Lyrical Historical Women’s Fiction | Small Eden by Jane Davis

Small Eden
by Jane Davis
A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…
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Robert settles on a blind selection process for his design competition. He has Freya take delivery of the entries, instructing her to number each one, then after the closing date she seals a list of the corresponding names in an envelope.
In the end, Robert selects his winning entry on the strength of the drawings for the buildings. The land he has come to know, but the nature of the structures he might lay foundations for has evaded him. Here they are. A charming T-shaped cottage will sit on a raised area to the left of the gardens: a chimney at its heart, steep roofslopes, dormer windows facing north and south and deep overhanging eaves to offer shelter from the elements. Occupied by a gardener-cum-manager, it will double as his ticket office. There is to be a splendid half-timbered pavilion where refreshments will be served to those watching the tennis, an ornate glasshouse and a wrought-iron aviary. Although the buildings will be set wide apart, common design elements will lend the scheme a symmetry, a flow.
It doesn’t yet strike Robert how accurately his vision has been interpreted. The gardens took shape in his mind, and now they are here on the page. A sufficient number of alcoves and arbours to balance the long, straight rose walk. Sculptures placed sometimes in opposition, sometimes in collusion, with the placement seeming to say exactly what he wants it to say. If the designer has added creative flourishes here and there, they are entirely in keeping with Robert’s specification.
Satisfied he’s made the right choice, he gives the fire a good prod and shovels on a few celebratory lumps of coal, then summons the girls to his study. He means to show Freya he has taken note of what she said about paying his daughters more attention. “I’ve chosen the winning design,” he announces once they are assembled.
“For the gardens?” asks Ida.
“For the pleasure gardens,” he says. “Here, tell me what you think.” An invitation for them to come around to his side of the desk. He remembers the few times his own father allowed him this rare treat; when he sat in Walter’s chair, his forearms on Walter’s armrests, surveying the doctor’s domain. The leather-topped desk, the inkwell, the fine nib of the fountain pen, all at his disposal. How important they made him feel.
Estelle’s face is solemn – too solemn, he thinks, for a child her age. She doesn’t come first, as is her privilege, but pushes her sister in front, one hand on each shoulder. Her step is heavy as they arrive at Robert’s side. She wishes it to be known that she’s here under sufferance.
Immediately, Ida has her hands all over the plans, an adventurous fingertip tracing the main path. Robert fights the urge to tell her not to touch. “I should like to live there,” she says of the cottage. “Then all of this would be mine,” she says of the gardens.
“So you approve?” he asks.
Ida nods an emphatic yes.
“And you, Estelle, what do you say?”
She shrugs. Her hair has been styled in much the same way as her mother’s, parted at the centre and brushed back from her face. Instead of being piled into a bun, it has been plaited. Two titian ropes hang to her shoulders, each tied with green ribbon. “I haven’t seen the others.”
He laughs awkwardly. “The decision is already made, I’m afraid.”
“Then why ask what I think?”
Sutton High School, with its forward-thinking atmosphere, has instilled in Estelle a greater confidence in her own opinions, but this indifference cuts through him. Freya does not so much as say, Don’t take that tone with your father. Robert is on his own, his ground uncertain. “I thought you might be interested in finding out which of the gentlemen has won.”
“I haven’t met any of the gentlemen.”
She has made her point. To her, they are just a list of names. Meaningless. The moment that was supposed to be shared has dulled like a pair of spectacles fogged by a breath. Robert turns to his younger daughter: “You’ll help me, won’t you?” Ida might still polish it with a clean cloth.
A child young enough to want to please, she is owl-eyed. “What do I need to do, Daddy?”
She’s still his little girl, hair worn in ringlets, her dress smocked. “The winning design is number six. What you must do,” he reaches into his desk drawer and withdraws the sealed envelope, “is open this and read out the name that appears beside the number six.”
Ida takes the envelope, her movements reverent. She seems to understand his intention – that they share in the excitement – but struggles to get her small fingers underneath the seal.
He would like to say, ‘Here’; to break it himself. Instead, he offers her an exquisitely carved ivory-handled letter opener, something the girls have been warned not to touch, not because they might break it (it is too robust for that), but because of its value. “Perhaps you’d like to borrow this.”
“Thank you, Daddy!” Properly equipped, Ida makes short work of the task. She sets the letter opener down where Robert can reach for it and hold it close, then pulls out a folded sheet. “Number six.” She hesitates, turning to her sister. “I opened the envelope. Would you like to read out the winner’s name? You’ll do it so much better than I could.”
Robert is touched by the gesture. Ida lives in her sister’s shadow. She has so few moments to truly call her own, yet she’s prepared to relinquish this one.
“Father didn’t ask me,” Estelle answers spartanly.
Robert detects a wobble in his younger daughter’s bottom lip. If what she’s been told about the natural order of things is true, then this temporary promotion will have to be paid for. “Number six,” she repeats. Her eyes scan the page, finding their destination. “Miss Florence –”
Miss? Robert’s forehead furrows.
Suddenly animated, Estelle reaches over her sister’s shoulder to pluck the sheet from her hands. “I’ve changed my mind. I will read the name.” Ida’s expression turns to dismay; her eyes follow the sheet that was to have given her a fleeting moment of glory. “Miss Florence Hoddy.” Estelle’s expression is triumphant.
The surname is familiar, but surely Oswald was the surveyor? Robert looks to his wife, who is smiling.
“Well, well.” The first words Freya has spoken since entering the room. “Eleven entrants and you chose the only woman.”

Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’,Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners.
She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.
Her first novel, ‘Half-Truths and White Lies’, won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with ‘An Unknown Woman’ being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with ‘Smash all the Windows’ winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, ‘At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock’ was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.
Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of ‘An Unknown Woman’. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?
When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.
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