A Taste for Nightshade – Recipes, mystery and a dark secret
My novel A Taste for Nightshade (published as The Penny Heart in the UK) was particularly inspired by five objects that resonate with memory and secrets. At the end of the 18th century Britons developed a passion for keepsakes and souvenirs, from painted china and fans to miniature portraits and mourning rings. One interesting theory is that this might be similar to our contemporary obsession with photography; a fear that if we don’t record our lives, our crucial selves might be lost in the bewildering bombardment of life. Together they inspired the story of impersonation and revenge that became A Taste for Nightshade.
1.Penny Heart Convict Token
This copper penny was created by a British convict sentenced to transportation to 'the ends of the earth', as Australia was then described. Its motto reads, 'When On this Peice you Cast an Eye, THINK ON THE MAN THAT is NOT NIGH'. On its reverse are the initials of an unknown convict, ‘M.C.' and the date 1792. Now called a Penny Heart convict token or 'leaden heart', these pennies were smoothed and engraved with messages by convicts doomed never to see their families or homeland again. At a time when the criminal classes were mostly believed to lack all tender feelings, these crude keepsakes commemorate desperate people about to embark on the 18th century equivalent of a trip to the moon. Though the most usual emotion expressed is pain at separation, anger and defiance are also found in a rich selection of verses and mottoes. In the novel, Peg, a confidence trickster, has a token engraved at Newgate prison with a rhyme that is part promise, part threat:
Though chains hold me fast, As the years pass away, I swear on this heart To find you one day
2. Crucifix with Human Hair
Before photography the most common keepsakes were locks of hair, often exchanged by family members and lovers. While the working classes carried hair clippings in pouches or paper, wealthier people set hair into rings, pendants and brooches. Though we now find hair jewellery rather strange and Gothic, at the time it offered an easy way to carry and touch a tangible part of a loved one. In the novel, Peg's new mistress, Grace, paints miniature portraits embellished with strands of hair, creating what the writer Laqueur calls, 'a bit of a person that lives eerily on as a souvenir.' Human hair braiding became a popular craze, as books offered advice on how to create complex pictures of flowers, feathers and landscapes. When Grace’s mother dies, she commemorates her by braiding her hair using equipment similar to a lace-making table. She has this net-like memento set into a silver crucifix, from which she draws strength and a sense of connection to her mother's spirit.
3. Maori koauau bone flute
Peg's adventures in the Antipodes take her to the shores of New Zealand, a very wild place indeed in the 1790s. There she commissions a macabre memento in the form of a bone flute, based on this koauau made in the 18th century. I was fortunate to hear the unearthly sound of these ancient instruments at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington and later to discover the art of bone-carving on the East Cape. While the penny heart that Peg wears on a ribbon around her neck is a constant reminder of her impulse to revenge, the bone flute is a memorial object, summoning a loved one in the grounds of desolate Delafosse Hall: 'Raising it to her lips, she blew softly against the top until a high unearthly note made the grass, the leaves, and the dusk-heavy air vibrate. The tone was off-key and haunting, a summoning call quite at odds with the gentle English glade.'
4. A Sugarpaste Bed
This elaborately carved piece of boxwood dating from the 1720s is a confectioner's mould (courtesy of Ivan Day at historicfood.com). While learning period sugarwork with TV food historian Ivan Day, I was surprised to find that one of the skills of a great confectioner was carving wooden moulds, in order to make three-dimensional figures for banquets and desert tables. Soft gum paste was pressed into this mould and the pieces assembled to make a miniature dolls-sized bed.
The wedding bed is decorated with two sugar pillows and an eiderdown of multi-coloured comfits. It would have been used as an ornament on a bride-cake, reflecting the rather bawdy symbolism of the day. Other sugar devices in the novel include a tiny cradle and swaddled baby. Just as we might treasure the 'cake-topper' from a wedding or Christmas cake, these are symbols of hope and fecundity. In the novel however, they do have a double-edge; though beautiful objects, they are in the end fragile, lifeless, and of course ultimately edible.
5. Housekeeper's Steel chatelaine
This late 18th-century steel chatelaine would have been worn by the 'woman of the household'. It is a belt hook or clasp to be worn at the waist with a number of chains suspended from it to hold keys, a pincushion, button hook, thimble holder, and corkscrew. In A Taste for Nightshade, Grace, the mistress of the house fatefully relinquishes the household keys to her duplicitous cook housekeeper, Peg. Embodied in her chatelaine is Peg's fascination with locks, keys and chains, and the control she seeks to exert over the household. The steel clasp bears the initials of her vanished predecessor and is also lacking a thimble, later found by Grace in a dark underground passage. Peg's chatelaine is also a rather more dangerous object, as it includes a very sharp and handy knife…
A TASTE FOR NIGHTSHADE, is a historical mystery novel that combines recipes and remedies and a dark struggle between two desperate women. It will be published by St Martin’s Press on 12 January 2016.