Well, this is a first. Today, I’m ‘chatting with’ Dutch author Anna Enquist who has several novels to her credit. Recently, her best-selling and award-winning novel, The Homecoming, has been translated into English by the accomplished translator Eileen Stevens.
Let’s begin with the obvious question of what inspired you to write about Elizabeth Cook?
I am a long distance walker and did the Cleveland Way in Yorkshire in the nineties. We had an early stop in Whitby and visited the Captain Cook Museum, a beautiful pink building in the harbor. Cook lived there as an apprentice to learn the trade. I learned a lot of things that afternoon: about his background, his voyages around the world and about his marriage. I was hooked immediately and when I came back home I began to read every book about him that I could lay my hands on. I planned to write about him later, when I would have more time. However, as I thought about a Cook novel I realized that too much is known about him and there would be no “artistic” freedom at all for a novelist. A friend suggested taking Cook’s wife Elizabeth as the focal point for the book and that was a very good suggestion. We know the bare facts of her life but no conversations or day-to-day descriptions of her doings are handed down to us. I discovered that she had a very interesting life and it was quite an experience to try to capture her in words!
What sources did you use to explore her character, her life, her thoughts, and her marriage?
I used everything I read about her in the Cook biographies and elsewhere (James Boswell describes her in his journals as a “decent plump Englishwoman,” a comment I ignored). A great help was The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, first edition 1776, which instructed me about 18th-century domestic duties and homemaking.
Can you tell us some of the surprising facts you uncovered about Elizabeth Cook, or for that matter about James Cook?
Elizabeth turned out to be a surprisingly intelligent and relatively independent woman. She had a good mind and did the bookkeeping in a shop for naval supplies. That’s how she met her future husband. In later years she assisted him in editing his journals. Her life could be described as very taxing: she was alone for long periods of time and she lost all her six children in the end. She was not shy: when the Admiralty decided they could do without an astronomer, because Cook was perfectly able to make the astronomical observations himself, she asked for the astronomer’s fee to be transferred to her family. The marriage seemed very stable, they trusted each other and took great care of the children (Cook listed them as crewmembers on his ships when they were very young; that way, they would have more years on their records when they enlisted later in their lives—an effort that was strictly forbidden).
What part of her life does the novel cover and how did you decide on that?
The novel starts at the time Cook returns after his second, very successful voyage. Everything that happened before that time is told in the form of conversations or memories. Cook is now at the cusp of his career, is about to be elected a member of the Royal Society, and is received by the King of England. Elizabeth is sure he will stay at home now, because he has been appointed director of Greenwich Hospital for sailors. But Cook feels uncomfortable in high society and longs for his explorations, for life at sea. I selected this period because so many things happened that could endanger the marriage. He left for his third voyage, which he was not to survive. The novel continues to follow Elizabeth. At the very end she obtains papers in which the story of Cook’s death is revealed. The book’s closing scene is based on observations of a neighbor who reported that Elizabeth burned big piles of papers in her garden at the very end of her life.
What themes emerge in the novel?
Loss is an important theme in the novel. Equally important is the “enlightenment” theme. Cook and his wife are independent thinkers. Cook wants to explore, to observe, and to understand without prejudice. A third theme could be the “art” of waiting. Elizabeth spends her whole life waiting, and still she goes on living, receives her friends, cares for her children, and reaches an advanced age.
Do you think English readers will respond differently than Dutch readers?
English readers will have the advantage of knowledge, because Cook is an important part of their heritage. I hope they will not resent a foreigner meddling with their history? My aim was to pay tribute to Cook and to his wife and to emphasize the importance of independent thinking, something that is universal, not national.
Please note: There is an oil painting of Elizabeth Cook in Sydney, in the Mitchell Library. It has been reproduced in the Dutch, German and French editions of my novel.
[MKTod: I found this painting on Wikipedia.]
A question for the translator Eileen Stevens: What did you do to capture the voice of Anna Enquist in another language?
I was deeply honored to be asked to translate such a well-respected novelist and poet as Anna Enquist. Before beginning any new project, I like to read books by the author I am about to translate. In this case, that was the start of an exciting voyage of discovery through Enquist’s many exquisite novels and poems. While reading, the themes of motherhood, loss, and waiting came strongly to the fore. Unfortunately, I don’t always have an opportunity to meet the authors I translate. Yet when I met Anna Enquist, I felt an instant rapport. Hearing her speak and our many discussions about Cook also helped my process. She’s a soft-spoken and thoughtful woman with a keen sense of humor. We even started playing music together at a certain point—Anna Enquist is an accomplished pianist, and in the past, I played the violin professionally. My intuition tells me that making music together may have helped me find this author’s voice. But that assumption probably wouldn’t pass muster using James Cook’s critical style of independent thinking. In any event, translation, like playing music together, always creates a strong bond.
The Homecoming by Anna Enquist, translation by Eileen Stevens
After twelve years of marriage to English explorer James Cook, Elizabeth has yet to spend an entire year with her husband. In their house by the Thames, she moves to the rhythms of her life as a society wife, but there is so much more to her than meets the eye. She has the fortitude to manage the house and garden, raise their children, and face unbearable sorrow by herself―in fact, she is sometimes in thrall to her own independence.
As she prepares for another homecoming, Elizabeth looks forward to James’s triumphant return and the work she will undertake reading and editing his voluminous journals.
But will the private life she’s been leading in his absence distract her from her role in aid of her husband’s grand ambitions? Can James find the compassion to support her as their family faces unimaginable loss, or must she endure life alone as he sails off toward another adventure?
An intimate and sharply observed novel, The Homecoming is as revelatory as James Cook’s exploration of distant frontiers and as richly rewarding as Elizabeth’s love for her family. With courage and strength, through recollection and imagination, author Anna Enquist brilliantly narrates Elizabeth’s compelling record of her life, painting a psychological portrait of an independent woman ahead of her time and closely acquainted with history.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.