Venetia Welby: Myths, Madness, Mother of Darkness 

Venetia Welby

After sharing an exclusive extract from her debut novel Mother of Darkness, author Venetia Welby (MA Comparative Literature, 2010) tells us about her journey to becoming a published author.

I always wanted to be a writer, and I have always, from as far back as I can remember, written stories. Pretty much everything in my life, including a horrifying imagination, rolling insomnia and a proclivity for strange adventures and people, conspired to make this dream a reality and I arranged everything else to fit in with it.

In practice this meant pursuing freelance jobs such as editing, copywriting and tutoring which kept me learning new things but allowed me, and even required me, to travel and write as well. Tutoring in particular threw me into bizarre places, such as teaching philosophy A-level in a desert rehab centre in Arizona, or English on the beach of Lamu alongside expat hippies and Somali pirates, or camping in a bedsit in Beijing teaching Chinese boys en route to Harrow about the British.

It was moving home to London, though, that was formative in the writing of my debut novel, Mother of Darkness. I came here to do a master’s degree in Comparative Literature at King’s, and I shared a flat with a friend I’d met at Oxford, where I had studied Classics a few years before. She was now a practicing psychiatrist, doing regular night shifts in central London. As I was at King’s, we spent a lot of time in Soho together, watching the cultural shift as this historic and irreverent district, the soul of London, became increasingly sterile, and I decided to set my novel amongst its cranes and bulldozers, looking back to happier times.

Psychology was at the heart of what had most interested me about Classics, the elegantly constructed yet raw, dark, powerful myths of madness and cursed families, and the philosophical questioning of personal identity and selfhood. Great psychiatrists of the twentieth century such as Freud and Jung had drawn on this primeval material with good reason. They were rich seams that did not shy away from the shadow side of the psyche, but courted the taboo, dragging it into the light – and I wanted to do likewise. In the parts of Soho that resisted gentrification, my psychiatrist friend taught me more about these Greek tragedies from a psychological perspective, and I became fascinated by mother and messiah complexes. As an NHS doctor, she wholeheartedly embraced Freud, but I was more drawn to the Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious and archetypes, such as the ‘puer aeternus’ or ‘eternal youth’ that I fixed upon as my main character.     

I was able to explore both classics and psychology further at King’s: I looked at personal identity in ancient and modern times and how the self was portrayed and constructed in literature. Comparing the poetry of Sappho and Sylvia Plath (herself influenced by Jung), it struck me that the gaps in a damaged or dysfunctional sense of self can be bridged by writing a more cohesive self into existence, even if that self is entirely fabricated.

It is this idea of sealing the self through life-writing that is central to Mother of Darkness, as a lost soul attempts to gather the splinters of his fragmented psyche by writing a narrative of his life. The novel draws on the Greek tragedies, Bacchae and Orestaia, and there is a psychological thread through it as my protagonist’s psychiatrist tries to get to the bottom of his ever more erratic behaviour. Though my life has been, happily, very different from the contents of my novel, to some extent the book is a distillation of the ideas I encountered at King’s and on my journey there. 

For any alumni who may be aspiring writers, don’t be too concerned by the popular idea that writing needs to be done in a linear, desk-bound and regular fashion. Most writing is crammed in wherever and whenever it can be, whether that be around a day job, in the brief snatches of time afforded by one’s children or in the middle of the night when inspiration strikes. All the experiences that break up your writing add something to it, and to you. So take a notebook everywhere and write down ideas and observations as they occur until the threads and themes of stories start to emerge. Bus journeys, I find, are particularly good for this.   

You can check out Venetia’s debut novel on Amazon.