HQ will publish a “powerful love story” set during the Second World War, inspired by the author’s discovery of a chocolate box full of love letters between his mother and her fiancé.
Charlotte Mursell, editor at the HarperCollins imprint, acquired UK and Commonwealth rights to The Very White of Love by S C Worrall from Caspian Dennis at Abner Stein. It will be published in hardback, e-book and audio book on 14th June 2018.
The story is based on the discovery of a chocolate box full of love letters written across the channel during the Second World War between Worrall’s mother, Nancy, and her fiancé, Martin Preston, a nephew of the poet Robert Graves. Despite his disappearance during the war, Nancy kept a photograph of him on her dressing table right up to her death. Worrall pieced together the fictional narrative using the letters resulting in a “heartbreaking and timeless love story”.
The author revealed how his mother had met Preston in Oxford in 1938 while she was working as a secretary in London and he was studying at the university, at St Edmund’s College, "and they had fallen madly in love".
When the Second World War began in 1939, Preston enlisted with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Shortly before he travelled to northern France in 1940 with the British Expeditionary Force, the pair got engaged. The 20-year-old Oxford student, who was the youngest Lieutenant in the battalion, then disappeared during the war but Worrall's mother was never able to find out the exact circumstances.
"Right up to her death, under the glass on her dressing table, next to pictures of my father and her three children, she kept a faded photograph of Martin, sitting on a bench in Oxford, in a cricket blazer, his thick, brown hair swept back off his forehead," the author said.
Worrall revealed that he "had always known of Martin’s existence" and wondered what had happened to this "dreamy-looking, young man who looked up at us from under the glass?"
Following his mother's death, Worrall was clearing out her house when he unearthed a chocolate box "decorated with red roses on it" with a red ribbon tied around it. Inside were faded love letters tightly bound with string. After reading of the pair's war-time romance, he researched Preston's life, visiting the UK house in Buckinghamshire where Preston had grown up and discovered the true circumstances of his disappearance on the battlefields of northern France.
Worrall revealed that his mother had never spoken much about the story of her love affair, but that the cache of letters "propelled me on a journey of discovery that took me from the house in Beaconsfield where Martin lived to the lanes around Penn [in Buckinghamshire] where he and Nancy walked from the battlefields of northern Europe to historical archives and abandoned blockhouses on the Maginot Line [in France]".
The author said: "Piecing together the narrative in the form of a novel, I have turned this powerful story of love and war into a novel – and brought closure to the story my mother was never able to fully discover: the circumstances of Martin’s disappearance in northern France in May 1940."
He revealed that "the moment I opened the chocolate box and found these bundles of tear-stained love letters, I knew I had to share this story with the world. I hope I have honoured their love, their lives and their courage, and the reader a book to treasure.”
In the novel, after a whirlwind romance, Martin is sent to the battlefields of France in 1939 and tells Nancy their love will keep them safe. But one day, his letters stop and Nancy tried to unravel the mystery of his disappearance.
Worrall is based in Hereford and has written for National Geographic, GQ, the London Times and the Guardian under the name Simon Worrall. He wrote a non-fiction book, The Poet and the Murderer, which was published by 4th Estate in 2002. The Very White of Love is his first novel.
Mursell revealed HQ is “immensely proud” to be publishing the book. She said: “Beautifully written and a true piece of history, Simon has pieced together a story that has just been waiting to be told for over 70 years."