Pauline is an Australian author of narrative non fiction. Her novel, The Water Doctor’s Daughters, is “the intriguing story of wealthy 19th century water-cure physician, Dr James Loftus Marsden and his children, who grew up knowing Charles Darwin and Alfred Tennyson. Two girls died in suspicious circumstances resulting in sensational trials.” It was longlisted in the prestigious 2013 Waverley Literature Prize.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born and brought up on a farm in Tasmania, but longed to see the world. As soon as I left school I began saving up for an extended working holiday in the UK. I met my husband Rob in Tassie, but we have lived all our married life (nearly 40 years!) in New South Wales. I happily write and garden at our home in the Blue Mountains, but am often in Sydney visiting friends or working at the State Library. Rob and I also spend several months each year in the UK and France.
When did you first know you could be a writer?
Well, I was always the kid whose essays were read to the class, but I guess it was when I started selling articles to newspapers and magazines from the age of about eighteen.
How did you hone your writing?
You could say that I had some of the best teachers; hard-nosed editors at newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. I soon learned that it was necessary to ‘write tight’, no matter whether I was writing humour, travel features, or history articles.
Who or what influenced your writing?
My mother was a great influence. She was not a writer, but a great story teller with a wonderful sense of humour. Another great influence was the journalist Ross Campbell, who wrote humorous pieces about his family for the Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1960’s . I loved his ability to see the funny side of ordinary life, and to convey this to readers without wasting words.
I suspect my insatiable curiosity leads me to write narrative non-fiction, plus a love of social history and the complexities of family life and relationships. I definitely believe in the old saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.
Have you ever wanted to write fiction?
No, never. The closest I come to it is in my (hopefully) humorous articles, when I employ a fair bit of poetic license.
Please tell us about The Water Doctor’s Daughters. What inspired you to write this? How much research/travel did you have to do? I believe the trials regarding the ‘murders’ were quite sensational – how easy was it to find the information you needed and how did you sort ‘sensation’ from fact? How long did the research alone take?
Hmm, this is certainly a multi-faceted question. Well, I stumbled upon the story when I was writing about Governor Lachlan Macquarie. A member of his extended family became stepmother to the widowed Dr James Marsden’s children in 1852. Just prior to the wedding, the doctor sent his five daughters to Paris in the care of their French governess. Two of the girls died the following year and Mlle Doudet was charged.
Sorting sensation from fact was difficult, because the Victorians loved ‘purple prose’ and the press went overboard in their condemnation of the governess. However, I also had access to French accounts of the trials, and best of all to the unpublished diaries of the girls’ maternal uncle, John Rashdall. He was very close to his nieces and heavily involved in the case.
During my research I spent a lot of time in Great Malvern (Worcestershire), where Dr Marsden had his extensive water-cure establishment. The local library holds all the old newspapers covering the deaths and subsequent trials. I also read John Rashdall’s diaries at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Later I travelled to Paris to visit the location of Mlle Doudet’s private school and Montmartre Cemetery, where one little girl was buried. My research took a couple of years, but I loved every minute of it!
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Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Well, for the first time I am writing a book about an Australian subject. My WIP is a biography of a bogus surgeon who rose to become Surgeon Superintendent of a major Australian hospital, and who was still operating there until the 1950’s. He was an extraordinary character. Nothing about him was as it seemed, including his war service and his high profile career as a racehorse owner.
Every writer has their own idea of what a successful career in writing is. What does success in writing look like to you?
There are many milestones for writers. For me, it was a real break-through to start publishing feature articles in broadsheet newspapers. Signing a publishing contract and receiving an advance was a big deal, as was seeing both my books (The Water Doctor’s Daughters and All Along the River; Tales From the Thames) in major London bookstores. However, I have to say that when I recently received my first royalty cheque of eighteen pounds fifty nine pence, I truly felt I could call myself an author. I admit to shedding a tear, and will be framing the cheque….well maybe a copy of it!
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