Women of letters
A group of Suffolk schoolgirls’ correspondence with a famous Danish archaeologist inspired Anne Youngson’s debut novel
Ann Youngson’s novel began with Bury St Edmunds
For years the picture had been pinned above her desk. The extraordinary image of a man who lived 2,000 years ago had long fascinated Anne Youngson, his face unearthed, perfectly preserved, from the peaty soil of Denmark in the 1960s.
Struggling for inspiration for a short story for her creative writing PhD studies, Anne wondered where the photograph might lead her if she explored it further. “I was never going to write a story set in the Iron Age,” she says. Instead she stumbled across a surprising connection between the Danish archaeologist responsible for the excavation of Tollund Man, and a group of schoolgirls from Bury St Edmunds who had been following news of the find. Professor Glob had dedicated his book, The Bog People, to the girls, apologising for taking so long to respond to a letter they had written him. “It was a delightful thing to do,” says Anne. “I realised that those schoolgirls would now be of a certain age, similar to me, with more of their lives behind them than ahead of them. They would consider that time in their childhood very significant and, as they sought to make sense of what their lives had become, they might want to renew that connection.”
Meet Me at the Museum is the debut novel that has resulted from Anne’s discovery. Written as a correspondence between two imagined strangers, a farmer’s wife in Suffolk and a museum curator in Denmark, it explores regret, loss, disappointment and missed opportunities. It is also a celebration of love, friendship, consolation and hope.
“There was no way this was going to be a short story,” Anne says. “Each letter triggered the next. It’s an account of two people getting to know each other. The story could almost have been told as a conversation between two people on a train, but by writing to each other, and in letters not emails, they’re thinking carefully about what they are going to say and expressing it carefully.
“There is something about letters, something about the slowness,” Anne says. “They’re saying, ‘let’s be careful about recording what we feel in the sort of way we are doing it’. Recording it slowly and thoughtfully in a way you can hold on to.”
Anne wrote the book in 18 months, picking raspberries and buying Christmas presents just as the characters in the story were doing. Publication followed quickly and she knows she has been incredibly lucky to have had this success.
“I think it’s perfect timing,” she says, of being published at this point in her life, aged 70. “I had a successful, fulfilling and demanding career in engineering project management, involving a great deal of creativity. I enjoyed my job but I always thought of myself as a writer.
“I had ideas for stories, and I’d write them down, but I never did anything with them. I always thought that if I ended up going to my grave not having written something substantial, I would have shortchanged myself.”
Early retirement from her post in the motor industry allowed Anne the opportunity to take her writing more seriously. She joined a creative writing course, pursued an MA, and now has embarked on a PhD. She has also supported many charities in governance roles, including chair of the Writers in Prison Network.
“I don’t have a mindset for retirement. I’ve been handed another career which is not dependent on dexterity or stamina. I’ve learned that it’s important to have a vision. Every minute of your life is just time, and you should use every minute.” Her goal is to live to 100. “If I have that attitude then it’s never too late. It’s never too late to learn another language or to stop wearing jeans.” Or to write a novel.
“This is a book that it’s appropriate I’ve written at my age,” she says. “The longer you live the more you read, and the more you read the more you learn. I would like some of the thoughts expressed in the book to resonate. I hope that they will stay with people and lead them to be more hopeful and optimistic and to take a view of their own life.” N
Meet Me at the Museum is published by Doubleday
‘I’ve learned that it’s important to have a vision. Every minute of your life is just time’