The characters that take you by surprise – a guest post by Susanna Bavin
Our latest guest post comes from acclaimed saga writer Susanna Bavin, whose latest novel, The Poor Relation, is now out in paperback. For Susanna, an unexpected character from the book has been embraced by her readers…
When a writer starts getting feedback on a new book, there can be some surprises. For example, there might be one character whom everyone latches onto and loves. In my latest book, The Poor Relation, this has happened with Helen Rawley. So what makes this crotchety old lady special?
Well, it can’t be that she’s a nice person, because she definitely isn’t. Helen Rawley is a spiky individual, with a waspish tongue, who is quick to make judgements and who makes a habit of alienating the very people she most wants to be close to. She isn’t above a spot of manipulation when she sees the need. She doesn’t sound like a character with much appeal, does she?
So what is it that readers like? At the outset, I think they feel sympathy for her. Helen is an elderly lady who never married. Most of her life was spent in the Victorian years as the spinster in a well-to-do family, dependent first upon her father and then upon her brother for the roof over her head and the food on her table; also for her dress allowance – hence her glee in buying glamorous under-garments and presenting her starchy brother with the bill.
When her father died, he effectively left Helen in his will to her brother Robert, who henceforward was responsible for her care and well-being. It wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven. Robert did his duty, but he enjoyed being in a position of power over her. At the start of The Poor Relation, Robert has died and once again Helen has been left to a male relative – this time her nephew Greg, who is the very last person on whom she would wish to be dependent.
As Helen says, ‘God knows, I hated my brother at times, but I never once felt vulnerable. Ever since the reading of the will, I’ve been apprehensive. The will may be watertight, but he (Greg) feels no obligation.’
And she is right to be apprehensive – as the reader soon learns.
But it isn’t because of feeling sorry for her that readers like her. They enjoy her crotchety character because her flaws make her real. And they like her spirit. As the story progresses, the extent of Helen’s dogged determination is revealed. Kept in her place by her brother, and ignored by Lady Kimber, the leading light of local society, Helen has never enjoyed a place in the world of dinner parties and at homes. One of the themes of the book is the way women were regarded both socially and legally. With everything Helen Rawley has had to contend with throughout her life, a lesser person might have lapsed into being a downtrodden doormat. But not Miss Rawley. As one reviewer said of her, ‘had she been born a decade or so later, (she) would have been among those publicly fighting for women’s rights, I’m sure’ – because, above all else, Helen Rawley is a woman of spirit.
Susanna Bavin has variously been a librarian, an infant school teacher, a carer and a cook. She lives in Llandudno in North Wales with her husband and two rescue cats, but her writing is inspired by her Mancunian roots.
Follow her on Twitter: @SusannaBavin