Maggie O'Farrell: Mother love - and loss

She tells Julie Wheelwright why her latest heroine is incarcerated in a mental asylum

Thursday 22 September 2011 05:57
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Maggie O'Farrell sometimes plays a game with other authors in the throes of finishing a novel, and desperately imagining themselves in an alternative career. While her friends might fantasise about being a florist or policeman, O'Farrell secretly longs to own a vintage clothes shop, resurrecting old frocks, shoes or jackets and breathing new life into them. "I've always loved clothes and have been addicted to them ever since I was a child," she admits. As she weaves her way through the lunchtime crowd at a Soho restaurant, O'Farrell cuts a striking figure with her curly red hair, a brilliant blue raincoat tossed over a bright cotton top, cropped jeans and fashionable black wedge sandals. She tells me that en route to our interview she was irresistibly drawn to a vintage store just around the corner. No wonder, then, that clothes and women's absorption in them is a powerful theme in O'Farrell's new novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (Review, £14.99), in which they are markers of the sanity and insanity of her female characters.

O'Farrell, who wrote about sisters in The Distance Between Us and the intense relationships between women in My Lover's Lover, now tells the story of Esme and Kitty Lennox. The sisters are born to a Scottish family living in India in the dog days of the British empire. After a family tragedy, the Lennoxes return "home" to Edinburgh, where Esme is bullied at school for her accent and labelled by her parents as increasingly difficult when she shows more interest in music and books than in making herself presentable for a potential husband.

Esme's final act of rebellion is to try on her mother's silk negligée while her parents are out. When caught, she is dispatched to the local asylum and diagnosed with dementia praecox (an older label for schizophrenia). Above the clatter of cutlery on plates and the buzz of conversation, O'Farrell tells me that, ever since she began writing fiction, she had wanted to write about a woman wrongly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. "The story has been bubbling away for about 15 years now," she says, "but it was only after I had my son that I saw the pull of motherhood was at the centre of it."

In O'Farrell's novel, Esme realises she is pregnant during her confinement in the asylum, and is condemned to stay there to avoid causing further damage to the family's now tarnished reputation. But Esme is unable to keep her son, who is removed from her at birth. "I find it really very funny that motherhood has this image of being soft and nurturing when it's also incredibly tigerish," says O'Farrell quietly. "If anyone tried to take my child away from me, I'd tear them limb from limb." In O'Farrell's fiction, the plot often turns on such deep betrayals. In this novel, Esme's younger sister Kitty is the culprit whose actions have devastating consequences. "I was interested in what could tip Esme over - what would be the worst thing that someone could do to you?" O'Farrell asks. "'What would make a sister do that and what would be the cost?"

Growing up as the eldest of three sisters in a family that moved from Ireland to Scotland and several points in between, O'Farrell denies that there was any sibling rivalry between them. They all wanted different things, she assures me, and so grew up as friends. The real challenge was in surviving the stultifying boredom of adolescence in North Berwick, a seaside town 30 miles from Edinburgh where the net curtains vibrated with local gossip. "I hated the society that prevailed there when I was growing up - everyone knew your business and in that way I felt very restricted," she says.

The sisters now live within a couple of miles of each other in Edinburgh and often visit. "I always find it interesting if I meet someone who has sisters and you ask them how it goes and find out that they don't get along," says O'Farrell. "I can't imagine that." If Kitty is the selfish sibling in this story, then her interests coincide with those of her parents and their social circle.

O'Farrell's research involved reading the case notes on actual female patients in the 1930s and 1940s. It revealed that, even then, psychiatrists were still colluding with families to shut women away on moral rather than medical grounds and have their illegitimate children adopted. Reading R D Laing, O'Farrell was astonished by the women, diagnosed with paranoia, who turn out to be the lone voice within the family willing to tell an inconvenient truth.

While Edinburgh had its enlightened institutions for the treatment of wartime "shell shock", such as Craiglockhart Hospital where Dr W H R Rivers's patients included Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, this approach "took a while to filter down", says O'Farrell. Her research wasn't just academic. At university she had a very close friend whom she would visit in various institutions when he was suffering through a series of psychiatric illnesses. "There were quite a few times when I'd think, 'Is his being here making him ill or did he have these symptoms before he came in?' When you spend a certain amount of time in an institution, the boundaries start to blur."

There is an irony in the novel that, while Esme leaves hospital with her niece Iris, her sister Kitty is living across the city in a nursing home, her memory corroded by Alzheimer's. Her thoughts are jumbled, flitting from childhood images of India to deeply harboured secrets of deeds that have gone unpunished. O'Farrell says that she enjoyed writing these sections and that they reminded her of a game she used to play with her sisters. "'We'd do this awful thing where we'd put on a Beatles record and jump up and down until the needle skipped to the next song... I found that writing about this old lady was a bit like that."

Since the novel is set in Edinburgh, O'Farrell made several trips north from her home in London. Spending time in Scotland, she began to contemplate living there. "When I first moved to London in 1994, I suddenly felt like I belonged for the first time," she says. "I'd never thought about going back but I was writing about Edinburgh for three years and I felt completely steeped in it, and then I thought that if I feel this way, maybe we should move back here."

O'Farrell's relocation to Edinburgh provides her with lots of opportunities to cruise the second-hand clothes stores, and in her novel she lived her fantasy job vicariously through Iris, Esme's niece. Iris owns a vintage clothes shop and is the family member given responsibility for Esme upon her release. The women share, according to their creator, an unwillingness to compromise. If Iris, who has a penchant for married men and who ferociously values her independence, had lived in Esme's era of prescriptive behaviour, she might also have wound up on a psychiatric ward.

O'Farrell might include herself in that category of thoughtful, outspoken women who value their public voice and relative liberty. "What you write about is deeply embedded in your own wishes and desires," she says, "but I almost got to the point of thinking, should I write this or not? It could happen to me." While writing The Distance Between Us, O'Farrell discovered that she was pregnant and a lot of scenes involved a pregnant character about to give birth to a son. "At my 20-week scan I was told I was going to have a girl and I thought that my mother is one of three sisters, my sister has two daughters and my grandmother is one of four daughters, so of course I was going to have a girl. Then I had this odd thought that I wasn't having a girl."

It was still a shock when she delivered a son. "There's also something weird about writing fiction," she reflects. "It starts to affect your real life. I've often found that something I write about comes true - and you have to be careful what you wish for."

Biography: Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell has recently moved back, with her husband and son, to Scotland, where she spent her childhood. She was born in Ireland in 1972. After careers as a chambermaid, cycle courier, creative-writing lecturer, journalist and as deputy literary editor at The Independent on Sunday, she published her first novel, After You'd Gone, in 2000; it won the the Betty Trask Award. Two years later she published My Lover's Lover and, in 2004, The Distance Between Us, which won a Somerset Maugham Award. Her novels have been translated into 16 languages and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (Review) has been a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.

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