The World Behind the Characters of When Nights Were Cold

17 January 2014

By Pan Macmillan

As Queen Victoria’s reign reaches its end, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. Here, author Susanna Jones explains the personal and public history - in parts tragic, in others uplifting - behind some of the characters in her latest novel When Nights Were Cold.

My grandmother had an older half-sister, Florrie, who was a gifted pianist and studied at the Royal College of Music. She wanted to become a concert pianist and - at least according to the version of the story passed to me - her talent was such that it caught the ear of musicians of the day, including Ivor Novello. My great-grandfather thought that playing the piano in public was an unsuitable occupation for a woman and persuaded his daughter to train as a nurse instead. Just after the First World War she began working in a London hospital where she caught Spanish flu and died, still in her early twenties.

The story of Florrie was on my mind when I began writing When Nights Were Cold and some part of it went into the character of Catherine, the sister of my narrator, Grace. Catherine is in no sense supposed to be a fictional version of Florrie, about whom I know little more than what I’ve just written, but Florrie Jones’s story has always haunted me. I’m told that my great-grandfather was tortured by guilt after her death and I know that his youngest daughter became a doctor with - I think - his blessing and encouragement.

Florrie’s death was a tragedy, one of millions around the world during that epidemic, and who knows what she might have gone on to do had she survived. The possibility of seeing where these lives might go, these women who tried against the odds to break free, is what I wanted to explore in When Nights Were Cold.

The novel is about a group of women at the turn of the twentieth century when so much seemed possible and so much was still out of reach. Catherine, also a talented young pianist, loses her chance to study at college because her father disapproves. This disappointment becomes a driving force for her younger sister Grace, who is determined not to languish at home like Catherine. Yet she has to fight disapproval from her whole family as she tries repeatedly to make her escape.
I took Grace and her friends from a genteel women’s college to the wilderness of the Alps for their adventures. While Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen are racing each other to the South Pole, these young women are inspired to seek journeys and derring-do of their own, as indeed many women of the time did.

In the mountains, away from the conventions and restrictions of home, Grace finds a freedom and excitement she could never experience at home and a focus for her ambition. Music is Catherine’s space and the natural landscape is Grace’s.
I’ve climbed in the Alps, in Wales and the various places the characters visit. My life has been very different from theirs, of course, and from my ancestor’s life, but I know the freedom and the exhilaration of being in the mountains, the fuel to the imagination, the meditative properties of hiking for days on end. I find it hard to go back home and feel quite the same afterwards, just as Grace knows that she can’t be the person she was before. Catherine has given up her ambitions to be a professional musician and her interest in playing the piano has diminished but, of course, through her music she too has travelled to remote worlds. She must, in some way, be changed by them. I always wonder what it meant to Florrie to have those worlds taken away from her, what she must have lost.