I was idly turning the pages of a book about Cornwall in World War Two, looking as ever for ideas, when a photograph caught my eye and I paused in surprise. It was of a class of teenage schoolboys in uniform and the caption informed me that they were from a school in Kent that had been evacuated to a hotel on the Cornish coast to escape the bombs. The surprise was that it was my father’s school. I perused the array of young faces to see if I could spot Dad, but they were too small and slightly blurred so I couldn’t be sure. Still, the find was enough to ignite inspiration. I love it when my fiction arises from a personal connection.
Silverwood in my new paperback The Hidden Years is a fictional country house that becomes a school in 1939 and later, in the 1960s, a haven for an off-grid community of artists and musicians. As a writer, I liked the idea of studying a house through time and leaving evidence of its different purposes around for the characters to find and ponder. Out of that idea my novel emerged.
The Hidden Years weaves two narratives together, each focusing on a young woman arriving at Silverwood at a different period and learning to call it home. Imogen in the earlier narrative chaperones a pair of little schoolboys there on the train from London after the Second World War breaks out. She stays on, accepting the post of temporary matron. Twenty-seven years later in 1966, Belle’s folk musician boyfriend brings Belle to Silverwood to join an assortment of creative types and dropouts who’ve set up house there. She has to try to fit in and finds it hard.
As we follow each woman’s story, we start to trace the links between them and to compare certain themes. Imogen is of the war-time generation who were patriotic and dutiful. Normal life had to be set aside in order to win the battle against the evils of Nazi Germany.
Imogen decides it’s her duty to be at Silverwood and help whilst the usual matron is off sick, then her experiences at the school encourage her to join the war effort by nursing and she trains at a hospital ten miles away in Truro. War, however, and her dedication, threaten her chances of personal happiness.
Belle and her contemporaries represent the children of the wartime generation, famously rejecting duty in favour of freedom. The Silverwood community are creative. They like to experiment and seek meaning beyond conventional structures and traditions. But there’s a cost to breaking away, as Belle discovers. By uncovering Imogen’s story she’s invited to compare and contrast her own experiences with those of her parents’ generation, to reassess the importance to her of family and to examine her own aims and desires. In short, she grows up.
The Hidden Years is also about the course of true love, which, as we know, never runs smoothly. Imogen’s romance is about friendship which gradually turns to love, but it takes her a long time to see the path clearly. Belle’s journey is completely the reverse. She experiences love at first sight and throws herself into her boyfriend Gray’s keeping without hesitation, abandoning her family and her university studies. It takes her much of the novel to find out what kind of person Gray really is and whether he is worthy of such blind love and trust.
The Hidden Years was a wonderful novel to write because of its setting and I hope that Cornwall and its history comes across as a strong presence. Silverwood, I imagined to be on the Helford Estuary near Falmouth. It was here that American troops gathered in preparation for D-Day, their activities cloaked in secrecy, and where Allied secret agents holed up making plans.
Another link to Dad only emerged after the book was published. My mother read the chapter about Imogen’s hospital being bombed and said, ‘Your father was always talking about that,’ and I realized with a shock that, it being the school holidays, he would probably have been living with his parents just up the road when it happened, a matter of a few hundred yards away. Sadly, he’s no longer with us to consult. I would have loved him to have read the book.
Love, Rachel x