The Apothecary’s Daughter by June Davies
Haworth, the hill-top Pennine village where the Brontë sisters lived and wrote, draws me in again and again whenever I’m walking in West Yorkshire.
There’s now little trace of the grim, over-crowded, soot-blackened industrial town the family inhabited from the 1820s, yet coming from the moors and up into Haworth’s steep, cobbled main street, the past is still very much around us here. We’re walking where the Brontës walked, seeing places familiar to their eyes.
To our left is The Black Bull, where Branwell Brontë was a regular customer. A short way further along, and before we reach the old village stocks, are broad steps leading to the parish church of St.Michael and All Angels; beyond it the graveyard; the little gate leading into the garden and parsonage which was home to the Brontë family. Nearby is the school where eldest daughter Charlotte taught, and across the main street to our right, the double-fronted premises of Haworth’s 19th century druggist. We’re told Branwell obtained his supplies of laudanum here, and it was here that the sisters made purchases of soap, goods and remedies, saving the wrapping paper to write stories upon.
Although the Haworth druggist’s establishment wasn’t consciously in my thoughts while I was writing The Apothecary’s Daughter, looking back, surely in some corner of my imagination it may have been an inspiration for the Sephton family’s apothecary?
Especially in those opening pages, when we see Keziah Sephton, the novel’s main character, turning up the whale oil lamps – for dusk is already falling on this wintry afternoon – moving quietly about the apothecary with its wide oak counters and shelves laden with bottles, flasks, phials, pots and jars filled with liniment, camphor oil, coltsfoot syrup, calendula salve, lotions, cosmetic creams, wintergreen, feverfew, liver pills and headache powders. And alongside these, scores more remedies Keziah assists her father preparing in the small dispensary.
Three generations of Keziah’s family – her grandmother Meggan Worsley, widowed father Elijah, younger brother Samuel, and little sister Edith – live in the tall, narrow house behind the apothecary situated at the heart of the small, prosperous Yorkshire town of Barrowby.
It isn’t a real place, but I’ve always been able to see the town very clearly. Its solid houses and well-stocked shops are sturdily built from stone quarried at the workings some little distance away; hills rising up beyond Barrowby shield it somewhat from keen, cutting winds whipping in from the north-east.
One of my favourite threads within The Apothecary’s Daughter is Grandmother Meggan’s keepsake box, and her precious Book of Hours. This old, fragile little book with its still-vivid illuminations has been passed down the generations of Meggan’s Lancashire-born family, from mother to eldest daughter at her coming of age. In time, it will be inherited by Keziah.
The sacred text of prayers and psalms was copied and illuminated by Agatha, one of Meggan’s long-ago kinswomen, who was prioress at Nowell Abbey. Legend has it, during the Dissolution a great hoard of silver, gold and jewels was buried for safekeeping somewhere about the abbey precincts and within her Book of Hours, Agatha concealed a message as to where the hoard might be found.
It’s a thrilling old story, but the Sephtons have never given it any credence. Besides, as Keziah sensibly points out to her young sister, if there really was treasure, it would’ve been discovered by now! Over the centuries, many folk have searched, but none have found! Nonetheless, Edith remains enthralled and never tires of begging Meggan tell her the tale over again.
The little girl isn’t alone in believing Meggan’s dog-eared Book of Hours conceals the whereabouts of the long-lost hoard of medieval treasure, however. For somebody close to Keziah, the fascination and lure of riches beyond wildest dreams is a temptation far too powerful to be conquered…
I walk a great deal, and am constantly inspired by the coastline and landscapes of my surroundings in north-west England and, of course, by lots of other places, too. As we’ve seen with Haworth, travelling on foot really draws you into a place and its past. You’re following in the steps of people, times and events gone before. Those stories are all around you.
When writing stories, I find there’s always a part – frequently more than one! – that just isn’t working. You can’t get it right. Can’t find a way to bring the story together. It’s a knot you can’t untie. Regardless of how many hours you spend, or however hard you try.
Then somehow, while you’re out walking – absorbed in the sights, sounds and scents of woodland or beach and not thinking about writing at all – quite unexpectedly, bits of story start coming to you. Your imagination’s flowing free. Ideas, pictures, conversations, plots, characters come tumbling in, and you’re desperate to remember everything until you’re able to write it down safely. The tangles in your tale are suddenly smoothing out. All is well again.
When I began writing this piece, there were some tricky bits and bobs not quite expressing what I really wanted to say. Earlier today, I was walking along the beach. The morning was bitterly cold, with not a breath of wind. The tide stealing in softly; as though muffled by thick, white sea-mist drifting into shore. The words came… and here they are.
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