At the beginning of February, before a virus changed our world, my good friend and beta reader, Kay, conceived a Love’s Portrait walking tour*. Her aim was to seek out the real-life locations in the historic city of Leicester that inspired the fictional settings and scenes of Love’s Portrait. We had a wonderful day, absorbed in those moments where reality and fiction blur, and I am excited to share highlights of our tour with you here. So put on your virtual walking shoes and follow us, as we take a tour of the landscape of my imagination.
*Map at the end of the blog
The Belmont Hotel
We began at the historic Belmont Hotel, where the fictional Georgina Wright bravely confronts her estranged mother, Lydia Wright. Lydia has been sitting in the conservatory (to the right of the building) hoping that her daughter might just meet with her, if only for the sake of Georgina’s new love, Molly.
An extract from chapter thirty-two…
The lights from the Belmont Hotel’s conservatory illuminated the promenade in blocks of gaudy yellow light that cast the moon in eerie contrast, stark and haunting, white-grey in the dark winter sky. The Belmont Hotel had a faded Victorian grandeur to it which lent a mood of formality tempered by the soft easing of age.
Georgina climbed the short run of steps shaded at their top by a small stone portico. She hesitated at the door, holding it just open. The warm air from the hotel’s reception blew perfumed against her cheeks.
The fictional ‘City Museum’
We then strolled along the Regency walkway, New Walk. We called in at the New Walk Museum, the inspiration for Molly Goode’s workplace, the City Museum. The City Museum, along with George Wright’s home (below), provides the setting for many of the key moments in Love’s Portrait. It is where Molly first meets Georgina, and where they discover together the intriguing inscription hidden away in Josephine Brancaster’s portrait ‘All my love always, Edith.’ It is this inscription that sparks the beginning of a narrative fuelled with unexpected and poignant revelations.
An extract from chapter eight…
Georgina looked past Molly to the sweep of the stairs that curved away above their heads. “It’s a grand building, isn’t it?”
“Yes, definitely. It’s early Victorian in origin, built in 1836, so it also has that late Regency neoclassical feel to it which I love. The entrance porch is just amazing, isn’t it, with those imposing columns. Fran reliably informed me on my first day that the porch is a pedimented portico.”
“Yep. The architect was that chap Hansom, who was of course responsible for the Hansom cab.”
Georgina fell into step beside Molly. “Yes, I think my father mentioned something about that once.”
Molly followed Georgina’s gaze as she stared up to the ceiling with its ornate gold leaf mouldings framing the features of the arched glass roof. Molly paused halfway up the stairs. “It started its life as a school, would you believe, and became a museum in 1849. It is without question a public building built to inspire an obedient awe.”
Our next stop, nestled next to the museum, was the beautiful Museum Square, inspiration for the ‘Museum Square’ in Love’s Portrait.
It is this square that Georgina Wright looks out onto from the long windows of her father’s home and first sees Molly, sitting on her favourite bench. Georgina could not have imagined that she was in fact looking at the person who would be the love of her life.
An extract from chapter two…
Leaving the frustrations of her meeting behind, she [Molly] headed to her sanctuary, a small public garden next to the museum. Aptly named Museum Square, the simply designed patch of civic ground was bordered on two sides by parked cars. A collection of benches placed around the inside edge of the square separated the grass from wide borders. A diagonal path, broken up by tree roots, stretched across, splitting halfway along to encircle a large horse chestnut tree. This tree marked the seasons, signalling the changing patterns of the year. In winter, bare and stark against white skies, the tree seemed to shrink, huddled with those brave or crazy enough to stop awhile and sit. In spring, tentative buds relaxed in the welcome return of the first rays of sunshine. In summer, students rested against its weathered waist reading their books, cool in the shade of branches laden with the soft flutter of green leaves. And in autumn, the debris of crushed conkers bashed free from its branches, littering the ground with evidence of battles won and lost and of time passing as the empty husks curled and browned.
The fictional ‘George Wright’s House’
The fictional Regency period home of George Wright was inspired by the Regency era buildings along New Walk, built in the 1820’s. In 1840, Love’s Portrait’s William Wright purchases the home that would remain in the Wright family for generations and become the cherished setting for the blossoming love of Molly and Georgina.
An extract from chapter two…
Molly stepped inside, utterly overwhelmed by the building she had admired from afar. “Wow.” She had always wondered what lay beyond its formal black door. She had daydreamed of Regency grandeur, imagining a long tiled hallway with corniced ceilings and ornate plaster mouldings. Perhaps a heavy hall mirror would hang on a brass chain against the wall, casting the light and one’s gaze along the hallway to the bottom of the stairs, to the fine spindles and curl of the banister. And in one captivated glance, Molly realized that her imagination had been outdone by the imposing beauty of George Wright’s home. The octagon pattern of black and white tiles made Molly want to skip from one to the other. The tall ceilings made her dizzy, and the elegant staircase with its low wide steps begged her to dance up and down them.
The history of the house rushed at Molly to greet her. Was this how Josephine would have felt every time she walked through the door? Did her heart skip a beat? Did she dance on the steps with Edith, perhaps? Or had Josephine’s marriage changed everything, and they’d simply moved on from each other as time ceaselessly moved on with the future its only destination.
We could not miss out this next stop. For there is only one place to go for a breakfast hangover cure in the fictional world of Love’s Portrait and that is Mr Brown’s café, inspired by the real-life Mr Brown’s.
An extract from chapter sixteen…
Molly held up a defensive hand. “Don’t judge me. When I have a hangover, the only thing that seems to help is a full monty breakfast roll from Mr. Brown’s around the corner. It literally has everything. I figured if I needed one, then you probably did too. Oh, I made an executive decision and went brown sauce and runny yolk. Good morning.”
“Thank God for you.” Georgina meant every word. “I’ll make you a strong coffee to go with it. I’ve already had two. I frankly feel like death warmed up.”
Molly beamed a smile in reply. She took off her hat and her hair fell loose at her shoulders and back. “Yep. I get that. I’m dosed up on paracetamol.” Molly gingerly lowered her sunglasses. “And still everything’s a bit too bright and a bit too loud.”
Church of St Mary de Castro, Castle View
The mood became contemplative when we arrived at our next port of call the graveyard of St Mary de Castro.
Love’s Portrait was conceived from an earlier writing project ‘Women’s Writing in the Midlands 1750-1850’, which explored the work of brave female Abolitionists Elizabeth Heyrick and Susanna Watts. The significant contribution of women to the Abolitionist movement has been largely overshadowed by a patriarchal history. I began to ask myself what happens if your life’s achievements went unrecorded. And then imagine if your love went unacknowledged too, hidden from history. What then? The tragic character of Edith Hewitt was my answer to these questions.
In Love’s Portrait, I described Edith’s gravestone as marking just her name and dates of birth and death, leaving out the meaningful details of her existence. Susanna Watts is buried in St Mary de Castro. I had not at the point of writing seen the grave of Susanna Watts, and there was a sober, chilling sensation as we realised standing in front of Susanna’s grave that it was exactly as I had described Edith’s. A reminder, that the most powerful part of fiction is its truth.
An extract from chapter twenty-one…
Georgina turned to Molly and said with a quiet disbelief, “She was only twenty-six. She died so young.”
Molly looked at her with a face shadowed with sadness, the smile that always greeted Georgina and that lit her heart with joy now heartbreakingly absent.
“Yes,” Molly said. “And the inscription on her gravestone is so cruelly brief, isn’t it? I mean, there’s no mention that Edith was a campaigner. No words of affection from her family or any loved one. Nothing. With such omissions and such silence they condemned her to be lost forever.”
Georgina moved to Molly and slipped her hand in hers and said, “She’s found now. You’ve found her.”
They stood silently looking at the grave with their unspoken thoughts, cast against the background rustle of the wind in the surrounding trees, blending in uneasy harmony with the sound of the city.
The fictional chambers of Brancaster & Lane, New Street
We cheered ourselves up with a silly walk along New Street, retracing the steps of those real-life solicitors and barristers who had no doubt ‘silly-walked’ there before us.
We spotted a doorway which evoked the entrance to Charles Brancaster’s chambers, and sparked the memory of the scene of Edith rushing to a door just like this one, to tell her love Josephine of the passing of the Abolition Act. Beyond that door excitement was replaced by heartbreak as Edith stumbled upon Josephine’s engagement to William Wright. Just like in real-life the door is a silent witness to the dramas that unfold behind it.
An extract from chapter thirteen…
28th August 1833
“Yes! Yes!” Edith ran with all her might through the city streets, dodging market stall holders’ baskets, skipping over stagnant puddles, narrowly avoiding the wheels of carts and the hoofs of horses. The church bells of St. Martin’s rang out in celebration, their peel of notes carried on the wind up and over rooftops and out beyond the city to the workers in the fields. Edith would not stop running. She lifted her skirt up from the floor with her right hand and she held a copy of the Leicester Chronicle tightly in the other. Her legs had all but given way, and her chest burned as she reached the steps of Brancaster and Lane. Edith leaned her back against the door with exhaustion and knocked at it with the heel of her shoe. She felt a gust of warm air at her legs and the pungent smell of ink as the door opened. With a last gasp of breath, she said, “Good morning, Mr. Brancaster. I have just heard the news!”
Charles beamed at Edith and held the door open for her to enter. “Good morning, Edith. Yes, truly a day to remember indeed.”
When Edith found her breath once more she said in one hurried string of questions, “And has Jo heard? Does she know? What has she said? I have already composed what our response should be. I think we shall not boast. No. Our words will be modest, as the facts will speak in proud ever-increasing volume for themselves. So has she? Heard? Mr. Brancaster?”
St Martin’s Church, now Leicester Cathedral
One of my favourite scenes in Love’s Portrait takes place in our next stop St Martin’s Church. The scene describes the moment Josephine marries William. Everything about it should have been joyful and the beginning of the future, yet everything about it is shaded in sadness and the sense of ending.
Cathedrals are the perfect setting for rites of passage and the perfect place to reveal the often stark contrast between formal public obligations and duty with personal sacrifice and private pain.
An extract from chapter thirty-one…
The congregation stood and the organist began to play. William turned and glanced behind him with the glint in his eyes of emotion caught in the candlelight. Josephine lifted her head as one who bravely faces that which they fear most. “I am ready.”
It was Charles who found his feet reluctant to move forward. He wanted to say, I am not, but he would not default in his duty and walked Josephine slowly towards the altar, each step a peculiar anguish towards his daughter’s fate.
Releasing Josephine’s hand into William’s, he quickly looked away knowing that William would now see the tears beneath the veil and feel her sadness at his side.
He felt some relief to hear William whisper, “I love you,” and Josephine solemnly reply “I know.”
Cank Street, the fictional lodgings of Edith Hewitt
Our penultimate stop was to seek out the street sign that marked the fictional location of Edith’s lodgings.
I chose Cank Street because not only was it likely by geography in history to be a possible setting but also because of its starkness. It seemed to be infused with the rhymes of ‘rank’, ‘blank’ and ‘sank’ mirroring Edith’s bleak past and her heartbroken desolate future. In fiction, a name is always much more than a name.
An extract from chapter thirteen…
Edith ran with all her might, stumbling through the puddles, catching her legs and ripping her skirt on the baskets of the market holders, all but deaf to the cries of the drivers of the carriages brought to a halt to avoid her. With no breath, just adrenaline, to carry her up the steep flight of stairs to her room.
She collapsed onto her bed and lay there staring at the ceiling. For how long she could not tell. When the world returned to her, she could not feel her limbs, and all she could taste was the iron of blood in her mouth from the raw dryness in her throat. Nausea gripped her when she attempted to sit up, but lying down seemed worse. She felt the most awful bone-aching chill.
With legs that trembled, she made it to the fireplace. It took several goes to light the kindling in the grate. Numbly she lifted wood from a basket into the fire and stood, swaying slightly, and watched the edges of the wood char and begin to glow. The heat stung at her eyes and cheeks, forcing her to turn away with her palm against her face. As she stood back her ankle caught at the table, causing a canvas stretcher that rested on top of it to wobble. She reached out to steady it. Josephine stared back at her from the canvas that stretched across the wooden frame. How many months she’d spent working on the painting, discarding canvas after canvas, beginning again and again, struggling to quite finish it. For how could she truly ever capture the depth of their love?
Pizza Express, New Walk
It only seemed fitting to end our tour with a glass of wine or two at Molly and Georgina’s local Pizza Express. I half-expected them to walk in, laughing together, as they order spaghetti bolognese, their cheeks glowing with love and red wine.
So if you fancy following our Love’s Portrait tour then here’s a map marked up with our stopping points. Enjoy!
Love’s Portrait by Anna Larner Foreword INDIES Book Of The Year Finalist
Be it finding your way out of a confusing car park or poorly signposted building. Or indeed finding your way out of an embarrassing situation or, perhaps heartbreakingly out of a love lost or broken.
Finding the way out of feelings that hurt us is at the heart of life. But then mercifully there are those words that form stories, images, and ideas to be found spilling out of books, to console us and to show us a way through.
We find such solace in the shared experience depicted by the writer, who in turn is writing to find their own way out for those feelings and characters that crowd their head and heart.
It is therefore no wonder that those spaces that bring the reader and writer together are so incredibly precious. I couldn’t have felt this more when in the last few weeks I have been so fortunate to read at both Gay’s The Word and at LFest.
For me Gay’s The Word is not just a bookshop, and LFest is not just a festival, they are without question the champions of our words, our stories, and the providers of sanctuary for our hearts.
For nestled amongst the many shelves of books at Gay’s The Word and canopied underneath the dome of the big top at LFest, the audience looked back at me, waiting for the writers with their lips pressed to the microphone to speak the words with the potential to connect, inspire, and delight.
In those moments, paved by books, perhaps we found a way out together towards our queer future, illuminated in hope and wonder by the stories we love and share.
Finding the way in is at the heart of everything isn’t it?
Be it finding the way in to a confusing car park or a poorly signposted building. Or indeed finding your way in to establishing the common ground of a friendship or perhaps most importantly to the heart of the one you love.
Finding the way in is not only at the heart of life, it is at the heart of writing. It is that moment when a writer’s creativity sparks, igniting an imagined scene or character or dialogue. It is where the story begins.
I remember reading an interview with author Nancy Garden explaining how she found her way in to writing Annie on My Mind with a single line of dialogue.
“One rainy day…the words ‘It’s raining, Annie’ popped into my head. I know it sounds weird, but something told me that at last this might be the beginning of the book, although I didn’t know who was saying ‘It’s raining’ or who Annie was. But nonetheless that was how Annie on My Mind was born.” 1
Nancy’s explanation resonated with me as my debut novel Highland Fling began as much with a line of dialogue as with the setting of the Scottish Highlands. I could hear my main character Eve saying tenderly to her lover Moira, “You can touch me if you want”. These few words began a paragraph of writing, which then became a page, which eventually developed into a novel.
In a similar way my short story “Hooper Street“ in the anthology Girls Next Door: Lesbian Romance became the destined home for a phrase that had loitered in my head, potent yet aimless: “It was a Tuesday when…” The line now continues “I first met Abbie.” “Hooper Street“ had already been loosely drafted before those homeless words gave the story the purpose and orientation it needed. It peculiarly felt like those five words were fated to belong in the story, but that at some point they had been separated from it, like a dream half forgotten and then suddenly fully remembered.
For sometimes ideas, words, and images conjured by the imagination are so fleeting, that the writer is left chasing the memory of something, constantly editing and refining, working to get as close as possible to the perfect creative form just out of reach.
Despite the writer’s efforts to capture their imagination onto a page and to craft the perfect story, the ultimate meaning of a work lies with the reader. After all, the words and images that connected the story to the writer will not be the same words and images that connect the story to the reader.
All a writer can do is guide the reader in the direction we hope they will travel. But in the end, as it should be, the joy is the discoveries you make for yourself, the satisfaction of finding your own way in.
You will find me, should you wish, reading from Highland Fling and “Hooper Street“ and chatting more about writing at Gay’s The Word Bookshop, London, on 13th July, and at L Fest, Loughborough on 22nd July.
I look forward to seeing you then.
p254, A Conversation with Nancy Garden, interview with Kathleen Horning, Annie on My Mind, 2007 Edition, FSG