By Katherine Webb
Two very different events caused the initial spark of the story that was to become The Unseen to ignite – one which took place almost a hundred years ago, the other just a few years ago.
Firstly, in 1917, was the case of the Cottingley fairies. This was a set of photographs taken by two schoolgirls in the north of England, which seemed to prove the existence of fairies. The pictures show the girls watching and playing with a variety of sprites from tiny, delicate female figures in slip dresses to ugly gnomes in tights and jerkins. As a child I was desperate to believe that the pictures, and therefore the fairies, were real. What fascinated me just as much as I grew up, however, was that so many educated and respected adults at the time the pictures were taken were equally prepared to believe in them.
The more recent event that inspired the book was the excavation of a mass grave of British and Australian soldiers killed at the battle of Fromelles, in Northern France, during the First World War. Archaeologists working with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made amazing and terribly poignant discoveries as they worked to identify the dead – personal items like tokens from sweethearts, and other things you would never expect to survive so long in the ground. Having travelled to the WWI battlefields in Belgium in the past, I had always been fascinated and deeply moved to learn of the frequent discoveries of unidentified soldier’s remains made near the battlefields. Here, at Fromelles, was evidence that even when uniforms had perished, and ID tags had been removed, still enough could survive the long interment to allow the men to be identified.
And if a bus ticket could survive, then couldn’t a letter? A series of letters? And what if the quest to make such an identification led to the uncovering of more than just a name? What if it led to the discovery of a mystery? The solving of a hidden, long-forgotten crime? This at once became the mission of my contemporary character, Leah; a freelance journalist desperate for a story to take her mind off the disastrous aftermath of a love affair. And the long-dead soldier she eventually identifies…well, he is at the centre of events a hundred years earlier, when life in a peaceful village rectory is turned upside down by a series of escalating events.
This was where my interest in the Cottingley fairies came into play. Perhaps the most famous believer in the pictures was the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A follower of Theosophy, an east-meets-west spiritualist religion that was growing in popularity, Conan Doyle wrote a series of letters and articles at the time in which, behind all of his careful consideration and evaluation, you can just about smell how desperate he is to believe in the fairies, how excited the idea that here could be definitive proof makes him. Later on in life, the little girls themselves, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, admitted that they had faked the photographs with the help of paper cut-outs. All the publicity at the time had made them too afraid to come clean, but to her dying day Frances insisted that there had been fairies at Cottingley, and that they had only faked the pictures to prove as much to the world. This idea really struck me – the idea of using a fake to prove that something is real…
So the character of Robin Durrant was born; a charming and ambitious young man, determined to make a name for himself in the field of Theosophy. This character, and that of Cat, the rebellious, politically astute new housemaid, came to represent all the new ideas and movements that were beginning to shake the solid foundations of the Edwardian world in England. And who better to reflect how hard these new ideas might be for some people to assimilate than a naïve country vicar and his even more naïve young wife? So these four people are brought together in a small village where nothing much ever happens, during the long, hot summer of 1911, and the clock is ticking to find out who will reach their breaking point first.
The Unseen became a story at once about the thrill and healing power of uncovering something long buried, of sharing a secret; and about how dangerous the desire to believe in something can be. It’s a story about just how much the world had changed in the one hundred years between 1911 and 2011; and also about how human beings, in essence, never change. I hope that people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Katherine Webb was born in 1977 and grew up in rural Hampshire, England. She studied History at Durham University, has spent time living in London and Venice, and now lives in Berkshire, England. Having worked as a waitress, au pair, personal assistant, potter, bookbinder, library assistant, and formal housekeeper at a manor house, she now writes full time.