By Roz DeKett
Hazel Gaynor’s second historical novel, A Memory of Violets, tells the tale of two orphaned Victorian flower sellers, seen through the troubled eyes of Tilly. Tilly stumbles on the story of Florrie and her sister Rosie in 1912 when she goes to work at one of the charitable houses set up to rescue homeless children from the filthy, dangerous streets of London, and she finds Florrie’s diary.
Like The Girl Who Came Home, Hazel’s first novel about a fictional Titanic survivor that became a New York Times bestseller, A Memory of Violets blurs the line between historical fact and the lives of the characters she creates.
“That’s the thing with historical fiction,” Hazel says. “Where does the fact stop and where does the fiction start? I’ve been to lots of seminars and conferences and it’s always the hot topic. How do we write historical fiction, and are the historians comfortable with that?
“With historical fiction you just have to do the research, and the research often steers the story. And then as a novelist it’s great to take that and have your foundation, and to build on that.”
While Hazel could have written her first two novels as non-fiction, perhaps biographies, she’s inspired to create characters.
“What I find really interesting is to take a basis of a true event or a character that lived, and maybe amalgamate several of those experiences and draw your own character out of that,” she says.
“And I think what we, as novelists, agree is that you can really tell history in a much more enriching way if you bring a story-teller’s voice to it.”
In this sense, Hazel and her fellow historical fiction novelists are following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens. In the 1840s, around 30,000 destitute children were struggling to survive on the streets of London. Horrified by the plight of London’s poor, Dickens considered writing a pamphlet but decided a dramatic story would deliver the message better. So he wrote A Christmas Carol.
Searching for the heart of the story
Hazel is no stranger to research; she’d done plenty on the Titanic for her first book. But working on A Memory of Violets required personal, firsthand digging that took Hazel deep into something more harrowing as she followed the flower sellers into the dark maze of London’s Victorian streets.
The seed was first planted when she was 17 years old and one of her teachers cast her as Eliza Doolittle in a school production of the musical My Fair Lady.
“I don’t think I appreciated at the time just how big an experience that was for me,” Hazel says. “It stayed with me. I studied that character and that story so much more than I probably had ever studied anything, because I had to be her.”
So when she began researching what was to become A Memory of Violets, Eliza was a natural starting point—a “brilliant” character but, Hazel realized, a romanticized one.
“I had a sense that there were some amazing stories to be found in that setting,” Hazel says. “I started with her, and went back searching through the lives of street sellers and flower sellers.”
Even early on in Hazel’s research, grim reality reared its head. “I hadn’t realized that many of the flower sellers, the older ones, were prostitutes,” she says. “They not only sold flowers, they sold themselves. There was this sort of underclass of the underclass, and at one stage I thought maybe that’s the direction the story will go in.
“But then I dug deeper and found the work of Henry Mayhew, London Labour & the London Poor.”
Mayhew, a Victorian journalist, documented and described the lives of the poor in London in the 1840s. His articles appeared first in the Morning Chronicle, and were published as a book in 1851.
“I was blown away because I hadn’t appreciated just how many children were on the streets,” says Hazel. “I know we’ve got the story of Oliver Twist and that’s from Dickens’ own experience, but to me that was very much a movie, a musical’s point of view. I hadn’t appreciated what was happening to these children.”
Two little sisters surviving on their own
For Hazel, Mayhew’s book was a gold mine: he interviewed the people he met and transcribed the interviews, so that more than 150 years later, she could read their stories in their own words.
“One of the interviews he carried out was with an orphaned flower seller, and there was an account of two sisters who were surviving on their own,” Hazel says.
“When I read this story I knew that was it. I wanted to tell the story of those two little girls.
“And that in turn led me to the work of John Groom, the real person who my character Albert Shaw is based on, who set up a factory for these children and young women to make artificial flowers.”
John Groom was born in Clerkenwell, London, in 1845. At the age of 21, he founded the Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission, which provided street girls with free cocoa and a hot dinner for a halfpenny. Eventually, he turned the mission into a factory for making artificial flowers so the girls and women had a safe means to make a living, moving it to a larger building in 1894.
“I discovered the archives of the London flower sellers, John Groom’s flower sellers, in the London Metropolitan archives,” says Hazel. “I opened boxes of letters, postcards, diaries, and housekeepers’ entries of where these girls lived and worked.
“When I found all of this it was like unearthing treasure. It was so far removed from the Eliza story. I knew that those things had to fit together, and I wanted to create another character in Tilly who was going to draw the children and the flower homes and a love story together.”
Violets for faithfulness, roses for love
Although The Girl Who Came Home was published first, Hazel had started writing what became A Memory of Violets before she turned to her fictionalized account of the Titanic disaster.
“I put A Memory of Violets to one side. It was originally quite a different story,” says Hazel. “The experience of writing The Girl Who Came Home gave me the confidence to go back and tackle what I think is a more complex novel.”
In A Memory of Violets, Hazel weaves the story of Tilly together with the earlier, tragic tale of Florrie and Rosie, which emerges as Tilly reads Florrie’s diary and we feel her almost ghostly presence. Their lives are fully realized in the context of the meticulously researched historical settings of both the 1870s—Florrie’s story—and 1912, when Tilly’s young life changes dramatically with her new job. Tilly must come to terms with her own inner demons, and there’s a romantic thread. And Hazel adds the motif of the meanings, or language, the Victorians gave to flowers.
“The flower sellers were very aware of this and they would make posies called tussie mussies, which would very much be produced to convey a message,” she says. “There are records of them talking about violets for faithfulness and roses for love.
“This was in a time when romance was very difficult, for people to be open about it. The ladies and gentlemen would express their feelings through a bouquet of flowers. Even the way in which the flowers were arranged could have a slightly different meaning.”
The violets of the book’s title, then, carry an important message. And it’s linked with a slightly supernatural element, as Tilly finds the scent of violets invading her room when she’s thinking about Florrie or reading her diary—as well as having a strong personal meaning for Hazel.
“I lost my mum when I was 23,” she says. “I always wanted to believe that she was around me, that she was with me in some way. I felt that the presence of Florrie needed to be in this story, but in a less obvious way than if she had been alive still. So there’s a suggestion of her.
“And violets have this strange property: they have a scent that comes very suddenly and goes very suddenly and is very elusive. So it’s both personal and an interesting device to bring that character into the story, and yet we never quite meet her.”
From tragedy to redemption
Hazel is writing about tragic events, and she’s very aware of this—ultimately, she says, she wants to write a hopeful, redemptive story. But when you’re dealing with the appalling circumstances of London’s Victorian poor, the dreadful conditions in which the children lived (poor Florrie, sobbing as she tries to wash her muddied cresses on a freezing street, is an image that haunts me) how do you lift the reader?
To do this, Hazel brings romance to her character Tilly.
“She was a young woman, she had left her home, she was in a new city, she was coping with lots of new experiences,” she says. “I think naturally, as a young woman in that situation, she would have been open to romantic emotions. I thought it would make her a more interesting character; possibly a more relatable character.
“I felt it would be another thread to the story that would be appealing to readers and lift them out of the sadness of Florrie and Rosie’s story, bringing everything to a satisfying and happy conclusion at the end.”
© Roz DeKett
A MEMORY OF VIOLETS: A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers by Hazel Gaynor, is published by William Morrow Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher, and available from February 3rd, 2015.
You can learn more about Hazel Gaynor at www.hazelgaynor.com. You can find more about John Groom and his work to help the flower sellers of London, with thanks to Peter Higginbotham, here: childrenshomes.org.uk/ClerkenwellGroom/
About Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynor is the author of New York Times and USA Today bestselling novel The Girl Who Came Home. She is also a freelance writer. Her writing has been featured in The Sunday Times Magazine and Irish Times and she has appeared on TV and radio. Hazel is a feature writer for the national Irish website writing.ie and has interviewed Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Cheryl Strayed, and more. She was the recipient of the 2012 Cecil Day Lewis award for Emerging Writers and appeared as a guest speaker at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference and the Historical Novel Society Conference in 2014. Library Journal named Hazel a big breakout author for 2015.
Hazel is originally from Yorkshire, and graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University. She lives in Ireland with her husband and children.