Sophia Bennett’s debut novel, Threads, won The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2009. She has since published several further teen novels, including The Look and Love Song. Sophia has been called “the queen of teen dreams” by journalist Amanda Craig, for her exploration of the worlds of fashion, art and music. Her books have sold internationally to over 16 countries. Following Ophelia is her first historical book.
Do you play the dinner party game? And if so, do you always imagine inviting the same people?
My ideal guest list changes all the time. David Bowie and Iman are regulars, along with Shakespeare, for the laughs and theatrical anecdotes, and Jane Austen for the ‘fine eyes’ – I’m sure she was describing her own – and the wry looks. The Queen is endlessly fascinating: think who she’s met. Right now I’d add Omar Sharif. I’d want Douglas Adams, for the essential babelfish; Carrie Fisher, Peggy Guggenheim, Nora Ephron, and Lady Gaga, so I could thank her for her politically restrained but meaningful performance at the Superbowl … My ideal dining room is large, and situated in New York. There are white roses on the table. Jimi Hendrix is tuning up in a room nearby. Ella Fitzgerald or Nina Simone may be persuaded to sing. I am, needless to say, an insanely successful novelist and screenwriter. This is my tribe.
Once upon a time, there were seven sisters who grew up in India. They were rich and beautiful and when they settled in London they didn’t need to play an imaginary dinner party game. Their lives were one endless, enchanted version of it.
They were the Pattle sisters and their names were Adeline, Sarah, Maria, Julia, Louisa, Sophia and Virginia. I discovered them when I was researching my new book, Following Ophelia, set in the world of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their father James was an Anglo-Indian merchant and “"the biggest liar in India”, acccording to his great-granddaughter, Virginia Woolf*. When he died, he was shipped back to England in a barrel of rum that, according to legend, exploded on the journey. Their grandfather on their mother’s side was exiled to India from France after ‘flirting excessively with Marie Antoinette’ as her pageboy. They were never going to be boring.
The main character in Following Ophelia is a redheaded muse to a fictional acolyte of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pre-Raphaelite girls were known as ‘stunners’ and my most treasured resource for research was Wives and Stunners, by Henrietta Garnett, who it turns out is a descendant of the brilliant Pattle girls.
|My Lady Betty by Val Prinsep|
In those days Kensington was on the edge of London proper and though large mansions were springing up, it still had a rural appeal, with lanes bordered by hawthorns and cherry trees. Little Holland House was the dower house to the baronial home nearby, with an expansive garden. George Watts, one of the leading Pre-Raphaelites, lived with the Prinseps there, and Sarah’s son, Val Prinsep, became a follower too, introducing her to Millais, Rossettti and Burne-Jones. Meanwhile, Henry Prinsep was now an aspiring MP, so she knew everyone in the British political establishment.
‘Dash’ described Sarah’s charm, wit and energy. Her eye for interior design was extraordinary. According to Garnett, “The walls were painted Venetian red and bottle-green, the furniture was black lacquer with gold inlay and many of the objects and curios had been brought back from India. Watts had painted murals in the great drawing room … There was about the place the aura of an enchanted kingdom”. I simply had to have Sarah in my book. There wasn’t really room for her, so I ripped out a key scene and replaced it with a costume party ruled over by the hostess, dressed as Cleopatra.
Sadly, Little Holland House was pulled down in 1871 when the Prinseps’ lease ran out, to make way for the rapid building projects that were going on. However, one of the neighbours to build a house on its border was Sir Frederick Leighton, later the President of the Royal Academy, who filled his own mansion with treasures from his travels. The Leighton House museum has strived to recreate the interiors as closely as possible to the way he had them – complete with indoor fountain, Moorish tiles, stuffed peacock and Venetian-style mosaics in the Arabic room – so if you want a whiff of the enchanted kingdom, I recommend a visit there.
I’d have put the other Pattle sisters in my story too, but it would have started to take on War and Peace proportions if I had. However, I was sorry to miss them out, so here are three of my favourites.
|Beauty, Virginia Pattie, Countess Somers by GF Watts|
She never was a princess, but became Countess Somers. A similar offer is made to my character in book two. She finds it very tempting.
‘Talent’ – reputedly the only plain sister of the seven – was Julia Margaret Pattle, who married another Indianl colonial official called Charles Cameron. For her 48th birthday her daughter gave her a camera. She soon became a pioneering photographer, with leading exhibitions in her lifetime,and a long list of important artistic and literary clients for her photographs. She would have been perfect for my series, but only got the camera in 1863, five years after my story is set. Dammit.
|Four Young Women holding flowers by Julia Margaret Cameron. Wellcome Images|
Maria Pattle (born at sea – why am I not surprised?) didn’t get a famous nickname, but she did have famous grandchildren. Her third daughter Julia, named after her eponymous aunt, I assume, married Herbert Duckworth and then Leslie Stephen. She was the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.
|Julia Stephen by Julia Margaret Cameron|
|Virginia and Vanessa Stephen playing cricket|
Vanessa even painted a bedhead for her husband’s lover. It’s a very sexy nude. As the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition note points out, this was either extremely generous, or a sardonic comment on the woman in question. There was tragedy too. The complicated love lives created confused children. Henrietta’s mother Angelica was devastated to discover, at 18, that her beloved ‘uncle’, Duncan Grant was really her father. Virginia battled mental health problems, ending in suicide. But that’s not the lasting impression that Charleston gives you: it’s a place of retreat and acceptance, where art flourished above everything.
Going back to the Victorians, the story of the Pattle sisters is one where women are feminine and domestic, but also intelligent, productive and influential. I’m not saying it’s a model for us now, but looking back into history we can make assumptions about women being subservient and overlooked. They so often were, of course, but here are some fascinating exceptions. It helped that they were very rich, beautiful, talented and charming. It always does. But they broke rules, expressed themselves and shaped their society as much as it shaped them.
So, if my time machine buttons were set to mid-Victorian London, I would witout question choose to emerge in Little Holland House. I doubt Sarah Prinsep would turn much of a hair – she’d seen a lot since her Calcutta days, and the stories of her grandfather escaping pre-Revolutionary France. I’d look around for signs of Tennyson in the conservatory, or Thackeray and possibly Rossetti on the lawn. I’d check out Val Prinsep and George Watts’s paintings in the studio. I’d see if Julia Margaret Cameron was setting up a photo somewhere. And I’d hope, very much, that they would invite me to dinner.
"VIRGINIA WOOLF AND THE CASK OF RUM"(A talk by Prof. Joan Stevens, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.)
‘Wives and Stunners: The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Muses’, by Henrietta Garnet
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