Dreams and disaster in Merryn Allingham’s wartime novel

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The location is unspecified, but novelist Merryn Allingham has got somewhere between Shoreham and Chichester in mind, somewhere a few miles inland.

And it is here that she looks at the first of two turning points in our history in the first of a pair of novels conceived together.

Lewes-based Merryn’s The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, set in 1914, is published by Harper Collins on January 12. The second book, The Secret of Summerhayes, will be published in the summer. It will be set in 1944.

“The second book will be set in the summer when the D-Day invasion was being planned and a lot of the training was on the Downs. A lot of the embarkation was from West Sussex. I conceived the two books together, and obviously it is always easier to write about somewhere you know… though the actual gardens that gave me the original inspiration are in Cornwall, The Lost Gardens of Heligan. These gardens were being restored. They had managed to restore some of them almost back to their original condition. It was almost like they had gone to sleep in the years after the Second World War, but with the restoration, they were trying to re-establish them as they once were. And I just thought there were all sorts of stories that might attend.

“The heyday of the gardens was the late-Victorian/Edwardian era when there was a lot of money spent on making them fantastic. And then the First World War came along, and a lot of the men went off to fight, and the gardens started to decline. The Second World War came along and the gardens were requisitioned by the military. A lot of the trees were used for target practice and a lot of beautiful lawns were concreted over.”

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is the fifth novel by Merryn, who previously wrote a Regency series under the name Isobel Goddard.

Merryn was drawn to a time of immense change. Nestled in Sussex, the Summerhayes mansion and its stunning Italian Gardens seem the perfect country idyll. But with a long-running feud in the Summers family, a houseful of secrets and tensions in Europe deepening, Summerhayes’ peaceful days are numbered.

Born to an industry-owning father and an aristocratic mother, Elizabeth must juggle her dreams of independence, her parents’ wishes for her ‘good marriage’, and the responsibility of reuniting her feuding family. Housemaid Ivy is desperate to marry before her love goes away to war, William struggles with feelings towards his schoolboy friend, and Elizabeth is drawn to the promise of a new life with a charming young architect.

“There is a lot going on on the estate. The family are in a bit of crisis. They have got a daughter that they want to marry off, but who doesn’t want to get married. They have got a son that is obviously gay, but they are not going to acknowledge that. And they are at loggerheads with the wife’s brother next door.”

Leaving school early, Merryn travelled the world as an airline assistant, before returning as a mum to finish her A-Levels. Then, with a second child to care for, she gained two undergraduate degrees, a masters and a PhD, before teaching at the Open University in Sussex for 25 years. It was in forced retirement that Merryn finally had the time to focus on her writing professionally and got her first publishing deal.

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