Acclaimed scriptwriter Maggie Wadey speaks to Fiona O’Brien about her new book which takes in her quest to find out more about her mother’s childhood in Ireland
As an established screenwriter, Maggie Wadey is known for bringing stories to life on screen, but her new project is one of bringing a factual story to readers, even if it does appear to be very much like a novel.
As a child, Maggie was aware that her mother Agnes was different from her father and his family, who were very English. “Mum moved over from Tipperary, but although her siblings did too, Mum very much distanced herself from the Irish. It wasn’t who she wanted to be,” she says.
“She moved here in 1937, and her parents died during the war. She never returned until the 1980s. I think once you lose your parents that desire to go home completely changes. I did see my uncles and aunts occasionally, but I wasn’t brought up in the Irish community at all. Only one of Mum’s sisters, her closest one, Nancy was a permanent fixture in her life.” Maggie knew little of her mother’s Irish life or her family’s experience of famine and civil war, as well as the secrets that her mother never told her. So Maggie went on a quest to pursue the hidden story.
“I knew my mother had come from Ireland, alone, on a ferry boat with only a hat-box (though it contained no hats), having left home in a hurry after poisoning her mother’s geese.”
What hit Maggie while she was conducting her research for the book, was how very different hers and her mother’s childhood was.
Maggie’s childhood was spent in England, Egypt, Cyprus and a Sussex boarding school, which was a world apart from her mother, who had only ever known the same rural part of Tipperary until she took the plunge to move to England.
“She wanted my childhood to be very different to hers, that was the way it was.” Maggie did not set out with the intention of writing a book necessarily, but once she unfolded the story it became clear that this could be more than just a memoir or an ode to her mother.
“It’s almost like a novel. Obviously all of these things happened a very very long time ago. On my first visit back to Ireland (which was after her mother’s death, Maggie had never been brought there as a child), the first place I went was to go and visit my grandparents’ graves. I found this beautiful country cemetery, all overgrown with grass. And their grave was unmarked. And I found that terribly upsetting, that they would eventually just be forgotten. So as I went about finding out more, obviously these were people from a very long time ago.
“It was wonderful to meet up with people who remembered my family, but there were often gaps in the story. I had to sort of fill them in with the most logical explanation after doing research and getting a few different accounts by word-of-mouth.” Before Maggie’s mother dies, she finally started to talk about her past, and Maggie began to piece together details of her early life in Ireland.
The first part of the book is based on these memories, of family gatherings, the family home and flower garden, and of growing up and playing in the fields. Grieving after her mother’s death, with whom she had a close but sometimes difficult relationship, Maggie then travelled to Ireland to find out more.
There she gradually began to uncover much more about the truth behind the stories, and discovered an explosive secret known only to the women of the family. What emerges is both an exciting seven year detective story and an enthralling saga of an ordinary family living through extraordinary and tumultuous times.
They lived through famine, emigration, war and poverty, tried to stay apolitical even during the Easter Rising and Civil War, and were faced with moral dilemmas and difficult decisions.
Maggie encounters ancestors who didn’t always act in the way she might have liked them to, the power of her writing revealing them as very real, all-too-human characters that we come to understand.
And ultimately the detective story finally reveals the story her mother could never tell, about Agnes’ sister Nancy and her illegitimate child, whom she rescued from a brutal Protestant home for ‘fallen women’, delivering her into the perhaps equally doubtful care of the Catholic church, through whom the child was then adopted.
She uncovers a layer of extraordinary detail through long-lost family papers, for example Nancy’s heartbreaking letters sending little gifts to her child. Finally, Maggie gets to meet her long-lost cousin Catherine. She discovers what Catherine’s adopted childhood had really been like, and also realizes that she, too, had been searching for the truth behind her family history at the same time as Maggie.
The book is a powerful family story told in an original way, through layers of discovery which invite discussion around the power of memory and the nature of truth.
“It was a fine line bridging the gap between those stories, and the remarkable memories people had that they might not have thought much of before. From stories handed down from their parents, which again seemed very ordinary but altogether created this tapestry of a novel.”
Maggie is now currently working on a collection of short stories, and cannot see a return to scriptwriting, where for thirty years she made her name working on the likes of Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, The Yellow Wallpaper and Stig of the Dump.
“That industry has changed so much over the past ten years. Before you used to go to a director and pitch your idea. He would ask you for another and another and then decide which one he liked best. Then you would be left to go off and work on it.
“Now it is completely different. First of all the production team come to you. They have set criteria for you to check off on what they are looking for, and then you are under this enormous pressure to write up someone else’s idea and huge deadlines. It’s not for me anymore.”
What is clear however is Maggie’s huge sense of achievement at the end of this book. “It was marvellous. Not only for the book itself. But I really felt like I had achieved something. And salvaged a story that was in danger of being erased from the world forever.”
• The English Daughter will be published in paperback on 7 July, by Sandstone Press, £8.99