Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Trix Lee-Rainwater is talking with Jill George, author of The Light Among Us: The Story of Elizabeth Carne, Cornwall.
FQ: This was an extremely well-researched historical fiction novel about a non-fictional woman. I am curious - what were your thoughts that day when you first chose to write about Elizabeth Carne?
GEORGE: Anger. It was a day during the lockdown so I wasn’t my best anyway. I was angry that what I found on the web about her said
that she had inherited a box of rocks. I thought, “How dismissive and even lazy, what is written about her on the web! She was brilliant in so many ways.” I also feel like back in the early 1800s, she must have seemed like someone from another planet to those around her; she was so smart and capable. I tend to think of brilliant people of the past as people from another time or planet placed there to advance us significantly. I feel like Charles Darwin was one of these people, as another example. Yes, I was so mad that I said to myself, “I am going to correct this wrong by writing a book about her to demonstrate just how amazing she was.”
FQ: Henry Pearce is a fictitious character in the life of non-fictitious Elizabeth Carne. Aside from what he represents, could you tell us more about Henry as a character?
GEORGE: Henry is the adoring and needing public that Elizabeth serves as her mission, as you know. He was an impatient young man in the beginning, eager to prove that he was a capable, committed man, which is why he married. He thought a wife would add to his credibility and therefore help him advance, which he did, but not because of her. Henry liked to read, mostly about sailing ships and navigation, when he had time. He truly regretted never having any children but since he only truly loved Bess, he only wanted children with her. He thought her children would be mild-tempered, intelligent, and dutiful like her. He was so distraught at the end of the book, he gave up his lucrative occupation and bought a boat, where he could live and fish in seclusion, unbothered by the corruption and disappointments of the land-based world.
FQ: I was torn about Joseph Carne. I respect his unerring conviction to set Elizabeth as his heir apparent but, at the same time, I felt saddened by the fact that Elizabeth did not have a choice on the matter. Could you share with us your insights about this?
GEORGE:Elizabeth was not someone who was easily influenced but her father was one who could convince her when needed. While she did have many choices, more than any typical woman of the time, she actually chose the mission and inheritance a few times, based on her father’s discussions with her and based on her own feelings of the importance of meaning. When you read her book Three Months’ Rest at Pau, she reveals to you that duty to friends, neighbors, family, and work are where she believes the true happiness in life are found. Not in pleasurable vacations or other beautiful things. In fact, she says in a poem, “The road to beauty is curved and the road to duty is straight.” I think you can feel okay that she really had duty in her DNA and any other choice would have made her feel poorly later on.
FQ: Aside from Elizabeth, which character did you find most interesting to write?
GEORGE: Henry. I tried to pour lots of passion and emotion into him because Elizabeth and women of her time were not supposed to be loud or emotional as a rule. I attempted to make Henry a bit complicated in that he was a good man who married questionably. He was a kind man but could also get angry and physical. He was handsome but also no ladies’ man—he had integrity and ethics. When temptation came close, he was conflicted about what to do and felt bad about it. Tough choices that people in real life had to make back then to survive. It is truly amazing how many people made it to old age! In summary, Henry was challenging and interesting to write as I tried to add depth to him.
FQ: Could you tell us more about your writing process for this book? Did you brainstorm the overall concept first before partnering with Dr. Dirring?
GEORGE: I had my full, detailed book outline prior to having met John. I was working on historical and family tree details with my dear friend Melissa Hardie. She got so tired of me emailing her with questions (keep in mind she was in Penzance and I was in Pittsburgh and we had not met), that she told me to ask John Dirring, a co-presenter and Ph.D. in Victorian Banking, some of my questions. So I did. I emailed him. I dropped on him, out of the blue, like...a big hot mess. When he said he could answer some of my strategic questions as a subject matter expert and oh, did I know about the ship wreck, I was hooked! After many weeks of his work, I was finally able to convince him, given all his contributions with historical facts and editing, to be listed as a “contributing author.”
Fine, he said. It will be fun, I said. I had not met him in person, either. I had ninety percent of the book done but could not get over to Cornwall because of Covid travel restrictions. I finally dodged two variants and met John on the Paddington Station platform. We went to Penzance and walked to and from every single site mentioned in the book. And do you know, he went there a few days early to make sure he knew where everything was? I mean to tell you, he is a gent. A true gent. I stumbled on such a wonderful Swiss Army Knife when I met him on email. We trudged through four inches of mud and rain, over a mile, to get to the Boscawen-Un standing stones. We tramped through graveyards. We walked from Chapel House to St. Michael’s Mount. All of the photos I have of him show him leading the way and me walking behind, much more slowly. I lost three toenails on that trip, walking to every site. It was one of the best trips of my life! I am so glad we did it. And I added about another 10,000 words of color to the book, so the trip was extremely worthwhile.
FQ: Elizabeth Carne is a remarkable woman. Which of her multitudes of contributions to society would you say is most salient to you?
GEORGE: When someone logically determines the best course of action is exactly opposite of what the majority thinks and oh, by the way, you have no opinion. You aren’t allowed to have an opinion. And to write books about it? Incredible. So my vote is for Elizabeth’s work on reducing the class system and improving inclusion of the lower classes. Imagine how resistant men were to that idea, how laughable they thought it was! Yes, J.S. Mill fought for inclusion of women, but even he was rejected time and again. The confidence of will to put herself forward in that fashion and to have the foresight to think through and write about factors driving the need for social inclusion is just remarkable to me. She developed a road map for society that most of society did not follow. Think about where we would be as a world if society had followed her roadmap, her logic, her recommendations. We would be richer in every way.
FQ: Do you ever plan to write nonfiction such as a biography?
GEORGE: I would love to. In fact, my third book just might be a biography of how J.S. Mill came to believe in women so strongly and his love affair with Henrietta, his eventual wife. That intrigues me so much because I believe women stand on his shoulders today. He paved the way, as a man, for integration of women in rights to vote, etc. And the love story between those two is incredible. He actually suggested to her husband that he loved Henrietta more and so her current husband should allow him (Mill) and Henrietta to spend time together. Then, when she died, he died soon after. What do you think? Should we do it? John is somewhat interested too.
FQ: The love that struck me the most in this book wasn’t the love between Henry and Elizabeth but Elizabeth’s love for purpose and learning. Was that something you were hoping readers would pick up on?
GEORGE: Absolutely. I was hoping readers would come away with the fact that not only did Elizabeth write books, but her mission went beyond that to trying to solve the root cause of the poverty problem: lack of education and options. I think readers should think similarly in that we need to look beyond. Looking outward and forward is what helped Steve Jobs innovate at Apple. One of the sayings in his biography is, “Think bigger. Connect the dots to something larger.” This is Elizabeth’s premise, too. Women then and now can not only have multidisciplinary learning but can work shoulder-to-shoulder with those making decisions and solving problems. And, wow, do we have problems. Elizabeth would be so proud of our accomplishments but staggered by our problems, I believe. It takes all of us.
Thank you for this opportunity. I enjoyed answering these questions.