Having been so tied up with my local literary festival, I am devastated that I simply haven’t had time to read Small Eden by Jane Davis because I think it sounds exactly the kind of book I adore. In fact all Jane’s writing appeals to me. However, having learnt that Jane actually lives in the house that is the setting for Small Eden I simply had to invite her to tell us all about it and I’m delighted to share that guest post today.
Jane also appeared here on Linda’s Book Bag almost four years ago when we stayed in to chat about her novel Smash All the Windows.
Small Eden was published on 30th April 2022 and is available for purchase here.
A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
‘With an eye for precise detail balanced by a sweeping imagination, this beautifully constructed book is built on deep foundations.’ – JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs Series
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…
‘Life as it is, in all its terrible beauty.’ – Jean Gill, author of Historical Fiction series The Troubadours Quartet
Who lives in a house like this?
A Guest Post by Jane Davis
Some writers take expensive research trips. Not this one. For my tenth novel, Small Eden, I took as my inspiration the house I have lived in for the past twenty-two years. It is not the first time I have written about my house. In the first chapter of An Unknown Woman, I burnt it to the ground. Known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’ it is a house that seems to demand to be written about.
When we set about looking for a property, we drew up a checklist. There was an upper price limit. A minimum number of bedrooms. It had to be within walking distance of a train station with links to London. It had to have off-street parking. Gardens, front and back.
These were the days before Rightmove and Zoopla. What you did was register with the estate agents located in the area you had stuck a pin in, and keep an eye on ads in the local papers.
“In the end, Robert selects his winning entry on the strength of the drawings for the buildings. The land he has come to know, but the nature of the structures he might lay foundations for has evaded him. Here they are. A charming T-shaped cottage will sit on a raised area to the left of the gardens: a chimney at its heart, steep roofslopes, dormer windows facing north and south and deep overhanging eaves to offer shelter from the elements. Occupied by a gardener-cum-manager, it will double as his ticket office. There is to be a splendid half-timbered pavilion where refreshments will be served to those watching the tennis, an ornate glasshouse and a wrought-iron aviary. Although the buildings will be set wide apart, common design elements will lend the scheme a symmetry, a flow.”
Our appointment at Rossdale was not with an estate agent but with the vendors, a couple who had decided to retire – somewhere on the south coast, I forget. We arrived in separate cars, having both driven straight from work. I noticed immediately that the road was a cul-de-sac, because I had grown up in a cul-de-sac and recognise that sense of enclosure and safety. I also noticed that the cottage was completely different from any of the houses around it. Victorian railway workers’ cottages at the end of the road gave way to pairs of semi-detached houses dating from the late 1920s and detached bungalows which seemed to have been built later. We stood outside, under the covered porch, with its Victorian black and white tiles and looked up at the struts under the eaves. There was (and still is) no doorbell. We knocked.
“Approached via a broad, verdant expanse and a stepped path, the cottage stands alone, to the left of centre of the gardens. As Robert surveys the scene, it strikes him how right it looks. He stands under the eaves and flattens his hands to the brick walls – solid and true, he has made them a reality. He cranes his neck to better examine the wooden struts, each exactly as it ought to be. It isn’t just that the building is perfectly proportioned, though that must be part of it. From the sheltered porch with its black and white tiles – perhaps a bench should go here – he can visualise the rest; the tennis courts are already marked out, the concrete slab on which the pavilion will sit has been poured. And there is the beginning of the path that will meander through the alders and oaks, where his Thomas and his Gerrard will stumble on hidden sculptures.”
Caught up in thought, Robert hadn’t heard anyone approach. The speaker is a woman in middle age. His first impression is that there’s something of Mrs Dwyer about her. “Good day to you, madam.”
“Mr Reynolds said I might take a look inside.”
“Am I speaking to Mrs Reynolds?”
“For my sins. That is, being Mrs Reynolds, not speaking to you.” She’s endearingly nervous.
He alters his view of Frank to accommodate the person standing in front of him. “I’m delighted to meet you at long last. Shall I show you around?”
“Thank you all the same, but I doubt I can get lost.”
The entrance hall had standing space for four adults, but only just. “The house talks to us,” the wife told us. She did most of the talking, as I recall. The husband was on hand mainly to agree. And despite wanting to retire elsewhere, she seemed to be under its spell. They had brought three boys up in the cottage, the wife told us as she led us upstairs. (Dark brown stair carpet, anaglypta wall paper.) Exactly where they put them, I wasn’t quite sure, because both of the bedrooms had sloped ceilings. I struggled to imagine where you might put bunk beds. “I don’t need to sell the house to you. It will sell itself,” she said as she opened a door into a triangular-shaped cupboard, which turned out to be the upstairs toilet. “The ‘main’ bathroom is downstairs,” she explained, and so it was, accessed through the kitchen, a room big enough for a shower, basin and toilet, but only just. The sitting room and dining rooms were smaller than the rooms in my flat, which formed the ground floor of a substantial Edwardian property. But this was a house. A detached house.
The garden had clearly been loved. I was what I call a proper English cottage garden, secluded, with trees to the left, and at what appeared to be the end of the garden, and a garage to the right. There was a pond filled with koi carp and an aviary filled with canaries, a greenhouse. Through a rose-covered arch was the final twelve feet of garden where we found a climbing frame, evidence of the three boys who spent their childhoods here.
I asked about the history of the place. The wife showed us a reproduction of a woodcut depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of double in front of the cottage. In the background is a tower which is clearly part of St Philomena’s school, originally a grand manor house built in the early eighteenth century by Edward Carleton. She told us that they had bought the house from a retired sea captain who told them it was the gatehouse for the estate, and this was certainly the received wisdom, but it didn’t ring true. Even before we moved in, the house was speaking to us.
It was utterly charming and completely impractical and the surveyor’s report highlighted a number of issues that were going to cost a small fortune to fix. But it did have off-road parking, and so we bought it.
Some time after moving in, we joined a guided tour of St Philomena’s manor house, its hermitage and the water tower. We asked the guide – a local historian – about the possibility that our cottage was the original gatehouse for the estate and were told no. But he was intrigued enough by what we said to do some research of his own, and what he had to tell us was far more interesting. It was built (as far as he was able to ascertain) by a Mr E Cooke as the ticket office for pleasure gardens which opened at the turn of the century. What led a man to embark on such an endeavour after the last of London’s pleasure gardens had failed isn’t written in any history books. It is clear from Ordnance survey maps that Mr Cooke didn’t give up easily. There was a gradual selling off of plots, the creep of housing, the loss of a stand of trees. My instinct was that something in his past had driven him, something personal, and it was that same thing that made him so reluctant to let go of his dream. Of course, had our research been more successful, there would have been no story to write.
Oh my word! Thank you so much Jane. You’ve made me determined to read Small Eden. I need to find out more after that wonderful guest post.
About Jane Davis
Jane Davis’s first novel, Half-Truths and White Lies, won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with An Unknown Woman being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with Smash all the Windows winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.
Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of An Unknown Woman. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?
When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.
You’ll find all Jane’s books here.