Rachel Joyce's Miss Benson's Beetle is the winner of the 2021 Best Published Novel award.
It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves. This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.
About the Author:
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her new novel, Miss Benson's Beetle, is out now.
Rachel's books have been translated into thirty-six languages and two are in development for film. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards 'New Writer of the Year' in December 2012 and shortlisted for the 'UK Author of the Year' 2014. Rachel has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl. She lives with her family in Gloucestershire.
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?
Rachel: I don’t think anyone would have described me as an adventure writer before I wrote Miss Benson’s Beetle, least of all myself. I did it because I specifically wanted to write a women’s adventure story. As a genre, I felt it had much more of a male presence, and I wanted to use it as a vehicle for a story about two women, and the things we are capable of when we stand together.
The appeal of an adventure story for me is the structure it offers – you have to keep your reader, just like your protagonist, on their toes - but those twists and turns have to be true to the story you are telling: technically it’s the toughest genre, I think. It’s also the closest I can think of to the classic quest story, in which a person is changed by the adventure they go on, and discovers things they would not have found if they’d simply stayed at home, with the things they know. When I think about it, it feels like the purest form of storytelling. It’s about transformation. The journey of individuation.
WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you?
Rachel: When I was first thinking about Miss Benson’s Beetle, I read a lot of period adventure classics, like Rogue Male and The Thirty-Nine Steps, but I was also reading non-fiction, writers like Rebecca Solnit, who explore so well how to make sense of the world: in order to find yourself, or where you are going, you need to first become lost. In other words, you need to break out of the restriction of what you think you know. That struck me as very important.
When I was young, my father had a copy of an antique book called The Tours of Doctor Syntax, with water-coloured print illustrations by Rowlandson. I loved that book. In its day, Doctor Syntax – a comic curate who goes on a voyage to discover the real England – was so popular he was the eighteenth-century equivalent to Mickey Mouse. I have my dad’s copy now. It’s one of the things I would try to rescue from a fire.
WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?
Rachel: The irony is that I am not an adventurous person. I am quite introverted, and therefore imagine all kinds of obstacles in the outside world that other people just don’t see. But every piece of writing is an adventure because you are starting in a place of not knowing: you don’t know where the book will take you, or if you will even get there in one piece, let alone finish. Writing requires resilience and a kind of faith, as well as the imagination.
My most obvious adventure was when I was walking with my husband and my youngest daughter in the foothills of the Mont Ventoux. I remember noticing how far we were from any sense of civilisation - we were squeezing through crevices in rock that were as high as towers. Climbing scree. And then we heard wolves.
Many people say there are no wolves in Southern France but locals say there have been wolves on the Ventoux for years. For a while, I continued, wanting to think they were dogs, but there was something about the howl that was more insistent, and wild in tone; and not only that, it was getting closer. Then my husband turned to me and he looked very frightened as he said quietly, ‘Rachel, Take Nell right now. And run.’
We ran. I remember feeling empty. Her hand in mine. So terrified I couldn’t even speak to reassure her. It was one of the few times in my life when I had no idea how the story would end.
(For anyone who is curious, it ended in a café, with a bottle of wine, and a vast bowl of ice cream for Nell).
WNSF: Miss Benson's Beetle is set in 1950, why did you choose to write about this time? And these particular places?
Rachel: The mobile phone, as far as I can see, is just about the worst possible prop in an adventure story. No sooner are your protagonists in the trouble, than they can either ring for help or google the answer. So I was very definite that I wanted to take that away from my women.
On a more serious note, I chose to start the book in 1950’s Britain because I wanted to use a broken-down world, that was still suffering from the effects of war – rationing, poverty, homelessness – even after the war. In fact, the period after the war struck me as one in which people had lost their identity. You had men returning from war and unable to fit back into family and civilian life, just as you had women who had enjoyed an amount of independence, and were now expected to creep back inside their houses. A married woman couldn’t even get a job. There were many women too who had lost fathers and brothers in the First World War, and friends and fiancés in the second, and who were expected afterwards just to retreat to the side lines. Many lived in a great deal of poverty. Those were the kind of women I wanted to free.
But creatively I was taking a step from a genre I know, and so in order to be true to it, I felt I had to take away all the props I normally rely on. Setting the book in a landscape and time I know would have made it too easy. (And I tried. But quickly thought, Hang on. I’ve done this before. Where is the adventure?) An adventure story is about confronting risk after risk, and if you’re not doing that as a writer, I believe it affects the fibre of the writing. In order to pull it off, this story had to be an adventure not just for Margery and Enid, or even the reader, but also for me. I had to put myself where I haven’t been before.
WNSF: Can you tell us about a particular relationship between two characters in your novel and how you made it feel genuine?
Rachel: This may sound strange but I had a feeling for a long time that I was being stalked by two women I couldn’t see. You could say Margery Benson and her assistant Enid Pretty are parts of me – the introvert and the extrovert. You could say that they were voices somewhere in the unconscious. That their story needed to be written, and they chose me to do it. Or you could say I had a really good idea for a story and I wrote it. I don’t mind. What I knew was that I wanted to write a book where two completely opposite women are pitted against everything they don’t know, and learn that the only way they can survive is for each of them to find the qualities in herself that the other one embodies.
Early in my writing, I found a photograph of two women - May Morris, the artist and social activist, and her gardener and companion Mary Lobb. I loved this photo. It’s the way they stand together that moves me – Mary in her man’s breeches and tie and jacket, standing squarely in front of the camera, and beaming right at us, while May stares a little off to the side, in her tweed skirt and loosely shaped jacket. It’s as though being together allows them to be the individuals they truly are, and this struck me as a very beautiful truth about my friendships with other women.
There was something about the energy of Margery and Enid that was like a spur to me as a writer. It made me bold. Bolder than before. I found it very liberating, writing this adventure for women.
WNSF: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing? And the easiest?
Rachel: Oh the doubt. Always the doubt. But doubt is an essential part of testing what you believe. Writing can only get better if you keep looking underneath the surface, and prodding at the choices you have made.
The easiest? Signing my name. I am very good at that.