non/fictionLab Adjunct Professor Sophie Cunningham was in residence at McCraith House over summer, in preparation for her Women Writers in the City Fellowship, a new project for non/fictionLab that will be supported by a City of Melbourne Arts Grant in 2017.
“I was based at the McCraith House in Dromana from Monday January 30 to Saturday February 11. It was invaluable. I used the time to reconnect with a novel that I started ten years ago called ‘This Devastating Fever’. It was based on the life of Leonard Woolf, with particular focus on his time as a public servant in Ceylon (1904-1911), the early years of his relationship with and marriage to Virginia, her breakdown, and the outbreak of WW1. One of the things I needed to figure out is why the novel had stalled, particularly given that the writing I had done on the project (some 20,000 words) was, arguably, stronger than I’d managed to produce for my first two novels. The retreat allowed me to realize I was struggling with just how contested this area of history is, and the wealth of detail that exists in the public realm about these two writers. I took a couple of significant steps. I cut the chord between the novel and ‘real life’. My research on this period of history, and indeed Leonard and Virginia, remains vital, but I’ve changed their names, which has had the effect of releasing me from what did, or didn’t ‘really happen’. The second step was to connect book, emotionally anyway, to the current political climate. Leonard Woolf was an astute and early critic of Hitler and the rise and Fascism. He was also, being Jewish, subjected to much anti-Semitism throughout his life. One of my early impulses in writing the book was to connect September 11 to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (i.e. two pivotal moments in history). The rise of the Right, and specifically Donald Trump has reminded me that history is repeating itself yet again. I had not originally planned to write about the build up to WW2 in this novel, but now am doing so. That is, I’m writing about Ceylon and both world wars. I’d also note that Virginia’s worst breakdowns (and, indeed, her suicide in 1941) coincided with these two wars. I’ve renamed the book The Precipice. The retreat was very successful in reanimating this novel and I am very pleased with how much work I managed to get done. As an aside I’d mention that I also took the time to research a series of historical walks I’m planning and, as a part of that, walked from Sullivan’s Bay to Dromana, in the footsteps of William Buckley in 1803.”