Thursday, October 4, 2012

Case Study No. 0567: Esther Hammerhans

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt
It's July, 1964. In bed at home in Kent, Winston Churchill is waking up. There's a visitor in the room, someone he hasn't seen for a while, a dark, mute bulk, watching him with tortured concentration. It's Mr. Chartwell. In her terraced house in Battersea, Esther Hammerhans, young, vulnerable and alone, goes to answer the door to her new lodger. Through the glass she sees a vast silhouette the size of a mattress. It's Mr. Chartwell. He is charismatic and dangerously seductive, and Esther and Winston Churchill are drawn together by his dark influence. But can they withstand Mr. Chartwell's strange, powerful charms and strong hold? Can they even explain to anyone who or what he is? Or why he has come to visit? For Mr. Chartwell is a huge, black dog. In this utterly original, moving, funny and exuberant novel, Rebecca Hunt explores how two unlikely lives collide as Mr. Chartwell's motives are revealed to be far darker and deeper than they seem. Buy Mr Chartwell on
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[scene opens with author Rebecca Hunt speaking directly to the camera]
REBECCA: The central idea for "Mr. Chartwell" is that Winston Churchill's "Black Dog", which is what he used to name his depression, is an individual character who's as free to belong to anyone else as he does to Winston Churchill.
[cut to a still image of the book]
REBECCA: [in voice over] I think the "Black Dog" term works on a series of levels. For me, the Mr. Chartwell character enabled me to ...
[cut back to Rebecca speaking directly to the camera]
REBECCA: Create a physical presence, this embodiment of depression. But he, at the same time, there's parallels between depression as an illness and depression - in my book - as a character.
[cut to another close up of the book cover]
REBECCA: [in voice over] So he's threatening, he's a big animal. He's heavier and stronger than you can challenge. He weighs down on you, there's physical traces of him in every room.
[cut to a still image of a living room]
REBECCA: [in voice over] So even if he's not there that second, you're never in any doubt he's gonna come back. Um, he's destructive. Both physically, vandalizing your house, and emotionally, as he undermines your confidence and gradually weaves his way into your life.
[cut to a black and white photo of Winston Churchill]
REBECCA: [in voice over] So I thought it would be an interesting way to engage with the subject of depression, and also to express its impact in the lives it affects.
["On Humour" appears on screen, then cut back to Rebecca speaking directly to the camera]
REBECCA: I do think humor can make a subject accessible, and I think humor also gives depth to the characters. But just because something's funny, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's superficial, and I think that you can use humor to talk about very serious subjects.
[cut to another close up of the book cover]
REBECCA: [in voice over] Um, the funniest character in my book is probably the Black Dog. But he uses humor to disarm the other characters, and charm them. To seduce them and overpower them in some way.
[cut back to Rebecca speaking directly to the camera]
REBECCA: So it's just one of his weapons, it's another tactic of his to invade their lives. Um, but even though he's funny, he's certainly never safe, and he remains a dangerous, a menacing presence all the time.



"Mr. Chartwell: A Novel" by Rebecca Hunt
Publisher: The Dial Press (February 8, 2011)

A Letter from Author Rebecca Hunt

The central premise of Mr. Chartwell is that Winston Churchill's 'black dog' of depression is imagined as an independent character, free to walk, talk, and stalk others as he did with Churchill. The book follows the charismatic but menacing black dog--called Mr. Chartwell, but known as Black Pat by his closer acquaintances--as he weaves his devious influence into the lives of Churchill and Esther Hammerhans, a young widow. In different ways, both Esther and Churchill are approaching the end of deeply significant relationships, and the dog arrives to plague them as they face their challenges.

Depression is an intensely personal affliction, and I felt personifying it as Black Pat provided me with an opportunity to translate the emotions of the characters affected by his presence as dialogue, engaging them in conversation about their situations. It may be an unusual way to broach such a difficult topic, but I was immediately struck by the possibilities this opened up to me. There is no such thing as a definitive description of depression, I believe it varies with the individual, but I wanted to create a version of depression which was honest and true to my personal understanding of it. Using the dark and dynamic character of Mr. Chartwell gave me a vehicle to explore Churchill and Esther's circumstances in greater detail, and in many ways, with a more accessible expression of the sensitivity I felt towards the subject and characters.

I was also struck by how perfectly the 'black dog' description can be used to capture the nature of depression. It takes the typical characteristics of a dog--the loyalty and attachment, along with the predatory and instinctual aspects--and converts them into something corruptive. This dog takes the image of man's best friend and reverses it, becoming a jealously devoted companion who works against you from within you. However, for all this, Mr Chartwell isn't just a book about depression. It is equally about redemption, courage and love. And, for me, it is predominantly and most importantly about hope.



In her sad, hopeful and very original debut, Hunt examines two battles with depression, one that has already been lost and one where there is still a possibility of winning. The story follows the parallel lives of a lonely young London librarian, Esther Hammerhans, and the celebrated statesman, Winston Churchill, during the days before he retires in July of 1964. Esther, whose husband committed suicide two years earlier, is renting out the spare room in her home, but when she opens the door to her new tenant, Mr. Chartwell, she finds herself face to face with a huge talking, upright walking, black dog. Esther soon learns that when Chartwell (aka Black Pat) leaves the house, it is to pay regular visits to Churchill and psychologically torture him, which he has been doing for years. Chartwell is no mere talking dog; he is a dark, lingering presence that has come to try to torment Esther into depression, much like he did her late husband. Taking a hard look at the demons that haunt people, Hunt's story is an clever illumination of the suffering of so many, their status on the social scale offering no protection.



It tells the story of a brief period in the lives of Esther Hammerhans, a young library clerk at the House of Commons, still vulnerable after the loss of her husband, and Winston Churchill on the eve of his resignation from Parliament. They are an unlikely couple bound together by the attentions of Mr Chartwell, an enormous, clumsy, disgustingly noisy and smelly black dog. Mr Chartwell, or Black Pat as he prefers to be known, is the novelistic embodiment of Churchill's 'black dogs' – his haunting evocation of depression.

'I was walking home from work when the idea came,' Hunt says, 'the idea of the black dog as a separate entity. I didn't want the dog to be a punchline or a trick – it was the vehicle by which to discuss something very internal. It's fantastical on the surface with its heart in reality.'

For Churchill the battle against Black Pat's menacing presence is an old and weary one; but for Esther, the dog holds a kind of decadent, dangerous charm that makes him all the more horrifying.

It is this tension – can Esther withstand Black Pat, or will she succumb – that makes Hunt's book so engrossing. Towards the end, when she has spent five days in Black Pat's company, Esther looks round her kitchen 'at the wreckage made by Black Pat… dry leaves and sticks in some places… soil and sand streaked across the tiles, tracking into the rest of the house. The shreds of material in each room, the mess of chewed wood. A door knocked from its hinges, the pervasive smell. A sheep's pelvis splintered on the landing… the cemetery of her garden strewn with small skeletons, the land worn to sand… Just five days. So imagine what he could do in 10 days, in a month, in a lifetime of campaigns.' It is an extraordinarily bleak and accomplished vision of spiritual despair.

'Depression is very hard to talk about,' Hunt says. 'It's very isolating. Some people I knew well seemed to have darker days. I did too. I wanted to describe how it was. Black Pat is my interpretation of it – but he needed to be engaging; he couldn't be just a cuddly pet, or too much of a monster. He had to be dangerous, but also charismatic. Writing about him took me to places I didn't expect to go, so it was a very interesting time for me – like a conversation I was having with myself, all about long-term relationships, losing someone you love, the wear and tear of relationships. What does it mean to know when you are embarking on a love affair that you will inevitably have to go through dark times together. How do you face that?'

Mr Chartwell is set in 1964, 15 years before Hunt was born. For her it is history, although she says, 'You do know about the 1960s quite well, and I talked to my mum and dad about it a lot. They told me about all kind of things, like there being no broccoli and people wearing stockings.' She read up on Churchill, and visited many of the places associated with him – Chartwell, Blenheim, the Cabinet War Rooms. 'Seeing the lives of these people made them real,' she says. 'I saw Churchill's clothes and shoes. His desk and chair were really small; I was expecting something enormous.'

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