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Sunday, 25 March 2012

Revisiting Honesty's Daughter

Our Iconic Book Group met  on  Saturday to discuss  very significant The Road  by Cormac McCarthy - my views on this book and  Dorothy's reader's commentary on this will be featured on this page next. 

But as well as this we discussed my novel Honesty's Daughter (absolutely their request not mine!) This novel was mostly written in Whitworth Hall, where the Iconic Group meet. Also  this real Hall and its real Walled Garden are the model for Benbow Hall in the novel. Some parts of the Benbow family history are 'borrowed' from the history of the Shaftos, owners of Whitworth Hall for hundreds of years.

In the group we talked about the wide ranging and in depth research demanded by a novel like this: how it is only possible to create a fictional novel if  the historical truths, the authentic details are strongly based in sound knowledge and particular, sometimes esoteric, true insights. 

I have to say that the a strange thing was that - after ten years - I had to go back and read the novel carefully, as a stranger. To my relief it actually seemed good. I wouldn't change anything. It still worked. And  I noted  again that certain themes still preoccupy me in my writing and emerge in many of my novels. Central to these  is my interest in people on the edge, in  the plight of the outsider. 

In this book the themes are reflected as;
 the independence and puzzling autonomy of the Romany people; 
the servant class in Britain in contrast with the ex-slaves in America;
 the plight of the Jewish immigrant in Edwardian England;
 the intricacy of social hierarchy;
 the neglectful mother and  non-communication within families. 

This latter is illustrated in the novel by a perpetual game of chess in the house which is never played face to face. (I had forgotten about that...)

Reading it again I realised what I knew ten years ago:  Honesty's Daughter  may seem like a conventional historical novel. But it's not.

A member of the group Geri,(unasked!) kindly gave me her reader's commentary for this page.

Here's Geri: 
Honesty’s Daughter is a fantastic novel.  I enjoyed reading it and couldn’t wait to follow the lives of the main characters: Carmel Benbow, her daughter Astrid and the Romany Keziah and her daughter Honesty..  The locations ranged from beautiful County Durham to Colorado Springs in the United States.
The emotions of the characters are very well portrayed.  We felt for the innocent Honesty Lomas as she was taken advantage of by the King, who should have known better and how Lady Seland could condone and indeed seek a virgin for him made us feel revulsion. But we live in a different time now.
Geri Auton

I felt anger early on in the book when I saw that the Colonel, who was trusted by Astrid’s mother Carmel, was  fleecing her continuously and was not surprised when he did a moonlight flit.  The bond between Keziah the Romany horse-dealer  and Carmel the obsessive gardener  is central to the novel. They come from very different backgrounds but each, in a way, is more royal than the King.

Carmel is so self-absorbed in her garden that she misses  her children growing up and does not realise how aggressive and cruel Michael John is, especially to her younger child, Ambrose, a sensitive boy with musical talent and great compassion for others. His sister Astrid is also compassionate.  She feels so strongly about Honesty’s plight.  Astrid was close to her late father, a scholar absorbed in Romany life - called a rai - and has inherited many of his qualities. Although Rufus is dead, his free spirit presides over the whole novel.

Wendy sets the scene very well – showing how life was for both rich and poor at the turn of the century and the senselessness of World War One.   We travel to The Somme just before the Armistice is signed but still feel  the unpredictability of life in the trenches – here one minute and gone the next – which happened to the batman of  Jack Lomas, Keziah's son. This shocks Jack so much that he stays on for six months, only returning when Astrid goes to look for him. Only then does he feel normal once more.

Even the peripheral characters are strongly built and we get a flavour of their talents and foibles.
Astrid’s friend, Constance, is a complex character - at first sweet and funny, then  demanding and jealous.  when, with Honesty they  travel to her father’s home in Colorado Springs, America. There Honesty  - who has no idea she is pregnant -   has a baby girl and in shock rejects the baby and gives her to Astrid.  Honesty  stays in America but  Astrid returns home with the baby - called Rose, who is a delight to everyone at Benbow Hall. Carmel creates a rose in her garden, called The Benbow Rose. Young Rose's    teenage character is shown strongly at the end of  the novel when her grandmother Keziah dies and her van - her vardo - is burnt at the old lady's  funeral.
‘Honesty’s Daughter’ is a lovely novel.   I will read it again.

Geri Auton has lived in Darllington all her life. After working career in local government she became secretary to the MD f an Engineering firm. She then achieved an Honours Degree in English and Education and began teaching in primary school before moving into comprehensive education eventually becoming Deputy Head.  Now she works with husband Geoff and has two grown-up children and three grandchildren.  She has a great affinity with South West Dorset where her mother was born and her writing often reflects this closeness to that beautiful county. She is working on a novel in this setting.


  1. I had forgotten about the game of chess too Wendy! and yet I now remember us discussing it at the time you were writing Honesty's Daughter. In my view this was and should have been seen by the publisher as a 'breakthrough novel.' It did not get the coverage - marketing etc etc it so deserved. A complex novel that explores the social history of the early twentieth century at its time of greatest change, both here and across the water in Colarado Springs U.S.A. - I look forward to it being widely available on Kindle where it will undoubtedly find many new readers. And what a lovely review by Geri!

  2. Dear Avril. Thank you for your perceptive comments.I remember being so excited about this one and enthusing about it with you in one of our writing - and other - conversations. I too wish it had received the promotion that would have made it much more widely available.(it was very heavily borrowed in British libraries and had respectable but not astounding sales...) I had a twinge of sadness as I read it again. But it still lives - our Iconic book group conversation shows that. And it will live again. I feel it in my waters.
    Geri's commentary is indeed lovely and very much appreciated. wx

  3. The game of chess sounds intriguing, especially when it was not played in the same room, a foresight of the way gaming is played online these days with the players in different locations - across the globe even.
    I'm sure the group enjoyed reading and talking about the book in situ as it were. I often find this enhances the experience.
    Another title for my reading list. Thank you, Judith.