Elizabeth Buchan is known to thousands of readers as the bestselling author of the novels Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, The Good Wife Strikes Back, and Everything She Thought She Wanted. Now, fans are treated to a different side of Buchan with the reissue of her novel set between the two world wars—her prize-winning Consider the Lily.
The lily is a “flower that keeps its secrets,” explains Harry, the wise and mysterious sometimes-narrator of this family saga. Indeed, secrets, both past and present, play a powerful role in the story, and shape the lives of its three main characters, Daisy, Matty, and Kit.
Kit Dysart and Daisy Chudleigh are both charming and beautiful, a natural match, and soon after meeting they fall in love. Their romance and obvious happiness together is difficult for Daisy’s cousin, Matty Veral, to watch. Matty is not blessed with Daisy’s beauty or charm and has lived her life thus far in Daisy’s shadow. But Matty does possess something Daisy does not: her parents’ fortune. And though Matty seems quiet and unemotional, there is a “dark edge to her spirit—a place where anger and jealousy met and cohabited” (p. 58). Perhaps this is why she asks Kit to marry her when the stock markets crash and Kit’s family is in danger of losing everything, including their beautiful estate, Hinton Dysart.
Kit agrees to marry Matty to save his family’s future but continues to yearn for Daisy, leaving Matty with a distant husband and a house that seems alive only with ghosts from the past. Matty fills her days restoring Hinton Dysart to its former glory and, in the process, discovers a neglected garden that she begins to tend and nurture, as she waits in vain to conceive a child.
In the meantime, Daisy must deal with her own demons. Knowing that Kit loves her is small consolation when faced with the reality that he is married to another woman. When she discovers she is pregnant with Kit’s child, she is faced with a very painful dilemma: she chooses to have the baby but knows that raising him alone will brand them both for life.
Back at Hinton Dysart, Matty brings both the house and garden back to life, and in the process unearths her husband’s family secrets. Opening this door to Kit’s past seems to bring him closer to her, and he begins to see Matty in a new light. When Kit brings home his newborn son, Daisy’s child, and asks if they could raise him together, Matty agrees, and it looks as if they may have a future together after all.
Consider the Lily is a beautiful story of loss and renewal, betrayal and loyalty, but perhaps most importantly, love—that powerful force that can cause us to act in destructive ways, or lead us to the most unselfish sacrifices. As Harry so eloquently states at the close of the novel, “in the end love can grant us a future . . . and the grace of a long, contented life.”
Elizabeth Buchan is the author of several highly acclaimed books of fiction and non-fiction. She lives in London with her husband and two children.
The early years in a writer’s life are ones, necessarily, of experimentation. There is often, too, a recognizable pattern. Like many writers searching to find form and voice, I began by using historical backdrops—the French Revolution, the Second World War—in order to stand characters up against them and to draw out stories that involve extremes of courage, daring, passion, etc. Consider the Lily forms a bridge between the first novels and the later ones, in which I am interested in tracing the patterns on what Jane Austen called “the square of ivory” and which rely less on those frameworks provided by historical events.
In Consider the Lily, there are definite echoes of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and, one could argue, even of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Henry James’s Daisy Miller. Did any of these books serve as an inspiration? Several years ago you said in an interview that you admired Jane Austen, George Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood. Have you added some new authors to your list? What authors are currently inspiring you?
Certainly, there are books that sink down into the psyche and The Secret Garden is one of them and I devoured it as a child. It was there at the back of my mind as I wrote Consider the Lily. Henry James and Edith Wharton are certainly authors I admire hugely, but I was not consciously drawing on them—except perhaps in touching on the theme of the New World encountering the Old World.
There are so many authors I admire and I feel I will never have time to read them all, Siri Hustvedt being a new favorite. And, of course, anything by Anne Tyler.
Setting the novel during the interwar period in England has a significant impact on the plot and character development. Could you speak about how you came to choose this time period, and about how characters are shaped by the time and place in which they live?
The Great War did more than decimate a generation of young men. It also killed off a certain optimism and lightness of spirit. Those who were left had to cope with re-fashioning political, moral, and philosophical thought. They also had to rethink social attitudes. It was a decade of tremendous struggle allied with tremendous frivolity—a juxtaposition that resulted in huge tensions. The great country houses and their way of life were on the way out, and adjustment resulted in personal tragedies, but also positive developments, too.
Besides the obvious historical details and research involved, what are the main differences that you experienced in writing about the present day verses life in 1929? Is it easier or harder to set a novel in a different time period? How so?
I have come to the conclusion that it is the hardest thing of all to write a historical novel that convinces. There is more than a grain of truth in the adage: all historical novels are about the present. It is very, very difficult to put oneself in a mindset that is totally different from one’s own. Every word, every sentence has to be rigorously examined to set that it passes the “veracity” test. Just a tiny example: writing as a woman who has always earned her living, it is almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like to have no experience of that whatsoever.
The gardening information in Consider the Lily is so detailed, and the use of the metaphor beautifully done. Would you talk a bit about your personal interest in gardening (or your fascination with it) and how you use this in your work?
Don’t get me started! The chief thing about gardening is that you never stop learning. Doing the research for Consider the Lilywas one of my happiest times as, night after night, I would spread out my books and dive into the history and theory of gardening. I must have filled ten notebooks. It was all the more exciting because gardening is perfect metaphor for many of the things I try and tackle in the novel—death, waiting, rebirth, growth. A garden is somewhat akin to a family. You have good generations and bad ones. There are the unexpected triumphs and the corners where nothing flourishes. None of it is ever truly predictable. One thing is certain, however, working in the garden yields the richest and deepest of pleasures, and I wanted to give Matty the chance, through that experience, to pull together the aspects of herself and to heal the darkness in her.
All of your books have dealt with marriage in one way or another, and Consider the Lily brings up some very interesting questions on the topic: Do you think it is youthful folly to marry out of pure love without taking the practical matters (money, etc.) into consideration? Or do you think there are times when it actually makes sense to marry for these reasons?
This is a very tricky question. To some extent, it depends entirely on the individuals concerned. But, I think, it has also to do with age. When you are young, taking a risk and following your emotions is much easier. When you older, then other considerations do come into play. Obviously, cultural attitudes play a part. Both approaches have their successes and their tragedies. Clearly, for Kit there were good reasons to marry someone who offered him the chance of redeeming his house. His decision comes at a price. Yet, he also knew that, in accepting Matty, he was marrying someone sound and kind.
Money plays an enormous role in the story and affects all of the character’s choices. Do you think the importance of money in people’s lives, or our attitudes toward wealth, have changed since 1929? Today are we more defined by the amount of money we have or less so?
Love and money have always preoccupied novelists—particularly nineteenth-century ones. One just has to think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, who was driven to suicide because of her debts. I don’t think it is very different today except for one factor: we no longer associate wealth with class in the same way. Yet to ignore money as a factor that drives our decisions is to ignore a fundamental consideration. Even if we decide to dispense with money, or opt for a very simple life without its comforts, it suggests that we have thought about it.
As an artist, you control the world that your characters inhabit. Would you talk about your choice to include Matty’s “visions” of the little girl and how they reflect the nature of the textual world she inhabits? Is Matty hysterical, as Dr. Robin Lofts suspects, or does she really see a ghost?
Matty is at a pivotal stage. She is consumed by yearning and has placed herself in a position that consolidates her fear that she is “unlovable.” The extreme disturbance of her emotions could be termed a semi-hysterical state in which it is perfectly possible she may “see” a manifestation of that which she longs for: a child.
The psychoanalytic explanation might also be that she is seeing “herself”—the restless, unhappy orphaned child, and, in marrying it to the story of Rose Dysart who died, she is trying to kill off the unhappy child in herself in order to emerge as a healed adult.
As a British author who’s highly successful here in the States, what would you say the differences are (if any) between the two audiences? Why do you think American audiences connect so well with your characters?
Thank you for the compliment. I am not sure that American and British readers differ greatly insofar as they demand high standards and novels that both nourish and entertain them (in the widest sense). But, as I love to read American novels with all their details about American life and society, perhaps Americans enjoy a British flavor in the same way. If a novelist can create and sustain characters who breathe on the page and whose experiences touch on aspect of our lives, then it must follow they have an appeal that is universal.
What are you working on now?
A sequel to Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman entitled Wives Behaving Badly. Its themes are reconciliation and surprise.