Published on 02/02/2015 by Jean Roberts
The Hourglass Factory is set in 1912. What made you decide to choose that year rather than 1913 when Emily Wilding Davison was killed by the King’s horse or in 1918 when women won the vote?
There were a few reasons. Firstly it tied in to the music hall angle: 1912 was the year of the first Royal Variety Performance – originally called Royal Command. That was featured in an early draft but didn’t make the final cut. Then there were the events that open the book – which I won’t give away. And also 1912 was the year when suffragette militancy really began to up itself. There had been several truces on the part of the suffragettes in the preceding years, and false promises on the part of the government. But in 1912 things really kicked off. It was the year the Pankhursts were put on trial for conspiracy to incite violence, Christabel Pankhurst escaped to Paris where she hid out in exile from her arrest warrant, and there was the major split between the Pethick-Lawrences (who had been instrumental to the WSPU up to that point) and the Pankhursts. It was a very volatile, dangerous and unpredictable time and I thought that would make an interesting backdrop for a conspiracy thread in the story.
Your novel has been described as a romp – fun and feisty. But you cover some serious issues in it too. How did you manage balancing the serious side of the history with the desire to write a page-turning, entertaining read?
I think it’s very interesting that it’s picked up the ‘romp’ tag. I don’t mind at all, but it’s curious as that’s never what I set out to write. It was always my intention to model The Hourglass Factory on the wacky melodramatic thrillers of the Edwardian era – GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men, which are outlandish in their plots and characters – as well as crazy over-the-top conspiracy thrillers by Dan Brown and Sam Bourne. I think it’s interesting that when we see a book with outlandish characters, improbable scenarios and elaborate murders written by a man, it’s still able to keep the thriller tag. But in this case with the cast being made up of over-the-top women doing the running around, it’s perceived as something else.
It’s true I did also want to touch on serious issues, and the way I tried to deal with that was to fall back on research when serious events hit, and try to keep things as accurate and respectful as possible in those scenes. I think the suffragettes managed to balance well their creative activities with their serious ones and I tried to take the cue from them.
One of your main characters, Frankie George, is a reporter who is desperately trying to carve out a career for herself in a man’s world. Do you think she would find it any easier in today’s newspaper world?
I’m not sure, but it’s a great question and one worth thinking about. To be honest I probably know more about making newspapers in the Edwardian era than making them in the present day, so I’m not sure I could give a confident answer. We certainly have made progress in terms of visibility of women in hard news jobs. And the Guardian’s feminist commentators such as Hadley Freeman are brilliant at making sure cultural events are looked at through this lens. But one problem that definitely hasn’t changed is the female-driven misogyny in the media. You only need to look at the racks of women’s magazines whose covers encourage self-loathing with their damnation of women’s bodies (for being either too skinny or too fat) - and many of these are created and edited by women.
A Suffragette in Spite of Himself
This cute film was directed by Ashley Miller in 1912. Interesting that the wife is portrayed as an anti while the maid is pro-suffrage. Some of the era’s propaganda would have you believe that the suffragettes were very much a middle class organisation. Very funny nevertheless, especially when the man ‘chains himself to the railings’,(and great for Edwardian fashion-spotting).
Another main character, Ebony Diamond, is a trapeze artist. You write about dance as a journalist – did you find this experience helped you when writing her trapeze scenes? Have you ever done trapeze yourself to find out what it’s like to be swimming through the air at a dangerous height?
I’m not sure whether it was a help or a hindrance to be honest! Professional trapeze artists make it look so easy, and I’m sure I’ve woefully misrepresented their skills in some way or other. There’s a scene where Ebony’s trapeze act is described, and I did try to pretend for bits of it that I was writing a review, so that I could try to make the description as visual as possible. And I guess seeing loads of circus and trapeze has fed into Ebony’s act – I’ve probably accidentally ripped off bits of other acts that I’ve seen.
But it’s funny, because I’ve never had the desire to do it myself. I’m always surprised by voracious readers who have absolutely no desire to write, but that’s exactly how I feel about circus. I love to watch it – so graceful and daring – but would never want to be up there myself. (Way too much hard work).
The Hourglass Factory has lots of interesting historical titbits woven through it and the reader will end up learning lots of things they might not have known about otherwise. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research about the period and the people? And was there anything you didn’t manage to put into the novel that you wish you could have?
I think the most surprising thing was about men being force-fed for the suffragette cause. I first came across this in an article in The Times in 1912; a question had been asked in the Houses of Parliament by the MP George Lansbury about the appalling treatment of William Ball. Ball was sent to Pentonville for smashing two panes of glass at the Home Office on behalf of the women’s cause, and was force-fed so roughly that he lost his mind and ended up being sent – without the consent or notification of his wife – to Colney Hatch asylum. In fact, there were a lot of surprises in my research as to how many men got behind the women’s suffrage movement. And contrary to that, just how many women were so-called ‘antis’, believing that to disrupt the status quo would be to bring chaos on the country.
One scene that I wished I could have included was about the history of the Daily Mirror newspaper. It was originally founded in 1903 by Fleet Street magnate Alfred Harmsworth as a women’s newspaper, written by and for women. However when it flopped six months later, the blame was placed entirely on the gender of the readers and writers. ‘Women can’t write and don’t want to read’ was Harmsworth’s famous damning statement on the matter. He sacked the lot of them and re-launched it later as a pictorial newspaper, after which it became a success. I thought this was very interesting in light of Frankie’s attempts to break free from the Ladies’ Page of the London Evening Gazette, but recounting it all did seem a bit laborious in the final draft and at the end of the day the story of the novel has to take precedence over historical information. I might put the scene on my website though in the future.
If you could go back in time and meet any one of the suffragettes, who would it be?
I would be petrified of any of them! But probably I’d like to shake the hand of Isabel Kelley, the woman who broke into the Kinnaird Hall in Dundee via a skylight, dressed as a gymnast, whose actions triggered the opening of the book. I think her protest was self-sacrificing (she had to keep hidden on the roof for seventeen hours beforehand), creative and above all peaceful. That is the kind of protest I admire the most.
And finally, after readers have enjoyed The Hourglass Factory, what other book would you recommend they read next?
Ooooo lots! Well, for readers interested in the suffragettes, the two books I mentioned above, Falling Angels and No Surrender are amazing. For a bigger and punchier seamy-London-fix definitely Wise Children and Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter – in fact they should be mandatory reading anyway, they’re just so good. Two of my favourite historical fiction novels are Beatrice Colin’s The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite (set in Berlin in the early twentieth century) and Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, about a tattoo artist who moves from Morecambe to Coney Island. My favourite historical crime novel is The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. His follow up, The Death Instinct, is also great (feel privileged, Jed: you’re the only man in there!).
Get to know the author - a little bit about Lucy.
I’m a dance and fiction writer based in Edinburgh. Many moons ago I studied English at the University of St Andrews, and later Shakespearean Studies at Kings College London and Shakespeare’s Globe. I then embarked on a strange and waggly career path organising parties at a boutique cinema in London, working for Al Jazeera television network, freelance writing while living in Spain, and later coordinating the National Trust for Scotland’s annual cruises (where I worked onboard a ship, swam with icebergs, set foot on St Kilda, and finally learned how to ceilidh dance).
I won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2013, and now work as a freelance dance journalist and adult education tutor, alongside fiction writing. When I’m not doing any of those things I like to make origami jewellery out of old book paper.
I have a retired greyhound called Buster whom you will see a lot of if you follow me on Twitter @LucyRibchester
Image Credit - Kuba Kolinski
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