Q&A With Kirsty Stonell-Walker. It’s all about her new novel.

11th April 2014
I am very pleased today to welcome author Kirsty Stonell-Walker to a Q&A session here on Endymion. We are speaking about the recent publication of her novel 'A Curl of Copper and Pearl' - see my review HERE.
author, female, dark hair, smiling
Author Kirsty Stonell Walker.
1) May I just begin by asking you how one pronounces your name. Is Stonell pronounced like ‘stone all? Or is it more like ‘stow nell?’

Who knew that 7 letters would prove so difficult? I have heard so many different pronunciations of my surname over the years, some of them far fancier than what it actually is. It’s pronounced like ‘tunnel’ but with an ‘o’ instead of a ‘u’, if that makes sense. I was looking forward to changing it to something far more straightforward when I married Mr Walker but of course I had already published so I went the pretentious route of double-barrelling. I’m stuck with it now.

2) Why did you choose the title ‘A Curl of Copper and Pearl?’

To begin with it was called ‘How She Fills His Dreams’, as in the Christina Rossetti poem, but I wanted something that just evoked the vision of Alexa through Rossetti’s eyes. That blend of red and creams just seem to conjure her – the red of her hair, the red of her lips and the cream of her skin. Plus I felt it used the image of the Rossetti hairpin in the hair of a stunner, usually copper in colour.

3) You have written extensively in your biography ‘Stunner’ about another of Rossetti’s models, Fanny Cornforth, and yet you have chosen Alexa Wilding as the focus of your novel? Why was that? What makes her a better choice for a work of fiction?

I did begin with an idea that I would write about Fanny but found I couldn’t for a couple of reasons. Firstly I know her too well – having written Stunner I felt I had told her story and there were no secrets to be seen. Also, people had already done that in other novelisations and whilst I might not have agreed with them, that wasn’t really what I wanted from the novel. What I wanted to do was to tell the story of a period of time but from the viewpoint of an outsider, and so I chose Alexa.

You could argue that Curl is about Fanny because I tell her story from 1865-82 as well as Alexa’s. I get very defensive about Fanny because she is so roundly attacked or dismissed. After all, what did she do that was so wrong? And what did she do that we have proof for? We should always be wary of taking the opinion of someone with an axe to grind and most of what we ‘know’ about Fanny from her contemporaries comes to us with a hearty side dish of prejudice.

Alexa comes without such baggage, so she can see these famous people for what they were: just people, for better or worse. I think you get to see the less delightful sides of Fanny’s character as well as the bits that are lovely, and this is Fanny past her best, when she is pretty much resented and loathed by people. Poor old Fanny!

4) The early chapters dealing with Alex’s humble background are very convincing and realistic in their setting and mood and the way you describe her work as a seamstress. How much is actually known about Alexa’s early life and how much did you need to invent?

I had a census return from 1861 to work from and that was about it. A bit like Fanny, people invented a back story about Alexa which was filled with guesses and assumptions, some of which might have been true but heaven knows which bits. What we know is that in 1861 she lived in a house with her grandmother and her sons, Robert and Charles. Robert was the head of the household, Charles was his brother and Alexa (or Alice as she still was then) was his niece, but her relationship to Charles is not explained. They lived in Warwick Lane just behind St Paul’s Cathedral and by Newgate Prison. The family made their money from the market where the Wilding men were butchers. We have no accurate place or date of birth for Alice, nor any notion of who or where her parents were. Unlike Fanny, no-one bothered to ask Alexa, or at least she did not live long enough, as she died only 2 years after Rossetti at the age of 37.

I wanted to give her a back-story that wasn’t particularly glorious or eventful as I think the facts of life for most people were that if they did not have much money or opportunities then not a lot would happen to them and then they died. In comparison, Alexa had the chance to fly from that into something completely foreign, new, exciting and strange.

5) In the story we see everything through the eyes of Alexa herself, a young woman in an unfamiliar world, with no background in the arts at all. We share in her doubts and perhaps her confusion, also, as to what is taking place in the already established Pre-Rahpaelite circle. Do you feel she was ever fully integrated into that world, reaching a better understanding of what Rossetti and his colleagues were trying to achieve? What I probably mean to say is, how sophisticated, if at all, do you feel she eventually became?

Honestly, I don’t know. Like Jane Morris, she kept her mouth shut so people never said she was ignorant, although we do have that comment by Rossetti saying she was ‘dull’. I find the photographs of her as a young woman to be quite ‘knowing’, as if she understood what part she played in the artist’s fantasies, but it’s hard to see how far she travelled in terms of learning or understanding because she is forever silent. I suppose she gained some sort of integration solely due to her silence – she managed to be present at so many places and times when Rossetti was living his life of artistic excess. She saw so much that it is hard to imagine that she was not affected somehow.
book cover shows painting of young woman with red hair
6) Rossetti was very evidently attracted to beautiful women, but apart from the brunette Jane Morris, one always thinks of auburn or red hair when picturing his works. Yet even as late as Victorian times, red hair was an object of superstition - slightly demonic and wild in the popular imagination. It was also associated with Mary Magdalene. Do you think there might be a deeper psychological reason why he associated the ideal of female sexuality so frequently and consistently with red hair?

What an interesting question. I’ve always suspected that Rossetti was purposefully rebelling with his choice of muses and he did tend to ramp up the ‘redness’ of model’s hair, for example William Michael Rossetti describes Fanny Cornforth as being straw-blonde, yet his brother makes her hair russet and sometimes out-and-out copper. He loved the colour green, it is all pervading in his art, and so to have the model’s sporting a fine head of red hair makes a beautiful contrast. I find the pictures of Jane in green to be less impactful than, for example, something like La Ghirlandata.

7) What would you like people to come away with after reading your novel? What ‘message’ (for want of a better word) did you intend to convey when writing it?

I would like my readers to come away knowing that people are just people – it’s so easy to think the famous and infamous are a certain way because of all the things we know of them, but inside we are all the same, with the same wants and needs. I have countless spirited discussions with people online about Rossetti and Ruskin who have been so strongly drawn in biography that it is almost impossible to imagine they are still human. People are complex and it is hard to see that anyone would only be one note, if you know what I mean. If somebody does something, we ought to look at why that would be rather than just condemning them.

I also want to give an impression of the beauty of Pre-Raphaelite art and how wonderful it must have been there at the spark of some of the paintings. I have sneakily put in moments when Alexa is in the pose of a famous Pre-Raphaelite painting as part of her life, as I wanted to give an impression of a woman whose life was art, that she is a creation of the imagination of an artist.

8) And finally, what are you planning on writing or publishing next?

I am currently working on a story set in 1860s and 1890s about a poet, a photographer and a murder. In some ways it’s about the consequences of actions catching up with people and how a selfish action can prove disastrous years later. As I have a dual time-line, you meet two of the characters when they are young and when they are older, after varying degrees of success. I wanted to look at how much our past can influence, enhance or wreck our present.

I also wanted to explore the notion of an ideal – I have a poet who is worshipped by his fans, for them he is the ideal. He also has a woman who is his ideal, but how much do any of them know about each other and how satisfactory is it to not know about the object of your desire. I think it is a very modern obsession to know everything about a famous person, but then we also crave the failure of a star to prove they are not better than us. Everyone has faults, no one is perfect, so in theory you would not have to dig too far to find out a person’s failings but will we ever be satisfied by an untouchable vision of perfection?
Many thanks to Kirsty for answering those questions at such length.

'A Curl of Copper and Curl' can be found HERE on amazon in the US.
And HERE on amazon in the UK.
The author’s website is HERE.

You might also like

When Alexander met the Queen. The ingenious Mr Bell.
sepia tone photo of Queen Victoria, half-profile, smiling
The story of Julia Margaret Cameron & Mary Hillier
photo image of woman in profile with text - a book cover
Book Covers
Exploring the golden age of book-cover design
small close-up of book-cover title, gold text
Stunner - a new biography on Fanny Cornforth.
small image of book cover shows woman with red hair, black background
small up-arrow linking to top of page