By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
I did a radio interview on Friday and the host asked me “you were born in Canada to British parents, grew up in Australia and now live in America, so where’s home?” It took me just a few seconds to answer because as my children were born in America, for me, wherever they are is home. Yet the question has a deeper resonance in many respects. As a writer I get to determine where my characters live and what their heritage is. I get to decide whether, for them, they ever find ‘home.’
My parents and I arrived in Melbourne in 1973 when Australia was a far cry from the cosmopolitan place it is today. My mother thought it parochial and frightening. In many respects it was as alien to her as the moon would have been. A clear vaulted endless sky to her beloved green England that was (more often than not) shrouded in cloud and rain. I grew up with the image of England firmly entrenched in my head. Canada (which I left when I was a year old) was little more than a place on a map, but England – that was the place of my ancestors, the place of all my parents’ memories and the stories I read as a young child. When I left Australia to come to America I didn’t really have any misgivings and since living here I have had few hankerings for the place – preferring to make my home wherever I lay my hat. For my husband, however, Australia remains firmly rooted in his consciousness. There will never be another place that’s home for him.
I found it intriguing that as soon as I started to write my first novel, Consequences of Sin, I knew it would have to be set in England and I knew I would be drawing upon my parents’ experiences, in both the North and South, rather than my own. I also found that my main character, Ursula Marlow, was in a similar predicament to me – she was effectively homeless. Lancashire, the place of her childhood, was no longer home. Her father, having made his fortune, moved to London to show the world that he had finally made it. Yet London was not her home either. Not being a member of the aristocracy (her father is bourgeois ‘new money’ after all) she has an entrée into society only by virtue of his money and she will never be truly one of them. Essentially, she roams the earth as a perpetual outsider.
If you look up the word ‘home’ in the dictionary you will find a myriad of definitions – concepts which I get to toy with in my books to keep my characters off guard. At least my characters haven’t started to complain about my treatment of them like they do in Spike Milligan’s hilarious book Puckoon – well, not unless I’ve had one too many glasses of red wine (drinking, now there’s an Aussie trait if ever there was one!)
I’ve been doing a number of library panels this summer and most of the authors seem to agree that their characters are outsiders. More often than not, this is what provides them with the ability to observe and solve a mystery in ways that those characters who are at home within themselves and society cannot. I like the idea of the homeless character constantly searching either for a sense of self or reconciliation with their own past. I wonder, though, how much I am projecting my own search for home in my books. Perhaps it provides a unique perspective as, being essentially nomadic, I am just as happy to immerse myself in researching another time and place as I am to board a plane and go live in another country.
Will my children feel the same? Will America be their home or not? Will I ever let my fictitious children find that comforting ideal? In short, will Ursula Marlow find her home before me?