A Promise Made to a Character: Educating Waverley
Behind every novel there is a story. Members of a Book Club recently approached me with questions about the story behind Educating Waverley.
Educating Waverley is the result of a promise I made to its central character. In the late 90’s I had a two book contract with Morrow. The editor attached only one stipulation: both books must be set in the same place. I had already begun Steps and Exes, a contemporary novel of fractured family, set at a B&B called Henry’s House, a big, elegant edifice in a remote location on the fictional Isadora Island. Why was it there? (The novelist has to ask.) How did it come to be? Ah. It must have been a school to begin with.
What began as a mere background paragraph about Sophia Westervelt and her school grew into pages of Sophia’s personal history: the rebellious, artistic daughter of a conservative Northwest family, her doting father a timber baron. Smart, spoiled, willful, in about 1910 Sophia goes to Paris, chaperoned by an aunt whom she quickly ditches. Sophia plunges into the artistic life of Montparnasse in those crazy, fruitful years before the Great War, generous with her money, careless with her affections, and her time until she meets the love of her life, the French painter, Denis Aron. After the war, and losing Denis she returns to the Pacific Northwest and using her doting father’s money, sets up Temple School on Isadora Island, a school to educate girls to become North American Women of the Future. She even names the island in honor of her friend, the iconoclastic Isadora Duncan.
Sophia’s story swept me away. I wrote so much and for so long that she threatened to take over the entire novel. I had to return to the contemporary tale, but Sophia clung to me. Finally, I made her a promise: let me finish Steps, and I will come back to you. You will have your own book.
I kept my promise.
Yet, when I returned to Sophia, I felt that telling her story in a chronological fashion would not serve the truth at the core of that story. I stumbled about, typing (yes, still typing) lots of pages that seemed unanchored. And then, winking at me from the pages of Steps and Exes, was the minor character, Nona York, the stout, doughty, no-nonsense romance writer. Surely she had a past. And she did.
Nona York, it turns out, is a nom de plume. This character was born Waverley Scott. When Waverley arrives at Temple School in 1939 (shunted off by her unmarried parents) the place is failing in every way. Waverley finds the diet dreadful, the faculty pinched and quarrelsome, the four other students nasty, but in Sophia Westervelt she finds an icon, an immortal teacher.
In 1940 Sophia receives a letter from the wife of Denis Aron. He had, in fact, survived the war, returned to Paris, married a woman named Judith, and had a daughter, Avril. Once Paris falls to the Nazis, and sensing what is to come for French Jews, Judith Aron sends her daughter on a dangerous pilgrimage walking across the Pyrenees, eventually to come to Temple School. She implores Sophia to accept and protect her daughter. Sophia honors her promise. Judith and Sophia begin a remarkable, long distant friendship. Avril becomes the daughter Sophia never had. Avril becomes a beacon of love in the life of Waverley Scott. Avril’s daughter will…. well, thereby hangs the proverbial tale in this braided narrative of women’s lives over the course of a century.
There are other stories behind this novel, too many to narrate in this brief post. But one question the Book Club readers asked was especially interesting: would I do anything differently with the book now? Indeed I would. In the latter stages of the writing, a trusted friend offered editorial advice, insisting that I should put the contemporary part of the novel first, that to begin with the past would put readers off. I did this. In fact, just the opposite is true. The real story is there in 1939 to 1942, years that Waverley was a student at Temple School. Were I to offer Educating Waverley in ebook format now that I have the rights back, I would actually rearrange the structure of the book.
The original title was Tempo, which I meant to resonate with Temple School and to suggest time and timing in all its many forms, including music and dancing. My editor, correctly advised that Tempo was too arcane for a title and that really it was about education. The education of a North American Woman of the Future.
To proudly support one’s principles while they are flourishing is easy. To be true to those principles when they face failure and ridicule, that takes strength of character. Sophia Westervelt is one of those women, like the figurehead on a ship, fearlessly meeting waves of adversity. Sophia Westervelt was right even when she was wrong.