Rebecca Hunt's Mr Chartwell examines nature of depression
Winston Churchill's 'black dog' basis for debut novel
With her sizzling debut novel, Rebecca Hunt has written about a British icon, depression and the physical manifestation of his illness. Brian Donaldson hears form an author on the up
The idea of the ‘black dog’ as representing a cloying cloud of depression will forever be associated with Winston Churchill. But what if that dog had a name, could walk on two paws, wore a suit and was able to chat with his victims with a healthy dose of sarcasm and just a smidgeon of empathy? Well, that’s the beauty of fiction because it’s exactly what debut author Rebecca Hunt has done with Mr Chartwell, a novel which has earned her a spot on the Guardian First Book Award longlist. ‘I was walking home one night and the central premise arrived, that the black dog is an individual entity who is free to visit other people other than Churchill.’
And so the dog, known to some as Chartwell (the name of Churchill’s residence in Kent) and to others as Black Pat, drops in on placid widow Esther Hammerhans, a clerk at the House of Commons library. Could it be that the dog was once a figure which haunted her husband Michael, who suffered a depression which eventually led to his suicide? And if the dog is now trying to creep into Esther’s life, does that mean her tragic destiny is sealed or does she have the power of her fate still in her own hands?
Set in the 60s at the time when Churchill was about to retire from political life, Hunt had to put in the hours to research both the period and the wartime icon, though happily the episodes of mental breakdown were also the result of reading rather than living. ‘Like many others, I’ve had darker times and know people who’ve had a rough time but I don’t think I’ve been depressed,’ says Hunt. ‘I did read a lot about it, but I used information that I’ve learned through my own experiences and expanded it to then write about it. But all the time, an author is writing about people who are not them, so I imagined what it’s like to be a bloke, an older woman, a dog, and what it’s like being in the 60s. You use your empathy and imagination to try and create and develop the experience in a way that you hope is credible.’
While it’s up to those perhaps closer to the subject to decide if she’s succeeded with her passages about depression, but when it comes to the canine world, she has nailed the physical attributes of her dastardly pooch from the way he moves to the way he eats. ‘My family have all had dogs, not all of them lovely though. But I’ve been able to analyse the personality of so many different kinds, from the Omen-type dog, the faithful friend, the patient companion and the clownish dog. I’ve been able to watch those different characteristics, and that stuff has stayed with me and you pick up the language of the dog and the traits. There were some Alsatians in my family as pets and when you saw them yawn it wasn’t a pleasant sight; there were weapons in there, really nasty looking, and that has always stayed with me.’
Mr Chartwell is published by Fig Tree on Thu 7 Oct.