Veronica Henry discusses love, forgiveness and the rural idyll with Danuta Kean.
For many of us love and forgiveness work better in theory than in practice. We think we love someone, but in fact what we have is less a relationship than an overblown fantasy, up to which the object of our ardour can never live.
The same is true of forgiveness. Our imagination may trick us into believing we have forgiven a misdemeanour, but our memory has a habit of pulling its corpse out of the gutter and into full view, rekindling feelings best forgotten if a relationship is to recover.
These are the themes of Veronica Henry’s latest novel, Marriage and Other Games. It tells the story of Charlotte, the girl who had it all: successful career, handsome husband, brains and beauty. But it is an illusion that is shattered when she discovers husband Ed has defrauded a charity. Pursued by a rapacious press, convinced Charlotte is guilty by association, and ditched by her smart-set friends with unseemly rapidity, she heads to the fictional Exmoor village of Withybrook, where she finds she is not alone in discovering the truth abut love and forgiveness.
“I have two or three female friends whose husbands have done inexcusable things – which I obviously can't divulge,” she begins. “These were not just having affairs which is the usual kind of misdemeanour in a marriage. It just started me thinking how much bad behaviour should you put up with in a marriage and what is unacceptable.”
The bad behaviour is not confined to Charlotte and Ed. Dissolute artist Sebastian and his ambitious media star wife Catkin are pulling in two directions – town and country; while new dad Fitch has been dumped by demanding Hayley for an ex-boxer whose appalling reputation is offset by his bank balance. And there is also Penny, the local GP, newly divorced and on the verge of the kind of revelation we all need – male or female – but only after her heart is broken afresh.
“Charlotte's dilemma is the biggest, but I wanted to show other things that put marriages under pressure, when people realise that they haven't got what they expected from it,” Veronica explains. She adds: “I have a lot of friends in Penny’s situation. We have all been there and had unsuitable crushes. Everybody makes mistakes and has fantasies but those two things often don't match up.”
Given that Veronica writes romantic fiction, and romance thrives on fantasy, it is interesting that she has chosen to write about where the two collide. So, what is romance? “That is such a hard question,” she answers, mulling over her reply.
“I don’t know if anybody knows how to answer what romance is. I always feel it is somewhere you would like to be that you are not at the moment. It is that grass is always greener thing. I don’t want to sound horribly cynical, but once you get what you want it evaporates. We are often questing for something we can’t have.”
The imbalance between desire and reality is summed up by Charlotte’s infertility treatment. As the novel opens, she has completed her final round of treatment, but, instead of being broken-hearted that she and Ed haven’t conceived, she feels free, glowing.
In the way her characters’ relationships change through adversity I was reminded of the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit. “Oh that is lovely,” the scriptwriter-turned-author tells me. “I approve of that one!” She pauses, serious for a moment: “The point is that life is hard and with marriage you either work at it or you don't, and that is what happens to the characters in the book.”
Though the book deals with the tough issues many experience, Veronica treats them with verve and humour. There is real warmth in the way her characters interconnect, and the way they interact with the village of Withybrook. The place is a character in its own right. I wonder whether it bears any resemblance to Veronica’s home, which is also a village, though this one is tucked into the hills of North Devon. She laughs when I ask.
“We uprooted the family to North Devon about five years ago and I don't regret it at all,” she says of her move from the Midlands. “We just thought, if we don't do it now and live the dream then we never will. Everyone who lives here is here because they want to be, which gives the place a really nice feeling.”
In one hilarious episode Sebastian outlines his theory of village life, that there are four types of people, starting with “mingy bastard” farmers and landowners. “That was my idea,” she says with a guilty giggle. Her neighbours, who include a considerable number of artists, have a robust attitude towards any fictional representation – in fact some practically plead to appear between the covers. “I am very careful not to write about them,” she says. “But it is an occupational hazard to be asked, ‘Am I in it?’”
Having written for The Archers before becoming a novelist, Veronica’s understanding of village life goes deeper than North Devon. “It was what inspired me to write in the first place,” she recalls. “It was a mad, fabulous job. I learned an awful lot, how to sustain drama; make them cry; make them wait; and all that sort of thing.” She still writes for Holby City. “It’s good to keep my hand in,” she says.
Working on fast-moving radio and television drama helped Veronica develop a demonic devotion to deadlines. She works incredibly hard, producing a novel a year – “July is Veronica Henry time,” she jokes. She is already deep into her next book, which is about a celebrity family. “It's about just how celebritydom and being in the public eye takes over your life and affects your decisions. You find yourself having to perpetuate the myth of how fabulous it all is, though at the cost of your personal life.” She laughs and adds: “So the usual shenanigans then!”