The Interview: Frances Hardinge on A Skinful of Shadows
Already no stranger to fiction with more than a hint of the uncanny, Frances Hardinge's latest novel, A Skinful of Shadows, is a strikingly original tale of mystery and ghostly possession set against the backdrop of the English Civil War. In an exclusive interview she discusses the history that inspired the novel along with ideas about faith, identity and what it means to be haunted.
There’s a lot of really rich description in this book but I found myself particularly drawn into the gothic mystery of the manor of Grizehayes. It’s a particularly apt location for a novel about haunting; did you have any real buildings or locations in mind when you were writing the novel?
There were several that I took bits and bobs from but I’m sure I’ve also absorbed details from other places I’ve visited and read about. It is your classic gothic house really. I took certain key aspects from Haddon Hall in Derbyshire and from Ham House in Richmond – certainly the big kitchen – and I took some elements from Bolsover Castle too, particularly for some of the servants’ areas. I took inspiration for some of the later events in the novel from the history of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire.
Do you find yourself drawn to the gothic in your writing?
I think so, yes, I’ve read a lot of gothic literature – especially when I was younger – in particular eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic. Of course, I don’t sit down intending to write a novel in a particular genre, but then, coming back to it, I often find it’s a medley of different genres. I’m just relieved that booksellers don’t want to come and find me and punch me for being difficult to shelve! In the case of this particular book, it ticks a lot of different boxes in terms of gothic influence but I hadn’t realised quite how many until earlier this year when I was supposed to be giving a seminar and decided to use A Skinful of Shadows as the example. I found myself looking for instances of tropes of the gothic in the novel and realised it actually represented most of them.
This is a novel that seemed to me to play with the different ideas of haunting – both external haunting in the form of ghosts and spirits, but also in the sense of the ways in which we can be haunted by ideas, our own history and grief – was that something you were keen to explore in the novel from the outset?
Yes, absolutely. One of the things I was thinking about was the way we all accumulate voices in our head. We imbibe various different habits from the people who have influenced us the most, as a sort of internal voice. Sometimes it can be our parents, but it can also be mentor figures, critical voices of our peers, classmates, workmates etc. – a kind of internalised social policing. All these things perform different functions and not all of them are negative.
Makepeace is a character who – even before she is literally haunted – seems to find herself torn between conflicting parts of herself. It’s a theme that’s familiar from your previous novels, the idea of being at war with yourself. Did you want to use the idea of multiple personalities inside one body to also explore the idea of how a person can feel that there are different versions of themselves in conflict?
Yes, but it’s something that has to be handled carefully. It’s not easy. I think most of us are trying to reconcile different parts of ourselves, whether we acknowledge it or not. I think I’d find it hard to write somebody who was unassailably one thing, we are all complex, we all have parts of ourselves that we are suppressing – either consciously or subconsciously - and I think that’s just what feels natural to me about writing character.
The historical setting for this novel also allows for different opportunities to explore the ways in which women in particular are forced to hide or disguise parts of themselves in order to adhere to the strictures of their society, or subvert them.
I think that’s very true and in terms of inner conflict, you internalise from society who and what you are supposed to be. Certainly, Faith in The Lie Tree has this internal conflict partly because she is internalising other people’s expectations. She’s blaming herself for the ways in which she does not fit the model that’s been proposed to her whilst, at the same time, having this colossal sense of anger and frustration because she doesn’t fit that model but she’s being made to pretend she does.
Of course, in Makepeace’s case, it’s a lot more systematic. The long-term masquerade is less driven by an emotional need to satisfy other people’s expectations - which is very different from Faith who doesn’t want her father to be disappointed in her. Makepeace, from quite an early stage, is regarding this as a prisoner would; playing the long-game because that’s her best chance. It’s a very deliberate, very patient, long con.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the Twelfth Night celebrations and the way you capture the sense of what happens when you live in a society governed by rules and then take the lid off that control.
Twelfth Night was a kind of social emotional release-valve. You have a time of wildness and irreverence and inversion and you get a lot of things out of your system. It was necessary in a way. It was a time you could tell bawdy stories but also irreverent stories, stories of folk tales about heroes who might be a bit more rebellious. You weren’t just allowed to be wild, you were allowed to be subversive and that’s one of the reasons Puritans were not wildly on board with Twelfth Night as you might imagine!
I loved the idea that Makepeace’s first haunting is Bear and I found the descriptions of her sharing his feelings and emotions very affecting. It struck me as well that the very word ‘bear’ has that double meaning, both the animal and also the alternative sense of a burden. What was it like, as a writer, to explore that animal perspective and to merge that with a human consciousness?
It was one of the ideas I’d had hanging around in my brain the longest. Occasionally as an author there is a moment when you get the core idea of a book. But what quite often happens instead is that you have bits of an idea that hang around in your brain for ages and they’re clearly not a complete idea and they won’t work by themselves but when you find what they plug into, then that will make a story that might actually start sparking your imagination.
One of the fragments of idea that had been hanging around in my mind the longest was that of the ghost bear. I’d found out a bit about historical mistreatment of dancing bears and it made me really angry, so for a long time I’d had this wish-fulfilment idea of this really aggrieved ghost bear coming back in search of vengeance, finally unshackled and impossible to beat or chain in any way and getting some kind of revenge. But it never felt like quite enough of an idea by itself, so it was only when I came upon the idea of the Felmottes’ traditions, the hereditary possessions, and had that in place in my head as a metaphysic, that it finally fell into place.
Bear does sort of represent Makepeace’s anger and her grief and that wounded part of her and so he doesn’t always make things easy for her but he is also a source of strength. She finds strength in coming to terms with that primal part of herself – or the primal force that is basically Bear. I’ve given her quite an odd name; she’s never going to ‘make peace’ in terms of the wider war, but what she can do is to make peace with herself.
You get across a really vivid depiction of the reality of grief in this novel, and the sense that, for the person grieving, you’re never actually the same on the other side of grief.
It’s a very strange thing about grief; we all have the weirdest hang-ups about what we’re allowed to feel and what we’re not allowed to feel, how we’re supposed to react and whether we’re doing it right. It’s the one time when you’d think you wouldn’t care about any of this but these things carry with them an enormous amount of guilt, a feeling that you’re either grieving in the wrong way, or not grieving in the right way.
Writing about the seventeenth century and the Civil War, it’s an incredibly tumultuous time in English history, a time when the country is at war with itself.
It’s an incredibly dramatic period. I’m always fascinated by periods of change and transition and rebellion anyway and you don’t get much more dramatic periods in English history - in terms of change – than the Civil War. I also didn’t want to be focusing primarily on the battles and pretty dresses. There’s some of that in there, but I also wanted to be looking at the people - lots of people - who would be impacted by the war, without necessarily explicitly fighting in it.
It's very striking in English history, the way in which the Civil War caused families to be riven apart, with people standing on either side of the conflict.
Absolutely, real families like the Verneys got torn apart. The father Edmund Verney was standing with the king and his eldest son Ralph wasn’t and that was really tragic because they were never reunited. Edmund died at the Battle of Edgehill and I think Ralph was always unhappy that never got to reconcile with his father and I think that was not untypical.
Was part of the attraction of setting a story like this at this time that you had war within and war without happening at the same time?
Yes, definitely and also there’s this shadow war going on with all the spies and notable members of the networks on both sides seem to have been female.
It’s a time when women were first starting to have a public voice – albeit very limited one – and some of the first women’s published writing at this time is prophetic (perhaps some would say haunted) writing. Were you inspired by reading any of those real accounts?
Yes, definitely, but I couldn’t manage to squeeze them all in of course. Because of the direction I was taking my story I couldn’t crowbar in any of the women, on either side, for example, who were holding out against sieges - people like Charlotte de la Tremoüille at Lathom House and Brilliana Harley who defended Brampton Bryan Castle on Parliament’s side – but I could get in the spies. So the character of Helen is heavily inspired by a real woman called Jane Whorwood who was a Royalist agent and gold smuggler and was even, fascinatingly, involved with some of the plots to rescue Charles I when he was finally captured. Obviously these plots didn’t succeed but one of her colleagues said something like, “if we had all done our part as Mistress Horwood has done hers, the king would be free now”. She managed to get in to see him in prison and there’s even some suggestion they may have had a brief fling! There were other women too who were smuggling gold into the king and the technique of smuggling gold in soap seems to have been something that actually happened.
But on the other side too, there were people like Parliament Jane who was more of an intelligence agent. She would listen in on people’s conversations to hear if people said anything against parliament and she would see if people were printing royalist pamphlets and shop them.
In terms of prophetesses, Lady Eleanor in the book is a nod to Lady Eleanor Davies, who was a prophetess and wrote rather long, very vivid scriptural tracts and sometimes predicted that people would die and had this odd habit of being right! She appears to have been completely insufferable. She drove people up the wall and was very bad at paying her bills and didn’t tend to keep friends but just had this annoying habit of being right. Fortunately though, she wasn’t right about her prediction about the end of the world.
There’s a real sense in the book of the excitement of the ways in which information is being disseminated too and of people being desperate to get their hands on the latest piece of news.
The number of printing outlets was exploding because both sides had realised the importance of getting across their side of the story, for propaganda purposes. And this is a genie that was never successfully put back into the bottle afterwards. After the Civil War there was never again the same central control over the printing presses and their output. So from the point of view of those living at the time, this explosion of paper, this wildfire, was an uncontrolled output of information around the country and – as with the internet today – not all of it was reliable.
We think of fake news as being a modern invention and of course, it really isn’t.
And the habit of demonising the other side isn’t either. I was researching this deeply divided country and finding myself feeling an uncanny sense of déjà vu. If you can find a way to make people not want to listen to what the other side has to say, that has power. It’s polarising, getting people to only talk to other people who agree with them so their views become entrenched and more pronounced until all those beliefs become commonplace which then means that if you encounter somebody with a contrary view you have this sense of almost visceral recoil. It’s a strong enough reaction that people don’t want to have the conversation, they just want the other side to stop talking and, unfortunately I think, with many of our own divisions today, that’s the way we’re going too.
Faith in some form comes into a lot of your fiction but it seems often to be about people’s need and desire to believe in something greater than themselves and what happens when that overarching belief (whether in god, or a political cause, or a scientific theory) becomes all-consuming – would you agree with that?
I think there are a number of reasons why religion in one form or another has cropped up in my books and one of them, yes, is that I’m fascinated by the dominant beliefs people tend to believe without question; I’m interested in people’s blind spots and their ability to overcome them. So regardless of what that particular opinion, that particular socially accepted ‘common sense’ happens to be, that is something that always interests me.
It’s also the case that when I’m looking at a setting, I always want to understand it: its customs, its traditions, its histories, its stories, its morals, its social rules. And the fact is that a lot of the time these things tend to be deeply tangled in religion for a lot of cultures, so it’s difficult to avoid. In the case of both The Lie Tree and A Skinful of Shadows, I just couldn’t avoid it. The way I handled the plot of The Lie Tree I realised I was going to be handling the shockwaves that went through society after the publication of On the Origin of Species, in which case religion is a factor and again, looking at the English Civil War, you come up against sectarianism and religiously fuelled conflict. People’s lives were just much more religious and in the seventeenth century, religion would have just permeated every aspect of people’s lives in a way that we now find quite hard to imagine and I didn’t feel I could leave that out. I want to create characters that are accessible, but I don’t want to create characters who are just twenty-first century people in funny clothes. That’s part of the fun and the interest. People held views that now, to us, seem ridiculous and abhorrent but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the past was stupid. People rationalise their beliefs - we rationalise our beliefs - and it’s quite interesting to be able to show intelligent and fundamentally good-hearted representations of people holding views that are so dreadful because, hopefully, that’s something that can make us a little bit more aware of our own rationalisation and the possibility that we might be holding views that people in a hundred years might question and think, “what were they thinking?”.