This month we welcome Johanna Nicholls to chat about her newest novel, Golden Hope, which is our AusRom Today Book of the Month. Welcome, Johanna!
Golden Hope is described as a story as wide and sweeping as the landscape itself. What inspired your choice to set the novel in country Victoria, in particular a small town setting?
Pin-pointing the exact moment of inspiration is seldom easy but in the case of Golden Hope I can recognise that the roots lay in childhood, in my Grandma Rosie’s bush cottage in Blackwood, Victoria, and the wonderful stories my Dad told me about our unique Australian legends and history.
Yet my irresistible impulse to write Golden Hope was triggered by a vivid dream. I was standing on a remote bush track, an invisible observer as a circus wagon driven by a young girl and her mother, passed a signpost to Ballarat. I knew they were a star equestrienne act because of the illustration painted on their wagon of ‘Daring Dolores and Little Clytie.’ The next scene in my dream showed me two weary young soldiers in shabby Boer War uniforms stumbling along a bush track. One was suffering from amnesia, angry that his companion had tricked him into acting as go-between in some complex love affair. I instantly awoke from the dream, convinced the characters from my future novel had come to me.
Although I had loved circuses from childhood, I knew little about the Boer War, but I was seduced by the ‘sight’ of tomboyish Clytie Hart, and the young rogue of a soldier. I had no choice but to follow them wherever they led me.
I wanted to dramatise the 1901-2 Federation era from different points of view in a bush town. Whenever I began to imagine Hoffnung, a fictional gold-mining town in the Gold Triangle, images flooded my mind of Blackwood, the town our family have had a love affair with for three generations and where my father Fred Parsons, grew up.
Dad was a comedy scriptwriter, author, and a born storyteller. On long bush walks with him as a kid I scrambled to keep pace with him to hear his tales about the iconic Ned Kelly, and Captain Moonlite – lay preacher by day and bushranger by night. I was thrilled by his accounts of the feisty women in Australian history, like the notorious courtesan Lola Montez (mistress of Austria’s King Ludwig), who Gold Rush diggers showered with gold nuggets when she performed her exotic ‘Spider Dance’ – it was rumoured without knickers. Dad showed me the water ‘race’ built for gold sluicing, that ran for miles all over the old Blackwood diggings – a remarkable feat of engineering constructed by a tough French woman whose acerbic tongue and right hook kept the miners in line. Dad’s stories drew me like a magnet to the past. As a teenager I began writing my first historical fiction set in Colonial Australia but a love story no doubt inspired by Romeo and Juliet – no one had a happy ending! As an adult I remain wedded to Australian historical fiction, but I now prefer to invent interesting ways to kill off villains – rather than star-crossed lovers. Golden Hope has several past love stories entwined around the central story.
The timing of Golden Hope, at the turn of last century, also offers pivotal story arcs for the novel. In particular the Boer War, the Victorian gold-mining industry, and for Australia a time of great change was afoot. How important was the weaving in of Australian history to Golden Hope?
Supremely important. Much as I was fascinated by exploring different levels of Colonial society in Ironbark, Ghost Gum Valley and The Lace Balcony, I felt compelled to place Golden Hope in the turbulent era of 1901-2. Golden Hope’s narrative is indeed sweeping in scope. It encompasses a roving circus, a depression era in the Gold Triangle, the birth of Australia as a nation under Federation, the impact of the 2nd Boer War in South Africa, the fight for Women’s Suffrage, and in the background the birth of the Australian Film industry by the Salvation Army’s pioneer filmmaker Major Joseph Perry – years before Hollywood was invented.
My goal was to dramatise the personal impact of these influences on people of different backgrounds thrown into close contact in a bush town. Clytie Hart was born into roving circus life but is attracted to the new nation’s chance for women to win the rights the law has denied them. Rom Delaney, a wild young adventurer with a dodgy reputation, sees the Boer War as his chance to make his mark – and avoid the shackles of marriage; Finch is a soldier with no memory – who masks his fear that he might regain it; Doc Hundey, the town’s physician is loved by all – except by the one man intent on exposing his past.
What one character trait will most endear Clytie to your readers?
I suspect and hope readers will admire different aspects of Clytie Hart’s nature–her headstrong independence, her loyalty to her circus ‘family,’ her dreams for women’s rights; her courage in the face of the great odds stacked against her. Clytie’s naïve, passionate nature makes her dare to challenge life – as a circus star fast out-growing her child’s role as ‘Little Clytie’; her pursuit of love; her determination to rescue her mother from her abusive partner, Vlad the Knife-Thrower. Raised with the high moral code of circus life, Clytie is contemptuous of how ‘respectable’ society labels them as thieves, vagabonds, women of easy virtue. Yet she dreams of living in ‘a house without wheels’ in a small bush town. Be careful what you wish for, Clytie – the truth has a bitter edge. Clytie’s personal ‘journey’, like those of all the people in Golden Hope, brings her into confrontation with the dark underbelly of a town where nothing is quite what it seems. Love, war, betrayal and the unmasking of brutal crimes of the heart – changes everyone.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Golden Hope?
I had two major challenges which stood shoulder to shoulder with me each day during the two years I spent researching and writing Golden Hope. The first was the one I always face when writing historical fiction. How to get inside the mind and heart of each character, to visualise the past from their early 20th century perspective, to dramatise their response to immediate, startling events that were contemporary to them. It was essential to avoid colouring their dialogue, their attitudes to the world around them – Federation, the depression, homosexuality, illegitimacy, contraception, the vote for women – and to avoid modern reflexes and historical hindsight. They needed to be modern in their era – not ours.
My second challenge was the dilemma at the heart of the book. How to dramatise the changing attitudes of Clytie, the town and Australian volunteers to the 2nd Boer War. From Australia’s initial euphoria as a new nation coming to the aid of the Empire to play a leading role on the world stage – to the growing disenchantment at later stages of the war, experienced by rural Australian lads when ordered to torch Boer farmhouses. Australia’s shocked reaction to the death toll of volunteers at Wilmansrust, grew to public outrage at the belated discovery that three Australian volunteers had been found guilty of mutiny at a British military trial and a death sentence pronounced – all without the knowledge of the Australian government. Faced with dramatising these events I knew I risked having British readers accuse me of bias towards the Boers, South Africans accuse me of bias towards the Brits, and that some Australians might see Rom Delaney as casting a slur on their heroic Boer War ancestors. I stand by my decision. I have written about two young soldiers’ friendship and rivalry, summed up by the haunting marching song of the era, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’
What kind of research was involved in the planning of the novel? Was there anything surprising that you learned during the research process?
It proved a real eye-opener on many levels, not least the events of Wilmansrust. It was a sobering experience to realise the extent of the limitations of working women’s lives, barely a cut above slave labour as servants on remote properties, working a ten-hour day in factories or as salesgirls, forced to remain standing even when the store was empty. Feeling my way into the world of 1901-2 I spent months in libraries, bookshops, on line exploring the treasures of Trove, biographies of world figures in the arts, medicine, politics, the suffragists, gold-mining, bank closures. I grew misty-eyed reading volunteers’ letters and diaries, found my eyebrows raised over the cartoons and editorials in The Bulletin of the era. But after my headstrong characters came alive on the page and led me in hot pursuit of their complex love stories, betrayals, and the dark secrets that I often didn’t discover myself until the final chapters, my research continued on a ‘needs must’ basis. I would write say a reference to St Kilda Beach and then need to check if my childhood oasis of Luna Park was built in 1902 (it wasn’t). My problem was I am so intent on getting the changing values of the central relationships right, as well as the balance between drama and humour, that whenever I repositioned scenes earlier or later in the plot, I had to keep checking I was carrying the historical background along with them.
What’s next for you?
Right now I am pulled between three projects.
One: exploring the real-life identity of the ghost who has been seen by many people in my 1836 convict-built house – but who never troubles me.
Two: a fictionalised version of my great-grandmothers’ fascinating love stories. The U.S.A. based one involves a New York newspaperman. The one in the North of England involves a musician who died at 21, having been refused permission to marry her and legitimise their baby. I’m convinced this great-grandfather wants me to tell his true story, because months after publishing Ironbark, in which the heroine Keziah’s husband is a Romany gypsy violinist who died young, I did some family research, startled to identify the lad who was my great-grandmother’s mysterious lover and died at 21 – was a Romany gypsy violinist.
Both these books will involve hands on research in the U.S.A., England and Germany, which no doubt will lead me to many intriguing discoveries, but will also be a great excuse for my first real holiday since publishing my first novel, Ironbark, in 2009.
My third project? In the immediate future I am very excited about the prospect of getting Golden Hope adapted for the screen. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy Clytie Hart’s story in Golden Hope.
A haunting saga of love, gold and betrayal
New Year’s Day 1901 sees the birth of Australia as a nation, eager to claim her place on the world stage.
Clytie Hart, a daring equestrienne, is travelling with her mother in a wagon train along the back roads of Victoria’s Gold Triangle. Once world-famous, Wildebrand Circus is now struggling to survive. But a chance meeting with Rom Delaney, a wild young adventurer, changes everything. His invitation to play Hoffnung, an isolated gold-mining town, promises to restore the circus’s fortunes.
To Clytie, the roving life is all she has ever known. Much as she loves her circus family, she longs to put down roots in a real house in a friendly bush town, and to free her mother from her violent step-father, Vlad the Knife-Thrower.
Blinded by her passionate love for Rom, Clytie is desperate to prevent him volunteering for the Empire in the distant South African war. And in the face of unexpected tragedy, with the help of unlikely friendships, Clytie uncovers some stark truths. Hoffnung’s respectable veneer conceals the dark secrets of a town haunted by a mystery that threatens to blight Clytie’s life – and all those she has learned to love.
Golden Hope is a saga as wide and sweeping as the landscape itself, told by a master storyteller at the peak of her powers.
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