Prime Writer Martine Bailey‘s second novel The Penny Heart is published today in paperback. Find out more in this interview with Karin Salvalaggio, author of crime novels Bone White Dust and The Burnt River. Both Martine and Karin are published in the US by St Martin’s Press.
Karin Salvalaggio: The Penny Heart has two female protagonists who are entirely opposite in class, personality and background. Where did your idea come from?
Martine Bailey: After An Appetite for Violets I wanted to write about historic cookery again but create a darker book. I’ve always thought there was something fascinating about the relationship between a servant and her mistress, with so much scope for resentment and envy as well as potential for friendship. This time I wanted to take that as far as I could and explore the theme of revenge. My sinister cook, Mary, arrived fully formed as a character when I was living in New Zealand and was struck by the harshness of life for convict women who were often forced to be servants. She is a very dangerous person but I hope the reader realizes there are good reasons why she is as she is. She is a confidence trickster, with all the steeliness and quick wits that demands. I utterly admired her cleverness, pluck and courage.
On the other hand, her mistress Grace is a good and sensitive person but that made her harder to write. She was inspired by those quiet pioneer women who memorialised ‘Home’ in England through painting miniatures and weaving hair work. As I wrote the novel I had so much sympathy for both women that I couldn’t decide, right up to the end, whether mistress or servant should prevail.
Karin: You have chosen a number of very different settings as your backdrop – England, Australia, and New Zealand. Tell me about those choices
Martine: I chose my locations because chance sent me to them and I realised they all witnessed dramatic clashes of old and new regimes. I was in the Antipodes because in 2011 my son Chris and his partner were caught up in the Christchurch earthquake and though both were thankfully unharmed, my husband and I visited them for an extended trip. For our first year, we house-swapped and lived on the remote East Cape overlooking the wild Pacific.
When my agent asked for a follow-up to An Appetite For Violets I went walking on the empty beach and wondered what life had been like there back in the eighteenth century. Just across the Tasman Sea, Botany Bay was a struggling prison colony under threat of starvation at what Britons called ‘the ends of the earth’. Meanwhile, my new hometown had comprised fortified settlements inhabited by the Maori people who still make up half the modern population. First contact between Maori and European were fraught with violence and occasional capture.
At home in England, the dawning modern age heralded a crime wave, while the French Revolution was casting a dark shadow over people’s lives. Reading diaries and memoirs of the day, I found that all these dramatic events worried people in a very modern way, raising questions about the world’s future stability. Riots, moral panics and insubordination by servants, all seemed to mark out the 1790s.
Karin: Do you consider the book to be a crime novel or historical fiction?
Martine: I would actually say crime. At least fifty percent of my reading is crime and mystery. To me these genres are fascinating, engaging with class (for example the country house mystery), secret power and violence beneath the surface of society, love (especially love gone wrong), greed and envy. So as well as writing a Gothic novel, I loved writing the ‘puzzle’ element, plotting the twists and misdirection that make the crime novel such addictive reading.
When I finally crossed the Tasman Sea to visit Australia it brought real crime and convicts into focus, many of them poor and desperate though sharing a vibrant working-class culture. It was surprising that at least 25% of women convicts wore tattoos and this led to Mary’s distinctive ‘Serpent’ tattoo based on a fragment of skin kept at Guy’s hospital.
I also read the authentic words of criminals in letters, trial reports and slang dictionaries. In Mary’s chapters, I had the criminal slang of ‘cant’ in mind, a secret language spoken in public to conceal frauds and swindles.
The Penny Hearts that give the novel its title were part of this shared culture; the smoothed copper pennies engraved by British convicts with messages to loved ones they would never see again. Mary’s token is engraved with a rhyme that is part promise, part threat:
Though chains hold me fast,
As the years pass away,
I swear on this heart
To find you one day
Karin: What are you working on now?
Martine: I’m currently finishing a murder mystery with the working title The Starry Almanack, set in an English village. It’s about a worldly lady of the town stranded in the countryside after a robbery, who joins forces with a hack writer to solve a series of enigmas. The riddles are based on the 18th-century passion for conundrums that featured in magazines and almanacs, and were just as popular as our cryptic crosswords and sudokus. It’s set in 1750, the year when the calendar changed and Britain lost eleven days. Back then there was still a tension between superstition, astrology and divination versus clock-drive, urban time. My research has sent me to the Acton Scott Museum in Shropshire to live as a farmer’s wife for a day, and to Greenwich Observatory. I’ve also been watching the moon and stars for almost a year now. I have absolutely loved writing it.