Best-selling writer Kate Mosse to speak up for Norwich heroine Harriet Martineau

Kate Mosse Kate Mosse

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
1:41 PM

Best-selling novelist Kate Mosse is thrilled to be giving this year’s prestigious Harriet Martineau Lecture and, despite a dead crow to meet and a novel to complete, tells ROWAN MANTELL how she fell for the 19th-century Norwich woman who could be the next character to be revealed through her fiction.

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It’s the best excuse I’ve ever had for postponing an interview. Writer Kate Mosse couldn’t talk to me after all, because she had a crow-skinning class.

Being stood up for a dead crow is a first, and it’s definitely worth the delay when I called Kate the following day.

“It was a rather delightful crow!” said Kate, whose new, novel, due out in September is, not uncoincidentally, called The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

“However much research you do, with the kind of fiction I write I eventually had to go and skin a crow,” she explained. “When I was researching my novel Citadel I realised I had to be taught to fire a gun. This time I needed to know what it feels like to skin a crow, what it smells like.”

So she joined artist and taxidermist Rose Robson and a dead crow, and managed to simultaneously wield scalpel and pen.

“It was fascinating,” she said. “Taxidermy has been seen, in modern terms, as rather disturbing, but it grew out of science, the need to find out how animals work and it is fashionable again, as art.”

She was struck by the “enormous tenderness” of the process and the beauty of the dead crow. “I’m incredibly interested in birds,” she said. “I think birds are sublimely beautiful and it is bird taxidermy which is at the heart of the imagined museum in my novel. Crows are birds that are extremely beautiful but there is a menace in them too that doesn’t exist in a bird like a siskin or a blackbird.”

Kate has been intrigued by taxidermy since her teens, drawn into the world of life-like dead things by childhood visits to an extraordinary Sussex museum, filled with scenes of stuffed and stitched carcasses, dressed in miniature clothes and posed as if playing games or enjoying a tea party.

“Lots of Sussex boys and girls grew up fascinated by taxidermy!” said Kate.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a gothic psychological thriller set in flooded Sussex marshland in 1912.

“I have quite a strong stomach, but Rose took over when it got too much,” said Kate, who, as a vegetarian has even less experience than most people of cutting into dead animals. “I haven’t eaten fish or meat since was eight or nine. I could never separate the dead animal from the meat on my plate,” she said.

She did not take her crow home. Instead it will form part of a piece of art by Rose Robson - as well as informing Kate’s novel.

In tandem with the taxidermy, Kate has been researching the life of Norwich woman Harriet Martineau.

Later this month she will be giving the second Harriet Martineau Lecture, as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

“I was delighted to be asked to give the lecture. It is a real honour and really, really difficult that this lecture is coming now, when I have to finish my novel by the end of the month, because of course I have fallen head over heels in love with Harriet Martineau!” she said.

The research might not have been quite as immersive as the taxidermy, but Kate is now desperate to write more about Harriet.

She first came across her as a schoolgirl and said that while today people might hear of her in association with renowned historical characters such as Florence Nightingale, George Elliot, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, she was incredibly celebrated in her own right in her lifetime as well as being connected with many of the great thinkers of her day.

“I think what the Norwich Writers’ Centre is doing and what the Festival is doing is absolutely brilliant. They are saying that this woman was incredibly important and there should be absolutely no way we shouldn’t know about her,” said Kate. “What I’m going to talk about is to celebrate her and the free thinking tradition she sprang from. Norwich was a seat of free thinking tradition, the equality of men and women, abolition of slavery...Women of her time didn’t have any access to politics. They didn’t have the vote. But she talked about racial equality and campaigned vigorously for the abolition of slavery.

“She was always more interested in getting her message across than her own reputation. She was fearless. If she lived today she would be a mix of people like Malala, Caitlin Moran, Mary Beard…”

Kate is passionate about giving women a voice, and believes that voice has often been lost in the narrow version of history passed down to us, but can be recovered through fiction.

“History and fact and truth can sneak up on you in fiction,” she said.

“All of my writing, even though it’s fiction, is about rooting out and shining a spotlight on forgotten women. People don’t pick up my novels thinking I must find out more about women in the Resistance in France, or Medieval Cathars, they want a story, but they finish my book knowing more about the women in the Resistance or the Cathars.”

Kate worked as a publisher before becoming a writer and founded the Orange Prize for Fiction, now the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction, in 1996. Her own first book was a factual piece on pregnancy but it was her historical fiction which brought her bestseller status.

Her 2005 novel Labyrinth was a worldwide bestseller and named Richard and Judy Best Book and one of Waterstones’ top 25 books of the past 25 years. Last she was was made an OBE for services to literature.

She lives in Sussex with her husband, mother and mother-in-law. This is the landscape where she grew up and where she and her husband brought up their children. She has a deep interest in landscape and place and said: “One of the joys has been to discover that Harriet was absolutely a daughter of Norwich. Norwich was an extraordinary city at the beginning of the 19th century.”

When she was asked to give the Harriet Martineau lecture she was thrilled to be given a chance to research a fascinating life, and during her visit to Norwich next week she plans to make her own personal pilgrimage around the sites associated with Harriet.

And as she finishes her current novel, and research into ways of recovering, exposing and displaying vanished lives, she might not need to look far for the next.

“I’m not letting myself think about her but I feel that she’s standing right behind me!” said Kate.

Kate Mosse: The Harriet Martineau Lecture is on Thursday, May 22, at 7.30pm at the Norwich Playhouse. Tickets are £12 from 01603 766400 or www.nnfestival.org.uk. The lecture is part of the City of Literature strand of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, presented in association with Writers’ Centre Norwich.

• For more NNF Festival Focus features click here.

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