'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Guest Post: Ghosts, Time-slip and Talismans

Belinda Murrell is the author of ten books for children, including The Sun Sword Trilogy, The Locket of Dreams and The Ruby Talisman. Here, Belinda tells us about the inspiration for her latest time-slip adventure, The Ivory Rose, a Gothic ghost story set in the spooky Witches Houses of Annandale.

Nine years ago we moved into a new house. Well actually it was a very old cottage – about a hundred years old – creaky and rattling, musty and tumbling down. Doors seemed to slam shut all by themselves. My three children (6, 4 and 2) announced one day that their shared bedroom was haunted. I made all sorts of soothing noises about the wicked wind and funny noises.

Until one day something absolutely startling happened. I walked into my kids’ bedroom, and propped up on the bookshelf was a piece of pink card, with a note on it. The handwriting was instantly familiar – with its loopy, rather shaky calligraphy. The message was brief but beautiful – Remember I will always love you, Nonnie.

It was from my beloved grandmother. The problem was – my grandmother had died eight weeks before. She had never been to this house.

My life over the last few weeks had been traumatic – my grandmother died. My son had been admitted to hospital with a life threatening infection. My husband had bought this tumbledown old cottage meaning we’d had to sell our beautiful renovated little home. My house had been robbed, stealing all the precious jewellery my grandmother had left me. The move had been messy and stressful.

Yet here was this impossible, amazing, wonderful note. But how did it get there?

My husband had never seen it before. I had certainly not placed it there. And as for the children? Did they find it tucked into a toy box or a book and bring it out? Or did the spirit of my grandmother make it appear just when I needed it? Over time, life settled down, and the children stopped reporting the presence of a ghost in their bedroom. But every now and again, over the years, when my life gets overwhelming or terribly stressful, this note mysteriously, reassuringly reappears somewhere in the house to remind me of my grandmother’s love.

A year or so later, one of my best friends bought another of Manly’s original old homes – this time a gracious Victorian mansion. One day while we were having tea, my friend confessed that her three year old daughter was convinced there was a ghost who she could often see sitting up in her pram. ‘Can’t you see him, mama?’ The story gave us both the shivers…. and so my interest in ghosts was ignited.

When I decided to write a gothic ghost story, I searched for a setting that would do it justice – an Australian version of a crumbling castle or abandoned manor house. Almost immediately I remembered the spooky Witches Houses in Annandale. For many years, my sister had lived in Annandale just a couple of streets back from them, and every time I visited her, I passed them and wondered about their history. Annandale seemed an ideal setting for my book – with its mixture of faded grandeur, gritty working class history and fascinating characters.

The Witches Houses were built in the 1880’s by John Young, who dreamed of developing a grand estate for Sydney’s wealthy. Then a severe depression hit Australia in 1890, bringing enormous social and economic upheaval - high unemployment, ruined businesses, lower wages, strikes and agitation for greater rights. For Australia, the depression created a climate where new ideas flourished – leading to the creation of the Labor Party, the right for women to vote, nationalism, and the push for Federation.

For Annandale, this meant the large land blocks were subdivided to provide tiny workers’ cottages and factories. The impoverished gentility and struggling workers were living cheek by jowl. An iconic character of the period is a prime example - Sir Henry Parkes, the Father of Federation and long-time Premier of New South Wales lived in one of the Witches Houses. With eleven children to care for, the self-made man was declared bankrupt and lived in the mansion on the charity of his friends until his death in 1896. He died before his dream for Federation came to pass.

While many of my books have a historical setting, it is not just the grand picture of politics and social change which intrigues me – it is the everyday family lives of ordinary people. As a child I always wished that I could magically slip back in time and experience how people lived. So my last three books – The Ivory Rose, The Ruby Talisman and The Locket of Dreams are all time-slip books, set both in contemporary Sydney and different historical settings.

The Ruby Talisman is set during the early days of the French Revolution, and The Locket of Dreams is set in Scotland and Australia during the 1850’s. All the books share the common theme that the modern day heroine finds a talisman - an old piece of jewellery that belonged to a girl from the past who is in trouble. The talisman magically transports my heroine back to the past, for some perilous and exhilarating adventures.

The Ivory Rose is about a modern day girl called Jemma, who has just landed her first job, babysitting Sammy at Rosethorne, one of the famous witches' houses in Annandale. Sammy says the old house is haunted by a sad little girl, who begs for help. One day playing hide and seek, Jemma discovers a rose charm made of ivory. As she touches the charm she sees a terrifying flashback. Is it the moment the ghost was murdered? Jemma runs for her life, falling down the stairs and tumbling into unconsciousness.

She wakes up in 1895, unable to get home. Jemma becomes an apprentice maidservant at Rosethorne - but all is not well in the grand house. Young heiress Georgiana is constantly sick. Jemma begins to suspect Georgiana is being poisoned, but who would poison her, and why?

I come from a family of writers. My sister Kate Forsyth, and my brother Nick Humphrey are also best-selling published authors. We wrote stories and poems almost from the time we could hold a pencil.
There have been poets, journalists and authors in my family for over 200 years. This year we are celebrating the 170th year anniversary of the publication of the first children's book published in Australia, A Mother's Offering to Her Children, which was written by my great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte Waring.

And it looks like the next generation of my family, will continue the tradition too. The ghosts of my ancestors would be delighted.

Read more about Belinda Murrell's work on her website, belindamurrell.com.au