Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Are you a member of a book group?


I thought that discussing “A Long Time Dying” in a book group might be fun. I have read books that include a list of discussion points at the back, but I have not yet found one that provides the ideas and intentions of the author in reply to these. So here are some questions that could get interesting discussions going, and I have added some comments to share when the members of the group have had a good chat about them.

  • Why is the book called “A Long Time Dying”?

I have been asked this question several times. The obvious reason is the length of time William Houlbrooke Tayleur lived after becoming insane. Did you notice the moment when Charles remarked to the valet, “My father is a long time dying”? Nobody had expected that he would survive for so many years. But there are also many emotions that take a long time to die in the book – William’s love and passion for Emma; Mary Ellen’s impatience and resentment of her stepsons, particularly Charles; Charles’s fear of his stepmother; Albert’s insecurity and the problems arising from his supposed illegitimacy; Charles’s grief for the loss of his mother and his anger at the unjust way in which she was treated.

  • William Houlbrooke Tayleur is a complex character who is described differently by Mary Ellen, Emma, and Charles. Can you explain this?

Emma and Mary Ellen both portray William as being powerful and impatient, but when Charles arrives at Hampton House he observes that his father “…seems greater in size but somehow diminished in his person. He is fearful of causing any upset to his new wife, yet I can remember him being fearful of nothing before.” This contrasts with Mary Ellen’s claim that she was nervous of his temper. This was William’s second marriage, and Mary Ellen had been a spinster for many years before she married William. They were nervous with each other, and William in particular must have lacked confidence. After all, his first wife had been unfaithful to him in a very public way. William is most relaxed when he is with his sister at the beginning of the book. This was a relationship that made no demands on him, and he says at the dinner table in his sister’s house that he can relax when he is with his own family. The other meals described in the book are all tense and uncomfortable when compared with this one.

  • Which character do you feel most sympathy for?

I would really love to hear readers’ answers to this one. It is fairly clear where my sympathies lie.

  • Do your feelings about Mary Ellen change as the book progresses?

Well I certainly hope that they do. One disadvantage of starting the book with Mary Ellen’s voice is that readers will usually sympathise with the first main character. And she had a boring and lonely life in Wales with her strict uncle, so it is possible to feel sympathy for her. She is clearly fond of William, and thrilled when he proposes marriage. But Mary Ellen’s character has been formed by that puritanical upbringing, and although she longs to escape from it, she brings all her uncle’s strict and narrow values with her. She does not know how to be motherly with William’s sons, nor does she understand that they need to spend time with their father. When William becomes ill, her main concern is the reactions of the servants and the terrible fear that her neighbours will hear about it. She becomes more and more bitter as time goes on. One thing I wanted to convey was the physical revulsion Charles feels towards Mary Ellen. I certainly felt this about my own stepmother, and Joanna Trollope describes it well in “Other People’s Children”. When Charles desperately wants to catch his father alone, he waits until Mary Ellen locks herself in her room to use her chamber pot. I was hoping that the image of this would be in the reader’s mind while Charles and his father were talking!

  • To what extent did William’s rejection cause Albert’s misfortunes?

I think it is quite difficult for us to judge this, because illegitimacy was such a disgrace in the nineteenth century and this is no longer the case today. His disputed parenthood certainly remained a problem for Albert throughout his life – I was shocked to see his brother Charles William Tayleur named as his father on his marriage certificate. Albert did try to earn a living – I have a copy of the certificate of competency he achieved in the Merchant Navy, despite his poor health. He was, however, clearly living beyond his means. It is interesting that the Tayleur family did take him in after Charles Heathcote’s death, and gave him a great deal of support and financial help. In the book I tried to make the point that he always felt different, and suffered from the fact that his father never wanted to see him or have anything to do with him. I wanted him to appear to be a weak person whose poor health dragged him down, and who never managed to escape from the tragedy of his birth.

  • How important is Charles’s uncle John Tayleur in the book?

Uncle John was the boys’ support and protector from the death of their mother. I wanted to portray him as a caring person who could empathise with children – perhaps not so common in Victorian times. When William was taken ill, John was concerned about Mary Ellen’s children and the effect the events were having upon them. Charles had the security of knowing that he could always turn to Uncle John, and that his uncle would be on his side.

I had some evidence that this was really the case. In 1871 the census shows that Charles, Mary Jane and Alec were staying with John Tayleur at New Hall in Shevington, Wigan. John Tayleur was one of the trustees looking after his brother’s estate. By 1881 he had moved to Torquay, presumably to be near to his nephew Charles who was then living at Hampton House. John had moved into “Stokeleigh” on St. Marychurch Road, only a couple of miles from Hampton.

What happened to John Tayleur? His wife Eliza must have died shortly after the 1881 census, and on September 21st 1886 John married Maria Matilda Doria. He was 80 years old, and his bride was a spinster of 50.