SO19 – Alis Hawkins

This week we have a very useful tip from Crime Cymru’s Alis Hawkins, pointing us in the direction of a website which (as a Victorian enthusiast) is right up my street

For my contribution to the Crime Cymru blog this week, I thought I’d make a virtue of necessity (I’m incredibly busy at the moment) and take the opportunity to point readers of this page in the direction of another excellent resource for readers, particularly those who read historical fiction – Society Nineteen. The strapline of the SO19 website is ‘Contemporary Writers on Nineteenth Century Experience’ and it includes interviews and reviews of fiction and non-fiction set during the nineteenth century. Recent pieces on the site include crime fiction, historical non-fiction and more general 19th century fiction. It’s well worth a look.

In April I was pleased to be asked to do an interview by email with Suzanne Fox who curates the SO19 site and I found her questions very much out of the ordinary run of the mill for online Q and As. As the interview has now gone live, I thought I’d post a couple of her questions and my answers here on the Crime Cymru site and, if you’re interested in reading the whole interview, you’ll be able to find it online at the SO19 site [link below].

But first, to provide a bit of context for the questions, here’s the blurb for my most recent book, A Bitter Remedy.

Jesus College, Oxford, 1881. An undergraduate is found dead at his lodgings and the medical examination reveals some shocking findings. When the young man’s guardian blames the college for his death and threatens a scandal, Basil Rice, a Jesus College fellow with a secret to hide, is forced to act and finds himself drawn into Sidney Parker’s sad life.

The mystery soon attracts the attention of Rhiannon ‘Non’ Vaughan, a young Welsh polymath and one of the young women newly admitted to university lectures. But when neither the college principal nor the powerful ladies behind Oxford’s new female halls will allow her to become involved, Non’s fierce intelligence and determination to prove herself drive her on.

Both misfits at the university, Non and Basil form an unlikely partnership, and it soon falls to them to investigate the mysterious circumstances of Parker’s death. But between corporate malfeasance and snake-oil salesmen, they soon find the dreaming spires of Oxford are not quite what they seem…

So, here are a couple of the excellent questions Suzanne asked me:

SO19: The United Kingdom (and of course the world) changed so much between the1850s of the Teifi Valley novels and the 1880s of this one. Why did you choose 1881 as the focus for this series debut?

Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which eventually became constituent colleges of Oxford University, were both set up as halls of residence in 1879 so that young women could come to Oxford and take advantage of the lecture series called ‘Lectures for Ladies’ which took place outside the Univeristy. Women weren’t admitted to lectures in the men-only colleges until a couple of years later and, because I knew I wanted to start the book with an argument between Non and preening undergraduate, I had to wait until it would be plausible for her to be in a college for a lecture!

The beginnings of the women’s college movement were incredibly tentative with the organisation that was eventually responsible for getting women admitted to full membership of the University of Oxford – the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford – playing a complex game of political chess with the University hierarchy, public opinion and the parents of clever middle-class girls who were keen to get a university education. And any kind of tension and conflict is great for crime novels.

SO19: Oxford was, and I imagine still may be, a bastion of British intellectual, cultural, social, and even financial power. I loved the fact that Basil and Non are both part of Oxford and yet also outsiders there, marginalized—whether visibly or not—by some aspect of their identities. Could you talk a bit about how you developed their characters?

Oh gosh, that’s a tough question. All the ‘how to write’ books tell you to plan your plots so that you know where your books are going, and draw up detailed character sketches so that you know your characters in depth are before you start, but I don’t do either of those things. I let the story develop as I write, and I wait for the characters to reveal themselves to me through their words, actions and reactions.

Both Non and Basil leapt into life in their first scenes as if they were just waiting in the ether (or my subconscious) for me to discover them. That being said, both the ether and my subconscious are always full of ideas from all the research I’ve done, so some aspects of their characters arise from the historical context they live in. But your subconscious is also full of all the people you’ve ever known, with all their little inconsistencies and idiosyncracies, and it’s that soup of research and lived experience from which your characters come. In an event I did recently, I likened it to the web of thoughts Dumbledore pulls from his head with the magical Pensieve – it’s all in there, you just need to draw it out and put it down on paper. Well, onscreen, actually.

But, even before I started, I knew Non was going to be a feisty, rebellious, opinionated character who kicks against all the restrictions of middle-class Oxford life. Everything from having to wear certain sorts of clothes (she refuses to be corseted or to wear the pounds and pounds of underskirts that women wore in the 1880s to hide the fact that they had a lower anatomy) to being barred from lectures unless you were chaperoned!! Part of Non’s personality arises from the fact that, unlike the other women who’ve come to Oxford to attend lectures, she hasn’t grown up in a middle class environment in England. She’s the only child of a sea captain who runs a coal boat up and down Cardigan Bay and, as such, she’s been allowed a lot of freedom, including the freedom to work as a deck hand on her father’s ship. That means that her experience of being a woman is very different from that of the genteel, respectble, middle class women she meets in Oxford and she has no interest in becoming one of them.

As for Basil, he’s apparently much more in his element: an establishment man from a middle class family who was an undergraduate at Jesus college and is now a fellow at the same college. But he doesn’t feel comfortable in his own skin because he’s gay, which of course he has to keep secret. This means that he’s on edge a lot of the time, hiding who he really is and trying to curry favour with people so that, if any suspicions arise about him, he will have allies to fight his corner. And this is what leads him to investigate Sidney Parker’s death – he feels he has to remain in good odour with the Principal of Jesus college. And, to be fair to Basil, as the boy’s tutor, he does feel some responsibility for Parker’s fate.

To read the rest of the interview with Society Nineteen go to the website here

You can read more about Alis here

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