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Virtual Book Club: Clare Flynn introduces The Colour of Glass

A captivating novel of love and art before WW1

Today I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author Clare Flynn to Virtual Book Club, my author interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their book to your book club.

Clare Flynn is the author of fifteen historical novels and a collection of short stories. Her website promises historical fiction with modern themes and, boy, does she deliver! Her books deal with displacement – both physical and emotional and have a strong sense of time and place. They draw on her extensive travels and experience living in many different places. A past winner of The Selfies Adult Fiction Prize (Clare won in 2020 with her novel, The Pearl of Penang) and the current Romantic Novelists’ Association Indie Champion of the Year (photo, courtesy of the Romantic Novelists’ Association), Clare now lives on the Sussex coast. When not writing or travelling she likes to paint, reads voraciously and occasionally tinkle the ivories.

Today, we’ll be talking about The Colour of Glass, which will be released on 1st June. But before we dive into the questions, here’s the book description to set the scene:

She’s dutiful. He’s defiant. Each knows what they want. Neither knows what they need.

England, 1908. Alice Dalton bows to the will of her aristocrat parents and agrees to marry the elder son of a wealthy stockbroker to bolster the failing family finances. But on the morning of her engagement, Alice confronts a shocking betrayal by her fiancé that ends in a heart-breaking tragedy.

His younger brother, Edmund, an up-and-coming stained glass artist, is driven by passion for his art and love for a fellow student. His domineering father has other plans, demanding Edmund takes his brother’s place and marries Alice.

Alice, tired of being used as a pawn, turns to the women’s suffrage movement. And Edmund, torn between duty and emotion, chooses to follow his heart.

Can Alice and Edmund each find fulfilment in a world where duty, money and class jeopardise their dreams?

Q: As someone who doesn’t plot, I’m curious to know, Clare, did you know where this book was going to go right from the start?

Absolutely not. This book had a strange genesis. I was away on a writing retreat with five other authors – including you! – intending to write a follow-up to an earlier novel. I spent the best part of the week trying and failing to get started. No matter what I tried, the story just wouldn’t come. This is highly unusual for me. Lorna Fergusson, who was also there, decided to give me a big kick up the bum and so opened up a couple of books taken at random off the shelf to give me a prompt. There was a character – Mrs Bowyer “a fussy little woman”, the city of Norwich, and stained glass. I passed on Norwich but stole Mrs B and the stained glass. I knew nothing about stained glass and wasn’t particularly interested in it but that changed very quickly as I jumped into the research and discovered a whole new and fascinating world.

The Colour of Glass by Clare Flynn, courtesy of the author

This book is a paean for all those who fought to live life their own way. An unlikely romance in a period of unromantic history, I dare you not to fall in love.” JJ Marsh, Author of the Beatrice Stubbs series

Click here to look inside or pre-order now!

Q: I didn’t know that I was there at the book’s conception! If any readers are curious, this is Goddards, the house where we staying. Where is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?

We were staying in a Lutyens built Arts & Crafts house which also provided inspiration – it became Mrs Bowyer’s home, Bankstone in the novel. I transplanted the house from Surrey to Hampshire. I chose Hampshire – in a fictional village near Petersfield as it was near enough to London but very much in the countryside. The first half of the book is set in London – including at The Central School of Arts & Crafts which had recently located to Southampton Row in Holborn when the book opens and was the place of study for stained glass in the late 19th and early 20th century.

I often set my books in exotic far-flung locations but I wanted this one to be very grounded here in England. Perhaps that’s down to the pandemic as my travels were very much curtailed over the past three years. I still worked hard to make the locations used come alive on the page.

Q: Did you base your main character Edmund Cutler on a particular stained glass artist?

I originally thought I was going to. I did a lot of research into actual Arts & Crafts stained glass artists in particular Christopher Whall, Harry Clarke and Karl Parsons. But when it came to the crunch I didn’t want to be restricted, and Edmund quickly took on a life of his own. Instead, I gave Whall a small part in the book as Edmund’s mentor – and gave Parsons (who actually worked for Whall and taught at Central) a couple of mentions. Clarke, an Irishman, who had a tragically short life, became an inspiration for the kind of work Edmund did – with his dramatic and passionate windows with vibrant colours and decorative motifs.

My female protagonist, Alice Dalton, also discovers stained art and develops a passion for it – as well as for women’s suffrage. In this respect she is like many Arts & Crafts women artists. Mary Lowndes – who also gets some mentions in my book – a renowned stained glass artist herself, established Lowndes and Drury glassworks in Fulham in 1897, founded The Artists’ Suffrage League, chaired the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and produced posters and banners for the suffrage movement.

Q: The book is set between 1908 and 1914 – what was the appeal of this period?

I’ve always been drawn to the Edwardian and WW1 era. There’s something very special and rather sad about the innocence and exuberance of people after the death of Victoria and before the terrible events of the Great War. All those young men with hopes, dreams and ambitions who will never get to fulfil them. All those young women who will lose husbands, lovers and brothers and face very different futures than the ones they’d dreamt of. It’s also a period when Britain had a very inflated opinion of itself – the last glory days of Empire before the beginning of the end.

That period also has the beginnings of women’s emancipation. It marked a time when, as well as fighting for the vote, women began to kick back about rights to work, marital rights and independence. Until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923, while men could seek a divorce for adultery, women could only do so if the adultery was aggravated by incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, cruelty or desertion of two years. As such many men (like Edmund’s father, Herbert) saw their wives as their property and many fathers (like Alice’s father Lord Dalton) saw their daughters as assets to parlay for financial advantage.

Q: What drew you to write about art? I know that you paint. Do you have a background in art?

I’m a dabbler at painting. All my siblings paint too. Both sisters seriously. My brother is an Art Historian. So art has always figured in the forefront of my family. I love art and enjoy nothing more than visiting galleries and exhibitions.

I’ve written about artists before. My protagonist Ginny in Kurinji Flowers is a painter, as is Jasmine in A Painter in Penang and Jasmine in Paris. But in The Colour of Glass the art is more central to the story. As I knew nothing about stained glass before starting the book studying it became a labour of love. I owe a debt of gratitude to the late Christopher Whall who wrote an excellent handbook to the creation of stained glass in 1905 which became my Bible.

Q: Stained glass art and women’s suffrage aside, what are the key themes of The Colour of Glass?

It’s also about families and the damage parental expectations can cause. Both Alice and Edmund’s parents have rigid expectations and insist their children conform to them. Conversely, Alice and Edmund have set their sights on their own personal passions. There’s no room for compromise and this pursuit of what each believes to be right blinds all parties to other possibilities.

Edmund is a man ruled by his passions. Passion for his art primarily – but also he has an obsession with the beautiful Dora. This all-consuming passion, combined with blind hatred of his domineering father, cloud his judgement and make Edmund act impetuously. Alice is calmer – to a reader today her behaviour early in the book might seem over-compliant – but it was entirely within the norms of her class, her gender and the times she lived in. She’s the kind of woman who will accept so much – until pushed to breaking point when she kicks back hard.

Clare Flynn, Historical Fiction Modern Themes, photo provided by the author

Q: Is this a standalone novel or the start of a series?

My books have usually set out to be standalones but I seem to get sucked by the characters into their futures and don’t want to let go. The Colour of Glass ends just before the outbreak of the Great War. Originally I intended it to end during the war but it was better to use the outbreak of war as the cut-off point. I’m now working on the sequel which opens at the dawn of the war. This also will allow me to zoom in on some of the characters who play lesser roles and push them into centre stage.

So, more to look forward to! If you’d like to know more about Clare and her fiction.

Visit her website. (If you sign up for her newsletter, you’ll receive a free copy of her short story collection A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories!

Visit her Amazon author page.

Follow her on Facebook.

If you prefer Twitter she is @clarefly.

For instagrammers, she is here.

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