An evening with An evening with Georgina Harding
A successful meet-the-writer evening is a two-way event which both the writer and audience enjoy and with plenty of time for lively interaction between author and reader. That is what we got from Georgina Harding in the Ingeborg-Drewitz-Bibliothek who came specially to Berlin to be with us for an evening: short readings of key passages selected by the writer and discussion of what themes and messages she sees as important.
In January most group members thoroughly enjoyed reading Thomas Cave ,many against their own expectations given its unlikely setting: one man’s winter alone in the Arctic Circle in the 17th century. They were fascinated to hear what inspired Georgina Harding ? at the time living in the heat of southern India – to choose such an obscure topic for her first published novel.
Georgina had read a one-paragraph news item in a newspaper, outlining how a man had survived an entire winter on his own in the Arctic Seas in a tent at a newly established whaling station. She explained how she thought “someone should write a novel about that”. When no-one else did, she decided to write it herself.
Georgina spent many hours researching in the British library. The original source was a 17th century memoir, The Narrative of Jon Olafsson.
Most of the practical details of the whaling industry and of how Thomas Cave survived the winter came direct from 17th and 19th century logs of early shipping and whaling expeditions. The Heartsease was the actual name of a whaling boat and the surname Goodlard the real name of a whaler. Many of the crew, Georgina found, had had the same name – William. Georgina told us she chose to use the name Thomas for three of the characters partly because her son is called Thomas. Her choice of Cave as a surname was symbolic.
How painful was it for Georgina to write the horrifying scene of whalers torturing a seal pup ? for sport? The event, Georgina said, was taken straight from a factual account of an early whaler. Then, she too had been horrified. But the process of writing, she said, put emotional distance between herself and the event being described.
When asked about the significance of music during Cave’s solitude, she replied that she was worried that the scene of Thomas Cave playing his violin to a seal was too sentimental. But we reassured her that the seal’s response to the music was very moving. We thought it was one of the most memorable and touching moments in the novel.
Previously a travel writer, Georgina admitted she had not been to the Arctic regions so vividly described in the novel. “So much of the book comes from my imagination. It would anyway have been impossible to explore the region as it was in the 17th century.”
Yes, it was difficult to write in a style that evoked the 17th century, using only the language and concepts that would have been current then, but without limiting her imagination. To have used entirely 17th century language would have made the book “inaccessible’”, Georgina told us.
Was there a “green” message? Georgina didn’t set out to write a “green” novel, but she was glad there was a strong environmental message in it. Thomas Cave’s words: We had the sense that this was not a place that God had made for man, that no man surely was meant in.
Georgina was delighted that readers were fascinated by the development of Thomas Cave’s character, during and after his voluntary isolation. She wanted to highlight his thoughts ? from her imagination? about the relationship between Man and God and Nature.
Georgina emphasised how important it was that Thomas Cave was a practical and rational man. She was sure that Cave would not have survived his ordeal if he had not been methodical and hardworking. He filled much of his time recording his days in a logbook. He kept busy and sane by having a programme of work – making heels for shoes. Survival meant hunting and preserving supplies of food and tracking time by the moon.
At the heart of the novel – for Georgina – is Thomas Cave’s sorrow at the loss of his beloved wife Johanne. Her harrowing death in childbirth is chillingly portrayed. Whilst in the Arctic Thomas has visions of her during a fever. At first her presence is comforting but his rational side wins through and he knows he must shun her ghostly images, even though he loves her so much. He must denounce her presence as the work of the devil.
Georgina confirmed that she felt Thomas Cave had learnt a lot from his ordeal. She was certain that he would have had no desire to live alongside his fellow men. In old age he has become a hermit ? living in a hut close to the sea. Sometimes he has been able to help the disturbed and sick but he approached people with wisdom drawn from reason not superstition.
The most common criticism in our groups is how novels end. For us, the ending to Thomas Cave worked brilliantly. We were reminded again of the powerful use of images, of the ship which left Thomas Cave in the icy wastes. He sees it sailing off in total clarity, until it quite suddenly disappears from view. That image is wonderfully reflected in Thomas Cave’s thoughts at the end of the book: “Such a hard thing it must have been to stand thus far off and have a view so clear, and look back at the rest of humankind.”
Georgina’s latest novel The Spy Game is in a totally different style and period from Thomas Cave – set during the Cold War in the sixties. Two young English children have to cope with the sudden death of their German mother. They are given very little information and their imaginations start working overtime. …perhaps she was a spy…as children they invent a spy game …as an adult Anna searches for the truth about her mother in Berlin and Kaliningrad.
Georgina has captured the grim wasteland of immediate post war Berlin and later the grey uniform atmosphere of a post Stalinist Kaliningrad. I’m sure Berliners will especially enjoy this novel..
Highly recommended – Spy Game was featured in June as a Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4. Hopefully this means that Georgina’s writing is gaining the full recognition it deserves.