London, 1794. Revolution creeps across the channel, coffee houses seethe with gossip and the City is full of upstarts, émigrés and speculators. But even in unruly times, daughters need husbands. For five City men, the question is how to get them.
The daughters. Motherless Alathea, whose charms are grown disturbing, uses the whole of London exactly as she pleases. Harriet, Georgiana, Marianne and Everina are cosseted at home, but home is not always a safe place. As Claude Belladroit, piano-master, remarks, what’s the point of locking the shutters when danger comes through the front door?
In the shadow of Tyburn gibbet, Vittorio Cantabile, exile and instrument-maker, also has a daughter. Born with a deformity her father cannot forgive, Annie is far from cosseted. In her father’s workshop, resentments are fashioned as well as pianofortes, and dreams are smashed without mercy.
Fathers and daughters; mothers and daughters; husbands and wives; girls and boys; the pursued and the pursuing. Whether in gilded drawing room or dusty workshop, when a city is infected with sedition, everything is reflected through a distorting prism of jealousy, revenge and sexual devilry.
Author of Sedition
in conversation with Theresa Breslin
Theresa: I love the title. It has enormous impact - the way it sounds and the freight the word carries.
Katharine: Titles are so important, aren’t they! When I began work on this book, I called it the ‘Piano Book’, or the ‘Goldberg Book’, because it features both a piano and Bach’s variations. But I remembered a previous conversation with an editor who listened patiently whilst I outlined a plot, then said, ‘but what’s the book actually about?’ Asking the same question of this book, the answer was clear. Sedition. Short and snappy, it stuck.
Theresa: The novel is set in a very particular year.
Katharine: Yes, a very particular year. In Paris, the Terror came to gruesome climax; in London there were treason trials. 1794 was a year of political sedition in Europe and I liked the idea that domestic sedition was its mirror. But I was also very taken with the discovery from Amanda Foreman’s excellent book that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in Paris midst all the 1789 summer turmoil, was overwhelmed in her hotel not by rioting crowds but by tradesmen, including stay makers, and that she went to the opera. As history unfolds, ordinary life goes on. In Sedition, though the City coffeehouses seethe with émigrés, spies and speculators, domestic concerns still prevail. I find that to be true. Even on 9/11, though we were all shattered, those not directly involved bought groceries, made tea, helped children with homework, cleaned the loo.
Theresa: Also, it’s close to the end of a century, which logically should make no difference, yet…
Katharine: It was a time of transition: classical music moving towards romantic – Mozart died in 1791, Schubert was born in 1797; the pianoforte was taking over from the harpsichord; Wordsworth and Coleridge published the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads in 1798; in 1800, Alessandro Volta invents the battery; the industrial revolution was gathering pace. There’s a nervous energy about the turn of the eighteenth century which made it very attractive as a setting.
Theresa: The story is political as well as personal, seamlessly interwoven.
Katharine: The ‘city’ men, fathers of five of the girls, congregate in a coffee-house that shipmasters, traders and activists frequent. The coffee-houses were conduits for gossip, political pamphlets circulated, and news, both British and foreign, was exchanged. They witness, read about and discuss current events, though always, always with an eye for trade.
Theresa: One of the characters picks up a leaflet entitled ‘Pantisocracy and Aspheterism’. My computer spell check didn’t recognise these terms and couldn’t even make a suggestion as to what they might be!
Katharine: A stroke of serendipity! When writing the book I happened to be reading a biography of Coleridge and came across this. It fitted perfectly.
(Comment from Theresa : This chimes with HG Celia Rees last post on Jan 18th)
Theresa: Tell me about the music. It’s integral to the story.
Katharine: Music was a big and natural part of my life. I was brought up in very musical household. We all played musical instruments and our nanny, who never liked to waste time, taught me and my siblings to sing in parts in the bath. My parents hosted marvellous musicians and we were allowed to mingle and listen to performances. The musicians were so open and kind. Sometimes they allowed us to play their instruments. So music’s something I grew up with and is still a source of great joy in my life. I learned the Variations – or as many as I could master in the time – with my characters, and continue to learn them. Practising is also a form of therapy. I’m a big-time stresser! Music, being all-encompassing, leaves no room for angsting about the boiler, the roof, the all important key that’s strangely missing.
Theresa: I found the detail fascinating. The underarm pomanders as a deodorant. The arches at Newgate becoming narrower as the condemned person approached the site of their execution.
Katharine: All true! I drew on the resources of Glasgow University library, e.g. dress pattern books and fashion. I discovered that shoes had garden scenes painted on their heels (Sigh from Theresa. ‘I have a pair with similar on their soles!) I studied (lots of) paintings. I researched by ‘walking’ London and absorbing how it is today. I think it can be a mistake to block out the present. We can use the present to see what it was like in the past. In some ways the scene locations are not so different now: noisy, air polluted, raucous etc.
Theresa: There are laugh-out-loud funny bits which appealed to my sense of humour. And twists of wit… The storyteller stating that the selection of the bass A string from the harpsichord was the most suitable to make a hangman’s noose for a scorned lover!
Katharine: Ah, indeed. That carried a punch.
Theresa: In contrast with above - there is some very dark matter within the book.
Katharine: Yes, very difficult themes. But I was given some advice very early on by Michael Schmidt, the poet. ‘Be brave’, he said. To me, this didn’t mean courting dark themes for the sake of sensation; it meant going where the story had to go. Alathea Sawneyford’s character, for example, has been formed by her experiences. It makes her complicated, but also allows you, as a writer, to explore places you wouldn’t otherwise explore.
Theresa: In The Literary Review, Jonathan Barnes talks of plait[ing] together comedy and tragedy with sly skill. Hard to plait?
Katharine: Yes – he was referring to the concert scene. It was hard, but actually, by the time I got to the concert scene I was so inside that book that the plaiting wasn’t conscious … When I found the voice for the book I realised that nothing could be purely description. It all had to add to the individual. I took out anything that was descriptive unless it revealed or reinforced character, so the plaiting – and pressing the delete button – had become second nature.
Theresa: Would you like to talk a bit about voice and perspective in the historical novel?
Katharine: That’s what takes the time, as you’ll know only too well! Voice and perspective are key to all novels. It took me quite a time to find Sedition's voice. Not too arch, not too knowing, not too intrusive. As for perspective, that took months – years – of paring away until I reached the book’s core. It became an obsession, especially after I read Virginia Woolf’s insight that the success (in writerly terms) of all novels lies “not so much in their freedom from faults - indeed we tolerate the grossest errors in them all - but in the immense persuasiveness of a mind which has completely mastered its perspective". That really gripped me. As I wrote Sedition, I knew what was necessary and just hoped to goodness I’d found it!
Theresa: I think you certainly did!