Finishing ‘Firebird’

Finishing a novel is a strange experience. For years, my life has run on parallel tracks. There has been work, family, home-life, friends…. And then there has been researching and imagining the enduring love affair between two of the twentieth-century’s most brilliant and unusual figures: the Russian prima ballerina Lydia Lopokova and the British economist John Maynard Keynes.  

Lydia Lopokova as the Firebird.

It was an unlikely love affair for many reasons. After excelling at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg under Tsar Nicholas II, Lydia joined Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes for their European tour in 1910 – and never went back to Russia. Instead, she accepted an offer from a Broadway producer to tour America, where she married, became a media sensation, and made (and lost) a great deal of money. In contrast, the bookish Maynard spent his school and undergraduate years winning academic prizes, became a British government advisor on economic policy, and a Fellow of King’s College Cambridge. Until he fell in love with Lydia at the age of thirty-eight his sexual proclivity was entirely for men. They came from different worlds, had different backgrounds and interests, spoke different languages – and had vastly different personalities. Their relationship caused puzzlement and consternation in the circles they moved in, with several of Maynard’s Bloomsbury friends actively seeking to end it.  

‘The Keynes Keynes’

My first step was to read all I could in – including the correspondence between Lydia and Maynard, accounts by those who knew them, Judith Mackrell’s 2009 ‘Bloomsbury Ballerina’, Robert Skidelsky’s 2003 three-volume biography ‘John Maynard Keynes: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman’ and much else besides. Talking to dancers was one of the great pleasures of this research phase, as was exploring all the photographs many of which are housed in the archive at King’s College Cambridge. I particularly love this image of the pair performing a dance they called ‘The Keynes Keynes’, after Lydia succeeded in divorcing her bigamist husband and married Maynard. I also adored looking at all the materials relating to the Ballets Russes, such as this sketch for a costume design for the 1910 production of ‘Firebird’ by Léon Bakst. 

The process of writing – when and where to start the story, when to end, what to include and what to leave out, finding the right voices, how far to trust empathy and imagination and when to revert only to what is known – was a long, fascinating, at times arduous journey which I will return to in a future post. 

It is always difficult letting go of a book. Alongside all the usual worries about whether one has done the material justice and given readers what they need, there are strong ties to its world and characters it is almost painful to sever. 

I have been looking to see how other writers describe finishing a novel and this comment from Virginia Woolf (who plays an important role in Firebird) strikes a chord. It is from her diary of 7 February 1931 as she put the last words to The Waves

‘Anyhow, it is done; and I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, and calm, and some tears’. 

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