Under the Cover: Characters for Company + Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue

Writing is an isolated activity, but, as Christine Higdon writes, it doesn’t necessarily mean writers are lonely. Higdon details the rich lives of characters – and real-life people – Alice and Jessie in her new novel Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue (ECW Press) in this piece.

The cover of Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue by Christine Higdon, showing illustrations of various botanicals on a cream-colour background. A small beagle is on the lower right hand side of the book.


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Under the Cover

While working on my first novel —The Very Marrow of Our Bones — I had a telephone conversation with a friend about my need for quiet, uninterrupted time. Focus time. Go inward and therefore miss your friends time. I was, I realized as we talked, skirting around the loneliness of writing. That endless barter between going out to play or sitting down to finish your book. I had mostly chosen the latter. Finally I said (perhaps a little defensively), ‘Well, I have my characters for company.’ To which my friend wisely replied, ‘Yes, but technically, they are not your friends.’

She was right: they weren’t. But I was in love with them anyway. They captivated me, confused me, worried and charmed me. In some ways, they had become as dear to me as the living beings I love. So, when one of my characters turned out to be particularly despicable, I felt, despite his awfulness, more than a pinch of compassion for him, as one might for a loved one. How did he get to be the man he was, I wondered. Did something happen to him as a child? What had he endured? And, I thought, do we ask these questions before we close our doors to conversation and connection with those we find difficult or who commit crimes?

That compassion, and the need for an open heart, was on my mind as I started writing Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue. As were the complexities of relationships, and how and with whom family is made.

A vintage photograph of a light-skin toned woman in a fur-trimmed coat, standing on a train track. There's a stopped train at the station in the background.
A photo of Alice in 1924.

I was inspired by two strong women—Alice and Jessie—who were forced to find alternative ways to live authentic lives in the early twentieth century.

Born in 1900, Alice, my grandmother, married in 1922, had two children, and then did what few women of her era dared—she left her unhappy marriage. But Alice’s brother-in-law Charlie convinced her to go back to my grandfather, an alcoholic logger (though according to legend, an excellent dancer). Alice and Bill were together only long enough for Alice to get pregnant again. I can only begin to imagine how desperate she must have been to choose to end her pregnancy “on a table in someone’s dirty kitchen.” She nearly died of the infection that ravaged her body after that back-alley abortion. Bill left. Impoverished, Alice gave her two-year-old son to Charlie and his wife, who were childless, and moved in with her mother to raise her daughter. Life was hard for a working-class woman without a husband, but Alice never remarried; she chose to make a life with her sisters and friends.

A vintage, black and white photo of Jessie, a woman with short hair under a cap, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She looks confident and bold.
A photo of Jessie.

My friend’s great-aunt Jessie, born in 1895, lived in an English town with her constant companion, a woman named Ida, her so-called “housekeeper.” When Jessie was 36 she married an 86-year-old widower and retired sea captain. They kept separate homes in the same town, never living together, and when he died, Jessie inherited his house. What Jessie and her husband’s arrangement was is the subject of rich speculation, but Jessie’s life was with Ida. In her twenties, Jessie posed for a photograph. In it, looking completely androgynous, she stares seductively at the viewer, a Woodbine cigarette hanging from her lips. I wrote Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue with that portrait in front of me. And every day I thought about the courage it would have taken for a woman in the 1920s not only to be photographed that way but to live as Jessie and Ida did.

In Alice and Jessie’s era, a century ago, when my novel is set, birth control was illegal. Being gay was illegal. And so was abortion. These “crimes” could end you up in prison. Today, in some places around the world, not much has changed; and in others, the gains that have been fought for and won over the past century are once again under threat. I knew as I wrote this book—finished well before the overturning of Roe V. Wade in the United States—that this novel could have been set today.

Like Alice and Jessie, the characters in Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue work to forge a place for themselves in the world. They must break the law. They must challenge societal norms. They must hide their love and make spaces where they might be safe, on the creative margins of society.

Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue honours the lives of women like Alice and Jessie, and the millions of people like them, before and since, who are so deserving of compassion and love and respect. I owe them for the life I am able to lead.

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Christine Higdon is the author of the award-winning novel The Very Marrow of Our Bones. She has won a National Magazine Award, been published in numerous journals, and nominated for CBC literary prizes. She lives part-time in Nova Scotia but mostly in Mimico, Ontario.