Please enjoy the post...
I love novels with a great sense of place and, having set my first book in the house where I grew up, I was determined to find somewhere just as evocative and atmospheric for this one.
When Severalls Mental Asylum, on the edge of my home town of Colchester, first opened its doors to patients in 1913, it was considered to be a state of the art institution intended to become a centre of expertise in the very latest treatments for mental illness. It was built on a vast scale like the estate of a country mansion, with gardens and sports facilities and a range of other houses for staff, with the ideal that patients could be safely contained and soothed in these beautiful surroundings.
Of course, with hindsight, we now understand that the treatments used were sometimes inhumane, even brutal, and patients often became institutionalised by the strict routines. Occasionally its use was also sometimes abused, and tales of people being locked up for little more than social breaches (such as unmarried pregnancy) once used to abound.
In the 1970s, when patients began to be discharged into ‘care in the community’ (now itself discredited) some of the buildings and wards were used by other hospital departments, for example clinical treatments and minor surgery. This is how, as a teenager, I became an in-patient at the hospital, having a benign cyst removed from my arm. It was only two days, but that experience of the place has never left me: the scale of it, both impressive and oppressive, the locked doors and bars, doctors riding bicycles down the miles long corridors and the people – mental patients –sometimes behaving or reacting quite oddly, as they walked or worked in the gardens.
Choosing this setting influenced the novel from the very beginning: I knew that Maria had a dark secret that would have to be hidden away. What better place than a mental institution? Writing about the place came easily, particularly with the help of a wonderful book about it by the sociologist and author Diana Gittins called Madness in its Place (Routledge 1998), in which she quoted from her recordings with staff and patients. These first-hand accounts really brought the place and the people to life, and in one of those light-bulb moments, I realised that this was exactly what I needed to do with Maria.
Also very helpful was an archive website at www.severallshospital.co.uk which includes some remarkable old photographs – a couple are shown below. Although most of the buildings are now closed (pending redevelopment), it is still possible to walk in the grounds among the pine trees. The atmosphere of the place remains as strong as ever.
You can find out more on my website at www.liztrenow.com.
About The Forgotten Seamstress
Pub Date: May 6, 2014 | Sourcebooks Landmark | eBook, Paperback
It is 1910 and Maria, a talented young girl from the East end of London, is employed to work as a seamstress for the royal family. As an attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity.
But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn. Disbelieved and dismissed she is thrown into a mental asylum, shut away from the real world with only her needlework for company.
Can a beautiful quilt, discovered many years later, reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?
Other Titles by Liz TrenowThe Last Telegram
The Poppy Factory (Coming August 28, 2014)
GiveawayTo win a copy of The Forgotten Seamstress please complete the form below. Giveaway is open to US residents only and ends on June 15th. Good luck!
a Rafflecopter giveaway