Verity Sparks was originally called Evensong Levine.
The character of Verity (but not the name) came to me as I was walking past one of East Melbourne’s Victorian churches. On a board outside, the service times were displayed. Evensong was at five thirty. And from that I spun the story of a little baby abandoned on the steps of a church and found by a kind elderly couple who were walking past. They named her Evensong, and they gave her their surname – Levine. They were old-clothes merchants. Not here in Melbourne, I thought, but in the East End of London in the 1870s.
I walked further, looking up at the buildings with their columns and carvings and big stone walls, and thinking that you’d feel so small and unimportant if you were a little foundling in a big, busy city. I could see, inside my head, that baby grown into a young girl, alone and dwarfed by great grey buildings of a huge metropolis. She was running here and there, delivering hats. Hats? Yes, hats. She was an apprentice milliner. She kept nagging at me to write her story, but when I got started, the name Evensong didn’t work. My foundling had to be sensible, smart, brave and truthful. Verity, which means truthfulness, sounded just right. The old couple had to be shelved also, for I needed Verity to be orphaned in order to have adventures, and I just didn’t want to kill dear Mr and Mrs Levine. I wanted an ordinary surname, and what could be more ordinary than Jones? A Mr and Mrs Jones, I decided, could be disposed of. Verity Jones. I was all set.
And the book’s title was different, too.
For most of the time while I was writing this book, it was called Verity Jones and the Secret of the Seventh. I had just about finished it when I was awarded a Varuna Fellowship. Varuna is a writer’s centre, a beautiful house in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of NSW. The house belonged to a famous Australian writer called Eleanor Dark. I too
I was revising it my manuscript at Varuna when I realised that it was a rotten title. Too much like Harry Potter and the..(take your pick). Not to mention Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and even Bridget Jones Diary.
Each bedroom at Varuna contains part of Eleanor Dark’s book collection. While I was revising (and pondering my dud title) I started reading a novel by an English writer called Muriel Spark. Suddenly I had my name. Spark. A name that was sparky and sparkling; that made you think of sparklers and bright sparks, and even, as the Bible says, that man is born to trouble as sparks fly upwards… I decided on more than just one spark for my girl. She was Verity Sparks.
Verity spends most of the novel trying to find the truth about herself. Who are her parents? Why did they leave her? Why did her adoptive mother leave her a ring and a medallion? Why is someone stalking her? I don’t think I am very good at titles, but when this one came to me, I knew it was just right. The Truth About Verity Sparks.
My name is Verity Sparks, and I’ve got itchy fingers…
The Truth About Verity Sparks is a mixture of genres. It’s a historical-detective-murder mystery-melodrama for younger readers. There are no vampires. But it has a supernatural element. Ghost Hunters: The Victorians and the Hunt for Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum was the book that helped me locate Verity’s adventures amongst the late Victorian craze for spiritualism. Professor Plush’s Society for the Investigation of Psychical Phenomena (the SIPP) is based on a real organisation – which still exists – called the Society for Psychical Research.
Verity can find lost objects by thinking about them, and her fingers itch when she’s getting close. Professor Plush is fascinated by her gift, and subjects her to hours and hours of experiments. Verity is rather a reluctant psychic! I wanted to invent a new “power”, so I asked my mother to make up a word a bit like telekinesis (which means movement of an object at a distance, supposedly by paranormal means). Make it Latin or ancient Greek, I asked her. According to my mother, tele is Latin for at a distance, ago is Greek for get or fetch and visio is Latin again, for see. Teleagtivism. So the idea is to see at a distance and then find. My mum died before the book was published, but I dedicated it to her.
The light and dark of Victorian London.
The Victorians are what we call people in England or English colonies who were alive in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).
London was the centre of the British empire, and in the 1870s it was a huge, sprawling, bustling metropolis. Technology, industry and science were leaping ahead; British factories were supplying the world; railways were spreading all over the countryside…but not everyone benefited from progress. London reflected this with areas of fabulous wealth side by side with appalling slums full of unemployed people, many of them from country areas, and a huge criminal underworld lurked in the dark streets. I tried to show this contrast in The Truth About Verity Sparks.
I’d been to London, but not for nearly 20 years, and though it would have been wonderful to have visited to research the places where Verity’s story took place, it wasn’t going to happen.
But I studied history books about London, relied on old maps and guidebooks, researched on websites, read Victorian novels and watched DVDs of movies set in that era.
A picture’s worth a thousand words.
That’s what they say. I’m not sure that I entirely agree – after all, I am a writer. But I
often use art to help me when I’m writing. Gustave Dore’s engravings of life amongst the poor people of London helped me visualise some of the places where the story was set. Verity lived near a second-hand clothes market with her Aunt Sarah and Uncle Bill Bird, and she was chased though the slums of the East End at night. Dore’s dark, murky, scary scenes almost gave me nightmares.
James Tissot’s paintings help me describe rich people’s lives. The one below, called “The Bridesmaid” shows clearly the difference in dress between classes. The girls in the picture, probably servants or shop assistants, are very plainly dressed, as Verity would have been. But look at the bridesmaid – all those frills!
When I read about James Tissot’s life, I actually ended up using him as a character in the novel. He really did have a partner called Kathleen who died of consumption – what we call TB. This picture of a picnic was the basis for a scene in the novel where Verity goes with Judith to visit the Tissots, and meets Daniel and Mr Savinov there.
Saddington Plush is a real person, too, though I don’t know anything about him. I found the name on a grave in the Angaston cemetery in the Barossa Valley in South Australia back in 1994. Both Saddingtons (senior and junior) are wonderful characters. They are intelligent, kind and caring – as well as a little eccentric – and I hope none of the real SP’s relatives think I am being disrespectful.