Everything happens somewhere. As a writer, I see the events I’m describing as they unfold and all I have to do is find the right words to help a reader see what I see. It’s unsurprising that the places I view in my imagination are sometimes the same places I’ve visited myself, often years earlier. I’ve just finished work on more than a year of writing and redrafting a new manuscript, a story set partly in Scotland in the nineteenth century. When I needed a scene where the two main characters meet to have a very private conversation, I realised (after I’d written the whole thing) that it all happened here in the old greenhouse at Keppoch, the same place where Georgiana Molloy worked on cold mornings when she was staying there with the Dunlop family in 1828 and 1829.
As I wrote my own small piece of fiction, I remembered the non-fiction – what I had seen, heard and felt when I was there myself more than ten years earlier in 2007. Flannery O’Connor wrote that ‘Fiction begins where human knowledge begins, with the senses, and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium.’ I didn’t choose that setting for my story. It chose me. My memory gave me the sensation of heavy, damp air under that low glass roof, the green smell of musty terracotta pots and the uneven balance of the brick floor beneath my feet.
I spent quite a while alone in the greenhouse when I visited Keppoch and I had the usual feeling of magic at work when I find myself standing somewhere that I’m quite sure Georgiana Molloy stood herself. I’ve thought a great deal about why that magic works and how, that feeling of time travel, closeness to the past, and I think it comes from the very human experience of sensation. The idea that we are touching, hearing, smelling, feeling things that haven’t changed over many years. These are simple things that can connect us all even when we appear to have little in common with one another.
I’ve been re-reading Georgiana’s letters and diary today, reminding myself how this greenhouse was part of her life in the months when she was far from home, distanced in another way from her family, afraid of what the future might hold and looking to this same garden for solace and comfort. It was also the place she went on the morning of her wedding to John Molloy, to gather the decorative flowers for the house. Georgiana wrote that she and John walked in the garden one evening just before the wedding and I wonder if, like my characters David Sinclair and Jane Kirkton, they stole some rare moments alone in privacy of the greenhouse. The scene in my book is fiction but the memories – and the feelings – that created it are still very real.
Images © Bernice Barry
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