On the sunny spring morning that we speak, Harriet Evans has been going through the page proofs of her 12th novel, The Beloved Girls, with a forensic eye—long before she was a bestselling author, Evans was a highly regarded editor—and it has not met her exacting standards. “I’m actually mortified by some of the stuff you will have read that I’m taking out,” she says, cheerfully, over the phone from her newly adopted home of Bath. “Bits where I’ve used the same word in a paragraph three times!”
Not that I noticed, of course, being far too caught up in The Beloved Girls which is, in Evans’ words “a wild ride”. It begins with Catherine, a successful barrister, outwardly calm and assured, who suddenly vanishes from a train station just before she is due to go to Paris for the weekend with her husband. Before disappearing, Catherine had been acting strangely, apparently perturbed by a woman who turned up unexpectedly at her London chambers. Catherine had always been secretive about her past—all her children and husband know is that she left the family home on her 18th birthday, never to return.
The clues to Catherine’s disappearance in the present lie in this hidden past, way back in the summer of 1989, when a young girl, Jane Lestrange, arrived at a West Country manor house. Evans explains that each new book begins with a single image, and The Beloved Girls was no different: “An image came into my head one day of a girl, she’s arriving at a house in the country and she’s about 17, 18. I didn’t know much about her but she was sort of fragile but very strong. There’s this family waiting for her and they are very together and glamorous and beautiful in different ways. But there’s this atmosphere and I couldn’t really explain why it was dangerous for her to be going there, but it was. That’s all I knew.”
What follows is a rich brew: a wealthy, gilded family with secrets to protect; a secluded country house; a young woman entranced by each member in turn; and an ancient ritual re-enacted during that summer which will have consequences that reach down the years. The Beloved Girls has many of the features of Evans’ previous novels; a compelling family drama combined with an evocative sense of place where the past overshadows the present. But this time there is something more. “Early on in the process I was like, yeah, this isn’t a glossy, family, page-turner-y, well, I want it to be a page-turner, but it’s got an extra layer of wild weirdness and, really crucially, unreliability of the narrators all the time. I love books such as The Secret History, The Little Stranger, The Talented Mr Ripley, My Cousin Rachel—the idea that what you’re reading, you don’t know how much to trust it or not.”
As a novelist, her primary aim is always “a really good, well-written, page-turning and completely absorbing read”. She is passionate about commercial fiction, “quality good fiction” and always has been, first as a reader and later as an editor. She grew up in London in a house full of books, as both her parents worked in publishing. Her dad also wrote thrillers. Evans started her own publishing career as a secretary at Heinemann in 1996 when it was still part of Reed, working for three bosses who went on to be rather successful: Tom Weldon, Louise Moore and Lynne Drew. When Heinemann was sold to Random House, Weldon and Moore left for Penguin and asked Evans to go with them, much to her surprise—“I was always faxing rejections to Tom addressed to Dear Shitley instead of Dear Shirley”—and when Evans eventually parted company with Weldon and co, she remembers that her leaving card began, affectionately, “Dearest Harrie, you were worst secretary I’ve ever had...”
Evans was at Penguin when the publisher acquired the now brand authors Marian Keyes, Lisa Jewell and Jane Green; “books [that] were published because they were really good pieces of fiction by women, about women’s lives.” Despite her own flourishing editorial career, Evans had her own ambitions to write, “but I didn’t really have much confidence in myself. I’m surprisingly unconfident for someone who is so chatty and outgoing”. Then, something happened at work which made her take the plunge: “I got sent a book on submission that sold to someone I knew well, for quite a lot of money. I thought it was a terrible book.” She was complaining to the sales director about it when the suggestion came back: “I don’t know why you don’t just write a book. ”
So she did, getting up early to write each morning before going to work on other people’s books, but not telling a soul. Remembering her anxiety now, she adopts the deep, dramatic tone of a movie voiceover: “This is the biggest secret of all. It’s The Da Vinci Code—editors writing novels. If this gets out, it will blow things apart!” she says, making me laugh. “But of course, who cares?” She did at the time, sending the first six chapters to an agent under a pseudonym, from a fake email address. It became her first novel, 2005’s Going Home, which sold over 100,000 copies through Nielsen’s Total Consumer Market. She continued juggling novel-writing with editing, moving to Hodder Headline in 2003 to work with authors Penny Vincenzi and Louise Bagshawe, but left to write full-time three books later, when it became too hard to balance both jobs.
Good commercial fiction
“My earlier books were called ‘chick lit’, and that’s fine. I don’t particularly love the term but I think some great novels have been published that are really classic ‘chick lit’. But I think it’s become a reductive way to describe women writing really good commercial fiction. Bundling up a whole wealth of experience of half of the population and saying ‘we are going to call this chick lit’. Maeve Binchy used to be referred to as ‘chick lit’! Ridiculous.”
It is this lumping in together of books simply because they are written by women, regardless of the subject matter, that she finds onerous. “In some bookshops there’s a category called romantic fiction. My books aren’t romantic fiction. There are some absolutely stonkingly great romance writers out there, there are some great rom-coms. But why am I put in romantic fiction? And why is Marian [Keyes]? And why is [Sebastian Faulks’] Birdsong not in romantic fiction? Because that is a really romantic book.”
Of her own work, she says: “Now I’m older, and I’ve had children, I’m writing bigger books with bigger themes. I want to write about things that interest me, and what doesn’t interest me is wholly domestic dramas. I’ll always want layers.” And, as befits a former editor, she has a cracking pitch for her latest. The Beloved Girls is “a gothic summer mystery, and my pitch, which I’m very proud of, is Daphne du Maurier meets ‘The Wicker Man’. With bees.”
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