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Barbara Mutch: My inspiration for The Fire Portrait, about a migrant to SA

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Author Barbara Mutch. (Photo: Supplied)
Author Barbara Mutch. (Photo: Supplied)

Barbara Mutch’s previous novel, The Girl from Simon’s Bay, was a bestseller in South Africa. Her new novel, The Fire Portrait, is another sweeping historical romance. The granddaughter of Irish immigrant, she was born and brought up in South Africa. She launched and managed businesses in South Africa and the UK. She and her family live in Surrey, UK, but spend time whenever possible at their home in the Cape. Here she describes what led to her writing The Fire Portrait (Alison & Busby).

At the time I started writing The Fire Portrait, Europe was in the midst of a migrant crisis. Today, migration is once again in the news. From Europe to Africa to Asia to the Americas, people are on the move, driven by war, famine, weather, persecution… or economic reasons: the conviction that a more productive life lies beyond one’s own shores. Yet sometimes the driving force is a yen within the human heart: to leave for adventure or the prospect of love. And this brought me to the character of Frances Whittington.

In The Fire Portrait, set in the early to mid-1900s, Frances leaves England for South Africa out of desire for a new life but also because of thwarted prospects brought on by the change in her family’s fortune. Many young women of her era – born at the start of the 20th century – found themselves in a similar position for various reasons. The tragic loss of so many men in the First World War diminished chances of marriage, for example. And women born in 1910, like Frances, came of age in the late 1920s and/or early 1930s, when the Great Depression affected their parents’ wealth and left them less attractive to potential spouses. It may sound callous to our ears – that love cannot overlook a shortage of money – but that was often the reality in those days, and sometimes still in ours.

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