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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 96: Lucy Barker (The Other Side Of Mrs Wood)

Charlie and Lucy Barker (The Other Side Of Mrs Wood) discuss Victorian mediums both factual and fictionalised – their work, the spiritualism that led to their popularity, the social circles, the rivalry, the rumours of fraud, and the women’s roles as early grief counsellors. We also talk about the early days of the Suffrage movement and various aspects of the book’s ending.

Please note there is a very mild swear word in this episode.

The Courtauld’s exhibition of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit paintings
A preview of Tracy Ann Oberman’s audio version of The Other Side Of Mrs Wood
Lucy’s blog post on the postal service in Victorian times
One Night At McCool’s
Lucy’s blog post on using Notting Hill

Release details: recorded 27th November 2023; published 22nd April 2024

Where to find Lucy online: Blog || Twitter || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

Go back to the list of episodes


01:50 The real mediums who inspired the book: Agnes Guppy and Florence Cook
05:17 Lucy talks about how mediums in general were able to escape accusations of falsehood despite many being outed as frauds
08:53 The fickleness and loyalty of medium patrons
10:35 Why the Victorians were in to Spiritualism
14:00 The importance of the references to America throughout the book – America’s own spiritualism
15:27 Mrs Wood, Miss Newman, and Miss Finch
19:07 The very early days of the women’s suffrage movement
22:30 About Mrs Wood’s circle of people
26:35 How Mrs Wood seeing herself as providing a service for grieving people, and the role of mediums in early grief counselling
29:34 The comedy in the book, and Lucy speaks briefly about her next book in the context of humour
30:58 Lucy’s use of letters in the book, and Mr Clore’s columns
33:23 The ending: why Lucy chose the ending she did for Mrs Wood and Mr Larson
35:32 Charlie thought it was going to be revealed that Miss Finch could really talk to spirits – Lucy discusses this point. Listen in!
37:24 The ending: Mrs Wood and Miss Finch and their terms
39:20 Lucy tells us about the locations in the book: Victorian-era Notting Hill, Portobello Road, Ladbroke Grove
42:32 Lucy gives us more information about her next book


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 96. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by debut novelist Lucy Barker. We’ll be talking today about The Other Side Of Mrs Wood, an incredibly funny tale set in Victorian London. Mrs Wood is a very popular medium – where many others in her line of work have been outed as fraudulent, Mrs Wood has prevailed, and this is particularly important because she sees her work as a service, helping those who are grieving. It’s also particularly important because her career has led her from a lowly background to the stability she has today. We meet Mrs Wood whilst she’s doing very well with her own circle of women she’s created, and we see her conversations with Miss Newman, her years-long companion, who helps Mrs Wood with the various methods used to show that spirits are indeed at her séances. But Mrs Wood has seen a young woman watching her from outside, and when she sees her again she runs after her and catches her: Miss Finch would like to become a medium and seeks Mrs Wood’s help. Mrs Wood sees a great opportunity to keep her customers with her as she ages, with the addition of a young trainee. But will Miss Finch turn out to be the saviour Mrs Woods hopes or is Eliza the maid’s dislike a better match for the occasion? Hello Lucy!

Lucy: Lovely to see you!

Charlie: It is, it’s good to see you, it’s good to have you on. I would like to ask you about the inspiration for this book, the real mediums, who inspired you?

Lucy: Okay, so that is a woman called Agnes Guppy. And Agnes Guppy was one of the most successful mediums working in London, or in Britain, during the late Victorian period. In fact, she managed to survive lots of interrogation, lots of scientific experiments. She went through all of that and when she died – I think it was in the 1920s – she’d never been exposed. However, it’s not like she ever played it safe. So she was famed for doing really extravagant things called apports, and apports are where the spirits deliver items – so they could be fruit, they could be an item of clothing, they could be lots of different noises, but they are ultimately from the spirits. And the thing that Mrs Guppy did was that she apported herself. She was known as The Flying Enchantress because she took herself from – well, I say she took herself, the séance was set up in High Holborn; she was over in Highbury doing her books in her back parlour, and someone at the seance in High Holborn said, ‘oh, it’d be lovely if Mrs Guppy was here’. With a crack, Mrs Guppy appeared in the middle of the table. Obviously, it was a pitch black séance, so someone needed to light a candle to see her, and she was there, and she was in her stocking feet dressing gown with her notebook in her hand. Apparently incredibly surprised to be there. So she was an extraordinary medium and an extraordinary show-woman as well. And I found her absolutely fascinating and then when I found this little nugget about the rivalry, or the perceived rivalry between Mrs Guppy and Florence Cook, who people will probably know more if they know their Victorian mediums. She is considered to be the first British medium to have ever materialised a full spirit. And she did this when she was around fifteen. And it was from around 1873. So when this happened, there were reports that were spread by the two male American mediums, very famous ones, D. D. Homes and Mr Nelson. And they were very concerned because they thought that Mrs Guppy had great animosity towards this girl, towards Florence Cook. And they reported that Mrs Guppy had wanted a dash acid in her doll-like face, which was one of the things that she was supposed to have said, and engineered a grabbing incident and all this, the classic two women can’t be successful side by side, do you know what I mean?

Charlie: Yeah.

Lucy: But equally, it tapped into the very real sense of a woman who is really, really, established and doing really well, but reliant on what she does for her income, and that income being challenged by the appearance of a new young thing who is exciting and appealing and everything that someone like Mrs Guppy probably wasn’t. So whilst I don’t believe at all what those other mediums said, there probably was a good bit of professional rivalry between them, and that was really appealing.

Charlie: Well, you’ve said about the apportments, and I suppose I’ll bring it in here. You’ve got these mediums who have been seen as fraudulent, and they were constantly being outed as fraudulent. And you’ve got these apportments that we read in your book. We can see the technical methods used, et cetera, people going around and the darkness was their friend, effectively.

Lucy: Yes.

Charlie: And with all these outings, surely there came a time where people went, ‘okay, well, we can’t necessarily prove that…’ for example, the mediums you talked about, they weren’t real, but there must come a time where people said, ‘okay, none of them are real’.

Lucy: I don’t think so, because people wanted to believe. Mrs Guppy, for example, was clearly doing all these really elaborate hoaxes. But she was very good friends with a woman called Georgiana Horton, and Georgiana Horton was a great believer. She was a woman who had lost her sister, her beloved sister, and I think she’d lost her brother. She was a sister who’d stayed at home and nursed her parents to their deaths. And she was a woman who was that classic Victorian spinster. She believed absolutely wholeheartedly. She was a spirit artist, and she nearly bankrupted herself putting on an exhibition of her spirit paintings, which actually, I think The Courtauld did an exhibition of them a couple of years ago, and they’re really beautiful. However, she claims that they’re drawn by the spirits. She put loads of money into the backing of Hudson, the famous ghost photographer, and then when he was discovered to be a fraud, she lost that money. But she never stopped believing. I think it’s twofold, I think one of them is that they may have felt that they had those gifts, but on a much smaller level. And so them hearing a voice or seeing a light or sensing something was enough for them to prove it to themselves. And therefore, when people are doing these grand exhibitions, perhaps for them, it just felt like a natural progression that someone was much more talented than them. So I think it was that that was really appealing to it. And I think also there was a massive sense of sisterliness about it. Spiritualism offers the opportunity for women to go out and about and have social lives. I mean, obviously they could do that, but they could have fun, feel special, do something special, be part of something within that safe, domestic sphere. And in a time where radicalism was really feared, that’s something which was really important and really, really, attractive as well. Even people who were exposed, though, even people who were exposed, they still maintained some of their followers. There was a very famous case where a woman was exposed by a student of science, was what they were referred to. She was mid-play of the violin, of the spirit violin, and this student struck a match. And even though all of her sitters were there with her, and saw her exposed, most of them believed her excuse.

Charlie: Right, well, I thought you were going to say ‘yes, at some point, that kind of thing died out’. Obviously, we have ghosts and mediums and things today, but in a different way.

Lucy: In terms of the showmanship, do you think? I think, obviously, it became harder to do it because people were looking for reasons. This is a time of circus, the rise of the legitimacy of the theatre and all those kinds of things. So I think it just happened to be at that particular time that it was quite thrilling.

Charlie: Fair enough. And I do like – it’s in your book, it’s a big thread in your book, and you’ve said it here – about the independence it gave women. I mean, that is something that’s really satisfying to read. You are rooting for Mrs Wood and you’re rooting for all of them, I think, but obviously, particularly Mrs Wood, because she’s your main character. But on the note of patrons that you’ve brought up – in your book, they’re quite fickle, they’re kind of switching quickly between Mrs Wood and Miss Finch, and you get the idea that they do it a fair amount. How does this compare to the reality – were they fickle? Were there some that stuck around with one person for a while?

Lucy: I think they were probably not quite as dramatically fickle, but I think that they probably were fickle. Sir William Crooks was Florence Cook’s biggest patron, and he was a famous chemist who was fascinated by spiritualism. He’d also been a big supporter of other mediums but when Florence came on the scene, he devoted all of his attention to her. He moved her into his house when his wife was just about to have their last baby – it was a slightly uncomfortable patron kind of relationship, I think [laughs]. I think the men were there because they wanted to be part of the next big thing and be the one who proved that it was right. So there was that. I think in my book, it’s the male patrons who are the fickle ones. I mean, the female patrons are as well, the women are as well, but the ones who are loyal are the women. As I say, not all of them, but the ones who are loyal are women. And I think that’s also because there’s an awful amount of trust that is built up between a medium who sees her patron for private sessions. So I think that would have kept an element of loyalty, but I think for men, more, where it was about finances and about ego, I think that they probably were like, ‘ooo, what’s that over there?’ And then you’ve just got the public who were just as they are today. ‘What’s a bright young thing coming over the horizon?’

Charlie: A different question before we’ll start moving on to the characters – why were people into spiritualism then? I know we’ve got the Spiritualist Church today and stuff, but was there a cultural or historical context that made it such a big thing?

Lucy: Yes. So spiritualism as we think of it today, or as we think of it in the 19th century today, has its origins with the Fox sisters, who were late 1840s, I think, in America, they were kind of tagging onto the end of parts of mesmerism and this whole idea that the spirits can heal you – that’s been going on for centuries. What they did was they really connected in with spirits. And then you had the American Civil War, and that was what is credited with really boosting spiritualism in America, and whatever happens in America was brought over to the UK. We in the UK as well, the British were experiencing a lot of loss. There were wars, disease, all these kinds of things. I’m not so glib as to say that the Victorians were surrounded more by death – they were – but I always feel a little bit uncomfortable when people say that, because there’s an implication that there’s a comfort with death, and I don’t think that they were used to it by any means. So they were also looking for connection. So you have that side of it, which is the emotional side of it, which is people wanting to remain connected to people that they have lost. Babies, parents, husbands, siblings – it’s about reconnection and maintaining that connection. And then on the flip side of that, you’ve also got this period of great scientific discovery. The Victorian period, the 19th century, is when you’ve got the great growth in secularisation, which comes hand-in-hand with theories of evolution. You start off in the 1800s, and you have the Church, Christian belief systems, that is the foundation of society. And by the end of the 19th century, you’ve got 101 different kinds of ways that people can engage with their spirituality or with whatever. You’ve got vegetarianism, you’ve got philosophy, you’ve got all of these different kinds of ways of life. One of Mrs Guppy’s very big patrons, and actually one of the biggest patrons during those mid years of the 19th century, was Darwin’s partner, who was someone who’d also come up the idea of evolution, they’d come together to discuss it together. And his name was Russell. He turned to spiritualism and wrote all these huge volumes of pamphlets about it, and he’s a man rooted in discovery and exploration and possibility. And I think that spiritualism was part of that journey, too. If disease, if bacteria can kill us, then maybe we can talk to a soul or a spirit that has gone on. There were all these possibilities, and I think that when we think of Victorians, we quite often think of them as being stayed uptight, repressed, oppressed. And, yeah, they were all of those things but they were also incredibly innovative, incredibly forward thinking. They were all about innovation, discovery, being the first. They were really driven. And I think spiritualism fit really nicely into that. What if there was more?

Charlie: Well, I’m surprised about what you said about Darwin’s partner [Lucy: Yeah!]. I wouldn’t have thought that would go together. The ghost and the spirits, yeah.

Lucy: Yeah.

Charlie: And you’ve said America. You’ve given us a good backdrop about America and mediumship and spiritualism. And that was something that’s in your book, you’ve always got America in the background. And I had wondered, as I was reading, why? I guessed, ‘okay, we’ve got the information about the mediums’. Was it important to you to have that context in the book?

Lucy: Yeah. America wasn’t seen like it is today, like in the 1870s. It was seen as nouveau fast, it was seen as scrappy, kind of up and coming. But I think because it’s [pronounces slowly] entrepreneurialism, which is such an easy word to say [laughs], but like that desire for the newer, bigger, better that America has always had and still does have now, really intimidated British, that refined Britishness, but also it really stirred that natural competitiveness within society of being bigger. This is the time of imperialism as well, where Britain is wandering around the world saying, ‘we’ll have you, and we’ll have you‘, and they lost America. I think that they always wanted to be better. So that’s what the thread is going through, another theme of competitiveness.

Charlie: Okay, I’m going to bring America in at the end, I think, as well. So we will go back to there.

Lucy: Okay.

Charlie: But I think we need to get onto your characters. And you adore every one of these characters, I think that’s fair to say, you’re having a lot of fun with that [laughs].

Lucy: Yes [laughs].

Charlie: Can you tell us about them? I suppose if we say Mrs Wood and Miss Newman and Miss Finch.

Lucy: So, Mrs Wood – I wanted my protagonist to be a woman of a certain age. And while she’s only just about to turn 40 within the 19th century, that’s the equivalent of turning 50, which is kind of where I’m coming up to. I wanted her to be slightly awkward physically, I didn’t want her to be a great looker – I just wanted to come away from clichés, and I just wanted her to be just a woman who is brilliant at what she does. But she was the hardest character for me to get my teeth into, because I’ve learned how I write is that my protagonist always starts off really passive, where everything happens to my protagonist, for my first draft, and I think that’s all part of feeling out the story. And then when we come back to draft two, that’s when she starts to get her wings. She’s stern, she knows herself. She’s a successful woman whose position is threatened. She’s just so passionate about what she does, and she’s so dedicated. But she’s also really quite sensible and direct and she can be a bit mean sometimes as well. And then Miss Newman. So Miss Newman is her closest friend and confidant. So Mrs Woods never really had anyone like Miss Newman in her life, where she can be entirely open with them. When she was growing up, she couldn’t have any friends, really. Her mother didn’t really give her very much, apart from the skills. And so she doesn’t understand what she has with Miss Newman. But I think Miss Newman sees all of that in Mrs Wood and as Miss Newman is such a huge advocate for women, I think that she just feels an intense, burning loyalty to Mrs Wood. I think that’s why she’s always a bit surprised that Mrs Wood won’t join her women’s rights meetings or won’t really engage in that, because she can’t understand how someone who is as strong and brave and independent as she is… but Mrs Wood isn’t strong, brave, and independent, for any other reason than she’s had to be. That’s Miss Newman – I love Miss Newman, everyone needs a Miss Newman. And then Miss Finch. Miss Finch was also a job. She started off a little bit Eliza Doolittle, and I did not want an Eliza Doolittle. She’s come up from the streets, she’s just a younger version of Mrs Woods, and I think that some of the questions that I’ve had [from people], and the questions that I have myself, is that she’s so observant; her whole livelihood is based on her ability to observe the details that no one else sees, so how is she so blind-sided by Miss Finch? And the reality is that she’s choosing to be blind-sided by her because she sees so much of herself in her. And in a way, by rescuing and teaching and, controlling and managing Miss Finch, she’s tending to her own inner child, as we would say now, which she would obviously look at me completely blankly [laughs] if she were to ever hear me say that! Miss Finch is not scrappy, but she’s very clear headed. She knows what she wants, and she’s going to get it. Becoming a medium in the 19th century, a professional one who made money, was one of the only ways that a woman could make her own money in a respectable way. So, yeah, she’s going to do that.

Charlie: So I am surprised that you said you found Mrs Wood hard, you can’t tell it [Lucy laughs]. It just reads like she just came out your head fully formed, everything. But you’ve hit on Miss Newman – I love her too. And you said about her society, this is a very, very, early start for the suffrage movement. Can you tell us about what they were doing at this kind of time?

Lucy: Well, it’s pre-suffrage, really, this is just the birth of the women’s rights movement. So, 1872 – I think it was 1872, I’m pretty sure it was 1872 – was the Married Woman’s Act, which was the first time that a woman could actually take out from her marriage what she took in with her. So that was a massive step for women. You have incredibly strong women across the country who are starting to talk about women’s rights. And they’re generally, at this stage, on the upper class level, the middle to upper classes. But it’s also going hand in hand more with radicalism. And the women’s rights movement will gradually become about suffrage, but that’s not the origin point of it. And this is where Miss Newman is starting. She’s being drawn in by these incredible lectures and as a single woman at the beginning, she’s smart as well, she’s a clever woman. And I think it just appeals to her intellect. She goes on and she writes a pamphlet with George. And I think that that for her, is such a huge achievement – I don’t mean, like, in a patronising way – I think that she feels that’s a huge achievement, a huge step forward. But, yeah, so that’s what’s happening at that point – women are starting to talk and stand up and say, ‘we deserve to have rights’. And as I say, then it morphed more into what we would now know as suffrage. But then, I think Suffragettes, the term Suffragettes didn’t actually appear until the early 1900s, where it was used in a derogatory way. But I think what the key thing at that point is for Mrs Wood, though, is that it’s radical. And I think I said this earlier on, radicalism was actually quite scary for wealthy people, for the upper classes, which is what Mrs Wood is engaging herself, ingratiating herself within. Radicalism speaks of revolution, and we’re not very far on from when the French Revolution had happened – they would all be quite nervous about that. But that’s also why Mrs Wood isn’t that interested in it at all. And I think we make an assumption that we would all… that as a woman, I would be involved in the Suffragette movement, but actually, would we have been active members of the suffrage movement? And so I wanted to show the realistic side that some women just chose not to be involved.

Charlie: Yeah, I mean, when you add the historical context to it, when you’re thinking about yourself, yeah, it changes everything, doesn’t it? You don’t necessarily know if you would. But I love how you brought that in, and I liked – well loved, let’s use love again [Lucy laughs] – I loved the friendship between Mrs Wood and Miss Newman. I loved how Miss Newman rightly points out [laughs] that Mrs Wood hasn’t really been listening to her half the time [Lucy laughs]. And I also really, really, liked how you’ve developed Miss Newman so much, and we know so much about her, and she feels like she’s in a novel on, like, every second page, and she’s not. You have her coming in and out – that’s something she does a lot, she goes out the door, she goes to her society, she comes back. And I just really liked how that worked with it.

Lucy: Oh, thank you.

Charlie: I’m going to have to ask you about a couple more characters, but I’m going to ask you about them together. Can you tell us about Mrs Wood’s circle of people, I suppose how you came to create them, that sort of thing?

Lucy: So one of the things that I love writing is I love writing little set pieces, and I love creating, characters who are pastiches or just there for fun. So when I first started the circle, that was me just having a little bit of fun, creating this lovely little room of weird and wonderful women. But then, as it always happens when you’re writing these things, then suddenly they started to get their own stories, and suddenly started to have their own personalities and do their own things, which is really annoying when you’re trying to write them. So you have Mrs Reynolds, who is this soft, powdery, gentle soul, who is a believer. All of Mrs Woods’ circle are believers, and that’s based on my research with Georgiana Horton and Agnes Guppy. They all come to the table with their own skill set, whatever that may be. Mostly it’s someone hearing a noise or someone getting off a hothead [Charlie laughs]. And so, yes, you have Mrs Reynolds, who is soft and powdery, and she acts as a counterbalance in the séances, she’s the one who looks after people who’ve been distressed. Then you have the sisters – again, I think that they’re all statements on the forgotten women of the 19th century, the women who were never really talked about, who aren’t very interesting. And so you have the two sisters who live above a flat and just like to make garish dresses on their own. You have Miss Brigham, who lives with her elderly mother, who should have been able to go off and ride horses and shoot guns when she was younger – I think she would have had a much happier life. And then you have Mrs Hart, who’s another medium, because they would share tables with other active mediums. And Mrs Hart is one of those. She’s all bosom and bluster. And then Tracy Ann Oberman, in the audible version, made her Scottish! And I was like, ‘of course she’s Scottish. I didn’t even know she was Scottish, but of course she is!’ So, yeah, so they all kind of represent the overlooked woman. You think about some[one]like George Gissings, The Odd Women, those kinds of women who aren’t very exciting, but all have little stories to tell.

Charlie: I’m glad I asked you that question because I missed that factor. And also, I suppose it’s going back to the mediums again, briefly – but when you had the circle together – one line that sparked this question, where Mrs Wood was thinking, ‘oh, someone else is going to take over in a minute’, that sort of thing – did this circle, did they know amongst themselves that they were all using technical methods as opposed to the real deal?

Lucy: Well, I think it’s impossible to say for all of them, but based on the research that I did so that’s from diaries, and I didn’t trust the diaries from the professional mediums because they’re professional mediums – Georgiana Horton’s diary, where she has detailed every single séance that’s ever really happened in her house or at friends’ houses, it’s such a gorgeous read, she’s such a wonderful woman. She believed wholeheartedly that it was true. She absolutely believed it. She had a message through from Agnes Guppy about her mother saying, ‘you need to wear a multicoloured coat’. And so she went off and she made a coat out of all these different patches of kind of colour [laughs], and she would just wear it around looking as eccentric as she probably was. So at Mrs Wood’s table, you’ve got Mrs Wood and Miss Newman, and then you’ve got Mrs Hart. They’re really good friends – Mrs Guppy and Georgiana Horton were really good friends. They’d hang out together. How did she hang out with a friend that she was so clearly duping? But they did, because it was all part of the process. But even Mrs Wood and Mrs Hart can’t be honest with each other. They waltz around the questions of, like, ‘oh, were you not expecting that?’ Or, ‘oh, you could have warned me’. But they never come out directly and say, ‘how did you get that banana to come out of the teapot?’ [Charlie laughs.] They have to maintain that illusion.

Charlie: Okay. All right. Yeah, you say about Mrs Wood being friends with her circle. She very much sees mediumship as her performing a service, helping people. I’m guessing this isn’t something that you’ve created just for her, this is something that a lot of people did in the era?

Lucy: So one of the biggest challenges of writing something about a con-woman, particularly when a con-woman gets annoyed by another con-woman, is, how does she make this morally right for herself? And I can’t remember if I read it or if I just inferred it from some of the stuff that was going on, but I think that they were early grief counsellors, and I think that some of them saw themselves as giving these people opportunities to talk about people who had died. And I was saying earlier on death was more prevalent, loss was more likely, but no less tragic. But within a society which prescribed grief so specifically, being able to talk about someone that you’d lost in polite society was absolutely impossible. So I think it offered that opportunity. And I think that’s how Mrs Wood, she uses all the tricks to validate herself as a medium, to say, ‘look, if I can do this, imagine what I can do when we’re in a room on our own and it’s just voices. This is the proof of my link to that spirit side’. But yeah, there are so many fraudsters, but I’m just thinking about Conan Doyle and about how he became so drawn to it after losing his son, and how it brought him so much comfort. I think I can say quite comfortably that I think that that is a service, that mediums, some mediums felt that they were providing. And I know that I saw a medium as part of my research – there was no point me going to a séance because the séances are so different now – and I came out of that session feeling incredibly comforted and at peace. And I wasn’t expecting that at all. I mean, I’m completely on the fence about everything, there were bits where I was like, ‘oh, yeah, whatever’, but regardless, my feeling was I felt better, even though I didn’t realise I needed to before I went in. But I was really relieved that I felt like that because I went after I’d written it, or most of it, so I was kind of, ‘oh God, I did get that bit right’ [laughs].

Charlie: Fair enough fair enough. When you are first sort of introducing the idea of grief counselling, effectively, if we use the current phrase, for Mrs Wood, I did think, ‘you what? Lady? Really?’ [Lucy laughs]. And then as you carry on writing about it and including it, I thought, ‘no, okay, I can see where it’s going’. And I did believe Mrs Wood by the end, I did believe that she very, very, much felt that she was providing a service and if she was helping people, yes, okay, there’s some trickery involved, but if it helps, overall, maybe, okay, it’s not so bad. On a complete 180 from grief as a subject, this book is very funny.

Lucy: Thank you.

Charlie: I found it incredibly witty. Was this important to include?

Lucy: Yes. So I remember reading Cranford when I was sixteen or seventeen and being like, [draws a deep breath] ‘the Victorians were funny?’ [Laughs] I couldn’t believe [it]. But I will read anything that has got warmth and heart to it. I didn’t know, it just suits my writing style, because I can be quite serious when I write, but I also love to make people laugh a little bit. It’s just part of my personality, I suppose. Normally I’m absolutely hilarious [laughs], but right now I’m being quite serious!

Charlie: So I’m going to ask you this now, we’ll get into it in detail at the end, but is your next book going to be quite funny then?

Lucy: Yes, yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a not funny book. It’s just not in my makeup. Because it’s funny, it doesn’t mean that it’s not talking about quite difficult things. And actually I quite like having a paragraph which can flip on its head, so it can start out quite light, and then suddenly… I like lulling my readers into like a full sense of security. So, yes, my next book is hilarious [laughs].

Charlie: Well, I will ask you more in approximately 10 minutes [Lucy: Okay…], towards the end. You’ve got letters in this book and Mr Clore’s columns. And you’ve written a blog post which I will include the link for, for listeners, about mail deliveries, how frequent they were, because I was like, ‘my goodness, is really quick!’ [laughs].

Lucy: Yes, I know! [Laughs.]

Charlie: Can you tell us why you wanted to use letters and your inclusion of the columns?

Lucy: So anything like that, newspaper excerpts, letters, they all do a load of heavy lifting for you. So they can move the plot along at a pace, so if something’s happened somewhere else, you can just read it in one line. I also love the way that letters in particular, you can draw a character with just a phrase. Instead of me introducing a new character and drawing them within a chapter, it’s done in a couple of lines, like how they sign off a letter or how they talk about someone that they know in the letter, everything, it’s a really wonderful way of getting under the skin of someone really, really quickly. So I love that about letters. Same with the newspaper columns. One of the things that I really love in film and in fiction is when you see the same scenario from two different points of view, or three or four or five. And I was at an event recently and I mentioned a film called One Night At McCool’s? [Pauses for Charlie to respond. Charlie is silent.] No, no one’s heard of it [laughs].

Charlie: No, I don’t know that one.

Lucy: No, no. And so it’s a film which tells the story of one night where a robbery happens in a bar, and it has three or four different viewpoints. And so the story is told from each of their viewpoints. And it’s so good, the characters shift so much from those different viewpoints, it’s like, who can you trust? And I’ve always loved that. It’s like the same with when I write those paragraphs where it’s fun and games and, oh God, big mallet comes and hits you on the head. So Mrs Wood thinks, ‘oh, that was brilliant. No one’s ever going to trump that night!’ And then you see it from someone else’s point of view in a letter or in a column. Yeah, I love writing them. They’re so easy as well, they just flow.

Charlie: Listeners, yes, you can expect a link to One Night At McCool’s and I’ll go and find out about it as well.

Lucy: Yeah, it’s such a random film. It’s got Matt Dillon and Liv Tyler and John Goodman and Paul… Judd, I think his surname is, not Paul Rudd. It’s really random, but it’s really good when you’re thinking about different points of view and how to tell a story, three different or four different or five different ways. I loved it years ago [Charlie laughs]. I had it on video.

Charlie: So I’m going to get us to the ending. I liked that Mrs Wood did not end up with Mr Larson. Was this always the plan?

Lucy: Yes, it was always the plan. Yeah, I think I had one version where they did end up together. I never wanted the book to be about romantic, man, woman, whatever, love. I didn’t want it to be like that. That was never Mrs Wood’s journey, she’s never been interested in moving forward – it’s not necessary for her. But I still wanted him to be happy, but also because they fall out, my agent, when I was going through the drafts with her, she was a bit like, ‘I really want them to make up’. And I was like, ‘they can’t make up because she’s just pushed him too hard and too far, and she’s taken advantage of him’. And if he did forgive her, I just thought there are no consequences for her when she behaved really badly. So it’s just really important to me that they didn’t. And also that they don’t necessarily end up friends either.

Charlie: Oh, yeah, she’s moved to America, hasn’t she, effectively?

Lucy: Yeah, and he’s going to marry Mrs Jupp, who Mrs Wood is really appalled by because she thinks she’s so boring and average and, yeah, she doesn’t like Mrs. Jupp.

Charlie: She probably wouldn’t have been the great match for Mr Larson then. Who knows?

Lucy: She was terrible! [Charlie laughs.] She didn’t want him anyway, she never wanted him, no. No, she wouldn’t. She would be a terrible match for anyone. She just enjoys hanging out with her mates.

Charlie: True. True. I don’t know, I felt sorry for Mr Larson but, yeah, it was definitely a good choice. And it’s interesting, actually, because you’re the third author now in a span of about three months who has made this choice – that I’ve interviewed – to keep the lady single at the end when there’s a possible romance, I’m really loving it!

Lucy: And I mean, I don’t know if my second book will be different, I don’t know, but I never wanted to write a love story. I’ve never, ever wanted to write love stories. I used to write really terrible chick-lit books, which are truly terrible! But the reason why they were so terrible is because I’ve never wanted to write about love. I’ve got nothing new to say about love. That’s not my wheelhouse. My wheelhouse is just women making acidic quips to one another [both laugh].

Charlie: It’s very, very, fun. I will say [laughs], I’ll be very honest and say that I was reading this book, and as I was reading it – I think up to about halfway – I actually thought that Miss Finch’s talent was that she was able to speak to spirits. Now people might go, ‘oh, my God, Charlie, why did you think that?’ But it did seem to me that that was a possibility. Did you ever consider that as a possibility?

Lucy: Yes, yeah, I did. And do you know what, this is terrible, but I’m not 100% sure if the line is still in there – but there is a moment where Mrs Wood, in one of my drafts, is like, ‘is she real?’ I think we cut it in the end because I didn’t want it to be too blatant. But, yeah. The thing is, of course, it’s about spirit mediums, and, of course, it’s about spiritualism, and it has all these séances going on, but ultimately, it’s about the rivalry, it’s about the women, it’s about their story. You could take those two characters out and put them into another industry, and they would be the same characters. So I think I needed to be really careful not to get bogged down and let the spiritualism dominate it over the women’s stories themselves.

Charlie: Yeah, no, I can say that that line isn’t in the finished book, and I can say that because when I was thinking that Miss Finch was real, I was waiting for Mrs Wood to work it.

Lucy: Yeah [laughs].

Charlie: So, yeah, I can say that she didn’t say that, because otherwise I’d be like, ‘there it is!’ And I never had that moment.

Lucy: I do know that it’s not in there, you’re right, because that was part of a conversation – if she did have that thought, then that would turn the book on its head. Because I think one of the things, when you think about it like that, is Miss Finch has something better than Mrs Wood has. And I think the bottom line is Mrs Wood had to believe that she didn’t. Mrs Wood had to believe that what she had was smoke and mirrors, just like she had. Do you know what I mean?

Charlie: Yeah. On this ending with Mrs Woods and Miss Finch on good terms – I was surprised by that. I was happy and quite like, ‘oh, that’s where America’s been coming in’ – when we got to the end and they go to America, that’s kind of the full circle because you’re talking about America a lot at the start of the book, and then it was always there in the background a little bit, and then it’s full circle at the end. But, yeah, they’re on good terms, which I’m kind of both surprised at and not surprised at. And then, of course, you’ve got Eliza coming in.

Lucy: I’m not sure if you’d say that they were on good terms, I think they’re on different terms. So the ending was the hardest thing to get right. And it went through loads and loads of different iterations with different things happening. And one of the things that I had to make right in my head was, how does a 40-year-old woman ruin the career of a 16-year-old girl, because that’s what was happening. So the reason had to be right, how she did it had to be right, and then how she recovered from it had to be right. And there’s a whole chapter that’s cut out, which is of her feeling desperately awful after it’s happened, and going to try and find her to make it right, but then Miss Finch is Miss Finch – an absolute arse about it – so she moves on and she’s fine. But, yes, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are on good terms, but they have potential. And that’s what I really wanted to end it on. Also the fact that she’s survived and she’s got herself there and she’s doing all these things – that’s proof to Mrs Wood that she was right to take her on in the first place. And Mrs Wood’s never going to let an opportunity pass her by, is she? [Laughs.]

Charlie: Okay, all right, as I said, I was surprised and not surprised at the same time, but no, okay, I’m glad we’ve got that from you, because that’s made me appreciate it a lot more.

Lucy: Thank you [laughs].

Charlie: So I don’t know why I’ve put this question near the end, but I’ve put it at the end, I suppose it’s not so important or something. I don’t know. The area of Notting Hill, Chepstow Villas, et cetera.

Lucy: Yes.

Charlie: And again, I think you’ve got another blog post which was really fascinating to read. Link in the show notes again, listeners. But can you tell us about it at the time and why you wanted to use that area?

Lucy: So I wanted to use that area because I used to live around there, and I wanted to write about somewhere that I knew. And also, I really wanted to write about Notting Hill, because it’s different to how people would have thought it was in that period. Honestly, you’ve now tapped into the utter, inner geek, so brace yourself. Strap in.

Charlie: Go for it [Lucy laughs].

Lucy: So as I say, I lived there for years, so I know that area really well. I’d made assumptions about where various parts of it were built. I knew that the pig farms were there; I knew these bits because I did that in my Masters. What I didn’t realise, though, was how the estates were built. So all those big white stucco houses, that city, the side of Portobello Road, all around there, the Ladbrooke Estate, all around there – they were built in the late 1860s. They were all built in pockets, and they were all built by investors, and like they do now, over farmland – Portobello Road was called Portobello Road because the Portobello farm was at the end of it. And you’ve got the brick fields, you’ve got all the piggeries. It was a bit of a rough area. But I always just assumed that very wealthy people lived there, but they didn’t. And most people rented as well. It was mainly people who were merchants, bankers, but, like, not super, super, wealthy ones, captains, I think possibly because there was so much building work going on. So then you had what’s now Ladbrooke Grove Tube Station – that was called Notting Hill Station, all the stuff from behind there. But when Mrs Wood’s living there, that’s all fields. So I just really loved the idea of placing her somewhere that I think lots of people feel like they know, that’s a really familiar name, but actually, that whole environment is actually quite different. But the house exists, that she lives in, and I don’t know if it’s on my blog post or not, but it actually belongs to the man who founded the Innocent drinks company. And I know that [laughs] because he submitted a planning application, so I was able to see all the historic plans for the house on his planning application!

Charlie: Wow, okay.

Lucy: I should send it to him.

Charlie: I liked its inclusion. And when I was starting to read the book, I was like, ‘Notting Hill’. So I thought, okay, no, let’s look at the ages of the buildings and stuff – is it how I know from walking past the houses and stuff and getting a good idea for it. Yeah, it was very nice to have an area that is easy to picture, I think.

Lucy: Yeah, I think so, I agree. But the thing is, though, I had initially placed her in a road that was a couple of streets back from Ladbrooke Grove, because I didn’t want her to be somewhere too grand, because she wasn’t grand grand. She was reasonably wealthy, but not hugely wealthy. And then when I went to the census, and then when I was doing all that research around that, I was [like], ‘oh, no, that road wasn’t built. Those roads past the bridge weren’t built until the mid to late 1870s’. That was annoying [laughs]. But, yeah, no, it has to be right. It has to be right. Geography is really, really, important.

Charlie: So that question that I said we were going to come to, then – what’s next? More information about this book!

Lucy: Okay. So I’m working on it at the moment. Again, there’s an element of rivalry in it, but there is also friendship. It’s women. It’s more of the same! It’s not more of the same, but it’s continuing that theme that I really love to explore, which is what it means to be a single woman in the 19th century, although this is in 1908. And, yeah, a bit of rivalry. Some fancy dresses. It’s going to be fun! My characters are probably going to be a bit younger, though, which I’m not entirely comfortable with, but I think they have to be. I’ve done one draft with an older woman and it didn’t feel right, so back to the drawing board.

Charlie: That will be very interesting to read then, with that knowledge, seeing what you’ve done with it then. Lucy, it has been lovely having you, and I am very much looking important, your next book. Thank you for coming.

Lucy: Oh, thank you so much for having me!

[Record later] Charlie: And thank you very much for listening. Please do share this episode with anyone you think would be interested in it. The Worm Hole Podcast episode 96 was recorded on the 27th November 2023 and published on the 22th April 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.


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