THE TOXIC DOMESTIC: AN INTERVIEW WITH KATHARINE GRANT
This interview was conducted on 1st July 2014 and accompanies Michael O’Brien’s review of Sedition.
by Michael O’Brien
Katharine Grant (b. 1958 in Burnley, Lancashire) has worked as a journalist for many years, writing for most newspapers in Scotland as well as The Times, The Independent and The Guardian. She is a nine times Novelist for Children and has just recently published her first novel for adults entitled Sedition.
Michael O’Brien: Katharine, you say in your novel that you were “born into a family described by Lord Burghley, Treasurer to Elizabeth I, as of ‘more than usual perversity’ for clinging to its Catholic faith, an act, during the Reformation, of blatant sedition. In 1746 […] (your) […] five times great uncle, Francis Towneley, supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, and as a result was the last person in the UK to be hanged, drawn and quartered.” Has your family history inspired your interest in writing fiction with a focus upon history and politics, or did the inspiration come from somewhere else?
Katharine Grant: No. The inspiration most definitely came from my family. In my family, the past and the present were not clearly disconnected—they were much the same. We called Francis Towneley, executed in 1746, Uncle Frank; he was as real to us as any uncle we actually had—more real than some of them, I think. It was not really a choice, I simply never thought about it. Whenever I began to write a story it was always about something in the past. It was quite often about, not just domestic politics, but domestic situations in the wider political landscape, because that was my family history. So when people say, write what you know, it was rather curious because I knew my own family history, but the research I did was normally to find out where we fitted into the broader picture.
MO’B: Do you feel that when you are writing children’s fiction there is a difference in the way that you view the fiction in contrast to your adult writing in Sedition? Are you using language in a consciously different way?
KG: Unconsciously you do that. You tell stories in different ways for children and adults. The subject matter of Sedition is very dark and completely unsuitable for children. It comes more with the subject matter that you feel you can approach. My novels are quite dark—even my children’s novels: people die, horrible things happen. The violence, for example in the crusades in The de Granville Trilogy, is in no way glossed over. The Perfect Fire Trilogy, set in the southwest of France, also has some very dark scenes. I am quite a dark writer naturally whether it is for children or for adults. In Sedition the material is very dark and you can go to adult places in a more explicit way. Although I have to say: even though Sedition is very dark and full of sex, there is not one line you could not read to your Grandmother. I do not write in a particularly explicit way, everything is honed down. So it is more of an impression you get than anything else.
MO’B: At the start of Sedition, one of the central characters Alathea helps a hangman cut down a dead female corpse and then kisses the hangman unambiguously on the lips. As a decisive individual who desires to be master of her own destiny, this action seems to link life and death, lust for power, and desire for control. Could you elaborate on the significance of this scene for Sedition generally speaking?
KG: If there was a heroine in the novel then it would be Alathea: she is a very curious creature. The things that you have just spoken about, like power and control, are the things in which she is very interested for many reasons. The idea of life and death was very important because in 1794 life and death were just everyday occurrences, they were not as separated as they are now. So the girl who hangs herself at the beginning of Sedition and plays no further part is, I suppose, symbolic. When you write these things you are not really thinking of the symbolism. What you are doing is just writing a theme which suggests itself as being a good start for a novel. It needs to generate some interest and it needs to generate curiosity. The person reading needs to think: “I want to know more about this person.” Sedition is a novel about power and to some extent death. These themes are incorporated, but the main reason for this opening is to set the scene. There is a hangman; there are lots of details: there is the detail of the hangman’s feet, there is where the hanging takes place — outside the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street. Alathea tries on the dead girl’s shoes. We have life and death, and life just continuing, but mainly it just seemed a good scene for me, a good street scene.
MO’B: The pianoforte also seems to hold symbolic power in Sedition as Sawneyford, Tobias Drigg, Gregory Brass, and Alderman Archibald Throgmorton attempt to harness its potential to lure and catch wealthy husbands for their five daughters. Why is music such an effective way to communicate desire?
KG: Isn’t that interesting? I play the piano myself. There was one very practical reason for choosing the pianoforte as the luring tool, that is because in 1794 the harpsichord was being replaced by the piano. The piano was still pretty new. These fathers were modern men, they were not looking backwards, they were looking forwards. As Tobias Drigg says they are talking about it all up and down St. James Street.
The piano is a large instrument and to me the piano has always had character. If I had not been a writer, there are several things I would have liked to have been and a piano-tuner might have been one of them. I love the thought of the array of tools piano tuners use and the idea of harnessing this cussed machine with inside it the most fantastic pressure, which yet makes a wonderful noise. There were lots of things going on there, the historical context, the looking forward, then there is the kind of sexiness of the piano. With the harpsichord the strings are plucked, with the piano you press the keys, but you stroke them to make the different sounds. The miracle of the piano of course is that it is a hammer instrument so it is in fact entirely percussive. It seemed to offer lots of scope. When it came to dividing up the Goldberg variations for the girls I started to learn the Goldberg variations myself. I could feel what it would be like for the characters when they had to swap hands. Where the muddle of Monsieur Beladroit and the girls would be, with their legs and arms, and where things would actually happen. The challenge was to write about music in a way which actually worked, and I was pleased when both my editors in the UK and the US thought that I had managed to nail that. Music to me is a bit like riding a horse: it is a natural part of my life.
MO’B: The musicality of the prose adds an extra dimension to the action and the pianoforte’s metaphorical linkage to desire comes across strongly. Both desire and power are very closely interlinked in Sedition. Alathea understands how power works and uses it to her advantage. What makes her different from the men in the novel?
KG: She has learnt lessons. They have learnt different lessons. These five men have hauled themselves up from the gutter. They know about commerce, they know about clinging on to what they have got, they have married quite sensible wives, who all, or most of them anyway, are going to help. Alathea has learnt that in a man’s world the real power of women lies in withholding. Her silences are a part of that. The crucial moment for Alathea comes when her father leaves her with Mrs Frogmorton and Alathea is desperate to see her mother and her mother is dead and Alathea wants to know where her father has gone and when he is coming back. As she is going to ask Mrs Frogmorton—and remember she is only a child at that particular juncture—she suddenly realises that Mrs Frogmorton is waiting for her to ask. Alathea never asks. So Mrs Frogmorton spends the rest of her life waiting for Alathea to ask. Alathea understands at that moment the power of not asking.
In a way she is the exact opposite of me. I speak much too much, and give everything away far too much. I would be much better to be like Alathea. The power of silence is a power which we generally do not recognise. None of those men recognises it, but Alathea does. It disconcerts them. They know that apart from her looks and the way she carries herself—her dark sexiness—that she has retained within herself a power that they can never get at. That is why they both want her, and do not want her. She presses all the wrong buttons for them—all the buttons they know should not be pressed. She knows it. She knows what she does and that is part of her power. This is a novel about power.
MO’B: Slavoj Žižek says that at the core of how we interact with the world is obscene enjoyment. Sedition seems to echo this when Alathea describes a “world where men and women don’t just live for business or domestic things” rather they inhabit “a world of pleasure given and pleasure taken.” Alathea thinks “this is the best world there is.” Are you being ironic?
KG: Slightly, and so is she because she is trying to lure the other girls into doing what she wants them to do, which is definitely not what their parents want them to do. In that chapter suddenly the other girls are so naïve. Alathea becomes so chatty but it does not seem to sign to them “danger” which it ought to do—only to Harriet. Alathea is being slightly ironic because the sort of pleasure she gives and takes is what you might call “controversial.”
It is true in a way, we go through our ordinary lives and we do our ordinary things, but the moments we really remember are possibly the rather more private moments where we do inhabit a slightly different world. They do not come very often and I suppose that is why we remember them. I certainly think it was the case for her because the first real pleasure she had found was in Annie’s company. The rest of her life was a negotiation and a wielding of power. She had lived in a world of wariness and control, and then suddenly saw a way out.
MO’B: I think this connects to the notion that historical fiction and something we might call neo-Victorianism are ways to show how navigating desire and power relations through sex has a long history. What are your thoughts on that?
KG: I think human nature changes very little: we change the rules, we change the laws, and some things do alter, but at base we are still the same. In some ways we are still driven by a primeval nature. We are still in some ways “in the soup.” To be civilised we try to distance ourselves from “the soup” and set up rules, which would make for more equality, more of the better ways of living, but essentially we are still living in a world of power relations, and I do not see that is in any way changed. Women obviously do have more power, in the prosaic ways, in which we have the vote and all those sorts of things. But have things changed? In the great world out there, power is wielded as much as it has ever been.
MO’B: Sedition seems to suggest the possibility of a future feminist utopia when Alathea talks about the New World being a place of possibility, of equality, freedom and common ownership of goods. Could you elaborate on this?
KG: Alathea maybe did feel that the New World was new. I think she always had, and we all do, a hope that somewhere, somehow, there is a better world. Alathea would have been hopeless in that world. I think that when she got there she would have been bored rigid. I think we all do, particularly if we are living in difficult circumstances, have this ideal, and she had heard about it.
MO’B: For me, Alathea herself represents a transcendent character because she goes beyond all sexual boundaries and the sexual relationships seem to go further than just navigating power relations. Would you say that the sexual relationships in Sedition also represent freedom?
KG: Yes, because Alathea is a girl who makes her own choices. She is an agent. She is not a passive recipient and that is quite a controversial feature of the novel. Alathea is the agent of her own life. Some have said Alathea is a victim. But Alathea is an agent. When she is put in a position where she cannot make her own choices she reacts very violently.
MO’B: Alathea is very intelligent and appears to be fighting against patriarchal values.
KG: She is not at all unusual, at that time, for doing that. One of the things that intrigues me about the past is readers quite often think of it as being in set chunks. However, we do not get rid of one era and then move on to the next, in the same way as we do not just get rid of one set of values and move on to the next. So there would have been lots of people in the 1600’s who would have thought that equality might have been a good thing. I am perfectly sure it was time for women to take some sort of agency of their own. You can see this in Sedition’s mothers who are passive but not passive. Mrs Frogmorton, particularly, is a powerful woman in her own way, and she knows what she wants. It was important to me that the mothers should have characters of their own. They should not just be mothers. I wanted the women to show some signs of transcending the entirely passive role. In the novel, where Mr and Mrs Frogmorton get it back together again I wanted no description. In the end I just wrote, “Mr Frogmorton remembered his way and Mrs Frogmorton remembered hers.” With that kind of language it would open up the whole world of domestic relations. There were the two of them, not just him doing it to her. It gives it that kind of flavour of what their life was like. He had his way and she had hers.
MO’B: You mentioned idealism when we were talking about Alathea and the New World. Is idealism something that drives you as a novelist, at all?
KG: I am very interested in power relations and I am very interested in the toxic domestic. Those are the two things that drive me on. I have no interest in a utopia and I would not have been with Alathea. I would have thought “why would I want to do that?” I am certainly not driven by idealism or utopia. I am interested in how people survived during past times. In my adult work I am much more interested in the “you” and “I” moving through with everything going on around us, but where the domestic life continues. There is a wonderful passage in the book by Amanda Foreman on Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire. It is in 1789 when she goes to Paris and there is a sentence, which just says, “Georgiana was besieged by the mob” but no, she was besieged by dressmakers and silk merchants, and it was as if the revolution was not even happening. She went to the opera. During times of great upheaval ordinary life goes on and that is what I am interested in. I am more interested in ordinary life with other stuff happening in the periphery.
MO’B: Could you elucidate slightly on the idea of the “toxic domestic”?
KG: So toxic domestic is digging below what we see. Jane Austen does a bit of toxic domestic. We see the Bennett family in all its glory and all its hideousity [sic] because Mrs Bennett is a dreadful woman, really. I am interested in going darker than that. I like to dig to see what the families’ motivations are. There are relationships between sisters—I have five sisters of my own—and it is fascinating because what you say and what each sister makes of that is completely different. The toxic domestic is where it all goes catastrophically wrong for no reason that an outsider could see was of any interest or importance. Somebody said or did something and somehow it festers for years. Sisters always have different characters and quite often rub up against each other the wrong way. They like the friction because that is part of their history. They do not want anything to happen to each other because they are all part of the bricks that make them who they are. But it can be toxic. There is nothing as toxic as a family. Nothing. People in families, their memories are very, very long. You never forget. People do not forget. Most people are interested in the toxic domestic. Why do we read the gossip columns? We really love it when people all fall out.
MO’B: I have been a teacher myself for eight years and I like the idea of using your children’s novels in the classroom. How would you like them to be used? What should the main focus of the lesson be if I were to use The de Granville Trilogy or some of the other novels?
KG: It is always interesting to ask children which character they like best and why. Then it is always interesting to ask why one thing happened and not something else. At the end of Blood Red Horse some readers get very upset that Ellie does not marry Will. She marries the older brother. They ask “how could that have happened?”. I then like to explore the notion that duty is not always unhappy-making. Ellie, when she marries Gavin, is not condemned to a life of unhappiness. She does not sacrifice because she does not have to. It is not the end of her world. I would like to explore those kinds of things. I would like to upset the modern idea that you can only be happy if you do exactly what you like. It is interesting to note that not everybody in the medieval period was bitterly unhappy, even though very few people did exactly what they liked. I would like the novels and characters to be used to rock children out of this idea that every value that we just accept without thinking has always been accepted and to try to get them to think what it might be like to think in a slightly different way. Then you can start to talk to them about the craft of writing, and how one builds narratives with these tiny, not huge descriptions, but tiny, tiny detail. Things you cannot throw away but absolutely make the story into one people want to read rather than something dull.
MO’B: If I were to take your children’s novels into the classroom and ask the children to focus on the language, what aspects of the language should we focus on?
KG: Take the scenes where something really awful happens and see how sensational the language is. Actually the language is not very sensational, but observe where the effect is created and try to pull out the very word that actually denotes something. That teaches children that massive description does nothing. You need to find something exact and often when you are describing a battle scene or something similar it is the tiny detail that brings it alive. Get them to look for the tiny detail. I think it is useful for children who tend to be quite descriptive. I also forbid the use of the word “amazing.” It means absolutely nothing. I sometimes get them to create a postcard in 30 words, a little picture in 30 words. It makes them focus because that is what authors do: they really try to find exactly the word, not just piles of description but exactly the one word. Dickens does masses of description too, but if you look at his descriptions of people, he suddenly just uses one word and you can see the character. You can see Mr Micawber like that. The description of him is marvellous. One of the most extraordinary examples of this is in Mervin Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. There are lots of words, which have been very precisely chosen. Why does Peake use “ritual” and not “tradition”? “Ritual” has a completely mysterious connotation, whereas “tradition” sounds quite cosy. I hope there are in my books those moments where the child can pick out the actual word. It is much better done in Sedition because I get better with each book. However, I am not remotely suggesting you should take Sedition into the classroom. I think you would be fired immediately.
MO’B: One thing I noticed was the sentence length in Sedition was often very short.
KG: Pace and punch are my more natural style. I have learnt a lot from writing those nine children’s novels because if you do not keep children’s books filled with pace and punch then you have lost them.
MO’B: Are you working on any current projects that will expand upon your past works in any of the ways that we have spoken about today?
KG: Yes. I am working on a new novel, which is nothing to do with Sedition. Some of the themes just inevitably come up, the power, the toxic domestic, but it will, if it ever sees the light of day, be my most modern novel. I am much better at what was around in 1795 than I am on what was around in 1986, which I experienced myself. I had to look up mobile phones, and when everyone began to have one. Funnily enough, the 1980s seem more alien than the 1790s to me. This is interesting for me because I have never written anything remotely present-day.