“The Tube had broken down. Again…”
I have a secret to share with you: there was no Eloise in the original draft of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
No Eloise, no Colin, no Tube.
The first draft of the book which became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was purely historical, and largely as you read it now (minus about fifty pages of additional sheep jokes). A friend gave the book to an agent, the agent sent the book out to a few editors, and, in a surprisingly short space of time, I got a call saying that an editor wanted the book, but she had a question for me.
That question was: “Have you ever considered a modern framing story?”
The short answer to that was no, I hadn’t.
“It doesn’t need to be much,” said my agent. “Just one chapter– like someone finding papers in the attic.”
I might have made a mmm-hmm noise. I don’t remember. What I do remember is standing there on the phone in my old studio apartment in Cambridge, struck by the image of a woman clinging to a Tube rail. She had red hair and tall boots and a skirt turned partly wrong way round and a beige sweater with a coffee splotch on it.
I knew her. I had no idea how I knew her, but I did. I knew who she was and where she was going and why she was there.
“Hello?” said my agent. “Are you still there?”
“Does it have to be only one chapter?” I asked.
I could already see what was going to happen. She was going to get off that Tube to visit an elegant elderly lady. That lady had a nephew, a nephew who didn’t want the family papers in someone else’s hands.
“I don’t think so,” said my agent.
“Good,” I said. “Because I think I want it to be a little bit more….”
And that, in a roundabout, accidental way, was how Eloise was born.
There’s a side note to this story. Several months later, I was doing some reading up on Baroness Orczy. (As the publicity for the book release got under way, people had started asking me questions about The Scarlet Pimpernel, and, like a good little grad student, I thought I had better do my research.) What I hadn’t known? Was that Baroness Orczy always claimed that she had first met Sir Percy Blakeney in the Tube. She had been standing on a Tube platform, and there he was, knee breeches, quizzing glass and all.
I wish I could say that I placed Eloise on the Tube deliberately, as a homage to Baroness Orczy. But I didn’t. Like Sir Percy on that Tube platform, she just popped up there, all by herself, with a complete history and story to her.
One might even think it was meant.