“She’s misanthropic, she’s an egotist – she’s really not very nice at all,” Posy Simmonds confides of the woman she’s lived alongside for the past few years. Fortunately ‘she’ is also fictional, the pen-and-ink protagonist of Simmonds’ latest graphic novel Cassandra Darke, a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that imagines Scrooge as a well-upholstered, elderly London art dealer.
Where Simmonds’ previous heroines were also inspired by literary classics – Gemma Bovery after Flaubert and Tamara Drewe after Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd – these lithe, long-eyelashed creations have little in common with Cassandra. “She’s not interested in how she looks or what people think of her. In a way she’s free – free of those things women are supposed to be.”
The idea came to Simmonds – a veteran writer and cartoonist of what The Guardian dubbed ‘the middle-class muddle’ – while walking around London at Christmas time. She noted the disparity between the opulent baubles of the chicer streets and the betting shops and neon of the poorer ones. “It was that idea of two Londons,” she explains. “I wanted a character to move between them and since I was thinking of A Christmas Carol I wanted a Scrooge.” She began sketching: “I keep going until someone emerges who I recognise.” It was once she replaced Cassandra’s original beret with a trapper hat that she knew she had found her: “I went and tried one on myself on Oxford Street. They’re absolute hell – I felt like a boiled owl. But it was perfect.”
The novel introduces Cassandra fresh from a conviction for art fraud, carrying a suspended sentence and struggling on a much-diminished income. But her self-imposed isolation is shattered when her lodger (a daft conceptual artist called Nicki) leaves a suspect ‘surprise’ in her basement and Cassandra is forced out of her rich enclave and onto the streets.
It’s a typically Simmonds sort of story, dark and slyly satirical. Her ear for dialogue – “The thing about mobile phones is that people are often talking about the most extraordinary things, sometimes very private things, at the top of their voices.” – matched by her wonderfully detailed drawings. She imagined everything from the labels Cassandra would wear (Issey Miyake) to the shade of her nail varnish. “I didn’t go as far as what toothpaste she uses but sometimes that can be useful.”
It has become easier to publish graphic novels, she says, partly because they are now a genre. “Before Gemma I didn’t know the term and neither did my publisher, who didn’t know quite what to call it.” It also gives her an easier ride at dinner parties: “In the past, when I said I was a cartoonist, people would say ‘And what else do you do?’” But that’s never much bothered Simmonds, who has been drawing since childhood when she would pinch ‘banned’ copies of Punch from her parents’ bookshelves. “The Victorian ones always had lots of dialogue beneath the pictures so I was very influenced by that. But I just always liked drawing, so it’s incredibly nice that I’m still earning my living doing something I loved when I was four.”
Posy Simmonds appears at this year’s Charleston Festival, May 25th.