The tender story of a decades-long romance between Harry and Evelyn, the novel explores how time transforms our most intimate relationships. The Writers’ Trust jury writes, “By integrating themes that are universally understood by readers and skilfully crafting endearing characters that surprise and delight, Page has created a poignant literary work of art.”
Kathy Page is the author of ten previous books, two of which, Paradise & Elsewhere (2014) and The Two of Us (2016), were nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Other works include Alphabet, a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2005, The Story of My Face, longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002, and Frankie Styne and the Silver Man. Born in the UK, she moved to Salt Spring Island with her family in 2001, and now divides her time between writing and teaching at Vancouver Island University.
THE CHAT WITH KATHY PAGE
Trevor Corkum: Dear Evelyn is a gorgeous, complicated portrayal of the 70-year relationship between Harry, a World War Two veteran, and his wife, Evelyn. Can you speak more about how these characters came to life for you?
Kathy Page: Thank you! The starting point for this novel was my own parents’ marriage. They married young, at the beginning of the war. Decades later, at the time of my growing up, they were a fairly argumentative middle-aged couple. Then, at the end of this very long marriage of theirs, when they had reached their late eighties, the quarrelling escalated and they became outright embattled. It was very upsetting to witness.
At the same time, my mother was clearing out the house and wanted to pass on my father’s passionate love letters to her written during the war. My sisters and I read them. The contrast between the start and the end of my parents’ relationship was stunning. How had one thing become the other? Was the way they’d ended up inevitable, or could things have been otherwise? Was love still there, disguised or buried beneath the hostile surface of things?
The contrast between the start and the end of my parents’ relationship was stunning. How had one thing become the other? Was the way they’d ended up inevitable, or could things have been otherwise?"
These questions haunted me; eventually I decided to explore a similar relationship using fictional characters who shared some of my parents’ essential characteristics, but were also different to them. I wanted the story to be life-like and true to the essence of the situation, and I also needed to be free to shape and invent.
It took me a while to break away from the actual people, but the story really took off when I took some incidents briefly or obliquely referred to in my father’s letters, and, after months of research and writing, turned them into entire chapters or scenes involving Harry and Evelyn. Fairly soon after that, Harry and Evelyn started to go to places and to do things that to my knowledge my parents had never done. They had become people in their own right, real characters, and as I wrote on, I felt I knew them very well, but at the same time, they were capable of surprising me.
TC: What were the greatest joys and challenges you faced in trying to capture such a long time span?
KP: The book spans ninety years in total. I have a prejudice against long novels, and like to distill my fiction, so this certainly presented a challenge. After the war chapters, the story is essentially domestic, and deliberately so: it’s about fairly ordinary lives and how a relationship unfolds over time, but I did not want to plod through every child’s birth, the deaths of all four grandparents, and the changes of government, etc.
My instincts told me to move through the relationship according to an inner, emotional logic, rather than try to be systematic or take regular steps forward through time. To do this I had to locate the reader in time and place at the beginning of each incident or chapter, and trust them to join some of the dots. The timeline proceeds in chronological order, but the path taken through that swathe of time is idiosyncratic. Sometimes the jump from one chapter to the next is a few months, at other times it is years. So I really enjoyed rising to the challenge of all those decades! It was exciting to write.
Another great thing about writing through all these different eras was coming to truly understand, through researching so many different historical moments and imagining them through my characters’ perceptions, how profoundly history and culture affect our intimate emotional lives and what is possible within a relationship.
TC: You’ve mentioned elsewhere the amount of background research that went into the book, particularly around the war. What was most fascinating and surprising as you delved into this research? Were there particular stories or details that didn’t make it into the final manuscript?
KP: Yes. I had to research extensively for virtually every chapter until I got to the parts that were within my own memory—and even some of those also needed considerable work to clarify.
For some sections of the book I read novels that were current at the time, including both classics like Du Maurier’s Rebecca and others by now-forgotten writers like Charles Morgan, who was very well regarded in his day. There’s also a great deal of poetry quoted, and I weave in references to poems throughout the story. Harry is a would-be poet, and people of his generation were much more familiar with their poetic tradition than most of us are. Many people carried poetry “learned by heart” throughout their lives, as Harry does. So as I wrote, I re-read many of the classics of English poetry and enjoyed bringing them into the story. However, at a certain point I realized I had gone overboard with this idea. I trimmed severely, and cut whole chapters, particularly one with Louise and her son centering on Hopkins’s “The Windhover.”
There were countless things to find out, from artillery commands and the details of an obscure battle in the Desert War to the price of curtain fabric in the 1950s and the design of cruise ships of the 1970s. I was surprised to learn, when looking into contraceptive practices over the timespan of the book, that working class men—not, as you might assume, women—were the driving force behind the adoption of barrier methods of contraception after the First World War and the massive drop in the birth rate that resulted. The challenge with research of this kind is to absorb and digest the information and then write without trying to convey it. A couple of hours looking into the pre-war paper industry in France ended up as a mere line in the finished book. It might not even appear at all. Sometimes it’s enough that the author gains confidence in her own imaginings from these bits of knowledge. The thing is to be able to show the era as experienced by the characters living through it.
The challenge with research of this kind is to absorb and digest the information and then write without trying to convey it."
TC: Evelyn is such a strong, tightly wound character. I was fascinated by the connections between her troubled relationship with her father and her anxiety and (repressed) fears in her marriage with Harry. In many ways, you’re exploring how childhood trauma impacts our adult relationships. Can you speak more about these parallel relationships?
KP: I’m glad you saw it that way. Despite her vulnerabilities, Evelyn presents as a forceful, energetic person, and one who does things that readers may disapprove of. She is both alluring, particularly in her youth, and overwhelming. I came to understand as I wrote her story that there are huge forces pushing her to be as she is. As a young child, she is confronted by her father’s illness and addiction, and the horror she feels at that time (both physical and emotional), combined with her later guilt at being unable to love or forgive him, never leaves her. It coalesces into a terror of weakness and vulnerability that affects both her attitude to herself and her feelings (especially towards the end of the book) for Harry. Her mother both indulges her and tries to co-opt her into her dysfunctional marriage. If you throw in historical attitudes to women, and Evelyn’s terror of being overwhelmed, then her stubbornness and selfishness, initially outrageous, start to be understandable. The sad thing about Evelyn is that she is so very good at defending herself against what she fears. Her strengths are also weaknesses.
The sad thing about Evelyn is that she is so very good at defending herself against what she fears. Her strengths are also weaknesses."
Of course history comes in to this, too. Because of her own parents’ marriage, Evelyn is somewhat ambivalent about romantic love at the beginning of the novel, but the war pushes her towards it. When she marries, she is fired from the job she loves, something that was perfectly legal at the time. A spoiled daughter, she is suddenly a wartime mother. The psychological impact of the war was enormous for civilians as well as combatants, and she’s no exception. Postwar, women were strongly encouraged to return to domestic roles. Later, in the sixties and seventies, they began to push for more rights and choices, but by then Evelyn has become set in her ways and defensive; she then has to deal with her daughters having options that weren’t available to her.
There is a whole subtext or undercurrent in Dear Evelyn to do with trauma and mental health. In the very beginning, Harry’s mother is confronted with something that was never spoken of at the time, post-natal depression, and finds her own way through it. The characters I’m writing about grew up and lived most of their lives in times when things that exert a huge influence on a person, such as depression, or sexual desire, or anger, or compulsive behaviour existed, yet were impossible to talk about. You coped as best you could, and others were frequently affected by the fallout. By the time this began to change, it is too late for Evelyn, who vigorously resists her doctor’s accurate, if sexist, suggestion that some of her physical symptoms might be psychological in origin. She is right to refuse his prescription, but also constitutionally unable to allow herself to be helped into different ways of being, even though part of her yearns for it.
The characters I’m writing about grew up and lived most of their lives in times when things that exert a huge influence on a person, such as depression, or sexual desire, or anger, or compulsive behaviour existed, yet were impossible to talk about. You coped as best you could, and others were frequently affected by the fallout."
TC: Without giving much away, the finale is the perfect note on which to end this long and loving affair. How did it feel to finish this particular story?
At the end—in particular in the last chapter—the story returns to where the idea for it, for me, began, and I feel I’ve learned a great deal along the way. Readers will come to their own conclusions as to whether the seven decades Harry and Evelyn spend together are for better or for worse, or whether the question is utterly irrelevant. There’s no simple answer, but while the story is far from a straightforward romance, it is about love: not ideal love, but lives lived together by these particular individuals with all their imperfections and yearnings. Writing it, my heart ached for them both, especially as I reached the end; I was glad, too, because this was the kind of story I wanted to tell, one that engages both my own and readers’ empathy and capacity to understand and connect.
Excerpt from Dear Evelyn
A collision between a cyclist and a motorcar had brought his tram to a standstill and Harry, already late, half ran towards the library. He normally used the main entrance, but that day, for no better reason than to get away from the main road a moment sooner, he turned into Altenburg Gardens and arrived at the reference library entrance just as Evelyn, leaving the double doors to swing shut behind her, stepped out. She paused for a moment at the top of the three semi-circular steps, framed by the white stone and the carved motto above, non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis, which later he would translate for her: not for me, not for you, but for us. Intended in the civic sense, he would jokingly explain.
She had the type of figure he liked best: full, yet not heavy. She held herself straight and proud despite carrying several books pressed close to her body with one arm, and a small leather bag in the other. Her hair, an intense brown, softly waved, fell to her shoulders. It set off a clear complexion, framed large, dark eyes and subtly rouged lips—not a rosebud, but the opening flower itself. She took the steps as if they belonged absolutely to her, as, suddenly, did he: was it his gaze, the sheer intensity of the attraction he felt, that made her drop one of her books at the bottom of the steps, or did she stumble slightly on the rougher brickwork there? In any case a book slid free and landed splayed open halfway between the two of them and he stopped and bent to pick it up, noting its author, du Maurier. He brushed the bright yellow jacket clean with his sleeve.
“Is it good?” he asked as he handed it to her. He heard his own voice as from a distance.
“I’ll find out when I read it,” she told him. “Thank you.”
“I’d be very interested to hear your view.” He did not move aside, but occupied the space in front of her, ostensibly ignoring yet acutely aware of a man in a tweed jacket who had also just left the library. Harry knew, just knew, that he’d been following her. Who wouldn’t? “Harry Miles,” he said stepping closer to Evelyn, and making the situation clear, “May I carry those for you?”
She shrugged, but told him her name, Evelyn Hill, and handed the books over, managing to suggest by a certain coolness in the way she thanked him that absolutely no obligation would be incurred; that indeed, she was doing him a favour, which she was.
This excerpt reprinted with permission from the publisher.