A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Dilys Rose, Author of Unspeakable
"This is not a story which has a surprise ending; the interest has to be in the route taken to that ending."
In Unspeakable, acclaimed author and poet Dilys Rose reimagines the life of Thomas Aikenhead, crafting a novel thick with the political intrigue and religious fervour of 17th century Edinburgh. Waterstones Angie Crawford caught up with the author to discuss breathing life into a notorious figure and the period's acute resonance for modern readers.
Until I read Unspeakable I’d never heard of the Thomas Aikenhead, can you tell me a bit more about him? What was it about him that grabbed your interest enough to write a novel about his life?
Thomas Aikenhead was a student at what was then the College of Edinburgh. Orphaned at nine, he appears to have been supported financially by a distant relative throughout the early part of his studies, though didn’t complete his degree. His youth, and the fact that he was a student in the city where I’d taken my degree, made me think about my own student life, much of which took place out with classes – in cafes, parks, pubs, flats. There was always a deal of talk, and the point of this talk wasn’t always to convince others of deeply held beliefs; as often as not it was to enjoy see where a line of argument might go.
I wondered how much Thomas really meant of what he said and how much might have been little more than testing his mettle, or showing off. There’s no doubt he had a loose tongue but what it was about him which made his peers so willing to report him to the authorities? I imagined him as clever, a bit of a know-all. Did fellow students resent him because he was too big for his boots? Or because he was fortunate enough to receive financial support? In another way, money may well have had something to do with it as informers were paid a reward for turning people in for instances of irreligion.I’ve just got to ask about the drunk elephant! Is this a product of your research or fictitious?
According to the annals of Scotland, which may not always be entirely accurate on every count, an elephant was exhibited in Edinburgh in 1681. It was made to perform several tricks and one of these tricks was to drink beer. People did pay for the privilege of buying an elephant a pint, but how many pints it put away is not recorded.
You tell the story of Thomas from being the son of an apothecary, who loses his parents at a very young age, right up to his formative years as a student in Edinburgh. I liked Thomas immensely; he has an enquiring mind and on reflection a fairly stoic disposition. How much did you have to invent or imagine his character for the purposes of your book?
Good question! Something I discovered after reading and reading about his case was that the facts gave very little sense of what kind of person Thomas was. His main claim to fame is his fate. As what he was charged with was mockery of the Scriptures (railing it was called), I decided that he had to be naturally curious, a blabbermouth, and perhaps a bit of a show-off as well. In terms of a stoic disposition, being brought up in a family who were regularly in debt and orphaned at nine, might have contributed to this.
Such a brutal and tragic ending is very shocking to modern sensibilities, how did you find the process of writing about it?
Because I knew the outcome - and everybody who’s heard of him also knows this – I wrote the final chapter very early on. I redrafted it several times and some details came to me later, as is always the case – the warm bread, for example - but much of the scene was very clear in my mind. For a writer it can be a real bonus to know your destination, not just in terms of story but in terms of mood as well. This is not a story which has a surprise ending; the interest has to be in the route taken to that ending.
Thomas's Edinburgh is very atmospheric; the city seems to bustle with booksellers and printing presses. The students and thinkers of the day are in the coffee houses and taverns debating current affairs and yet from what I understand, Thomas didn't actually publish a pamphlet – was he really brought to trial based on what other people (indeed fellow students)
Edinburgh’s Old Town was heavily populated at the time (estimates range from 40,000 – 60,000 inhabitants) and the city had some of the tallest buildings in Europe – so yes, bustling, I expect.
You're right that Thomas didn't publish anything, though while he was awaiting trial, one of his fellow students, published a pamphlet denouncing him.
Edinburgh in this novel is a character in its own right - a hotbed of politics and extreme beliefs, where religious intolerance is rife with public humiliations and plague and pestilence are rampant as crops fail. As the story gallops along to the close, an impending sense of doom is ever-present. How important was the character of Edinburgh as a city to your story?
The city was very important to me. Thomas, to my mind, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As you say the city and the country as a whole were going through very hard times and hard times tend to make for extreme measures. The Presbyterian church, concerned about losing the social it had only fairly recently regained, felt it needed to make 'Ane example and Terror' of somebody to strike fear and subordination into the populace. And that somebody was Thomas.
By extension, 17th Century Edinburgh is a pretty scary place – a real climate of fear operates and eyes are always watching. How much does the atmosphere of the 17th century resonate with today’s world?
It resonates even more strongly now than it did when I began working on the book. Politically, socially and economically our society is in a state of flux and many people feel insecure, threatened. Politicians and some members of the press play on this insecurity and try to whip up negative feeling towards particular parts of society, when the real problems may lie elsewhere. And how are people to know what to believe if facts are no longer considered facts?
The book is divided into three parts focusing on the different stages of Thomas’s life. The first part – when Thomas and his sisters are still in Edinburgh with their parents – was strongly dominated by Scots but by the second part was much more narrative led. Scots is such an expressive language, what does it add to a novel would you say?
I would say that English can also be a very expressive language as centuries of literature testify. You suggest that there’s more Scots in the opening section but I’d say this is evenly distributed through the entire novel. I used Scots for the dialogue because it felt (and sounded) right to me. But dialogue of any kind is a construct. We don’t know how people spoke at that time. As you say, Scots is very rich in terms of sound and this can make it enjoyable to use and the sound of language is, for me, as important in prose as in poetry. But the aural quality of Scots has the potential to make the writing too sound-driven, and indeed too couthy for its own good. I thought about every word I rendered in Scots, and changed my mind several times about what to keep and what to lose.
Unspeakable is by default a historical novel, do you think it is helpful to readers to categorise books in this way? How much responsibility, if any, should an author bear when writing historical fiction to historical accuracy?
There are practical reasons why bookshops and libraries organize their stock in this way and I think it probably helps readers to make a choice.
For a while the historical novel was seen as some kind of escapist fantasy or romantic myth and Scottish history has had its fair share of being romanticised on the page and on the screen. My favourite film fairytale is the 1945 romantic comedy I Know Where I'm Going, set on Mull. In the 1950s, the American writer Eudora Welty, dismissed the historical novels of her time: ‘Of course we shall have some sort of fairytale with us always. Just now it is the historical novel’. This is clearly no longer the case.
As for your second question, every writer will have her/his own view on such things as historical accuracy. I prefer to stick to the facts where possible but in order to turn historical fact into fiction, gaps often need to be filled and storylines embellished or invented wholesale. Unless your intention is to rewrite history, I can’t see any value in changing key facts, though some writers take a speculative approach, imagining how things might be if, say, the French Revolution didn’t happen. I’m not particularly drawn to this kind of speculation but I don’t see anything morally wrong in the enterprise.
Do you think there are times that the past should be left alone – did you have any reservations about writing Unspeakable at any stage?
I can't see why any period should be left alone, though I can understand why, for personal reasons, may not want to go near a certain period, or topic. I don't choose material to write about; the material chooses me.It wasn’t so much that I had reservations but I did wonder whether I'd be able to do the story and the period justice.Still, doubt is part and parcel of writing and, perversely perhaps, tend to spur me on.
Already Unspeakable has drawn comparisons with His Bloody Project - in the most recent edition of The Scottish Review of Books; a review of Unspeakable was titled, 'Her Bloody Project'. What do you think is driving this current resurgence of interest in Scottish historical fiction?
Has there not been an abiding interest in Scottish historical fiction since Scott’s Waverley? Given the current debate around independence and leaving the EU, perhaps people are finding themselves drawn to fiction set in earlier periods as a way of gaining some perspective on the present. After all, in Edinburgh, where I've lived for most of my adult life, and many other parts of Scotland, the past is woven into the fabric of the present at every turn