A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
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…
Publisher: Rossdale Print Productions
Page Length: 394
Genre: Historical Fiction (1864 – 1910)
Writing Interview questions.
Why did you choose to write your book in this era?
Once I decided on my subject-matter, the choice was made for me. The inspiration for Small Eden was the cottage I have called home for the past twenty-one years. When we moved into the cottage, the vendors told us that it had been the gatehouse for an estate, and this was certainly the received wisdom, but it didn’t feel right. We consulted a local historian, who was intrigued enough by what he saw to begin researching the history of the cottage. What he had to tell us was far more interesting. It was built (as far as he was able to ascertain) as the ticket office for pleasure gardens which opened at the turn of the century and had closed by 1923.
I find recent history fascinating because it explains the world I was born into. I wanted to paint a picture of a world on the cusp of change. Following the invention of the steam engine, England changed from a rural, agricultural country to an urban, industrialised one. There were tremendous advances in medicine. In 1853, the Vaccination Act made it compulsory for children to be inoculated against smallpox. The publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species had people questioning their beliefs. The era saw great building projects, Brunel’s suspension bridges and the Crystal Palace. But despite the fact that a woman had been on the throne since 1837, women had very few rights, and only limited access to further education. The aim expressed by the principal of Mill Mount College was to prepare women to become wives, mothers, teachers and missionaries. The Victorian ideal of womanhood was ‘The Angel in the Home.’
Did you find researching this era particularly difficult? What was the hardest thing to find out, and did you come across anything particularly surprising?
There’s a wealth of information about the Victorian era, but as for Rossdale’s Pleasure Gardens, 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. The little we know comes from Ordnance Survey maps, census records and a reproduction of a woodcut which hangs in our hall, depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of doubles on a tennis court, just in front of our cottage. My instinct was that something from his past was driving him. Of course, had our research been more successful, there would have been no story to write.
I did come across something surprising in my research. The name Carshalton is associated with lavender growing. Of the many lavender farms that used to exist, only two remain. Mayfield Lavender is the better known. People travel a long way to see it. https://www.mayfieldlavender.com/
Having decided that my main character, Robert Cooke, should be a physic gardener – someone who grew and distilled herbs for medicinal and cosmetic use – and trying to get an understanding for the crops he would have grown, I discovered that Mitcham – just three miles down the road —was best known in the nineteenth century for opium production. In the 1870s, Britons consumed 100 tonnes of opium annually. Queen Victoria is said to have taken a daily dose of laudanum (a tonic that contained opium dissolved in alcohol). Opium was used for malarial fever (still prevalent in Cambridgeshire and Lincoln), as a sedative, a painkiller. It was used for coughs and rheumatism. It soothed digestive complaints, gout, toothache and depression. People thought nothing of dosing their children with Godfreys tonic (recommended for colic, hiccups and coughs), or doctoring their babies gripe-water. And Opium was important to the British Empire, being responsible for 15% - 20% of its annual revenue. But after it fell out of favour at the end of the 19th century, production was written also out of local history. Possession of opium without a doctor’s prescription only became illegal in 1920 with the introduction of the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act.
Can you share something about the book that isn’t covered in the blurb?
There wasn’t space in the blurb for the mysterious Miss Hoddy. Although Robert Cooke is a physic gardener, he’s no designer and so he decides to run a competition for the design of his pleasure gardens. Florence Hoddy is the only woman to enter. She has a brilliant mind and is a talented artist, but she lost the use of her legs in a road accident, and is cared for by her brother Oswald – and in a small Surrey village that alone is enough to set tongues wagging. Hiding herself away from pitying eyes, she paints only what she sees from the window at the back of her house.
Personal Interview questions.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I love to walk and a love photography, and luckily it’s possible to combine the two. I hope that my love of the British countryside is something that comes across strongly in my writing. For such a small island, there is so much variety to explore.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
The truth is that I’m not a writer, but a failed artist. I was interested in story-telling as a child but, instead of words, I used pictures. Right up to my O-Level year, I spent all my spare time drawing and painting. I assumed I’d make a career in art. It was the one thing I was really good at. And then came a hard lesson. The O-Level examiners simply didn’t like my work. There had never been a plan B.
My reaction was to leave school and take the first job that came along, which happened to be in insurance, and there I stayed for the next twenty-five years. There were compensations. I bought a house, had three double wardrobes full of clothes, I dabbled in amateur dramatics, led a Venture Scout Group, climbed mountains and travelled. But gradually I became more and more aware that I was missing a creative outlet and, when something happened that I needed to make sense of, I began to write.
Small Eden is my tenth novel. As my collection of books grows, I’m beginning to see them as my legacy. As someone who doesn’t have children, they are the mark I will leave on the world. So another reason for writing – one that I didn’t think about in my mid-thirties when I started to write – is to create a legacy that I can be proud of.
Tea or coffee: Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.
Morning person or Night owl: Morning person.
Social Media or book: Book
Paperback or ebook: Paperback.
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners.
She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.
Her 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.