The Sea Gate with author Jane Johnson

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson is a wonderful story with the perfect blend of present-day and past and a compelling cast of characters featuring the frail but crusty Olivia–I picture Maggie Smith or Judi Dench in the role–and the lovely Becky who is trying to get her life in order.

There are broken families, a house with a hidden passage to the sea, a scheming family intent on fraud, and a long-ago murder or was it merely a disappearance? As the book description says: an entrancing tale of love and courage.

Throughout, Jane Johnson ratchets up the suspense chapter by chapter culminating in a very satisfying ending. I recommend it highly!

The author, Jane Johnson, kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Most of the story is set in Cornwall in a house called Chynalls. Chynalls is almost its own character in the book. Where did you get the inspiration for it?
Jane: Chynalls was inspired by a number of houses I’ve known over the years. There was my grandmother’s house, which was rambling and rather decrepit, and made strange noises at night (including the sound of a brass doorknob turning where for years there had been no door Flushed); and my great-aunt’s house, from which I stole the scullery, with its channel to wick away water – or maybe blood; and the spider-infested outdoor privy; and one of the houses I grew up in down in a remote spot on the south coast had a tunnel that ran from the cellars to the shingle beach and was locally known as a smugglers’ passage. The ‘sea gate’ itself I spotted in a local village – I lived in the area of West Penwith, in the far tip of Cornwall, where the novel is set.

A Cornwall sea gate used for the cover

Unique and relatable characters are one of Jane Johnson’s strengths. I asked her whether any of the characters in The Sea Gate inspired by real people she knows.
Jane: Not directly, but the idea for the novel came initially from conversations with my mother, who was around the same age as Olivia when the war broke out, and she spent some of those years down here in Cornwall, before going up to London to work. My mother, though, did not have an artistic bone in her body, unlike Olivia, whose paintings made her semi-famous. My mother, on the other hand, when engaging in a Christmas game of ‘Pic-Charades’, in which you have to draw for your game-partner the word on the card, managed to bamboozle me completely by giving a duck 4 legs…
Several of the old folk in the village where I live offered me their recollections of life here during the war and I felt it was important to honour their memories and that remarkable generation. They have – including my mother – all passed now. I mourn them, but am so glad I managed to write some of their experiences into the book.

What was the most difficult part of the artistic process for this book?
Jane: I think the fact that it’s set where I live gave me pause to begin with, especially since some of the events are within living memory for some of the very oldest inhabitants. I didn’t want anyone reading it and complaining that the farmer’s wife wasn’t dead and that he didn’t have a daughter with special needs, or that their father definitely did not hoard butter etc… So instead of calling the village Mousehole, I called it by its old Cornish name of Porth Enys – the Island Port: and that gave me the creative distance I needed to free me to write the story I wanted to write.

Porth Enys … also called Mousehole

Were the WWII incidents and circumstances influenced by what really happened in Cornwall during that war?
Jane: Yes, I used actual incidents and well researched circumstances – the bombing of Penzance, the crash of a German warplane into farm fields, the stationing of internees and POWs at the local farm to carry out the farmwork for the war effort, the pelting with rotten vegetables of French refugees when they docked at Falmouth, the trawlers lost to mines and submarine attacks; the coast dotted with lookout posts and barb-wired off from civilians; the general sense of paranoia about strangers. It was fascinating to do the research and learn more about the region I live in, and enormous fun to write such recent history for once: it’s the first time I’ve written anything so modern, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My next novel – THE WHITE HARE – is set in a remote valley in Cornwall in 1954. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and the end is in sight!

The Swingate stone near Porth Enys into which a WWII plane crashed.

The Seat Gate by Jane Johnson ~~ A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War.

After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever.

Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found.

As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner…

Talland House & Feminism by Maggie Humm

Maggie Humm is an international Virginia Woolf scholar and Emeritus Professor at the University of East London. Her novel Talland House is a work of historical fiction that interweaves people, places, and events from Woolf’s life with a character – Lily Briscoe – from one of her best-read novels. It’s a delight to have Maggie Humm on the blog.

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Talland House and Feminism by Maggie Humm

Talland House was not meant to be a feminist novel. Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes the artist character Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story outside the confines of Woolf’s novel―as a student in 1900, as a young woman becoming a professional artist, her loves and friendships, mourning her dead mother, and solving the mystery of her friend Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death. Talland House is a stand-alone novel – part detective story, part romance and historical fiction. But, as my heroine Lily develops, making connections between her personal life and the larger world, she begins to question the authenticity and masculinity of public selves.

Active in feminist politics all my life, I was Co-Chair of the British Women’s Studies Association, founded the first full-time undergraduate UK Women’s Studies degree, and have written many feminist academic books, so I suppose it was inevitable that Talland House would have a flavour of feminism.

One of the most striking features of British women’s writing in the twentieth century is its feminist undercurrent. From Rebecca West through to Angela Carter’s uncompromising allegories, Margaret Drabble’s heroines and beyond, women’s literature often contains strategic metaphors of sexual politics. Woolf’s women characters too, frequently struggle to achieve personhood against socially constructed institutions and images. Why feminism matters, and why it matters to literature, is because feminism resists monolithic and nationalist reproductions. Feminism is not prescriptive or essentialist but inhabits literature in stimulating ways. Feminism has no single vision, although it is a visionary way of seeing. Mainstream literature, on the other hand, often and anxiously creates female stereotypes of ‘good mothers’, ‘barren spinsters’, and ‘hysterical careerists.’

My Lily Briscoe is a spinster and has a career as an artist, becomes a suffragette and then a nurse during World War 1 before returning to Talland House in St Ives and solving the literary mystery which has long puzzled readers of To the Lighthouse – Mrs. Ramsay’s death. One day, over tea, Lily’s father suggests that she marry when the war is over, and Lily reflects –

So what about marriage? She had never prized the idea of a house to manage, a husband and children. They would not enlarge her artistic knowledge and might even curtail her need to paint. It was a spinster in her thirties who looked back at her in the mirror during the morning wash. What she saw was mainly satisfactory. She would have liked larger breasts, rounded and womanly, but she neither disliked nor loved the figure in the frame. She had never wanted to climb out of her skin; there were a few lines, but she didn’t mind too much, and she was free to do whatever she wanted. Not needing any longer to match her life against other women’s lives, she was approaching middle age unalarmed, without fear. A husband would control the rest of her life, the separation of their minds extending as the years advanced—she had seen a gap grow even between her parents. There would be no space for art, for the passion of creation, unless for babies, and it was probably too late for those. She put down her cup of tea.

In Talland House, Lily becomes an independent professional at a time before women had the vote and her personal epiphanies make a crucial contribution to that trajectory. For me, the French writer Nathalie Sarraute’s concept of ‘tropism,’ her term for recording experience as it is felt before it passes through the filter of language, best describes Lily’s and Virginia Woolf’s moments of epiphany. Sarraute campaigned for the women’s vote (granted in 1944 in France) and was very influenced by Virginia Woolf.

By the end of Talland House I hope that readers new to Woolf will want to read her work, especially To the Lighthouse.Talland House is both a story for our present time, exploring the tensions women experience between their public careers and private loves, and a story of a specific moment in our past―a time when women first began to be truly independent.

Many thanks, Maggie. Feminism is near and dear to my heart – your novel is definitely one for my TBR list.

Talland House by Maggie Humm ~~ Royal Academy, London 1919: Lily has put her student days in St. Ives, Cornwall, behind her—a time when her substitute mother, Mrs. Ramsay, seemingly disliked Lily’s portrait of her and Louis Grier, her tutor, never seduced her as she hoped he would. In the years since, she’s been a suffragette and a nurse in WWI, and now she’s a successful artist with a painting displayed at the Royal Academy. Then Louis appears at the exhibition with the news that Mrs. Ramsay has died under suspicious circumstances. Talking to Louis, Lily realizes two things: 1) she must find out more about her beloved Mrs. Ramsay’s death (and her sometimes-violent husband, Mr. Ramsay), and 2) She still loves Louis.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.