I’ve had a horrid cold all week and so I’m very glad that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in today’s blog post. Sophia Tobin is the author of The Widow’s Confession, a gorgeously-wrought Gothic novel set in 1851 in Broadstairs on the Kentish coast. American cousins, Delphine and Julia have settled there for the summer; they have a peripatetic life, running from a troubled past, and they believe that this charming sea-bathing resort is somewhere safe to hide. But they get drawn in to a circle of summer visitors, including a wayward artist, a staid doctor of psychology and an exquisitely beautiful young woman and her older chaperone. Then the body of a girl washes up on the beach, the catalyst for any number of secrets to be shaken loose. I’ll be reviewing this novel in more detail in the next edition of Shiny New Books, but for now I’ll say that it’s beautifully written, and the evocation of a heavy, menacing atmosphere is as close to Daphne du Maurier as I’ve read in a long time. Sophia kindly answered the following questions:
1. I found the two American cousins very evocative and enigmatic characters – what was your inspiration for their part of the story?
It was important to me that they are outsiders, and I was really interested in contrasting the American character with the English; it provides a note of tension, and gives Delphine and Julia some leeway to act differently (and get away with it). Also, I’ve always loved the writing of Edith Wharton and the way she portrays New York as a kind of hothouse of wealth and luxury at the turn of the century. I wanted to give Delphine and Julia a hint of that same decadence, so I researched the New York social scene of the 1830s and 40s.
2. This is a very gothic novel, with all sorts of elements of melodrama, religious obsession and stifled passion. Do you think those elements naturally belong in historical fiction? Would you ever write a contemporary tale involving them?
I think there’s room for those elements in novels set at any time, but there is a particular atmosphere about the Victorian period that makes it the perfect setting for them. It was a time when people felt very insecure – there’d been rapid industrialisation, home was separating from work and being idealized (hence the ‘angel in the house’ idea of the perfect wife gaining credence at this time) and there was a great deal of turmoil over religion and its dialogue with science. I think people were very afraid, and it was having a stifling effect on their lives. Once you have those kind of pressures on you, there’s room for drama.
I would certainly love to write a contemporary tale featuring them, but the right idea hasn’t turned up yet. Every time I try to write something set in the present day, the words ‘it was 1851…’ or something similar come out of my pen.
3. I was really pleased that you managed to create a ‘forceful’ character in Delphine who is not an anachronism. Did you feel pressurized at all to produce strong female leads?
I’m really glad you felt that, because I felt I was walking a tightrope with Delphine. I wanted to portray someone who was strong enough to survive great difficulties, whilst also showing just how hard it was for her to be strong, not only because of societal pressures, but also because of her own vulnerabilities.
I didn’t feel any external pressure to create a strong female lead, but my last main character, Mary in The Silversmith’s Wife, was someone who was quite delicate; she had been shattered by the events of her life and had to recover from that. So, having been through the emotional wringer with her, I was ready to write someone a bit tougher.
4. Have you imagined the characters beyond the relatively happy ending of the story? Do you think their marriages will work?
I don’t want to be too specific, because I might give the ending away! Yes, I do imagine them afterwards, definitely. I think that life will throw challenges at them, but they deserve to be happy.
5. This is your second novel (after The Silversmith’s Wife). Was it easy to write or is it true what people say about second novels and the challenge they present?
I think the difficulty with a second book is mastering your own doubts and worries – all the little gremlin voices saying ‘will it be as good as the first?’ On the other hand, you do know that you can write a book – because you’ve already done it once. Also, I learnt a huge amount from writing the first book, and from being edited. That experience helped me with structuring the book and knowing what to push forward with when I was writing, and what to throw away.
I wrote the second book in a much shorter time period than the first, which was a pressure but also a motivation. Every evening, it was just me and the book: it was extremely intense, and I felt as though I was living it as I was writing it.
6. What brought you to writing fiction in the first place?
I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved books. But I think a big influence was a particular incident in my childhood. I was seven years old and I wrote a poem about a play which had been put on at our school. The pivotal moment was watching my teacher’s face as she read it. There was some indefinable quality in her expression which made me realize that she liked it. That’s what I want to inspire in my readers. The poem ended up being printed (another pivotal moment!) and I still have it somewhere.
After that I always wrote, and I always wanted to be a writer, but it was a private thing; I wrote on my own, and I didn’t talk about it. Life carried on and it was over twenty years before I decided I should just go ahead and see if I could write a book or not.
7. Who are your inspirational authors?
There are so many. I’ve read and loved Hilary Mantel’s work for years. Michel Faber, who wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, is brilliant. Other favourites include: Daphne du Maurier, E.M. Forster and, of course, Jane Austen. I grew up reading nineteenth-century writers so I’m very much at home with them.
8. And what are you reading at the moment?
I have an enormous pile of books on Georgian society to read as research for my third book, but I’m also reading Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. The writing is so full of warmth and wit, you feel as though you’re being lulled by it and then suddenly there’s a little dig, razor sharp; I love it.