The Small Hours
Harriet Mansfield, brave, wry and handsome, is determined to triumph no matter what. With a decade of therapy under her belt and a new large inheritance, it seems there is nothing she cannot achieve. When she finds herself in charge of a school full of precocious little girls, rich in everything but care, she vows to make their childhoods amongst the happiest ever spent. For everyone knows that early years passed in delightful ways can you set you up for life. But can this ambitious new departure spill some retrospective sweetness onto Harriet's own harsh beginnings, or better still cancel them out altogether? Will the family she's estranged from ever grant her the recognition she craves?
I started writing this book in 2004, two years before I began My Judy Garland Life. I realized that in my four previous novels I had always left my main characters in a better place than where I found them and in THE SMALL HOURS I set myself the challenge of not doing this. It was very hard. I felt tremendous loyalty towards Harriet from the beginning and really wanted her to succeed, and to be heard, and valued.
I was fascinated from the beginning by the character of Harriet and see her in a tradition of difficult, damaged but rather brilliant women. When I first started writing the book I was reading the diary of Alice James, Henry James’s sister, and I think she was a great influence as was Olive Chancellor the heroine of The Bostonians. I wanted Harriet to have Olive’s seriousness but Alice’s wit and naughtiness. This book is also very influenced by the novels of Patrick Hamilton and I wanted THE SMALL HOURS to catch something of them, in its atmosphere and intensity.
At this time I was also looking for a nursery school for my daughter (she is now 11) and it struck me that some of the nursery teachers I met were rather odd, very good with children but hopeless with adults. The more intense nursery heads I met seemed to have such a strong vision and agenda that I did sometimes wonder if there was something very strongly they were reacting against in their own lives. I remember one woman saying to me, ‘I only want your daughter here if you love me and you love my school.’ I thought that in the highly strung, super-sensitive and often fraught atmosphere of the nursery school, the teachers’ need of approval, and the parents’ need and the child’s need had the potential to be explosive.
Another influence was an episode seven years ago when my father was ill. I visited him in hospital every day for seven or eight days and it made a great difference to our relationship at that time, as I had never seen him for eight days in a row before. The visits were really magical and afterwards I missed them.
Finally, as a character, Harriet had the rather difficult task of following Judy Garland, something no-one in show business would ever have considered attempting. I hope she does it well. God knows what they would have made of eachother…
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