Bea Davenport has written two crime novels for adults, In Too Deep (Legend Press, 2013) and This Little Piggy (Legend Press, 2014).
She teaches creative writing classes and lives near Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland with her partner and children.
“I would have given anything to read a story in which a character was something more like me.”
Guest Post by Bea Davenport
Sharp-eyed readers who look at the cover of The Serpent House might notice something particular about how the main character, Annie, is dressed. She’s wearing a little scarf around her head. That’s because Annie has alopecia.
When I was around eight years old, I lost almost all my hair and it didn’t grow back fully until I was an adult. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess how it felt to be a young girl and a teenager forced to wear a series of bad wigs or cover-ups – it can seriously knock your confidence. This was the 1970s and although the condition was known, there were no effective treatments or even any real understanding of why it happens.
I was a voracious reader as a child and I can remember how it gave me a little twinge every time a character in a story referred to their hair. I was furious with Anne of Green Gables for being so ungrateful for her red braids. I was jealous of Jo in Little Women for heroically selling her lovely locks. I would have given anything to read a story in which a character was something more like me. And that’s why it was so important to me to write about Annie, who loses her hair after the death of her mother.
The Serpent House is a time-slip story and Annie finds herself able to travel back to a medieval leper hospital. Hair loss is a symptom of leprosy, so she’s taken for a patient and subjected to some of the brutal cures that really did take place in those times. I could empathise with her: my mother tried some pretty weird and wonderful cures too, in her desperation to make things better.
What I wanted to get across in the book were some of the issues that affect sufferers of alopecia today: that often, other people find it harder to deal with than the person with the hair loss. That it can affect your sense of identity, because hair is often such a big part of it. And that there is a desperation to find a cure, leading people to resort to extreme measures.
But I also wanted to create a heroine – because heroines don’t have to be stereotypically beautiful. Annie is sad and often angry, but she is also brave and loyal and smart. When the book came out, some of my best feedback came from alopecia charities –because, they said, the alopecia was not the whole story.
Medically speaking, I’m sorry to say we’re not a lot further forward even now, in terms of cures. But I hope that awareness is growing and that more stories like mine will help – not just those who have alopecia, but also help others to understand and grow in tolerance. It’s a small step to include diverse characters in a story. And stories, as we know, shape our world.