In 1883 Charlotte Spears, a music teacher, and her maid, Katie Cameron, were brutally murdered in Kirkfieldbank, a small village by the Clyde, by Charlotte’s cousin, Willie Brown. Charlotte had been taking care of a house owned by her aunt and uncle (Helen and John Brown), Annville, where their son Willie, a former medical student at Glasgow, came to recuperate from a dangerous fever. In November 1883, Willie killed both Charlotte and Katie with a kitchen knife, and then committed suicide: the case was very widely reported, in Scotland and beyond.
In 2004 Canadian writer Heather Spears published The Flourish, a haunting and very readable novel which richly recreates the provincialism and rigid social structures of late Victorian Lanarkshire. As a relative of Charlotte’s, Heather told me that she ‘felt I knew my characters in my very bones’ and that her account, based on detailed research, ‘almost fits into “true crime” if it fits anywhere’. This year, Scottish playwright Martin Travers has returned to the story of the Kirkfieldbank murders for a new dramatic adaptation. I asked him about the creative process involved.
KB: What drew you to the story of these murders?
MT: I moved to Lanark seven years ago and one of the first things I did was join the local library. I was keen – like I’m sure most people are – to find out more about a place they move to. The librarian pointed me to The Flourish – he had helped Heather when she was over here researching the novel. That’s how I found out about the story.
Sometimes it’s what I don’t know about a true story that draws me in. The facts are there but the tumbling decent towards them and what motivated the people – that’s what I find really intriguing.
KB: What do you find particularly interesting, or challenging, about writing a play set in late nineteenth-century Scotland?
MT: The language! I normally write plays in a bastardised modern Scots – A Glasgow and Lanarkshire tipped brogue – the language I grew up with. This is so different. So specific. So rich and yet almost lost to us. When I stayed with Heather in Copenhagen last year it was one of the things we talked about the most. It’s the main strength I can bring to the adaptation. There’s lots of great (and wonderful) effort going into saving Gaelic. The more I study Scots words the more I care about the language. I think Scots is treated a bit like a grey squirrel compared to Gaelic but it’s poetic and mucky – very onomatopoeic. And there are barrel loads of words that are a joy to read and shout out loud. It’s like being on a beach collecting shells – and every one I pick up is too lovely or funny or gnarly to throw away. Scots make the limited modern English we use in our lives feel like the cooking instructions on the back of a ready meal.
The 19th century research Heather conducted and that went into The Flourish is amazing. So lots of the hard work has been done by her already. Thanks Heather!
KB: How will you convey the culture of Scotland in this period on the stage?
MT: It’s particularly important to find distinct and believable voices for the characters in a play. Otherwise you only hear actors reciting the playwright’s words. When that happens it isn’t a satisfying theatrical experience for the audience. They smell a vain rat. So I’ve been working really hard getting to know the five characters from the novel that are in the play. If I don’t know them inside out then I’m not doing my job.
So the language and the predicaments and how the characters react to them given their individual upbringings – their different classes – their religious beliefs. All of this goes into creating a believable 19th centaury world.
KB: Related to this, what do you think this murder case tells us about life in small-town Lanarkshire in this period?
MT: Loads – but I think it tells us even more about their society’s limited understanding of mental health and illness than anything else. I don’t think Willie Brown was born capable of murder. He seems a bright, fragile and impressionable boy who wanted to good. A single dose of antibiotics would have cured his Milk Fever. He would have gone on with his studies in Glasgow – probably became a doctor or surgeon and saved lives. Charlotte would probably have married and fulfilled her musical ambitions. Katie the scullery servant would have gone to work for someone else somewhere else. That’s dramatic. That’s tragic. That’s what makes this such a powerful story. It’s the world they lived in that sets the wheels in motion and on the road to darkness.
KB: Spears’ novel gives the reader a very strong impression of the difficulties faced by a woman trying to make an independent life for herself in a close-knit community. Will you be taking a similar line?
MT: Charlotte Spears (the protagonist in the story) was brave. Her mother died in childbirth. She put her life on hold for years – nursing her brother Robert, then her father, until both past away. Her aunt Helen (I think it’s important that Helen was Charlotte’s mother’s sister) brings her to Annville to start a new life. That’s brave. To leave Glasgow’s West End and come to a foreign rural world where people spoke what must have seemed like a foreign language. Then out of the blue she’s back in a vortex of sickness and patient care looking after Willie. And even then she teaches singing, piano and harmonium – she runs two choirs and is a woman precentor at the kirk and plays full classical piano concerts. That takes an unbelievable strength of character and will.
And for me it’s all about the language again. I’ve chosen to write Charlotte’s voice in Christian English – the language of the aspiring classes. It’s this distinction that keeps her separate and detached from the world she finds herself in. Helen and Willie will flit between English and Scots as their emotions get the better of them. Roddy and Katie will speak in Scots. Charlotte is a stranger in this world. That’s got so much dramatic potential for me.
KB: How will your adaptation differ from Spears’ interpretation of the events that led up to these murders?
MT: The main distinction is I have focused in on five characters from the novel and set everything in Annville House. The fifth character (another real person) being the local policeman Sub Inspector Roddy Monro. I’ve expanded his character to take on elements of Charlotte’s other romantic interests in the novel.
A true story is like a join the dots puzzle. When you dramatise it you add some of our own dots. So Annville takes lots of Heather’s dots and she’s very graciously allowed me to add my own dots too.
KB: Your play is titled Annville, which is the name of the house at the centre of the narrative. Why choose this title, and what does the house signify?
MT: For me the house represents everything Helen has worked so hard all her life to achieve. It’s her investment. It’s initially a place of sanctuary for Charlotte – then a place of recuperation for Willie – a place of work for Katie – and ultimately the scene of the horrific events.
The house and what it represents – wealth, security, power of sorts. I think this plays a huge role in Willie’s paranoia near the end. He thinks the house should be his but fears Helen will give it to Charlotte. This is all in his head but in my opinion could have been a major factor in why Willie did what he did.
I also really like the connection with the word anvil. The weight of an anvil. That constant battering it takes.
Heather told me recently she almost called The Flourish Miss Spears of Annville – so it feels epic – feels strong – feels right.
KB: What do you hope audiences will take away from your adaptation?
Initially we only have the funding for rehearsed readings in October. The hope is that this will lead to funding for a full production. But what I hope from the readings is for people to get a chance to be gripped by these fascinating characters like I was when I read the novel and be immersed in their world and language.
I want people to take away a sadness of knowing that Charlotte’s strength and Christian devotion couldn’t save her or Katie. I want them to wish it had been different. I want them to talk about the play and women’s rights then and now – both here and abroad.