Meet Susie Boyt
Author of The Small Hours
We caught up with Susie to find out what inspired her to write her latest book — the deliciously dark, moving and sometimes humorous tale of Harriet Mansfield, a damaged woman who seeks to right the wrongs of her own upbringing by giving a school full of precocious little girls the happy childhood she wished she'd had.
Just before I started writing The Small Hours, I read the diary of Alice James, William and Henry James’s sister, and was struck by the character of this super-intelligent, outlandish, outspoken, mischievous, passionate invalid. I briefly thought of writing a book about her, or someone like her: a woman who was perhaps as able as her distinguished brothers but because of the lack of opportunities for women in her times, and her failing health, was not able to leave the sort of stunning legacy that they left. Alice’s wit, her unceasing consciousness and her supreme mental agility, crossed with the paralysis leading from the ‘bankruptcy of her health’, really caught my imagination.
At this point I was also looking for a nursery for my daughter and was astonished by how fraught some of the schools I visited were. I remember posing a mild query to one of the heads, nothing approaching a criticism, and her responding, ‘I only want you here if you love me and you love my school!’ At another school the head proudly read out a letter from a satisfied parent praising the nursery very highly, but when I looked closely at the envelope it was from years ago and had yellowed with age. Both teachers were quite disparaging about other schools in the neighbourhood. I could see their schools represented not just their hopes and dreams but a chance for them to enforce their belief systems. These women, it seemed to me, shared one thing in common: they hated, loathed and abominated being in the wrong.
What would make these teachers so passionate and defensive? Obviously the work they were doing was everything to them. In my imagination I decided that they must be so obsessive about their schools because they were trying to set right something that had gone awry in their own childhoods. What might it be? I allowed my thoughts to run free. What if opening the schools was a way of trying to bear something that wasn’t bearable? Could that sort of literal response to pain ever work? What if some break with their own families made them want to fill their lives with as many new parents and children of their own as they could possibly find? To fill the void left by a feud with a whole lot of new stock?
So the difficult, brilliant and invalid Alice James character and the nursery teachers I met and heard about somehow came together in my head, where Lucy Snowe from Villette, Olive Chancellor from The Bostonians and Miss Jean Brodie were also jostling for my attention. Alice’s physical difficulties were partially translated into Harriet’s mental difficulties and her ungainliness. (She is six feet tall in the book.) The limited opportunities of Alice’s times were somehow translated into the impediments that growing up in a very unloving family can provide. From all these things my, endearing, maddening, courageous and self-destructive heroine Harriet Mansfield was born.