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Julie Houston on the inspiration behind A Village Secret

Julie Houston on the inspiration behind A Village Secret

My tenth novel, A Village Secret, was inspired by some family history of my own. I’ve always known that the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley – of Frankenstein fame – were in my husband’s family tree. (Shelley’s daughter was Ianthe, my mother-in-law is Ianthe and, following the family tradition, my daughter, too, was given the middle name Ianthe). So, reading up on all these illustrious poets and novelists, I became fascinated by those who became known as The Romantic Poets: Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats but particularly George, Lord Byron with whom Shelley himself became quite infatuated, and who was dubbed mad, bad and dangerous to know. The most flamboyant and notorious of the major English Romantic poets, George Lord Byron created an immensely popular Romantic hero—defiant, melancholy and haunted by secret guilt. His mother, Catherine Byron, raised her son in an atmosphere variously coloured by her excessive tenderness, fierce temper, insensitivity, and pride.

My aim, then, was to create a modern-day Byron who was incredibly beautiful to look at and who was exceptionally bright but, because of the way he had been brought up by his adoring mother and two of his sisters (one, Janice, was never taken in by him) would inevitably have flaws in his character. Here then, was a great opportunity for me to bring Byron bang up to date and place him in Trinity College, Cambridge (where Byron himself was educated) in the guise of Yorkshire-born farmer’s son, Laurie Lewis and where Jennifer, having fallen in love with the actual Byron after seeing his portrait in the museum in Messolonghi, Greece, was bound to fall for his alter ego, Laurie.

Jennifer spends years infatuated by Laurie Lewis and appears blind to his many faults. Their children, Ada and George are named after Byron’s own children. Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, has her own fascinating history being an incredible mathematician and often called “The first computer programmer” for writing an algorithm for a computing machine as far back as the mid 1880s. Jennifer and Laurie’s daughter, Ada, is similarly an exceptionally bright girl who, once she reaches her teens, Jennifer finds difficult to manage.

I loved writing this book and was very much influenced by actors such as John Cleese, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Jimmy Carr and Olivia Colman et al – who had been students at Cambridge and who, like Laurie, had gone down the Footlights path, spending their free time down on Park Street at the Amateur Dramatics Club. I wanted Laurie to find fame and fortune just as these actors themselves have done. And he does. It takes some time, but Laurie eventually finds the fame and fortune he craves, a world away from his upbringing on the family farm in Westenbury, West Yorkshire.

I have to admit to some inspiration from the TV series Bridgerton, based on the books of Julia Quinn. Like everyone else in Lockdown, I watched and loved Bridgerton and eventually I allowed Jennifer to move from writing her heavy literary tomes on Byron and then Shelley and letting her try her hand at a Regency Novel. I thoroughly enjoyed myself creating the feisty Magnolia and the dashing Lord Silverton, the larger-than-life characters Jennifer eventually comes up with that will bring her the success as a novelist she’s not found when writing about her beloved Byron.

I do hope you will read A Village Secret. Let me know what you think!

A Village Secret by Julie Houston, published by Head of Zeus [Aria], is published in paperback on 14 April 2022

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