Driven by dementia: Kate Beaufoy on The Gingerbread House
Moved by pity, fear and anger, it took just five weeks to get the words down. That was the easy part, the catharsis. Then came the guilt
Kate Beaufoy: the problems that have arisen with the advance of the ageing demographic are not going to go away
The Gingerbread House was both the easiest book I have written, and the most difficult. The first draft came out in a rush. Borne aloft on a tsunami of overwhelming emotions of pity and fear and anger, it took just five weeks to get the words down. That was the easy part, the catharsis.
Then came the guilt, in manifold forms. Guilt for writing about what has traditionally been a taboo subject, even among women. Guilt for feeling inadequate – that I couldn’t be a real woman because I couldn’t manage to do what women have done uncomplainingly for centuries. Guilt for using as a template a person I had known and loved. I was riddled with guilt.
I put the book away in the computer equivalent of a drawer. From time to time I looked at it, and every time I re-read it I realised that emotion recollected in tranquility is not the panacea promised by Wordsworth. The strength of my feelings shocked me, the way I was shocked by what I had written when my mother, Hilary, died 30 years ago. That was pre-MacBook; the pages of the exercise book I then used to set down my thoughts and impressions are dense with ink-black script, unstructured, unedited.
At the time of Hilary’s sudden death I was an actress. I remember how, just after I got the news, I caught a glimpse of my expression in a mirror and found myself thinking in an eerily detached manner, “I must remember that this is how it looks to be bereaved”. If I had been a photographer my guess is that I would have reached for a camera, a sketch book if I had been an artist. When artistic expression is the crux of your modus vivendi there is no cut-off point. Life and art feed on each other like Ouroborus: to record one is to nourish the other.
The big difference between the exercise book into which I had spilled details of my mother’s death three decades ago and the Word document that evolved into The Gingerbread House was that in the intervening years I had become a writer. I now had the skills to structure and consolidate my story and – hopefully – to tell it well.
The Gingerbread House chronicles three weeks in the life of an old lady suffering from dementia and her carer. It was written from experience, but fearing that the personal pronoun would compromise its objectivity, I introduced a third character – an omniscient narrator in the form of the carer’s 14-year-old daughter, Katia. Initially, Katia was a literary device – a bit like a Greek chorus. But as the narrative developed, so too did Katia’s character. The novel is as much her story as it is that of her mother and grandmother.
However, the pity and fear and anger that motivated me to write the book are no less heartfelt simply because I didn’t use a first-person perspective. On one level it is an apologue; on another, a polemic: but on every level it is a clarion call to people to look at what is happening to us and to our loved ones, because the problems that have arisen with the advance of the ageing demographic are not going to go away.
I wrote the first draft of the book 10 years ago. Because it was a departure for me in terms of genre, and because of the personal nature of the subject matter, I had not submitted it for publication. But last year the commissioning editor of a Scottish publishing house, Black & White, approached me on the off-chance that I might have a project I’d be willing to discuss with him.
Since The Gingerbread House doesn’t slot conveniently into any publishing niche, I had my doubts that he would be interested. After all, even though the issues it confronts are germane to the lives of millions of readers, carers don’t feature prominently in books. With the exception of the semi-autobiographical family in Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough (1989), the only notable carer I can call to mind is Grace Poole in Jane Eyre. So when I sent the novel to Black & White it was with no real expectation of the book being published. To my surprise, they were passionately keen to take it on board.
My box of author’s copies arrived this week. As usual, I fanned through the pages and admired the artwork and stroked the covers and inhaled the incomparable smell of brand-new-book before setting them on the shelf next to all my other titles, some with Kate Thompson on the spine, some with Kate Beaufoy.
When I took Beaufoy as a nom-de-plume it was because I was embarking on an historical novel based on letters written by my grandmother, Jessie Beaufoy. My second historical novel was inspired by real incidents in the life of William Thackeray. Perhaps it’s time to look out that journal I kept at the time of my mother’s death, transcribe into a Word document those sentences that tear stains have not rendered quite illegible, and put some shape on that stream-of-consciousness manuscript at last.
The Gingerbread House by Kate Beaufoy is published by Black & White.