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How ‘Middlemarch for toddlers’ and George Eliot inspired Harriet Smart to write historical fiction

Harriet Smart is the author of eight historical novels and co-creator of software products for writers, such as Writer’s Café and Jutoh. Here, she recalls her early love of ‘Middlemarch for toddlers’, discovering the real George Eliot classic as a teen and how publication of her first book made her feel a “nobody”.

What Do People Do All Day by Richard Scarry

“The first book to make a big impression on me was What Do People Do All Day, which I had before I could read. It’s full of anthropomorphic animals, which I didn’t usually like. But I adored Scarry’s books.

“They’re very grounded in reality but he creates his own world in a fictional place called Busytown. There was a sense of joy about how the world works – growing seeds, schools, books, families, hospitals, ships . . .

“It’s like a picture book version of a 19th century novel – Middlemarch for toddlers! There’s lots of sly humour that must have amused my parents. A worm called Lowly appears on nearly every page and there’s Farmer Alfalfa.

“We grew up in Birmingham at a grim time. We’ve just had the 40th anniversary of the pub bombings, which I remember incredibly vividly. My father loved books but said he’d given up on adult books and would rather read what I did.

“I put What do People Do All Day away when I was about 12 but still looked at it in the holidays because it’s so comforting. It stayed in my old room and when I got pregnant I thought ‘I’m having that before my sister gets it’. I gave it to my daughter and she loved it too, although probably not as much as me.”

Middlemarch by George Eliot

“We had built-in book cases around the house in a very 1970s style and one of the books was Middlemarch, which was fantastically fat. We used to go on holiday to the south of France and my father would take a big book and never finish it and I think I picked up his copy of Middlemarch.

“A colleague of my mother, who was into books and who I thought was cool, said reading Middlemarch was a sign of maturity. I was about 14 or 15 and I don’t think I got all of it. But it’s a book I’ve gone back to many times.

“I think Eliot’s voice sets it apart. It’s her particular way of taking you through a very detailed world with incredible sympathy and understanding of human beings. It’s the compassion she shows the characters and how well fleshed out they are.

“Everyone is completely real and we cannot forget them. Eliot is also not afraid to poke fun, another sign of great craft. Middlemarch creates a convincing place that we want to spend time in. It does exactly what I think a great novel should do.

“Now we’re watching Breaking Bad, we’re near the end and I feel the world in that is so real too. It’s like watching five acts of King Lear.”

 A Garland of Vows – Harriet Smart’s first novel

“I was foolishly arrogant and always thought it was my destiny to be a novelist. I was straight out of university when my first novel, A Garland of Vows, was published in 1991. I did an MA in Art History at St Andrew’s University. Lots of people had trust funds and weren’t so committed but I was thinking of a career as an academic.

“I did a dissertation on a firm of Victorian furnishers who made fittings for the House of Lords. Even as I tried to stick to the facts, I started making things up. I thought that wasn’t good if I wanted to be an academic!

“After I graduated my husband had a decent job and housing cost nothing where we lived in Dundee, so I just went for it. Headline published the book but HarperCollins also wanted it. It was good money for the time.

“But you think publication will be the most thrilling day of your life and it’s not. You go into bookshops and it’s not there and your life changes not one jot. I quickly realised I was nobody. There were many other novelists scraping a living and it’s not at all glamorous. It’s a lottery.

“But I did feel immensely validated and it was reviewed in The Sunday Times by Philippa Gregory. She said extremely nice things but pointed out a howling plot mistake. The book is massively over-written but has a certain authenticity.

“I stand by what I did. There are parts I don’t like but many people have got huge enjoyment from my books. They all did brilliantly in the public library system, where all the copies are now falling apart as a result.”