme, as is the exploitation of women and the sexual double standards of the time. The ‘Night Flower’ of the title is Victorian slang for prostitute.
Miriam and Rose are two of the narrative voices in this novel. The third voice is that of Reverend Sutton – one of the most moustache-twirling Victorian villains you are ever likely to meet. The split narrative makes the reader question who is telling the truth and further doubts are planted through the other ways of telling – for instance, letters and court records – employed by Sarah.
We discussed whether there were any heroes in The Night Flower and decided that Miriam, honest, funny and warm, was the hero with whom we all empathised. Rose was more of an unreliable narrator and her casual racism made us less inclined to like her.
The settings in Hobart, Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was known then) – the Liverpool Street Nursery for the Babies of Convict Mothers, the Cascades Female Factory and the Black Horse brothel – were all strongly conveyed. We asked Sarah how she went about researching the novel. She claimed to have done very little, depending on her imagination for much of the contextual detail. Martin was impressed by this revelation, writing afterwards, ‘I was convinced that the germ of this book would have come from a diary or journal of someone who’d actually experienced transportation. It just shows how I should never under estimate the power of a writer’s imagination to knit a seamless and credible tale from just a few historical anchor points.’
We were all fascinated by the language, particularly Miriam’s Romany dialect – words such as Kushti, Kumpania, Gadje and Chey. For Martin, this grated somewhat. He wrote, ‘the preliminary section dealing with the gypsy life in Newcastle was the weak part of the story and I found the dialect frankly boring and over used. An obsessive scholar might do a “cushtie” count. It would be very high.’ Other book group members liked the colour and life of Miriam’s language and Paula pointed out that Berwick children all used these words in school because there has always been a strong Romany presence in North Northumberland and the Borders.
However, Martin was in agreement with the rest of us that the book had been a good read. He writes, ‘the story begins, for me, with the journey and penal life. This is vividly portrayed in all its gory details. Sarah is merciless in showing our capacity for self deception whether the gypsy, the lady or the preacher in observing only those parts of the world which correspond to their own prejudices. Nothing has changed. Our present day leaders, both religious and secular, display an overbearing interest in their own advancement coupled with a desire to condemn the sexual and work ethic of vast swathes of the population. A true taxonomist would have labeled us Homo Hypocriticus. End of soap box. Good book.’
Sarah’s next novel will also be about women, this time a family saga spanning three generations of suffragettes.

We finished the meeting with some book recommendations:
Sarah Stovell recommended ‘The Taste of Sorrow’ a biography of the Brontes by Jude Morgan,
and ‘Falling Angels’ by Tracy Chevalier
Recommendations from the group included:
‘Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict’ by Laurie Viera Rigler
‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
‘Lucky: a memoir’ by Alice Sebold
‘Treachery’ by S.J.Parris

Our thanks to Sarah Stovell for visiting our book group. Next month we will be discussing ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford.

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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