The Last Days of Leda Grey is set in the worlds of Edwardian silent cinema, and also the long hot summer of 1976. It is the story of a meeting between a young London journalist and an ageing but still enigmatic actress who has hidden away as a recluse for over half a century. The Times describes the novel as ‘luminous … with a sensuousness to the prose … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling.’
Here author Essie Fox describes the discovery that inspired her setting for the novel.
I have to confess I was beguiled when I entered the world of this novel – for which there were two vivid sparks of visual inspiration.
The first was viewed one evening when I’d been working on my computer, and then started searching for online films – really thinking of finding an old film noir, such as the dramatic weepies in which Bette Davis often starred. The sort of films I used to watch cuddled up on the sofa with my mum. (Just like Ed, my fictional journalist, when he is still a little boy.) But instead of any Hollywood films, I found myself clicking on the link for a film from the early Edwardian age that had been restored and digitized by the BFI/National Film Archives.
Panoramic View of Morecambe Seafront is what was called an ‘actual’ – which simply means an everyday scene in which everyday people are going about the everyday things in their daily lives. However, this film is much more than that. It has such a luminous clarity, and it really drags you back through time, seeing people of every age and class as they stroll along a promenade. Seeing cab drivers standing by horses. Seeing tourists twirling parasols. Seeing excited children running along beside the tram from which the camera’s eye looks down.
And how sad that many of those boys who are waving their hats and handkerchiefs are most probably doomed to have then grown up to die in the trenches of WW1.
But here, in these few precious moments of film, they are preserved, forever young, their happiness an eternal thing to be watched again – and again – and again.
It is that telescoping of time, and the way in which certain life events are then imprinted on our minds, that forms the core of Leda Grey, with the looks of this central character my second inspiration: the spark – well, really it was more like a jolt of electricity – when I saw the exotic features of the actress Theda Bara looking out from a vintage poster in a shop front in the Brighton Lanes. This is also what Ed Peters does at the very start the novel, when Theda becomes my Leda Grey; the alluring girl who from her youth has only ever dreamed of growing up to star in moving films.
So, linking those looks with the setting of an Edwardian sea side town, the world of Leda Grey was born. And for Leda, her very first venture on screen begins with a walk on the promenade, when a film director called Charles Beauvois drives by in the back of a horse drawn cab and films the scene he sees below. He then sends a private copy of that film to the teenaged Leda Grey, and she looks anything but everyday – as the older Leda then describes when writing out her memoirs; in the pages she calls her Mirrors …
“Now I know the trick of it. Then, I had no notion how Beauvois had used a razor blade to scratch away the celluloid, to leave some parts entirely clear so that when the film came to be viewed – in my case through a candle’s flame – all around my head there seemed to be a living halo made of fire. There were hundreds of tiny stars as well. They shimmered around the entrance flags that flew above the promenade, around the towers and the domes that loomed within the frame behind. And with that halo, with those stars, Beauvois had made me magical.”