Lightbulb Moments: Caroline Lea and Hope Adams

Where do authors get their ideas from? In the case of The Metal Heart and Dangerous Women, two gripping novels out this spring, inspiration came from a prison ship and an isolated island chapel.

Photographs of Caroline Lea and Hope Adams
Caroline Lea and Hope Adams. Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

There’s an interesting synchroncity between two gripping novels out this spring: one is set on a remote island, the other on a convict ship, which means in both cases characters are isolated by the sea. But there's something else that binds them: authors Caroline Lea and Hope Adams (better known as Adele Geras) both found inspiration in fascinating moments from history – and imagined, “what if?” – to write their books, The Metal Heart and Dangerous Women.

“Both of our books are talking about creating an artistic, beautiful thing out of very hard circumstances,” says Adams. In her case, for Dangerous Women, it was the Rajah Quilt, a massive three-metre by three-metre quilt that was made by female prisoners en route from London to Australia by ship in 1841. For Lea, it was the Italian Chapel built by two Italian prisoners of war on Lamb Holm, in the Orkney islands during the Second World War.

'What if there was someone on that ship who wasn't who she said she was?'

Adams’ encountered the quilt in 2009 during an exhibition of quilts at the V&A. “First of all, it’s very beautiful. But there was a plaque beside it which told me it had been made on this voyage of the Rajah transporting women and convicts under the supervision of a matron, Kezia,” she explains. “There was a fact at the bottom that made me stop in my tracks, and that was that 23-year-old Kezia fell in love with, and was engaged to, the captain before the ship reached Tasmania.”

This was startling: Kezia – who Adams brings to life in Dangerous Women – was “a serious, very religious, very pious young woman. If I’d presented that to my editor, she would have been like: what? It provided the germ of the story that was to become: 'what if there should be somebody on that ship who wasn’t who she said she was?'"

Lea, by contrast, was on the hunt for a location to place her twin protagonists, Dot and Con, to challenge the traditionally male and “Blitz spirit” representations of that era. “I searched around for a wartime island,” Lea says. “I was born in Jersey, which was under occupation during the war, but I didn’t want to write a book set there. Instead, I stumbled over the story of this Prisoner of War camp in Orkney, where hundreds of Italians turn up and tear apart the community and exert strange forces on this isolated place.” Stumbling upon the story of the Chapel in research, she says, was “a lightbulb moment”.

'Once you add a ticking clock to a sea voyage, everything just gets more exciting'

The remoteness of Orkney – similar in feel to the Icelandic setting of Lea’s previous book, The Glass Woman – also allowed Lea to tell a different kind of war story. “It enabled me to write about women’s experience of war as well; lots of wartime novels focus on the male experience. I wanted this to be something different; the women are thrown into this threatening atmosphere where they could be bombed, and have enemy forces among them.”

Lea conjures that tension marvellously within the first few pages: the twins are resistant to return to the home they grieve for, and make do with a ramshackle hut on a remote island as submarines threaten the Orcadian way of life. Much as The Metal Heart becomes an unlikely story of love and sisterhood, so Dangerous Women breathes a thrilling whodunnit plot into a historical relic. “Once you add a ticking clock to a sea voyage, everything just gets more exciting,” says Adams. “I wanted to show both awfulness of being all crammed together in not very luxurious conditions on this ship as well the camaraderie and working together.”

In doing so, both books build worlds around slithers of history that remain little-known: Lea puts a romance at the heart of the remarkable, still-standing chapel surrounded by the North Sea, and Adams injects danger and sisterhood into a Victorian artefact. Both 

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