Margot Livesey shares an excerpt from her new novel The Road from Belhaven and discusses writing the historical novel with Ninth Letter editor at large Philip Graham.
From the New York Times best-selling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel about a young woman whose gift of second sight complicates her coming of age in late-nineteenth-century Scotland.
In Margot Livesey’s new novel, The Road from Belhaven, the main character Lizzie Craig can see into the future, but only in glimpses. Except for short, intense visions, she is as blind to the future as the rest of us. And there begin Lizzie’s troubles and the drama of this unsettling and beautifully imagined novel. Set in late 19th century rural Scotland, Margot Livesey gives us not only the mystery of Lizzie’s uncanny gift, but also a richly detailed distant world, where the pace of life allows dramatic complications to simmer, adding to the novel’s tensions. Lizzie Craig may be able to see into the future, but Margot Livesey, with great descriptive clarity, allows the reader to see—with growing wonder—into the past.
from The Road from Belhaven
The summer she was ten she learned not to speak of it. She told the hens, she told the cows, she told the pond at the bottom of the field and the ducks who swam there and her pet jackdaw, Alice, but she did not tell her grandparents, Rab and Flora, or Hugh, the farm boy, or Nellie, who had helped in the house when she, Lizzie, was learning to walk and whom they still saw every week at the kirk. The first picture came on a dreich November day. Her grandmother was in the dairy, skimming milk, her grandfather in the fields, digging potatoes. She was beneath the kitchen table, making scones for her doll—she must have been three or four—when the flagstone floor and her bowl and spoon disappeared. Instead she was watching her grandfather, his shirtsleeves rolled up, scything hay in the meadow by the river. He was working his way along the bank, cutting wide swathes; one moment the hay was upright, the next fallen. At the end of the row, he stopped to sharpen the scythe. She could see his shirt clinging to his back as he ran the whetstone back and forth. He was starting on the next row when the blade bit his calf.
She was still exclaiming “No,” scrambling from beneath the table, when the kitchen door opened and her grandfather stepped into the room, carrying a basket of potatoes. As he washed them at the sink, she patted his legs, searching for the cut beneath the rough fabric of his trousers. “What is it, Lizzie?” he said. “Do I have mud on me?” She told him what she’d seen. “I’d have to be gey clumsy,” he said, “to cut myself digging tatties.” She was still wondering why she had seen a scythe, not a fork, why the sun had been shining though the sky was grey, when her grandmother returned and together they went to feed the hens. By the following July when Neil, their neighbour, carried her grandfather home in a wheelbarrow, she had forgotten the scene beneath the table. Only as Dr. Murray made dark, untidy stitches in Rab’s leg did she recall her glimpse of the meadow months before.
She thought of them as pictures because she could see everything so clearly, as if she were standing nearby, although she never saw herself. Sometimes she saw ordinary things: her grandmother choosing which hen to kill; a cow stuck in the mud by the river. She saw a picture of Nellie in a white dress at the front of the church and three months later Nellie announced she was marrying Angus. “You could have knocked me down with a feather,” her grandmother said, reporting the news at supper. Lizzie started to say she had known for weeks, but her grandfather was already talking about the sheep shearing.
All this happened at Belhaven Farm, which was in that part of Scotland called the Kingdom of Fife, surrounded on three sides by water: the Firth of Forth to the south, the North Sea to the east, the Tay estuary to the north. Fife was known for its collieries, its fishing, and its university in St. Andrews, but the farm was inland, far from the coal mines. The year of Lizzie’s birth the explorer David Livingstone died in Africa, the RMS Atlantic sank off Nova Scotia, and the Scottish Rugby Union was founded. On the farm the most notable events, besides her arrival, were the mild weather and the early harvest.
Her great-great-grandfather had bought the farm in 1807 with money he made in linen. The gently rolling land was two miles from the village of Langmuir; six miles from the market town of Cupar. He had put a new roof on the white harled farmhouse and planted the beech trees that cast too much shade in the garden. Next to the house was an apple orchard and beyond that a field where Acorn, the mare, and Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, the cart horses, grazed. The cows mostly stayed in a large field beside the farmyard. In the south corner of the field, near the gate, was the duck pond. In the north corner was a small circle of standing stones, two fallen. Down by the river Elder was the meadow where her grandfather had cut himself. Other fields, farther away, were used for turnips, potatoes, corn, barley, oats, and hay. The north pasture and the moorland belonged to the sheep.
It was her great-grandfather who had planted the rowan tree beside the door of the farmhouse to keep witches away and built the lean-to which sheltered the carts, the plough, and the harrow. The other buildings—the barn, the byre, the granary, the dairy, the henhouse, the stable, and the hayloft—were part of the original farm. Between the house and the farmyard, a track led south to the river, and north, past the lochan, to the village of Langmuir. As a child, Lizzie knew every stone and puddle and nettle. She spent her days with her grandmother, Flora, who was tall and blue-eyed and sometimes carried Lizzie on her shoulders when she went to fetch the cows. Lizzie would pat her golden knot of hair, inhale her comforting fragrance of green soap and tea. When she drew a cow in the back of The Voyage of the Beagle, Flora spanked her but kept the drawing. Next time her grandfather went to market in Cupar, he brought back a book full of blank paper and two pencils. “Now mind,” he told her, “leave my books alone.”
Where were her parents?
On the wall of her bedroom. Her mother had made the drawing the day they got married. Helen, wearing a dress, the folds nicely shaded, was sitting in a chair; Teddy, in his Sunday suit, stood behind her, his left hand resting on her shoulder. Lizzie seldom glanced at them, but every morning she looked at the little white house with two red doors which had belonged to Helen and which stood on her chest of drawers. In ne weather the woman came out of her door; in bad weather the man emerged; sometimes each hovered on the threshold but they could never come out at the same time. Besides the weather house and the drawing, Lizzie had inherited her mother’s border terrier, William, whom they buried in the apple orchard soon after her grandfather cut himself, and a handful of stories. Helen could undo any knot; she could imitate a thrush so that birds sang back; she had rescued a calf from drowning in the river; she was partial to gooseberry jam. About her father, she knew even less. Teddy had been a fisherman. His boat was named St. Fillan after the saint who had lived in a cave on the Fife coast and wrote by the light of his glowing left arm, but neither God nor St. Fillan had saved Teddy’s boat when the fog rolled in one October day. Seven months later Lizzie was born; twelve months later Helen died. “Not because of you,” Flora had said. “Pneumonia. Your father drowned in one way, your mother in another.”
She had the ducks and the hens for company, the orphaned lambs and calves, but whenever she and Flora went to Langmuir, she gazed longingly at the girls in the school playground. At last, the August she was five, she set off to join them, wearing a clean pinafore, carrying a slice of bread and a piece of cheese for her lunch. She walked the first mile on her own, past their fields and the track that led to the lochan and Neil’s fields. Then she knocked on Dr. Murray’s door and walked the rest of the way with Morag, the oldest of his three girls. On that first day Morag hung back, afraid of the boys jostling in the playground, but Lizzie ran into the schoolroom eager to begin. The teacher, Miss Renfrew, put her in a desk next to Sarah, who lived in a house near the blacksmith’s. Her milky skin was dotted with freckles that Lizzie kept trying to count.
She liked the morning hymn, she liked writing and counting and reading and reciting and she particularly liked lunchtime, when they were free to play for half an hour. She was good at catch, fast at running; soon she knew the skipping rhymes: “Down in the Valley,” “Bluebells, Cockle Shells.” After school she was meant to walk home with Morag, but one sunny afternoon she joined a group of girls playing hopscotch. How many times had the church bell struck before she heard a voice calling, “Lizzie Craig?” As they walked along the track, Lizzie skipping to keep up, her grandmother explained she couldn’t stop and play whenever she liked. She had the hens to feed, the ducks to shut in for the night. “You’ve seen the foxes,” Flora said, “sneaking under the gate at dusk.”
She still enjoyed the games at lunch, but while she gathered the eggs, she knew the other girls were whispering confidences, running in and out of one another’s houses. She was the only pupil with no sisters, no brothers. Then, one January morning the spring she turned nine, Bob, the cowman, slipped in the first snow and decided he wanted to stay home. A week later her grandfather returned from Cupar with a wheaten-haired, lanky-limbed boy wearing too-short trousers and a too-large shirt. Her grandmother cut Hugh’s hair, shortened his sleeves, and made him a bed in the seldom-used parlor. That night at supper he said cheerfully that he was the seventh of seven sons; his father, a tanner, referred to him as surplus labour. When he wasn’t working with Rab, ploughing and harrowing, planting and sowing, Hugh helped Flora with the garden and took over the milking. He let Lizzie follow him around; he whittled her pencils and praised her drawings. The farm was no longer lonely.
In May, two days before her birthday, she came home to find a box in the kitchen. A small bird, its black feathers just beginning to bristle, stared up at her with blue-grey eyes. Hugh had found the jackdaw under an ash tree, no parents, no nest in sight. He showed her how to feed it worms and grubs. All evening she kept the bird on her lap, feeling the sharp prick of its claws, stroking its neck feathers.
“What will you call it?” said Hugh.
“Alice,” she said. Last winter, they had taken turns reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland aloud.
Alice’s eyes lightened to the grey of the lochan on cloudy days. She learned to fly and accompanied Lizzie as she fed the hens and ducks. When she and her grandfather played cribbage, Alice tried to steal the wooden pegs. On her grandmother’s birthday, Lizzie tied a little paper banner to Alice’s leg: Happy Birthday, Flora. In the evenings, while Hugh milked the cows, Alice perched on a hayrack, chattering softly and ignoring the barn cats slinking around in the straw below. As soon as she had done her homework, Lizzie joined them. She told Hugh the news from school—an older boy had broken his arm and had to wear a sling; Miss Renfrew had set a surprise test on the kings and queens of England, and she had passed because he had made her recite the names so often. Hugh told her Neil was putting two of his hives in their orchard and would give them some of the honey. In the Fife Herald he had read they were building a railway bridge across the Firth of Forth. He and Lizzie both remembered the storm that had brought down the Tay Bridge. At Belhaven, they had lost a haystack and several trees.
Seated on a milking stool, Lizzie leaned her head against Viola’s dusty flank, took hold of two teats, and tried to imitate Hugh’s steady motions. Nothing happened; Viola shifted restlessly. “Why won’t she milk for me?” she said.
“You have to squeeze and pull at the same time,” Hugh said. “Like a calf needing its supper.”
She was squeezing, pulling, when Viola and the empty pail vanished. Instead she was looking at the orchard, the apples still small and green, and there was Hugh standing beside one of Neil’s hives. The bees were coming and going, their legs knobbly with pollen. Hugh was bending over a hive, lifting off the top, as she had often seen Neil do. Then he was lying on the grass while bees, too many to count, covered his face and arms. His lips were moving but there was no sound. She was wondering how the bees, with their tiny stings, could hurt Hugh, when Viola swished her tail, and the orchard was gone. A few drops of milk dribbled into the pail.
“Hugh,” she said, “will you do anything with the bees?”
“No. They mind themselves. When it’s time, Neil will show me how to get the honey.”
“Promise you won’t do it without me,” she said, and he did.
After supper, in her room, she took out her sketch pad and drew what she’d seen: the apple trees with their fruit, the hive, and Hugh lying on the ground, covered with bees. She wrote the date at the bottom, June 16th. 1882, and slipped the drawing inside the copy of Jane Eyre she had won for attendance at Sunday school.
That summer she was tall enough to help with the shearing, guiding the sheep to the shearers, carrying the fleeces to the byre. For days afterwards, she found tufts of wool in her clothes and hair. School ended and the woman came out of the weather house every morning for a week. When Hugh finished the milking, they walked up to the lochan and, while Alice flitted among the birch trees, he taught her to swim. By the time the weather broke, she could breaststroke to the willows on the far side.
Maybe it was because of Hugh that she remembered everything about that year. They lost half a field of oats at harvest time and the snow came early. When it reached the top of her boots, she didn’t have to go to school. In the long evenings, while her grandmother mended shirts and socks, she, Hugh, and her grandfather took turns reading The Princess and the Goblin. Lizzie imagined herself as the young princess, brave and truthful, and Hugh as Curdie, the miner’s son, who defeats the goblins. Her grandmother was the princess’s mysterious great-great-grandmother, tall and strong, with shining hair. And her grandfather was the king, on his white horse.
At Christmas Hugh said, if it was all right, he wouldn’t go home. They ate one of the ducks, she tried not to think which one, and played Happy Families and whist. At Hogmanay, she and her grandmother cleaned the house from top to bottom, sweeping out the old year to make room for the new. She was allowed to stay up. When the grandfather clock struck midnight, the four of them held hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” On Twelfth Night a blizzard orphaned two early lambs. She named them the White Queen and the Red Queen.
She was on her way to fetch their milk one wintry evening when she saw light spilling out of the byre. As an adult, she would try to draw the scene: her grandfather, holding a knife, bent over a sawhorse from which hung a small white body. Every spring he skinned the dead lambs and tied the skins onto the living orphans so they would be adopted. Stepping into the lantern light, she asked which lamb would get the skin.
“The White Queen,” Rab said. “She’s smaller.”
“But the coat will be too big.” Blood dripped onto the straw.
He said that didn’t matter; ewes recognised their lambs by smell, not sight. In the kitchen she held the White Queen while he tied on the skin. It gaped around her shoulders, engulfed her tail, but in the morning, the ewe let her nurse.
On Burns Night she came home from school to find the haggis already made. She hurried through her chores and set the table. Neil and Dr. Murray and his wife came to supper. Hugh gave the “Address to a Haggis,” and her grandfather recited “Tam o’ Shanter.”
As he said the lines: “O Tam! Hadst thou but been sae wiseAs taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice! / She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, / A blethering, blustering, drunken bellum, from Belhaven,” he eyed her grandmother in a way that made them all laugh. Then his voice grew serious as he recounted Tam’s drunken ride, the witches and warlocks in fierce pursuit. Years later, when Lizzie found herself living at the Tam o’ Shanter pub, she would think her grandfather had, unwittingly, led her there.
That spring Hugh suggested she take Alice down to the meadow by the river. A flock of jackdaws was nesting in the pine trees; perhaps she might find a mate. Three Saturdays in a row Lizzie sat reading while Alice flew from tree to tree, playing in the wind. Sometimes she brought Lizzie a pine cone or a twig, but even when the wind took her near their nests, she ignored the other birds. “Och, she’s decided we’re her family,” Hugh said.
At school she overheard the girls talking about the hiring fair in Ceres; there would be music, peep shows, confectionery stands, races. After consulting Hugh, she cleaned the henhouse without being reminded and at supper asked could they please, please go to the fair. Her grandparents exchanged a glance.
“It’d be grand to have a day out,” said Flora. “Can you manage that, Rab?”
Lizzie had been to Ceres only once, when her grandfather sold a cow to a farmer there. Now as the cart approached the village green, she stood up in her excitement; so many stalls and booths and nut barrows, people everywhere, some, like her family, in their Sunday best, some in their working clothes. There was a cattle competition which her grandfather claimed Viola would have won and a race for farm lads; Hugh came second and won a Kilmarnock bonnet. After the race, she was making her way from stall to stall when she spotted a small tent with a sign: Madame Solange Will Read Your Future. Two pence. She was searching her pocket for the sixpence Rab had given her when her grandmother appeared. “Lizzie, what are you doing?”
“I want to ask her if my drawing will win the school prize.”
“Time will tell.” Flora reached for her hand. “We all want to know the future, but only God can know what’s coming. It’s the devil tempting us when we try to find out. Besides, Madame Solange is probably some Edinburgh wifie who knows no more of the future than you or I. Let’s try the pies.”
While they ate slices of apple pie—“Not as good as yours,” Lizzie said loyally—they watched a flock of bantams. She wanted to buy the little black rooster with his sharp spurs and feathery tail, but Flora said he’d be more trouble than he was worth. They moved on to the pigeons; Rab sometimes talked about building a dove-cot. They were walking back to the cart when Lizzie glimpsed a woman, tall, thin, and dressed in black, slipping out of the back of Madame Solange’s tent. She lifted her veil to reveal pale cheeks, lips red as apples. As she tilted her head to look at the sky, Lizzie was sure she heard her sigh.
School ended; her drawing won the prize; they brought in the hay. The strawberries ripened, then the gooseberries, the black currants, the raspberries. Lizzie picked and picked. Alice came and went, occasionally tossing a berry into the air, mostly bored. While Flora washed the fruit and measured sugar, she washed the jars and set saucers of sugary froth on the windowsill to waylay the wasps. When the raspberry jam was finished, her grandfather said, “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Why don’t you two go to the seaside tomorrow?” Her grandmother, before they married, had been a housemaid in St. Andrews and still missed the sea.
The next morning, as soon as the milking was done, she shut Alice in the dairy and brought Acorn down to the farmyard. Hugh put the mare between the shafts and drove them as far as the hill known as Largo Law. In geography she had learned that it was an extinct volcano but now it was only a large, grassy mound dotted with sheep. Shining in the south was the blue-grey water of the Firth of Forth. “Bring me back some pretty shells,” Hugh said. “I’ll let Alice out as soon as I get home.”
They walked the rest of the way, her grandmother carrying their picnic, while she carried a blanket and a towel. At the town of Lower Largo, they turned east along the path that followed the shore and climbed through the prickly grass down to the beach. They spread their blanket next to a tree trunk, silvery from being in the sea, and took off their shoes. Lizzie ran down to the water, her grandmother not far behind. “It’s perishing,” Flora exclaimed as a wave splashed over their feet. She pointed across the firth to the pleasingly shaped hill known as Arthur’s Seat and the spires of Edinburgh. They walked along, filling their pockets with shells. As they ate their bread and cheese, they decided which ones were worthy of Hugh. The rest would be crushed with a rolling pin, for the hens.
After lunch Lizzie ran into the dunes to squat behind a scrubby bush; the little pool vanished instantly. When she came back to the beach, a boy was leading a donkey along the wet sand. “Penny a ride,” he cried. “A penny for a ride on Fife’s best-tempered donkey.”
She could have all the rides she wanted on Acorn, but she asked for a penny and joined the two girls already waiting. She was watching them play leapfrog when, like a small breeze stirring the kitchen curtains, something rippled across her brain. Was a picture coming? She hadn’t had one since before they went to the fair. But no, it was nothing. Flora was strolling the tide line. Three children were paddling. A dog that looked like William was trotting behind an elderly man. A flock of seagulls, some white and grey, some fledgling brown, were pecking the sand. The donkey returned, a boy slid off, the smaller of the waiting girls climbed on. The other turned to her. “You’re not from here,” she said.
Lizzie explained they were taking a holiday after finishing the jam. She pointed to her grandmother, who was throwing a long strand of seaweed into the sea. The girl pointed to a spire visible above the dunes; she lived beside the church. They had made their jam last week and the girl on the donkey was her little sister.
The donkey trotted back. The younger sister slid off; the older one climbed on. Lizzie watched her grandmother bend to examine something. Maybe next time they could bring Acorn and offer rides. Then the donkey was back, his eyes brown as the river Elder and on his shoulders the cross of dark hairs which Mr. Robinson, the Sunday-school teacher, claimed was the donkey’s reward for carrying Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. She clambered on and, from her new vantage point, searched the horizon. Somewhere in all this water was her father.
“Does he have a name?” she asked.
“She. We call her Gooseberry because she fancies them.”
The boy began to run, Gooseberry trotted, and she held tight to the halter, delighted by the people, the waves, passing so quickly. When the ride was over, the boy helped her down. Gooseberry, released, opened her mouth and uttered a sound so angry, so sorrowful, that Lizzie jumped back.
“Och, she’s tired of the rides,” said the boy. “I’ll take her home for tea.”
All the way across the sand, the braying followed her. Her grandmother had wrapped up the shells and was shaking out the blanket. They retraced their steps through the dunes and were climbing up towards Largo Law when they heard the clip-clop of hooves and— what luck!—Johnny Stephens from the village was heading home with room in his cart. While the grown-ups chatted over her head, she calculated the money she and Hugh could make giving rides at the beach. They got down at Neil’s house and walked the rest of the way. As they came through the farmyard gate, the hens ran to meet them, clucking furiously. “Hugh must have forgotten to feed them,” her grandmother said.
Lizzie was leaving the granary when Alice came shooting down. She landed a few feet away and, looking over her shoulder, eyes glinting, began to walk towards the gate. When Lizzie didn’t follow, she came back, pecked her shoe, and began to walk again. Still holding the pail of grain, Lizzie followed. Alice took to the air, circling, cawing. “Run,” she was saying, “run faster.” Lizzie set the pail on the wall and ran.
Hugh was lying on the grass between two apple trees. His face and neck were covered with bees, so many that no skin was visible between their brown and golden bodies. Flinging herself down, she used her skirt to wipe them away, not caring when she was stung.
“Hugh, Hugh, are you all right?”
His lips moved, but there was only a faint hissing sound. She wiped and wiped, her hands pricking from the stings. Still he said nothing. She turned and ran back to the kitchen. As soon as Flora understood what she was saying, she seized a sharp knife and a towel. “Bring some water,” she called, and hurried to the door. Lizzie caught up with her at the edge of the trees. In the few minutes she’d been gone, Hugh’s face had swelled so his eyes were almost hidden. Beside him, Alice hopped up and down, rattling.
“Don’t look,” said Flora. She put one hand under his neck; with the other, she drew the knife across his throat. Even as Lizzie cried out, she did it again. Blood sprang up against his pale skin. Alice cawed once, sharply.
“Push on his chest,” said her grandmother. “Let go. Push again. Don’t mind the blood.”
She pushed as hard as she could. How could this be better? All this blood.
“Good girl. Let me.”
As she moved aside, Hugh’s eyelashes trembled; blood bubbled along the cut. Nearby the bees circled. “Find Rab,” her grandmother said. “Tell him to fetch the doctor.”
Once again she was running, calling for her grandfather in the house. Empty. In the barn. Empty. Past the granary and there he was, leaning against a cart, smoke rising from his pipe. As soon as she shouted, “Hugh needs the doctor,” he was striding towards the village. Let Dr. Murray be home, she thought; he could be miles away, visiting another patient. Back in the orchard, Flora was still kneeling beside Hugh. If only he had kept his promise and waited for her to go to the hives. She knelt down on his other side. “Grandfather’s gone to the village,” she said. “Did you know this would happen?”
“How could I?” Her grandmother gave her a sharp look. “I doubt he knew. One or two stings wouldn’t bother him but so many, all at once, made his throat close.”
But I knew, Lizzie thought. She was glad when Flora sent her for more water, another towel. Then her grandfather came hurrying over the grass, followed by Dr. Murray. At the sight of her grandmother, hands and blouse smeared with blood, Rab burst out, “Flora, what in God’s name happened?”
Before she could answer, the doctor, kneeling on Hugh’s other side, said, “Good woman, you did just what I would have done.”
Lizzie asked how Hugh would talk and the doctor explained that in a day or two the swelling would go down. He would bandage the cut and Hugh would be able to speak again. Together he and Rab carried Hugh back to the house and up the stairs to the spare room. Flora went ahead to spread a towel on the pillow. The doctor showed them how to raise his neck to make sure the cut stayed open. Promising to return first thing, he hurried away. He’d been visiting another patient when her grandfather found him.
“Read to him,” her grandmother said. “If anything changes, fetch me.”
She opened The Princess and the Goblin at a page with a picture. “‘The princess wiped her eyes, and her face grew so hot that they were soon quite dry. She sat down to her dinner, but ate next to nothing. Not to be believed does not at all agree with princesses: for a real princess cannot tell a lie.’” Deep in his swollen face, Hugh’s eyelashes stirred, stilled, stirred. The princess had almost met the goblins when his eyelids slid open. As his lips moved and no sound came, she could see he was afraid. She ran to get her grandmother.
“Are you thirsty?” Flora asked. “Do you need anything?” He made a writing gesture.
When she came back with her slate and some chalk, her grandmother was explaining why she had cut his throat. Hugh wrote Thank you. Water. When they were alone again, Lizzie told him how Alice had led her to the orchard but not about the feeling on the beach, or Gooseberry’s braying, or her picture. That evening in her room she took out Jane Eyre. There was her drawing of Hugh and the bees, the date more than a year ago. She longed to show it to her grandmother, to tell her how, sitting beside Viola, she had seen Hugh lying in the orchard, but she remembered what Flora had said about Madame Solange. When the house was quiet, she tiptoed down the stairs and put the drawing in the stove.
An Interview with Margot Livesey
PHILIP GRAHAM: Lizzie Craig, the main character of The Road from Belhaven, possesses a troubling ability: at times, a vision of the future appears to her, unbidden. How did these visions come to you, as author, while you wrote the novel, and are there some premonitions that were left on the cutting room floor?
MARGOT LIVESEY: In 1987 my beloved adopted father told me a story about my mother, Eva, who had died when I was two and a half, and her relationship with the supernatural. Over the next twelve years I wrote a novel titled Eva Moves the Furniture (2001) which I thought was the end of the story. But in 2017 I learned that Eva’s grandmother had also had second sight. My mother’s gift was not unique but inherited. When COVID came, and I realized I wouldn’t be able to go back to Scotland for many months, I started writing about Lizzie as a way of going there every day.
Lizzie’s glimpses of the future came to me as pictures. I don’t have her gift but a close friend who does describes time as slipping. The real Lizzie, according to family lore, had no control over her glimpses. Unlike my heroine, she also read tea leaves and had healing hands.
I did leave a number of premonitions on the cutting room floor as I struggled to negotiate between the accidental and the meaningful.
PG: And the meaningful in Lizzie’s visions is almost always problematic. First, are they real? And then, what to do about them? It’s difficult enough for anyone to interpret the present, but how to interpret the future?
ML: Which is why she makes a drawing of one of her pictures. And I should say that although she sometimes sees misfortune, as in the opening chapter, Lizzie is not a Victorian Cassandra. Her pictures are only one part of her life; she is mainly preoccupied with how to make friends, how to milk a cow, how to please her grandparents.
PG: Yes, that’s one of the great pleasures of the novel—the evocation of life in 19th century Scotland. The everyday life is so tactile, engaging all the senses, and the pleasures—even singing a song together—are so intense. And you’ve captured how “slow mail” allows dramatic moments to move at a different, nondigital pace. Which doesn’t make any situation any less dramatic! Instead, the characters have more time to worry, and plot, despair and hope while awaiting the next reply.
ML: Letters are so important in nineteenth century fiction, both those sent through the mail and those hand delivered. Think of the great scene in Persuasion when Captain Wentworth pretends to write a business letter and is really proposing to Anne Elliot. Or Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ crucial, undelivered letter to Angel Claire. Letters allow both writer and reader to experience a different relationship with the characters. For Lizzie, letters become her only way of connecting with the people she loves as she is separated from them over and over again.
PG: Yes, but Austen and Hardy lived intimately in that world, and what impresses me is how well you shrugged off the 21st century and so effectively inhabited a different experience of time. I love, too, how unseen forces are quietly acknowledged by your characters. Lizzie’s great grandfather planted a rowan tree on the family property, “to keep witches away.” And for a time, Lizzie keeps her second sight a secret, fearing that she might be considered a witch.
ML: Those legends were very much a part of my rural Scottish childhood. Many houses had a rowan tree nearby and we didn’t bring broom, a yellow flowering plant, into the house because it was unlucky. Even quite pragmatic people acknowledged these superstitions. And then, of course, there are the strange stories in the Bible which Lizzie hears every Sunday. Still she knows that her pictures are unusual and, like many children, she wants to fit in.
PG: Her secrecy causes her some trouble, as does her reluctance at first to try to counteract those visions that seem to be warnings. The great stirring development of the novel is when Lizzie attempts to confront the possibilities of those visions, or to even try counteracting the damage her initial misreadings may have caused. A reader watches anxiously and yet cheers Lizzie on as her bravery develops.
ML: Thank you. I had a clear sense, as I wrote The Road from Belhaven, that both Lizzie and I were on a journey. When COVID at last began to relent, I hurried back to Scotland to see the landscapes of her life. Much has changed in the last century but the line of the hills, the shape of the beeches and birches, the small Scottish sheep, the jackdaws playing in the wind are still the same. I don’t think Lizzie ever expected to leave; nor did I.
Margot Livesey grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands and has taught in numerous writing programs including Emerson College, Boston University, Bowdoin College and the Warren Wilson low residency MFA program. She is the author of a collection of stories and nine novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture, The Flight of Gemma Hardy and The Boy in the Field. The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing was published in 2017. She is a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and goes back to Scotland whenever she can. Her new novel, The Road from Belhaven, will be published in February, 2024.