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Q&A with Ajay Close

Ajay Close's new novel, A Petrol Scented Spring, will be released on the 17th of September. It is a riveting novel of repression, jealousy and love, and the struggle for women’s emancipation.

What gave you the idea for the novel?

I’ve always wanted to write something about the most militant suffragettes. We celebrate their heroism, glossing over the fact that they were terrorists, ready to fight with any weapon to hand: fire, bombs, even their own bodies. That makes their story both relevant and challenging to us. In Scotland a small group of women caused millions of pounds worth of damage in today’s terms. They targeted property, but they were lucky there was no human collateral damage.

Ten years ago I moved to Perth and discovered that four of the five suffragettes who went on hunger and thirst strike were force fed in Perth Prison. I started reading prison records and old newspapers, combing through diaries and memoirs, and tracking down living relatives of the principal figures involved. The more I learned about prison doctor Hugh Ferguson Watson and the four women he fed by stomach tube, the more fascinated I became.

What did you find out?

Arabella Scott set fire to a racecourse stand in Kelso, Frances Gordon to a mansion in Rutherglen, Maude Edwards stuck a hatchet in the King’s portrait in Edinburgh, Fanny Parker tried to blow up Rabbie Burns’ cottage in Alloway. They went on hunger strike hoping to force the government to release them – or see them die in jail, which would have been a massive propaganda coup. But there was a third option: force feeding. Almost all the Scottish prison doctors refused to do it. Hugh Ferguson Watson felt differently.

Reading the medical notes he kept, I noticed a striking difference in tone when he wrote about Arabella Scott. Reporting on the other women, he was coldly factual. With Arabella, he described her moods and emotions. He kept her in solitary confinement for five weeks and held long private conversations with her. Once she bit his hand, twice she threatened to shoot him. According to her family, he offered to escort her to Canada so she could make a new life there. When Hugh Ferguson Watson’s relatives showed me photographs of Donella, the woman he married two years later, I could see that she and Arabella were very similar physical types.

A few years ago I wrote a play, Cat and Mouse, about the doctor’s love-hate relationship with Arabella, but I knew I hadn’t explored every angle of the story. I started researching Donella, a former debutante who was to blaze her own trail as a liberated woman in later life, training as a doctor and working in far-flung corners of Africa, India and the Middle East. Her sister Hilda turned out to be a friend of Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. She was suspected of helping them flee to the USSR and kept under surveillance by MI6 for the rest of her life. With material like that, I knew I had the makings of a novel.

How much of the book is fact and how much is fiction?

Apart from a few minor characters, everyone in the book is based on a real person. Where there are facts, I have used them, using fictional licence to fill in the gaps. I don’t know for certain that Hugh Ferguson Watson fell in love with Arabella Scott, though the evidence certainly points that way. I know Hugh and Donella were unhappy enough for their marriage to end in separation, that her grandfather died in a private asylum in Edinburgh, and that Hugh’s specialist subject was syphilis. The connection the novel makes between these facts is pure supposition.

What were the biggest challenges in writing the novel?

A Petrol Scented Spring is a triangular love story, but a thorny one. We know people held hostage often form intense emotional attachments to their captors – the Stockholm syndrome. Unfortunately, the powerful man and powerless woman are staples of a certain sort of pot-boiling romantic fiction. For the novel to work, I had to explore the volatile, profoundly ambivalent relationship between Hugh and Arabella, avoiding anything that smacked of bodice-ripper cliché. The second challenge, having made the reader care about Hugh and Arabella, was to switch the focus of the reader’s sympathy to Donella, the jealous wife who doesn’t really know if there is anything to be jealous about.

Ajay Close

Ajay Close