It was happenstance, or that lovely word, serendipity, that led me to meet fellow writer Iona Grey on Twitter – and discover we shared not only homes in Cheshire, one of England's most beautiful counties, but imminent publication by the same publisher, St Martin's press in the United States.
In January 2015, An Appetite For Violets was published in the United States, shortly followed by Letters From The Lost by Iona Gray in May 2015. A meeting over coffee in the historic county town of Chester was hastily arranged to compare notes on our shared sense of history and how we strive to bring the past to life in fiction.
1. Cheshire is famed for its historic beauty, its leafy lanes and distinctive black and white buildings. Does Cheshire play any part in your writing?
Martine: In An Appetite For Violets I imagined Mawton Hall to be in the borderlands between Cheshire and Wales. That is where the real-life Erddig Hall that inspired me is, and its wonderful 18th-century kitchen. Cheshire's landscape is particularly soft and green and it's easy to half -close your eyes and imagine the past. In the village where I live nothing much has changed over the centuries; as I write I have a long view of the tower of Chester Cathedral over fields of dairy cattle, while to the south I can gaze at the distant Welsh hills.
My new novel, The Penny Heart, also has a Chester link. When I was living and writing in New Zealand and Australia, I discovered that the best account of the early European settlement was written by a Chester soldier named Watkins Tench. He tells such a sympathetic and humane story about the early convicts, the aboriginal people and the desperate starvation years that I think there should be statue erected to him in Chester! I also based some aspects of Delafosse Hall on a once abandoned Jacobean house called Plas Teg, near where I live, though other great houses contributed the Hunting Tower, summerhouse and tunnels.
Iona: My first novel, Letters to the Lost, is mostly set in London so is very urban in atmosphere! It’s a dual time-frame novel, and I did manage to squeeze a little bit of Cheshire in later on in the book when one of the characters has to come to Crewe for business reasons, but sadly that didn’t give me a chance to write about Cheshire’s beautiful countryside or black and white timbered villages. However, the book I’m writing now is set partly in rural Cheshire, so I’m making up for it, and really enjoying writing about familiar places. Compared to counties like Cornwall and Norfolk, I think Cheshire has been relatively left out of literature so it feels good to put it on the page. (It was also a huge thrill for me to see my own very small home town appear in An Appetite for Violets. Now that’s something that hasn’t happened before!)
2. Both Letters to the Lost and An Appetite for Violets are partly written in the form of letters that also express the writer's character. Did you look at any old letters as part of your research?
Iona: About six months before I started writing the book my very much-loved godmother died and, since she had no children of her own, my brother and I were in charge of sorting out her house. We came across some tins in the garage that were stuffed with all sorts of paperwork – everything from photographs and birthday cards to receipts and property deeds and death certificates. There were a few letters in there too, which were both poignant and intriguing. There’s something intensely personal about a handwritten letter, and even though they were sent by strangers half a century ago, it still felt very odd to read them – almost like an intrusion. I loved how each one was only half of a conversation, and the fact that the other half had been lost to time left a space for me to fill from my own imagination.
Martine: That is a another coincidence – I also inherited some old family letters written by my great grandmother. Two of my great grandmothers were keen amateur cooks: one had a lodging house in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, and the other was a confectioner specialising in wedding cakes. The letters from Much Wenlock were beautifully warm and spontaneous, and their affectionate phrasing forms the basis of a few of Mrs Garland's letters, the cook in An Appetite For Violets.
I also read a great many travellers letters from the 18th-century. In the end I had to edit out some observations about Europe to speed the pace of the book. But I'm glad that some remained, for example Mr Pars' waspish descriptions of foreigners are a toned down version of the bullish British attitudes of the time.
3. Why did you choose to write about your chosen era in your novel? What is it about that time that appeals to you?
Iona: I think I grew up steeped in WW2 stories. As the happy product of parents who divorced and both remarried when I was very young, I had twice the usual allocation of grandparents, all with a wealth of wartime tales to tell and experiences to share, which I never grew tired of hearing. I was born in the 1970s which seemed to be the time when the war started to filter into children’s fiction on a significant scale, and I remember devouring books like When the Siren Wailed (Noel Streatfeild) and Carrie’s War (Nina Bawden) and being utterly enthralled by a time of danger and disruption that was only just past but felt light years away from the world I lived in. Over the years my interest in the war never waned, so by the time I came to write the book it felt very natural to set it during that era.
Martine: After the mountains of research I did for An Appetite for Violets I did question whether to return to the 18th-century, but I couldn't stay away! The Penny Heart is set a little later, as the effects of the French Revolution are being felt in Britain. Like Iona, I was drawn to a time of 'danger and disruption' when a dark period loomed over Britain. In some ways there are parallels to situations today – unsettling technological change, civilized behaviour breaking down in France during the The Terror, and fears of a rising criminal underclass. Diaries and accounts of the time show that people genuinely feared for the stability of their world.
I wanted to show how these larger developments affected the personal lives of two women, one of them caught up in the great experiment to transport the criminal class to Australia, and the other preyed upon because the new technology of machines suddenly made her land more attractive to suitors.
4. Both novels use recipes and household items to evoke the past. Where did you get these ideas (and taste descriptions) from?
Iona: Again, because the past I was writing about was within living memory (unlike the historical period Martine brings so vividly to life in An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart) I think most of my information came simply from listening to my grandparents and parents. My mum was born in 1940, so her earliest memories are set against the backdrop of wartime. As such a small child she was oblivious to many aspects of the war, but food was the way in which it made itself felt most strongly in her young life. (She still shudders when you say the words ‘powdered egg’ to her.) My grandmothers and godmothers talked often about the impact of rationing and the difficulty of feeding a family in the face of such shortages. They were all excellent cooks – I suppose because they had to be – and none of them ever lost their horror of wastefulness! That extended from food to other aspects of their lives, so the things in their kitchens were the ones they’d had for decades; wooden spoons and rolling pins worn smooth with use, chipped enamel dishes and ridged bone-handled cutlery, china tea sets that never lost their bloom by being put in a dishwasher. Nothing was ever replaced because it got old or fell out of fashion, and I loved how those ordinary, everyday domestic items seemed to tell the stories of their lives, as they must have done for countless women down the ages.
Martine: I love that continuity in women's lives, passing down favourite kitchen items. Such is the length of memories of food that I also used some old family recipes in The Penny Heart. The Apple Pie that the convict women fantasise about is from my well-remembered grandmother's recipe. Like Iona, I'm fascinated by the process by which women pass down recipes as a form of 'love on the plate '. When learning more about period sugarwork with Ivan Day I learned about tiny sugar devices made from wooden moulds, such as this exquisite miniature bed designed to be placed on a bride-cake. I could imagine people treasuring them as we keep a 'cake-topper' from a wedding or celebration.
I also looked at the very ancient history of women making secret charms and remedies from the plants growing around them. In The Penny Heart, Delafosse Hall's old servant Nan exemplifies a wise woman's use of nature, making hedgerow recipes like rosehip jelly and herb pottage. Mary, on the other hand, hoards the recipes of quacks and charlatans who prey on the ignorant, befuddling their senses with alcohol and toxins. It's no surprise that in the US the novel will be called A Taste for Nightshade, reflecting Mary's sinister interest in food.
LETTERS TO THE LOST by Iona Grey, is a stunning, emotional love story. Set in a dual timeline, of 1943 in Blitzed London and seventy years later, it is a remarkable debut. Iona has an obsession with history and the lives of women in the twentieth century. She lives in rural Cheshire with her husband and three daughters. She tweets as @iona_grey
THE PENNY HEART by Martine Bailey, is a historical novel of suspense set in the late 18th century. Inspired by eighteenth-century recipes, Martine also lives in Cheshire after spending 20 months house-swapping and researching in New Zealand and Australia. THE PENNY HEART is her second novel after AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, about a cook taken on a murderous journey to Italy.