At the recent Singapore Writers’ Festival, British expat and author Rosie Milne launched her third novel, Olivia & Sophia. It’s a historical novel, taking the form of the fictional diaries of the two wives of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, early British empire-builder and the founder of Singapore.
Rosie describes herself as the archetypal trailing spouse. She came to Singapore 10 years ago for her husband’s career, but it has been 18 years since she left London and her publishing job there as an acquisitions editor at Bloomsbury for self-help, lifestyle and other non-fiction titles, to move with him to New York.
That’s where she wrote her first novel, How to Change Your Life – a “piss-take” on self-help books, she says. Her second novel, Holding the Baby, became The Daily Mail’s Book of the Month when it was released during her family’s subsequent five-year stint in Hong Kong, where Rosie wrote a book column for The South China Morning Post. Now running the popular Asian Books Blog (asianbooksblog.com), Rosie has a 20-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, and is working on her fourth novel.
How autobiographical were your first two novels?
Not at all. I don’t directly use details from my own life. I’d see that as an invasion of my family’s privacy, and mine.
Of all the subjects you might have chosen, what inspired you to write about Olivia and Sophia Raffles?
I liked the idea of two women’s voices, and apart from their being married to Raffles I found them both really interesting women in their own right – and incredibly brave and adventurous. Two hundred years ago, the journey from London to “the Eastward”, as they called it, was hugely difficult. Shipboard conditions were dreadful, and the voyage could take 10 months or more; so could letters.
Which of your two main characters do you like the most – first wife Olivia, or second wife Sophia?
Now, I genuinely like them equally. At the start, I was more drawn to beautiful, vain and sexy Olivia, an older woman with a scandalous past – a man’s woman, perhaps, but I liked her. As history doesn’t tell us much about her, I was able largely to invent her character, and I gave her a lot of sparky opinions. I made her non-religious and socially irreverent: she married a much younger man and my Olivia regarded the aristocracy as nitwits.
I couldn’t take quite as many liberties with Sophia, because we know more about her, partly through the memoir of her husband that she wrote after his death. Whereas Raffles adored Olivia, after her premature death and his remarriage to the younger Sophia, he became the one adored. Sophia was seemingly humorless, excessively religious, and subservient to her husband – it was all quite off-putting, really.
But as I wrote Sophia’s diary, I warmed increasingly to her intelligence, resilience, and courage. Reading about the deaths of four of her children was hard to do. I allowed myself one sobbing fit, and then had to stop and pull myself together in order to write her story.
What’s your opinion of the character of Raffles?
He was, like all of us, a mixture of good and bad. Like all of us, he was sometimes inconsistent. I really didn’t want to present him either as a hero of empire, or as an anti-hero of the post-colonial era. We’re living in post-post-colonial times. The colonialists lost the argument. With nothing at stake in the present, I hope that we can now step back and see Raffles simply as a man. That’s the way I’ve tried to represent him – as a man.
What about the political and historical context?
Many of the day’s issues were similar to ours: globalisation, the financial crisis of 1825 – alas, even slavery is again being debated. Colonialism had not yet been established as an ideology, but I tried to give my characters opinions that reflected current thought about “natives”. Westerners were being exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism for the first time, and as a result starting to question Christianity in particular, and the whole idea of religious truth in general.
How did you do your research?
I’m no historian – Olivia & Sophia represents my attempt to teach myself to write a historical novel. Though I did read widely, I hesitate to call my reading research. Olivia & Sophia was always meant to be a novel, and is intended to be character-based; yes, history gave me the broad plot, but as history, the novel is full of inaccuracies. I did start off trying to stick to the known facts, but with every draft their stranglehold became looser.
When the facts got in the way, I ignored them. For example, Sophia was not present at the founding of Singapore on 6 February, 1819 – but for me to tell that story through her, she had to be there. She didn’t visit cannibal tribes with her husband, either. Likewise, Olivia did not travel with Raffles to Calcutta, and so did not smoke ganja on a rooftop with her husband and their poet friend Leyden; but I suspect she would have, given the opportunity. And as to whether Raffles smoked ganja, it’s well known that the expat community in Calcutta indulged in it, and they all certainly drank like fish.
How, when and where do you write?
I’m fairly self-disciplined. I try to be protective of my core novel-writing time, which is in the mornings and early afternoons. It started off that way because of the school day, and hasn’t changed. Journalism work has to fit into the latter part of the day and the evenings.
I blog on a Sunday, but try not to spend much weekend time writing. When my daughter left home, I hoped to take her bedroom over as my study, but instead my son has taken over her room in addition to his own. But that’s fine, really. I wrote my second novel in a cupboard, literally – the windowless walk-in wardrobe off our bedroom in Hong Kong! I’m not fussed.
This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Expat Living Subscribe
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