The Secret Heiress
The first seed of The Secret Heiress was planted in a somewhat unlikely place: Manila, in the Philippines, back in 2011. I was working for a local TV network for a month, running story-generating sessions with writers of telenovelas. In a previous life I used to write for Australian soaps, so creating addictive stories is something I know about. The road from my hotel in Makati to the TV station in Quezon City was always choked with traffic. A lot of the passing scenery was, to put it bluntly, a bit hideous. In an effort to distract travelers from these grim truths the Pinoys had thoughtfully lined their unmoving boulevards with mile after mile of gaudy, glorious billboards, many of which were at that time advertising (what else?) telenovelas.
In my daily crawl to work I kept passing one billboard for a show I was unfamiliar with because it was made by a rival network. I was struck by the image being used to sell it: a stylish, older woman with a distinct air of malevolence about her, hovering above a group of blissfully oblivious children. The name of the show was Munting Heredera. My command of Tagalog was only one step removed from being an insult to the locals, so it was a while before I got a translation: Little Heiresses.
To this day I have no idea what the plot was (and it’s probably best that I never do), but I am grateful to that billboard for two things. First, it gave me an image that burrowed deep inside my imagination, an image that couldn’t be stopped from turning into a story. Second, it (sort of) gave me the title. While the heiress I ended up creating is in some ways ‘little’, at least in stature, if not in personality, this is not her defining characteristic. My heiress is defined by what is not defined about her; she is a mystery and a secret, even to herself.
The other seed of The Secret Heiress was the place where my partner and I decided to ‘treechange’ ourselves a decade ago, when we abandoned Melbourne for Castlemaine, Central Victoria. This part of the world is thick with colonial history. To walk down the streets is to be immersed in a not-so-vanished age; the 19th Century clings to every stone. Our own house was built in the 1860s, and in our big back garden are the ruins of a pub that once sold rum to the diggers. At the height of the gold rush there were ten thousand people camped on the paddock next door, panning our neighbourhood creek.
The past is a place I like to be. I liken the experience of discovering history to peering down a telescope only to encounter a mirror. People might have lived very differently in centuries gone by but they were still people. To uncover the past is always to reframe the present, I believe. My new home town got under my skin. When I came back from the Philippines with an image that was becoming a story, and a title that was morphing in my mind, I found that both things wanted to situate themselves in Castlemaine – not the town as it is now, but the town as it was back when our nation was still very new.
The Secret Heiress is Australian Gothic, or at least my interpretation of it. The gloomy moors and stormy nights of traditionally Gothic tales feel out of place in our environs, so I didn’t go there. Instead I went for bronzed hills and ancient eucalypts; the look of Streeton and McCubbin paintings; perpetually golden summers. Sun-drenched this story might be but for all the light there is shadow; dark deeds are being done in the reader’s peripheral vision. The story elements are as Gothic as I could make them. There are identical twins and memory loss; there is a scheming butler and a handsome bounder; there are innocents at the mercy of the utterly unscrupulous.
This story has two heroines, Ida and Biddy, both young servant girls, separated by a distance of seventeen years in time. They are connected but I’ll let the reader discover how. Circumstances see each girl working at the same great house, Summersby, a fictional mansion inspired by real houses in the region. With Ida in the late 19th Century, and Biddy in the very early 20th, there are two ‘presents’ in the book, each informing the other. Part of the intrigue, I hope, is in discovering how questions asked in Ida’s chapters are unexpectedly answered in Biddy’s chapters – and vice versa.
I don't mind confessing that I slaved on this book. It evolved across three drafts in as many years, the first two of which were plotting nightmares of my own making for being unnecessarily complicated. Fortunately, everything coalesced with the third. In my previous Ancient Rome-set novels the body count numbered in the dozens. For this new novel, dedicated as it is to my two much-missed, late grandmothers, and therefore guided by their moral compasses, I reduced the number of corpses on the floor, but hopefully not the fun.
"A fabulous upstairs, downstairs drama... Devenish's plot is as thick as Biddy's broth."
Australian Women's Weekly
"Luke Devenish is a master at the dramatic cliffhanger."
"You can never be quite sure what you are seeing..."
"The heart of the novel is Ida the housemaid, young and naive... at the mercy of her own curiosity."
Sydney Morning Herald
"I thought I knew exactly what to expect: a fabled house, old money, and identical twins.
I was wrong. This book is so much more... and the twists at the end were well worth it."
New Zealand Herald
The Beauty & Lace online book club is one of the most vibrant and passionate communities of book lovers I have ever met. Read what their members have to say about The Secret Heiress here.
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Listen to Luke Devenish talking about The Secret Heiress on Melbourne Radio 3CR's Published or Not here.