Joanna Millicer Hempel's Novels





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        Joanna Millicer Hempel
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In 2003, I translated a family chronicle from Polish into English. I soon realized that I had material for a historical novel about World War I on the Eastern Front, and about the Russian Revolution. For a playwright, beginning a novel can be a challenge akin to a right-handed person learning to write with the left. I began attending workshops on writing historical fiction.

In 2002 I had joined a group of writers and intellectuals at Soirées Littéraires in the New South Wales Writers' Centre, feasting on monthly lectures on European literature and writers. In 2006 I became its director for four years.

I knew early that my novel's central character was to be Wanda - based on my grandmother - and that it would begin in her home, a manor house called Wodgiry. It was Wanda who had plied me with novels and historical articles when I was a teenager in Australia. The action would move between Lithuania, Russia and Poland, just as the characters in my story moved between these parts of Eastern Europe as circumstances forced them apart. Originally I gave my novel the title Wanda's Dream, changing it to Feet of Wax as its scope enlarged, reflecting Russia's meltdown in 1918. I took the title from Jozef Pilsudski's description of Russia in 1914 as a "Colossus with feet of wax".

Chapel on the Lake

Here is Wanda on New Year's Day 1914 after an erotic dream:

Wanda was the first to run down from the veranda onto the crisp, deep snow...the cold air biting her cheeks. She turned up her fur collar to breathe warm air through its soft filter. Somewhere through the trees she heard the echo of dogs barking and made her way round to the front of the house. Voices were coming from the lake and the chapel. Waiting for Bronia, Wanda turned to look back at the grand old manor...Wodgiry nestled serenely among its trees, white shutters against dark timber walls. Pale sunlight glinted on its window panes and, as smoke rose gently from its many chimneys, the great sloping roof lay like a white quilt over the whole dwelling. It shelters such personalities, such diverse opinions - and such secret longings, thought Wanda, remembering her dream.

Chapter 9, Part 1, Feet of Wax

I also knew that my story would begin with her sister's wedding in 1913, allowing me to depict life before World War I, contrasting with what was to follow. The manor house, Wodzgiry in Polish, Vadzgirys in Lithuania, was simplified to Wodgiry in my novel. It would become almost a character in the novel. The playwright within me wanted to allow several main characters their point of view. And so the novel has become a type of mosaic, with different colourful characters inter-weaving, disappearing and re-appearing as the narrative takes us through a landscape of war, separation, hardship, hunger, starvation and, eventually, return.

Here is Anna, Wanda's mother in 1913 after the wedding festivities:

She should be able to sleep, she was utterly exhausted, yet she lay in bed with a vague unease, while Antoni lay beside her, dead to the world. If she sifted through events of the last twenty-four hours perhaps she would remember. The wedding had gone to plan, with the exception of the weather, for they had woken to a sultry, overcast day... Bronia had looked pretty (if a trifle fussy) in her white voile gown, whose flounces the dressmaker had copied with so much trouble from a catalogue; Wanda's gown had been more successful, made from the seamstress's imagination... the priest's sermon on the place of carnal and spiritual love had been mercifully short...After the photographs guests had played croquet on Antoni's lawn...
Somewhere, a long way off, the short, sharp bark of a fox resounded through the night. And then Anna remembered. Like a stab in the heart, it came back...

Chapter 5, Part 1, Feet of Wax

Why a novel? Why not a biography?

My grandmother's maiden aunt had kept the family chronicle during the years 1913-1918, her details so scant that, in order to write my novel, I had to draw on anecdotes from relatives and friends, historical research, photographs and my imagination. Used to writing a whole play inspired by a tiny fragment of reality, I decided that a novel was best; I simply had too little personal material for a biography; I would have to invent. I would need, however, much research of historical facts, for a writer cannot embark on a journey without knowing the terrain intimately. Fortunately I had studied history at university, and research from primary (and secondary) sources has always excited me.

My search for further clues and impressions began in the European summer of 2004, continued in the winter of 2009-10, and ended in the summer and autumn of 2012. This search included trips to St Petersburg in Russia, to Vadzgirys and Vilnius in Lithuania, to Warsaw in Poland. The decision to learn Russian came after the first trip; it opened doors - in museums, in institutes, and to specialists in libraries - bringing forth clues about where my grandmother had lived in Petrograd as a refugee from 1914 to 1918. Details about her wealthy uncle Edward, an industrialist, opened up a whole new world, one which would have ramifications during the revolutionary period after February 1917. It also allowed for valuable dramatic contrast with my grandfather's progressive ideas as a student of law and, later, a soldier returning to Petrograd from the front.

Speaking in Russian with my comrades in Lithuania, I learned that the manor house became a hospital in WWI, firstly for the Russian army, then from 1915 for the German army. This fact, together with the knowledge that my great-grandmother Anna was there in Wodgiry under German occupation, opened up another world to explore. Only traces of the house, the lake and chapel exist today.

Searching for traces of the lake and chapel

Here is Antoni, reading a letter (imaginary but based on facts) from his wife Anna in late 1914:

...The German Army tried to cross the river on pontoon bridges, but retreated after a battle lasting five days. The artillary was so loud we could hear it here...the line seems to be holding, but if they cross the Niemen I shall stand here to meet them, to protect what is ours, and help save the wounded...Our main rooms have become wards, full of the wounded and the dying. The guest room and the children's school room are operating rooms... My dears, do not return. Food for civilians is hard to come by. Urszula and I cook for sixty every day. Edward wrote from Petersburg where many have taken refuge. He suggests you join him...I am healthier for being slimmer and I am strong. May God keep you the same.
Your loving, Anna and Mama
For some minutes Wanda stroked her father's hand in silence, while he sat with the letter balanced between his fingers.
'My brave Anna,' he said at last...

Chapter 5, Part 2, Feet of Wax

My stay in Warsaw, on Nowy Swiat in the winter of 2010, gave me time to feel my grandfather's roots. Part of the Polish intelligentsia, democratic socialists in outlook, and fervently behind the revolutionary Jozef Pilsudski's vision for a united Poland, George's family endured Russian then German surveillance, hunger and humiliation in Warsaw. His father, a lawyer and writer, was imprisoned for quarrelling with Russian authorities - more details which I could explore in my novel - and returned from gaol just before the Russian retreat of 1915 and the German occupation of Warsaw.

Here is George's father Stan in Warsaw in 1917:

...Stan turned off Nowy Swiat into a side lane to go home. It was early evening and the July sunlight streamed between trees into the little park and onto the steps of the library. To his left, a figure lowered a newspaper as he passed. I am being observed, he thought. Why? He crossed the little square in front of the archway to his home. The answer awaited him in the dining room, where Constance was sitting with Hania and Ola Szczerbinska.
'Stan,' cried Constance, 'Pilsudski has been arrested...

Chapter 3, Part 5, Feet of Wax

I began writing "Feet of Wax" in November 2008. With each re-write, by 2011, I was wrestling with the question: where to finish the novel? Should it have a "happy" ending, with Wanda marrying George in Petrograd in May 1917 after his return from the Eastern front? Or should it end after the October Bolshevik Revolution? Or should I take the novel full circle to Wanda's return home with George and Antoni to Wodgiry in June 1918, starving and skeletal, as described in the journal?

I decided on the last option. And so Feet of Wax became the title of a story, which not only is about a young woman's innocent hope of finding happiness and love, but about an extended family's endurance through chaotic change in Eastern Europe during World War I and the Russian Revolution.

2012 found me in Warsaw and Petersburg, researching final details of the Bolshevik over-turn and the plight of refugees, plus material for Volumes 2 and 3. Volume 2 will be about the little-known war of 1920 between Soviet Russia and the newly formed Polish Republic, and my grandfather's career in politics in Poland up to World War II. It includes the enduring love triangle with his Jewish cousin Stefanie. Volume 3 will be about my mother Christine, as a young woman falling in love on the eve of WWII and having to flee to Paris, then London in 1940. Her departure with my father, my grandmother, my brother and me for Australia in 1950 will end the trilogy.

If I live long, the story of my father, Henry Millicer, and his dramatic career in Australian aviation as an aircraft designer will make it a tetralogy.