Amanda Hodgkinson is a British novelist. Her debut novel 22 Britannia Road was an international bestseller. Spilt Milk is her second novel. She lives in France.
The novel covers the lives of several generations of women over the course of most of a century. In one of the reviews of the book, the chronicler called you a “chronicler of women’s lives in the 20th century”. Is it for you as meaningful as being a storyteller?
I was gladdened by that comment, but I was quite surprised as well. I thought I was looking at women’s lives, of course, but by looking at women’s lives, you are obviously looking at men’s lives. I am interested in the family, I am interested in relationships, I am interested in what it is to be a woman at certain times, in the 20th century. I was really pleased with the idea that I was a chronicler for women’s lives in the 20th century. I don’t know that I set out to do that, but I was certainly happy with that comment.
A chronicler is a storyteller of sorts. I am just telling stories to entertain, but also, I wanted to not just tell stories of people’s lives, I wanted to tell stories of the history behind them, of the changing pattern in the 20th century that interest me enormously. I wanted the story to work on many different layers,
The fates of the female protagonists are impacted one way or the other by the circumstances of history, i.e. the first and the second world war, but we always see war from afar, in the background. Could you tell us a little bit about this approach?
I think a great many books have been written about war. I wanted to write about the effects of war on everyday life, so not necessarily what it’s like to be on the battlefield, or what it’s like to have a gun in your hand, but what it’s like to be back home, trying to run a family, trying to run a house, trying to feed people, trying to go out to work. I think, certainly in Britain, during the first and the second world war, women took on many many different roles. Some were working in factories. It was suddenly outside the home, whereas before, they were probably invisible in a way. There were huge changes to women’s lives during this time.
In Spilt Milk, I wanted to look at what ordinary life was like, and the effects that war has on the shape of a family, the effects that war has on the dynamics of the family, and also the effects war has on the generations to come. I think we look a lot at how many people have been killed, how many buildings have been knocked down, but I think we don’t look enough at the effect it has on those left behind, on the effect that it has on future generations as well. I really wanted to look at the private side of war. That interests me more, in a way, because the chaos and destruction that war causes is very obvious, when you can see buildings falling down for example. But the damage that war does to people and to their everyday lives is much more subtle, and I really wanted to look at that.
The lives of the two sisters, Nellie and Vivian, are intrinsically linked to their birthplace in rural Suffolk. It shapes their lives in many ways, although Nellie tries as hard as she can to escape it. As a writer, do you feel that one’s attachment to a place says much about one’s identity or one’s outlook on life?
I think it does. I certainly wanted to look at that in Spilt Milk. I’m quite interested in the idea of our identities being based in some kind of geography, so if you grow up by a river, you might have a different feeling about life than if you grow up in a desert, or you have another way of looking at the world. If you grow up by the sea, maybe you become a sailor, then you have a different way of looking at the world… I think that geography is quite important to our identity, and certainly for Nellie and Vivian. At one point, Nellie says to her grandson: “we are river children, you and I”, and I liked the idea of them growing up by that river, and that river being like a place of safety but also a sort of prison for them. They were kind of imprisoned in that cottage, in that isolate life. Yet it said so much about their identity and who they were. The choices they made later in life come out of that experience of growing up in a little cottage by the river.
I do think there is a link between our identity and our geographic location, and I think we can become somebody different when we move to some other places. I think Nellie certainly does when she goes to London, which is as far removed from this isolated little cottage as she could get. She leaves her tiny little river for the river Thames, and an urban life, and becomes a different person in some way. She makes up her own rules. She actually really subverts the rules of the time. The way she chooses to live is quite shocking, although she manages to keep it very private.
From the beginning to the very end of the novel, the river is a very important element that seems to flow through their blood.
Yes, it’s almost like another character, that idea that the river is a shape, it flows constantly. Although it’s permanent, the water’s moving through it, so it’s changing. I felt that was very much about what the story was trying to say. Our lives are shaped in various permanent ways, with births and deaths and marriages, and they’re all different even though they’re all the same, so that idea of the water moving through is the idea of that change that comes to these generations.
None of the protagonists grow up in a traditional family, yet they make up their own mother figures. The frontier between motherhood and sisterhood is often blurred, and the two are interchangeable. Do you think it is a perennial aspect of family relationships?
I do, yes. I think those mother-daughter relationships and sibling relationships are just endlessly touching and fascinating and difficult and glorious, and yet they’re so enduring, they’re so strong. Those kinds of bonds can be so strong and yet so uplifting and so full of hope. They can be so destructive as well. I think I’m really interested in how, for most people, there are ideals of what the family should look like. Today, in the 21st century, we look at the extended family, so there are several marriages maybe, stepchildren, we look at different shapes of family. There are dynamics that we have to deal with. I think family just changes, and people who succeed at family are the ones who make up their own rules, the ones who say “well this is how our family is”, and it might not be an ideal image that you find in a magazine, or the way we imagine families should be, but this is how it works for them. I think they’re the successful ones, the ones that work through it all and find a way of being together, or apart. That bond that a family can have is endlessly fascinating and so complicated.
The lives of these women are shattered by tragic events, and they are pressured to live their life on society’s own terms, so they are in the end forced to grow up early. Still, would you say that it is a coming of age story for all the protagonists in the novel?
Yes, for each of them, definitely. It’s a coming of age story. I wanted to have different protagonists, because I wanted to see all these different facets, those different ways of being. I grew up with my great grandmother who died when I was 18, so she was a great age. I grew up in a family where I was often in the same room with my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. I remember really strongly, looking at four generations, and thinking that these were the women I loved, but I didn’t know them at all, really. I know them, since I was born, but I don’t know what their lives were before that. I looked at my great grandmother and I thought, “what was it like being a young woman, for you? What expectations did you have? What did you have to give up? What did you decide to have?”, and I looked at my grandmother, and I thought, “what was it like for you, that different time? Did your mother’s experiences changed and shaped your own life?”. Because our parents have a huge kind of effect on us, whether we like it or not. There’s this Philip Larkin poem that says “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”. But it can be a glorious thing as well. It was a coming of age story for each one of them, but also a way of looking at the expectations of each generation as well.