Questions & Answers
Your first two novels - As Meat Loves Salt and The Wilding - both took place in the 17th century, but Ace, King, Knave is set in the 1760s. What attracted you to the 18th century?
I joke with friends about sneaking towards contemporary fiction, a century at a time, but I suppose the truth is that writers are fickle. We fall in love with something and then write it out of our systems.
The eighteenth century is the only period I can remember studying at secondary school ― I didn't find it very interesting at the time, even though I liked my history teacher, and I didn't feel drawn to that period until I'd begun to incubate the novel. Once I got going on Georgian England, the usual obsessions kicked in (anyone who researches in order to write fiction will know what I mean). I realised that eighteenth-century England was, in fact, my One True Love (just as the nineteenth century will turn out to be, should I decide to write about that). There's something for everybody. All the 'Age' clichés ― that it's the Age of elegance, of brilliance and wit, of pornography, of gambling, of progress, of shams and charlatans, of architecture, of whoring, of refinement and also brutality, of agonising poverty and scandal and the rest ― have some truth in them.
Two women are at the centre of Ace, King, Knave - middle-class, respectable, biddable Sophia, who could almost be out of a Jane Austen novel, and Betsy-Ann, a card shark, gambler and dealer in second-hand goods who comes from an itinerant background. Did you find one character easier to inhabit and write about than the other?
Strangely, no. I was afraid that readers would find one much more likeable than the other but nobody has complained so far.
Though these two women have very different lives, they share certain things, including the lack of freedom that women in 18th century Britain had. Was the 18th century a particularly difficult time to be a woman in Britain?
I'd be foolish not to acknowledge that Georgian England was hard going for just about everybody in one respect or another. Even the rich, living lives of insulting privilege, went in terror of disease. One of the sources I consulted (sorry, but I can't remember which) writes of Georgians carrying 'a disease burden' throughout their lives, with lingering infections and inflammations and badly-healed breakages which wore them down and eventually polished them off. Surgery was simply torture: I remember my shock on first reading Fanny Burney's account of her mastectomy, performed without anaesthetic (at least the operation was successful). At the same time, women got the worst of it. In poorer families, what food there was would go first to the males (a situation not unknown today) further weakening the females in the family. Then, of course, there was the lack of contraception and the risky ordeal of childbirth.
At the same time, I was struck by how explicitly wifely work was valued, at least by the 'middling sort'. Of course, women have always been praised for drudgery but it's clear that some men, at least, understood the considerable effort and skill involved in creating 'domestic comfort'; if a woman was lucky she might find herself in a marriage based on mutual respect. But what could you do if you failed to make that lucky marriage, or if domestic life simply didn't suit you? Men could at least join the army or the navy to escape a tiny suffocating village. There are women's letters and diaries that seethe with boredom and frustration. Even some successfully married women must have found shell-work, embroidery and all the rest of it intolerably tedious (you get a whiff of that boredom in the Regency, in Jane Austen's novels ― all the dim-witted chit-chat about children and needlework endured by her long-suffering heroines). And these are the privileged, the people with a secure home to be bored in.
At the bottom of the heap you find both men and women sunk in a poverty next to which the Victorian poor look positively well-off. We can't help looking at the past backwards; it's chastening to realise that the horrors of Victorian poverty, about which we've heard so much, come after repeated reforms and the setting up of charities which by Georgian standards were progressive and humane. In other words, things were a lot worse before. It's not hard to see why criminality was widespread and the sex trade was assured a constant supply of young flesh, even if some of it was 'trepanned', or kidnapped, into the trade to start with.
Again, women generally got the worst of things: whether you were a respectable married woman or an 'impure', the so-called Georgian sexual revolution' was a very one-sided affair. Should I be offered the chance to live in the eighteenth century, I'd only accept if I could be young, male, immensely rich and witty, with perfect health and an impregnable immune system.
You are fantastic on the language and the details of the past, from clothing, food and drink (this being the 18th century, gin features prominently) to sounds and smells. How do you research your novels?
I'm going to get into trouble here because I researched most of this novel via history texts. I know, for example, that Dan Cruickshank discovered the remains of a bagnio pool in London but I haven't visited it; in fact, I did more 'original source' research for As Meat Loves Salt than for my two more recent novels. However ― ! I'm working on another idea now and I'll be making more use of original sources in that, I promise. Some of my settings are fictional, eg Cosgrove's gaming club never existed but is based upon descriptions of actual establishments.
There's so much material on the Georgian period that you can find out in great detail what people ate, wore and said. I'm greedy, so I always want to know about the food. I'm also very interested in the clothing though I don't spend a huge amount of time describing clothes. In fact, I get irritated with historical novels that fetishise costume, partly because I always think how uncomfortable many of those exquisite garments must have been. I'm afraid I giggle during films set in the past when a complicated gown slips off as easily as a pair of tracksuit bottoms to reveal a tanned, gym-honed body with no flea bites.
Something that becomes increasingly common during this period is the diary or letter written by a servant. Georgian servants, particularly in London, were not known for their meekness and their views of their 'betters' are frequently enlightening if unflattering.
Ever since a fellow historical novelist told me that all her novels grow out of archaeological evidence, I've thought how nice it would be to conduct my research amid world heritage sites and claim it against tax. Probably not great for my carbon footprint, though.
A real book called Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies features in the novel: a compendium of central London prostitutes and their specialities which was published annually. How did you come across it?
I can't remember where I first came across it. I have two fascinating books on the subject, both by Hallie Rubenhold: Harris's List has a brief introduction followed by entertaining extracts, while The Covent Garden Ladies goes into the subject in much greater depth. Rubenhold does a great job of decoding the sexual slang for the modern reader. Harris's List wasn't unique, by the way ― it had emulators and rivals ― but Sam Derrick, who fancied himself as a poet, seems to have stamped his own production with a distinctive style.
Do you consider yourself a historical novelist?
A novelist, yes, though I'm not exclusively a historical writer (my short fictions aren't historicals). There's something about the simultaneous reality and unreality of the past that stimulates my imagination. Still, I'd like to write a contemporary novel at some point. As I said, I'm sneaking towards it.
There is a sense that historical fiction is going through a golden period, especially with Hilary Mantel's two Man Booker Prizes. Would you agree?
I admire Mantel's work but I think it's fair to say that historical fiction wasn't exactly a desert before. One of my favourite historical novels is William Golding's Rites of Passage, published as far back as 1980. By the end of the 1980s we were already seeing wonderful books like Rose Tremain's Restoration and Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, and these are just the ones I happen to remember with the most affection. So I'll have my cake and eat it, if you'll allow that. I'll say that we're in a golden age and it began quite some time ago.
There are quite a few folk songs in Ace, King, Knave - what drew you towards using music in this novel?
Ace, King, Knave isn't the first time a book of mine has been sparked by traditional music: I have an unpublished novel called Seal Song which was originally inspired by a fisherman's song for attracting seals (like Ace, King, Knave the finished product has travelled rather a long way from its origin). I'm fascinated by the arrival of Cecil Sharp in Somerset and his discovery of a trove of songs in Langport and elsewhere; he photographed many of his singers and you can see how poor and marginalised they were, their wonderful music considered old-fashioned in the age of the Music Hall. The embryonic version of Ace, King, Knave had a plot strand, now cut away, in which some of Betsy-Ann's songs were unearthed by a similar scholar generations later.
There are two other two other differences between your first two novels and this third one. First: Ace, King, Knave is a much more urban novel, taking place mainly in London, with a few early scenes in Bath, whereas the first two novels were much more rural. Was this a conscious shift, and what were the challenges and pleasures of writing about an urban landscape?
I did want to move away from rural settings, though I've also written about London before, in As Meat Loves Salt. The most obvious aspect of the urban milieu in the eighteenth century is how much everything is changing. Areas are being bought up and developed (Dan Cruickshank suggests that the building trade and the sex trade went hand in hand, in that although buildings were not necessarily put up with the sex trade in mind, builders must have been aware that the tenants were likely, very often, to be prostitutes). People were having to contend with this change, architectural and social, in their daily lives. To see a building in a city, without knowing what it is, is such a common modern experience that we take it for granted, but there must have been a time when London was small enough for this to be comparatively rare. By the 1760s it was probably an everyday occurrence just as it is today.
Of course, London had undergone sudden change before. I read somewhere (I think it was in Jerry White's Eighteenth Century London, but I might be wrong) that someone whose life spanned the Great Fire would have grown up in a city mainly mediaeval or Tudor, and seen this replaced by mysterious alien styles of building. I was so struck by this idea that I remember laying the book down and trying to imagine what it could possibly have felt like. Our modern experience of seeing new buildings replace old ones isn't really the same; we're accustomed to change and can see buildings of every style, anywhere in the world, at the click of a mouse. Even so, there's something very sad about seeing your familiar streets obliterated. As a young child I lived in what I experienced as a pleasant working-class area, an urban village; the houses were condemned as slums and demolished, the centre gutted and carved up by roads, so that the relation of each part to the rest has been destroyed. If I drive through it nowadays, none of it makes sense any more. The effect is deeply disorientating but only for people like me who can't help seeing the old superimposed upon the new.
Second: your first two novels had male protagonists, and Ace, King, Knave is the story of two women (though there are important male characters too). Again, was this a conscious decision?
Very much so. I don't always write in persona as a male, but my first two published novels featured male personas. So this time there's no male persona, in fact there's no first person account of events at all. That was also a deliberate strategy. I needed to do something different.
And was it easier or harder to write about your own gender?
I'm not aware of much difference in the level of difficulty while I'm writing. It's always an exercise in imagination; they aren't real people but constructions, so in a sense their gender is never the same as mine, be they male or female, if you see what I mean. I impersonate an imaginary creature, to the best of my ability, as I work out the pattern of the story. Once the first rush of creative energy is over, there's space to wonder what other people's reactions will be, and yes, I do worry more if the character is a male. I was so naïve when I began As Meat Loves Salt that I hadn't even considered that aspect (I wasn't thinking in terms of publication). Then someone said, 'Oh, you are brave doing that,' and I immediately became self-conscious about it.
Are there are other novels or books you'd recommend about the 18th century?
There's so much wonderful material that it feels unfair to single anything out, but since I must pick:
- Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century has astonishing breadth and depth.
- Hallie Rubenhold's books, as mentioned earlier.
- Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, by Sam Willis, is one I've just discovered (since I have someone at sea in my next novel, or at least that's how it's looking right now). It tells you exactly how all those manoeuvres were carried out, and why.
- Dan Cruickshank's The Secret History of Georgian London (for the proliferation of the Georgian sex trade and its connections with fashion, the arts and even the building industry).
- Hugo Vickers' Behind Closed Doors and Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter are both excellent on respectable women's aspirations and their daily lives.
- Ruth McClure's Coram's Children (another recent discovery, though it's been around since 1981)
- Wendy Moore's Wedlock. If you want to know just how bad marriage could be for a woman, this is your book. It should be recommended reading for anyone who imagines we were better off without all this feminism and that marriage was happier when it had the solidity of a prison door.
- Liza Picard's Dr Johnson's London is full of the kind of facts historical novelists love, such as the fact that paint for ceilings could be bought ready-mixed in pigs' bladders.
- Mrs Delany's Menus, Medicines and Manners, edited by Katherine Cahill, is full of details about taste, style and the upbringing of genteel children, while Pamela Horn's Flunkeys and Scullions shows Georgian domesticity from the point of view of the servant.
With thanks to Faber & Faber
Follow Faber on Twitter