His Powers of Walking II

Author and guest blogger Aislinn Hunter takes up at the point left off in a previous post.

In 2004 I had the privilege of being the writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing department at The University of Lancaster. I was in the early writing stages of a novel set in a contemporary London museum and featuring an archivist named Jane. One day, on a city bus, I was reading through an anthology of letters I’d picked up at a charity shop. There, in the middle of missives from Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria and the like was a short letter from Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson to the Governor of Witley Asylum, it read:

Mr. Alfred Tennyson presents his compliments to the Governor of Witley Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics, and requests him to be so kind as to take precautions that his patients should not pay visits at Aldworth, as two did yesterday (one describing himself as an assistant librarian of the British Museum). Mr. Tennyson is very glad if they in any way enjoy’d themselves here, and hopes they did not suffer from their long walk. 1

I remember putting the book down and picturing the whole encounter. This is how it works sometimes with novel writing: a story presents itself so clearly and fully that all of a sudden there are full-blown characters tramping through the woods of your imagination, and all you can do is follow them as they head up a path to knock on a great man’s door.

Over the years as the novel has progressed I’ve taken some liberties with the letter. I’ve replaced Tennyson as the letter writer with another (imagined) great man (a Victorian plant hunter) and moved the setting north towards Lancashire. But the letter itself and the long walk made by patients at a convalescent home for lunatics remains. This September, with support from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada where I teach creative writing, I spent some time in the locations where my novel is set and visited the Bethlem archives to get a better understanding of both the world my asylum characters would have inhabited and the kinds of archives my fictional archivist might be dealing with. Towards the end of the day, reading through Bethlem’s 1877 men’s casebook (because that is the year the novel is set) I happened across the record of a librarian named Robert Cowtan, a man who had been to Witley and who, according to the casebook, had a great belief in his powers of walking. I was stunned to find him, the man whose real-life escapade formed the basis of a novel I’ve been working on for seven years. In a strange way I felt like a story I’d made up in my head had flown out of my imagination and snuck back into the past to become real. The character I’ve written (called ‘Leeson’), the one who takes the long walk to a great man’s estate, has been with me a very long time. Discovering the actual man my real-seeming character was based on was, in a surreal way, a bit like finding him.

[to be continued]

1 Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr (eds), The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, volume 1 (Oxford, 1982), p. xxx, cited in Felix Pryor, The Faber Book of Letters: letters written in the English language 1578-1939 (London, 1988).

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