Margaret Bradham Thornton lives what appears to be a charmed life. She grew up in Charleston, a tennis playing daughter of a heart surgeon, was graduated from Princeton, went to Cambridge and worked on Wall Street. Some of that information you don't see in the publicity packets released by Ecco, the publisher of Thornton’s debut novel, Charleston.
Perhaps that’s because Bradham Thornton, an elegant, willowy and guarded woman who talks about the lessons her parents taught her—hard work from her Depression-era father and ethics from her Scottish Presbyterian mother—wants to be recognized for her own work: researching, editing and designing Tennessee Williams’ Notebooks, a widely acclaimed, 856-page collection of his journals, plays, and more that took Bradham Thornton 10 years to complete.
In fact, the work on Notebooks was so all-encompassing that Bradham Thornton had to push aside her dream of writing novels…until now.
Charleston is a stroll through the city’s streets, homes and surrounding Lowcountry via society parties, dinners and reminisces from the points of view of Eliza Poinsett, a native of the South Carolina city who returns to the Lowcountry after living in London, and her former lover, Henry Heyward, the publisher of a growing chain of Southern newspapers. It is a purposely quiet and subtle novel.
“I really wanted to…stylistically, thematically deal with the seduction of both a place and person, because I think seductions occur subtly and they occur slowly and they occur quietly,” she explains. “You know, there aren’t big plot twists and turns and hurdles. It’s more about sensibility.”
“Living in cities like New York and London had given Eliza a freedom and anonymity from her past,” Bradham Thornton writes in Charleston. “Nothing in those cities pulled her back. It was the exploration of the present—not the recovery of the past—that gave her joy. But she understood that the deep roots she had in Charleston were both a privilege and a curse, and she wondered if any other place could be home.”
Bradham Thornton bristles at the idea that Charleston was both a privilege and curse for herself. Those were Eliza’s views, she emphasizes, “not my views.” But curiosity regarding the similarities between protagonist and author seems reasonable. Obviously, both Eliza and Bradham Thornton grew up in Charleston, but they also both attended Princeton, lived in New York and London and spent days upon days tucked in a library researching artists—Henrietta Johnston for Eliza and, of course, Tennessee Williams for Bradham Thornton. Indeed, Williams is mentioned repeatedly throughout Charleston.
“I think for [Eliza] it was an enchanted world,” Bradham Thornston explains. “It was like a little island. And there were certain rules and forms of behavior and people knew everyone, and so in that way it was a very charmed life.” She stresses again that these are Eliza’s feelings. “It was a conservative world and it was one that did not encourage women to break out, to take risks, to strive. And when you have those kinds of deep roots, sometimes it’s hard for people to move away from them, because they’re very strong.
“For me, I think I had an enchanted childhood. I had complete freedom….You could get lost in that world….You learned resilience. You learned a lot about nature.” At that, Bradham Thornton drifts off into her own childhood memory of the sound of a bicycle coming down the street. “And so, you know, there was no curse for me of growing up down there.”
But pay attention to that word “resilience” and the word “risks” in the paragraph before it. They are words, along with “humble” and “hard work,” that Bradham Thornton uses often. She describes Henry as a “humble person” and Eliza as a resilient woman who has “worked hard” and is “willing to take risks.”
And “risks” brings us back to Tennessee Williams, specifically his play Summer and Smoke, which inspired Charleston. Bradham Thornton believes that Alma and John, the lead characters in Summer and Smoke, should have been together, a belief she thinks Williams held, too. So she wondered, “If you have two people” – in this case, Eliza and Henry – “who should be together, what would they be willing to do to be together? What risks would they be willing to take? And I’m interested in people who are willing to take risks, because I think that takes courage and I think that takes freedom and I think in taking risks, the consequences can be wonderful and they can be desperate.”
And when an author who lives what appears to be a charmed life takes a risk, well, that too can be courageous and wonderful.Suzy Spencer is the author of the memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.