Welcome to the fourth in our series of conversations between Prime Writers. This month Martine Bailey, author of THE PENNY HEART, and Juliet West, author of BEFORE THE FALL, discuss the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction…
About THE PENNY HEART: Sentenced to death for a simple confidence trick, Mary Jebb escapes the gallows but her reprieve is harsh: seven years in the unforgiving penal colony of Botany Bay. Yet Mary is determined not to be forgotten, sending two pennies, engraved with a sinister promise, to the two men who sealed her fate.
Timid artist Grace Moore jumps at the opportunity to marry handsome gentleman Michael Croxon – happy if only to get away from her drunken father. But when Grace takes on a new cook, the two penny heart love tokens reveal she is tied to a world she didn’t know existed … A world of deceit, double-crossing, revenge and murder.
About BEFORE THE FALL: It’s 1916. Across the channel, the Great War rages; in London’s East End, with her husband away fighting, Hannah Loxwood struggles to hold everything together. While the conflict drags on, Hannah battles with the overwhelming burden of ‘duty’. She has sacrificed so much for a husband who left her behind, a husband who may never come home. Then Hannah meets Daniel, and finds herself faced with the most dangerous of temptations…
Juliet: Hi, Martine. I want to start by asking about ‘culinary gothic’. You’ve invented a whole new genre – tell us more!
Martine: I must admit I was so pleased by that quote from Fay Weldon. I think that she identified the genuine source of my inspiration in my teenage love of eighteenth century gothic fiction, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, in which a young heroine goes on a sinister journey to Italy. Then I had discovered recipes in historical Household Books; handwritten scrapbooks of recipes, remedies, prayers and advice. Recipes are often about fixing moments in memory and honouring the dead, so very neatly fitted the gothic sensibility.
Juliet: The book’s inspired by a true story which ended in a murder trial, and there are files relating to the case at the National Archives in Kew. These original documents were my starting point – hand-written letters and police photographs, and a petition signed by hundreds of dockers, the pages marked with oily thumb prints. Holding documents like this gave me the shivers – the connection with the past felt almost visceral and I just wanted to delve deeper. Do you feel the same when you’re researching?
Martine: Yes, I also used original inquest records at the climax of The Penny Heart. There’s a wounding, powerfully touching sensation that Barthes gives a name – ‘punctum’ – in relation to photography, that could equally apply to old documents and objects. I tried to capture it when Mary sees the penny heart after many years and feels it’s like a needle, striking back through time to join the past and present.
It was the same experience when I looked at old recipes. The sheer rarity of seeing ordinary women’s blotted and grease-smeared writing in the eighteenth century makes it resonate, plus the language of recipes is almost poetic.
Juliet: I love the recipes in The Penny Heart! And like many great poems the final lines are often the most resonant. For example the recipe for Poppy Drops ends with ‘A most sure and economical method to procure sleep’. Eeek! It’s laced with foreboding…
Martine: You also use short extracts from original documents in Before the Fall. Do these help set the tone for the language of the novel?
Juliet: I think they do. The police documents convey the formality and buttoned-up morality of the time, yet the letters are filled with emotion and despair. I guess this sums up the central tension of the book – the tension between Hannah’s public respectability and her private life.
In terms of language, for me the challenge of historical fiction is to capture the period without descending into pastiche. Writers like Sarah Waters or Helen Dunmore achieve this balance so brilliantly.
Martine: Yes, Sarah Waters perfectly captures the cadence of working class street language. I also like clever crime fiction and the twists and turns you don’t see coming, in novels like Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players, and Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion.
Juliet: We both write about women who’ve transgressed or fallen foul of moral codes. Do you think there’s a danger in this, because readers can lose sympathy with characters who aren’t wholly ‘likeable’?
Martine: Possibly, but I think it’s good to test the limits of sympathy. I feel Hannah in Before the Fall is wholly believable and sympathetic because she is complex. Real people are motivated by drives they don’t entirely understand, so it’s a pleasure to read about someone facing horrendous challenges and not reacting predictably.
Juliet: I think there’s more acceptance now of flawed female characters in fiction. Personally, I don’t want to read about a goody-goody. I thought Grace in The Penny Heart was a fascinating character, but I was rooting for less-than-respectable Mary all the way!
Martine: Great! Mary is a very dangerous person but I wanted to slowly reveal how she became that person. When I lived in New Zealand I was struck by the harshness of life for those European women who were sent to the Antipodes. I had so much sympathy for both Grace and Mary that I couldn’t decide, right up to the last few chapters, which one should prevail.
Changing the subject, I wanted to ask what motivated you to take an MA in creative writing?
Juliet: A friend at a local writing group told me about the MA at Chichester University. This was almost ten years ago, when I was dabbling with short stories and poetry, but finding it hard to write seriously because I had three young children and worked part-time. I hoped the MA would give me a definite focus, a way of carving out time when I had to write. I took the course over two years and it was brilliant – a real turning point. How about you, Martine? Did you take an MA?
Martine: No, I already had a work-related MSc and had been working towards an MPhil in Action Learning so I had no illusions about the workload. Instead I decided to do what I call a DIY MA to my own design. I sent off for the reading lists from a few courses and started a habit of analysing books. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few mentors and residencies but the key thing was getting regular feedback. It took me a while but I found two other writers I trust who I share up to 10,000 words at a time with. We meet every 6 weeks and give each other feedback and support through the long haul of writing novels. Do you share your work-in-progress?
Juliet: I workshop with two friends from my MA course and their feedback is invaluable, especially in the early stages of an idea when I’m trying to establish character and setting.
Martine: Are you working on your second novel now?
Juliet: Book two has been a very different experience. It’s another historical novel, but it’s not based on a true story so I have complete freedom with character and plot. I’m still not exactly sure how the book will end but I’m almost there – I think… How about you? Are you planning another novel set in the Georgian period?
Martine: Yes, it’s a murder mystery set in rural England. I’m very much enjoying the visual aspects, developing a map of the village and incorporating designs from historic documents.
Juliet: Excellent, I love a book with a map! Happy writing – it’s been great chatting today.