Judith Allnatt explains how the past, letters and place come together in her latest novel The Moon Field…
My own family’s stories, told to me as a child, were the first seeds of my emotional connection with the tragedy of war for both soldiers and those at home.
One poignant story concerned my great grandfather, Private Archibald Brunton, and his closest friend. Archibald’s friend was shot in the chest, the bullet passing first through the chocolate box in which he kept his sweetheart’s letters, before entering his heart. Archibald managed to salvage a few of the letters to return to the girl but kept the box, with its deadly hole, to spare her feelings. The family has it still.
The idea of soldiers carrying letters, and sometimes objects from home, as treasured talismans, lodged in my mind and resurfaced years later as I embarked on writing this novel. The Moon Field begins by placing the reader in the situation of opening a soldier’s tin box and finding his belongings: letters and photos tied with a bootlace, an ivory dance card holder, a pocket watch, an amber heart and a watercolour painting. We meet each of these objects in the course of the novel, starting with the painting. George Farrell, a young postman, carries it in his breast pocket as he cycles through the Cumberland fells, intending to give it as a token of his esteem to Miss Violet, the daughter at the Manor House and the girl he adores.
The decision to create a hero on the cusp of maturity had its origin in the experience of teaching War Literature to a group of eighteen-year-old students. In an effort to help them connect with a subject that seemed to them like ancient history, I took them to the Imperial War Museum and we traced their relatives who had fought in the war. Most had died. Almost all were under the age of twenty-one when they lost their lives; many were no older than my students. This sobering discovery moved us all. I decided that one day I would write about these young men who were barely more than boys, and try to show what a huge amount was asked of them in experiencing the horrors of the trenches. I wanted to present their brutal rite of passage into adulthood as well as recognizing the men’s courage and the enduring quality of friendship and love, even in a time of war. Dreamy, gentle George Farrell and his group of friends were born; the serious Turland, the Lothario Haycock and the ‘lost boy’ Rooke.
In researching for the book, I read hundreds of letters from servicemen of all ranks: expressions of love, references to shared memories, stoic understatement about the experience of battle, concern for family left behind. Time and again, men say how eagerly letters from home are anticipated and urge loved ones to write soon and often. This too proved an inspiration as it made me want to look at the effects of the war on close relationships – the ripples spreading from a man’s decision to join up. George enlists, caught up in 1914’s patriotic rush to war, and everyone around him has their life affected: his Methodist family, feisty Kitty Ashwell who is his closest friend from schooldays and his colleague at the post office, his brothers in arms, his rival in love, and, of course, Violet.
Setting too was an important inspiration. The beauty and tranquility of the lakes and mountains of George’s Cumbrian homeland seemed to me to be a visual metaphor for peace and an ideal contrast to the flat desolation of Flanders. The first landscape remains unchanging except for the natural round of the seasons and the farming year and is associated with pleasure and a holiday atmosphere; the second has been transformed into a wasteland of shattered trees, mud and wire, where birds roost in burnt out homes and men creep and burrow underground.
The absolute centre of the inspiration for a novel probably lies deep within the writer’s own psyche and it can be revealing to look at the subjects that one chooses. Although my other books, A Mile of River and The Poet’s Wife have been very different in terms of subject and era, I do feel that they show an underlying fascination with the idea of a threat to identity. This theme is present in The Moon Field too; George Farrell feels so profoundly altered by his experiences on the battlefields of Flanders that he struggles to recognize himself and fears that no woman will be able to love him.
For me, the first childhood story of the chocolate box full of letters, belonging to the dead soldier, juxtaposed the sweet charm of an old-fashioned romance with the horror and tragedy of war. In the novel, I wanted to capture the poignancy of such a contrast. Through the story of George’s loves and losses, I hope that some of the things I learnt from the many servicemen’s letters I read survives: that despite destruction all around, despite fear, illness, wounds and loss, human bonds remain indestructible.
Judith Allnatt, for Waterstones.com/blog