I wrote this essay on the ten year anniversary of The Forgotten Garden’s publication. It seemed almost impossible to me that ten whole years had passed since Cassandra, Nell and Eliza first left my imagination for yours; and yet, at the same time, it felt like an age since I had been that young writer, living in a little wooden worker’s cottage cut into a steep slope in the shadow of the Paddington Antique Centre, just getting started on a manuscript about foundlings and fairy tales that I was still then calling ‘The Authoress’. To mark the anniversary – and because people often ask about the ideas and inspirations behind the story – I decided to slip back across time to remember, and then write about, The Great Dusty Trunk and the pieces of silver that came together to begin The Forgotten Garden.
The Great, Dusty Trunk; or, Ideas Behind The Forgotten Garden
A book is never one idea: it is thousands of tiny idea-fragments, carefully selected and polished, that fit together mosaic-like to form a complete picture. I am a collector of such fragments and inside my mind there sits a great, dusty trunk – wooden and antique, I like to think – into which they are dropped over days, months and years, jumbling together until such time as they are needed. Some are images – snippets that I have glimpsed or gleaned; others are snatched pieces of overheard conversation, facts that I’ve read, issues that I’ve wondered about and puzzled over, and observations of the people whom I’ve met.
When I am ready to start work on a new novel, I open the lid of that trunk, picking up and turning over the items in hopes of discovering hidden treasures. Some have faded while I’ve been gone; others have become sharper, brighter. I have learned, however, that it is never one fragment alone – no matter how shiny it might be – that forms the basis for a story. Three or four small ideas must somehow fit together in that particular moment – timing is key in this curious process of alchemy – to form a kernel: a picture that gives me enough sense of a story to know that I can build an entire novel around it. The illumination when that happens is one of the most euphoric experiences in the entire, long, winding, maddening, exhilarating book-writing process. It is like cracking open the door in a dark room and seeing a strip of blinding light; it is hope and promise and anticipation and nervousness and yearning all rolled into one; it is what writers mean when they use words like ‘magic’ and ‘meant-to-be’.
The Forgotten Garden was born, in part, from two images that haunted me. My husband’s family migrated from Sweden to Australia in the early years of the twentieth century, and my mother-in-law – a keen family historian – often told us stories of their sea voyage. They were moving to start a new life on the other side of the world, with little in their suitcases beyond hope for the future and a change of clothing. There were seven children in the family, left to their own devices for much of the time because their mother was busy below deck with her infant son. As the ship crossed the equator, one of the four-year-old twins died from sunstroke.
No matter how many times I heard this story, I could not get the image out of my mind of seven Swedish children transplanted from their homeland onto a blindingly sun-drenched deck; the gleam of the ocean and the taste of salt spray in the air; their cotton dresses and flaxen hair. The longer I nurtured this picture, the more my imagination edited and embroidered, until the focus narrowed and I saw only one little girl twirling along the deck; somehow the deck became a wharf and the little girl obtained a white suitcase, which she was sitting atop, all alone, as night began to fall. Who was she, I wondered, and how did she come to find herself alone on the other side of the world from where she belonged. What would happen to her if no one came looking?
The second image that presented itself when I was dreaming up The Forgotten Garden, was that of a woman hurrying along a narrow, cobbled lane. Again, this was a picture that I’d been carrying for many years. I knew that it was London in the early twentieth century; I could see only the hem of the woman’s heavy skirts, but I could hear the rustling of fabric and the clip of her heels hitting the stones as she hurried along. There were other sounds, too, of the river and its docks – seagulls and sailors – and the air smelled like brine and ropes and commerce. The scene had a sense of urgency and the woman a great seriousness of purpose: I was eager to glean who she was and where she was going in such a hurry. I had known that when I figured out the answers to such questions I would be able to write the stories to which these two characters – the little lost girl and the hurrying woman – belonged. But it was a great surprise, when I finally realised who they were and what they were doing, to find that they belonged together in the same book.
The third idea-fragment that combined to form the kernel of The Forgotten Garden came from a story in my own family’s history. But unlike the long-held images of the little girl and the hurrying woman, I had only recently learned my grandmother’s secret. When she turned twenty-one, my nana’s beloved father told her that she wasn’t his biological child. I don’t know whether he anticipated the impact that this news would have on her, but for Nana it was a ground-shifting event. No matter that her father loved her just the same as he had always done; that he considered her as much his own as he did his biological daughters; things had changed. Nana’s reaction wasn’t dramatic, but in some essential way she felt herself to be different from the person she had been before; her place in the world to be less sturdy. For decades she told nobody else, keeping the truth about her parentage concealed from her friends and sisters until she was in her eighties and decided, finally, to tell her own three daughters.
I am interested in identity and aware of the fragile nature of our human sense of self: even the strongest person is vulnerable in the right – or wrong – circumstances to a crisis of confidence. In The Forgotten Garden, Nell receives similar news to my grandmother. In Nell’s case, however, discovering that she was a foundling shatters her identity completely. She loses her sense of belonging anywhere or to anyone. She withdraws from her family and friends, breaks off an engagement to her childhood sweetheart, and spends the rest of her life on a quest to discover her true identity. The character of Nell was vivid to me immediately; I knew her and loved her and felt certain that I had to tell her story.
When those three fragments locked together, the kernel of ideas that would become The Forgotten Garden was illuminated and impossible for me to ignore. There is a feeling of inevitability at this stage of the writing project, a sense of rightness: I am no longer dealing with characters, rather people; I am not inventing so much as learning. Every day spent in their company brings them more vividly to life and I begin to discover unexpected and exciting things as their stories unfurl. But characters need a setting and, as anybody who has read my books will know, sense of place is of great importance to me. As a writer, but as a person, too, I am inspired by the environment – both built and natural – and consider the setting of my books every bit as much a character as the people.
It took me a while to find an English location for The Forgotten Garden: I knew it had to be coastal and I wanted a history of smuggling in order to feed into the overarching fairy-tale atmosphere that I wished to create. I auditioned a number of stretches of coastline before coming, by chance, across mention of a place called The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Heligan, I discovered, was a grand country estate in Cornwall, owned for many centuries by the aristocratic Tremayne family. Along with the house and farms, the Heligan estate was also home to the most wondrous formal gardens. Generations of green thumbs had scoured the globe bringing back samples of the world’s varied vegetation, and a team of thirteen gardeners was in charge of maintaining the Antipodean garden, the Italian garden, and the African garden, to name but a few. In 1914, however, when World War I broke out, the entire gardening staff enlisted and none returned. The Tremayne family moved away, the garden grew over, and people forgot. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that the estate of Heligan was rediscovered and restored to its former glory, and eventually opened to the public. The idea of a once-beautiful, much-loved garden that time had forgotten was irresistible to me. My story had not only found its location, it had also acquired a forgotten garden – and a new title.
Along with having the pleasure of bringing Cornwall to life – the strange enchantment of the place a perfect fit for my story of fairy-tales and fishermen – I used my home location in The Forgotten Garden. Nell’s old timber worker’s cottage in the hills of Paddington is the very house in which I lived with my family while I was writing the book, and the Antique Centre where Nell and Cassandra have their stall is a real place, hunkered down on the hill directly behind my home. In 2007, when I was writing The Forgotten Garden, my eldest son – almost fifteen now, with two younger brothers – was four years old and an only child, and my mother used to come from Tamborine Mountain to visit us each week. We three would make our way up the steep Brisbane hill together for lunch at the Antique Centre café, followed by a wander amidst its crammed and crowded stalls.
Memories of this time in my life are inextricably linked to the former theatre with its trove of treasures, in the same way that they are tied to the people of The Forgotten Garden, in whose footsteps I spent so much time walking and in whose lives I invested so much of my own. It was a joy weaving a location I’m so familiar with, and for which I bear such great fondness, into my story, and it’s an enormous thrill to know that so many people who may never make it to my little pocket of Brisbane, Australia, have the opportunity to sample a small slice of it: to climb with Cassandra into the mango tree in Nell’s backyard, to hear the magpies’ calls getting stuck in their throats, and feel the heat of the day making everything sag with delicious time-slowing predictability.
Because of course the idea trunk in my mind contains my own memories and experiences, too: I have been that child, sitting in a tree while my mother and grandmother drink tea inside the cool dim house, as the sounds of garden – insects burring, birds singing, the concrete path expanding in the sun – cast their soporific spell and the day draws out and grows wings that enfold me. The mango tree that Cassandra climbs was in the back corner of my own nana’s Stafford garden when I was small – the same nana whose life was tilted by her father’s revelation when she was young. It is a tiny fragment of childhood memory, unimportant in my life’s scheme, and yet pressed and preserved until such time as it was needed.
Weaving such personal memories into stories is one of the quietly pleasing aspects of being a writer. Writing is about communicating, and storytelling in particular depends upon the transfer of something real so that each reader becomes as much a participant in the events – and the emotional experiences – of the book as the author and characters. Every time a reader tells me that she loved The Forgotten Garden, I know that we have connected: the story, the cast of characters, the cottage on the edge of a Cornish cliff – all vital and real to me – have made the extraordinary (and yet completely ordinary) leap across time and place to become real in her mind, too. Such connection lies at the heart of storytelling; it is the most wondrous part of the process; it is the point. I am grateful to every single person who opens The Forgotten Garden, lets the sea air surround them, and brings Cassandra, Nell, Eliza and their world back to life.
Kate Morton, London, 2018