Antonia Hodgson’s new novel, A Death at Fountains Abbey, is released on 25 August. Continuing the award-winning Thomas Hawkins series (The Devil in the Marshalsea, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins) the book finds our eponymous hero blackmailed into investigating a murder threat, forced to leave London for Yorkshire, where he must hunt down those responsible or lose the woman he loves.
Katherine Clements caught up with Antonia on the eve of publication, to talk about her inspirations, the real characters and events behind the story and what’s next for everyone’s favourite rogue, Thomas Hawkins.
Your new book, A Death at Fountains Abbey, is the third to feature Tom. Did you set out to write a series?
I didn’t set out to write a series because when I was writing the first one I wasn’t sure whether anyone would publish it. It felt presumptuous to imagine that someone would like it. That’s not false modesty – I knew it was a-typical and, with my publisher’s hat on, I wondered if it was really the sort of thing that people would want. But while I was writing and getting to know Tom, and other characters were coming through, I did think it would be fun to continue. When my agent submitted the manuscript, we made it clear that I’d like to write a sequel but I was also open to other things.
What came first – the character of Tom or your interest in the period?
They were sort of concurrent. I’d written a previous book over five years and it didn’t work out. There was one part set in the early 1700’s and I realised I didn’t know much about the period. I started looking into it and found it really fascinating. It reminded me how much I’d loved Moll Flanders and Gulliver’s Travels, which I studied at university. I also realised It’s not a period that’s covered very much. I’m always intrigued by the bits of history that aren’t so well known. I like the weird, obscure stuff.
Once you start looking at that period you do keep coming up against the character of the young rake, the drinker and gambler. I was interested in a character who’s living that kind of lifestyle – the literary trope of the libertine – but who isn’t really as bad as he thinks he is. I thought it would be fun to put this character into certain situations and that’s how I got to the debtors prison. It went from there.
And what attracted you about Georgian London in particular?
Partly the fact that the period was neglected but I was also drawn to the humour and wit of the time, with the burgeoning of satire in the media. It was quite subversive. London was the heart of power and government. They were proud of their constitutional monarchy (as opposed to the absolute monarchies that still existed in Europe) and it was seen almost as a duty to hold the powers that be to account. People were quite outspoken. London became the biggest capital in the world and started to become the modern city that we might recognise today, with the diversity of people, all close together with very little privacy and no police force. It was a natural place for there to be a lot of drama – thrilling and dangerous.
It’s clear when you talk about it that you love doing the research. What are your favourite sources?
There will often be specific primary sources that I use a lot for a specific novel. For example for The Devil in the Marshalsea, there was a prison diary by John Grano who was in the Marshalsea during the time I set the novel. There was also a relevant trail and a prison committee enquiry. What I love about the primary sources is you get the cadence and informality of speech. You get a much better idea of how people actually spoke by looking at things like that.
I also return to certain books and certain historians, such as M. Dorothy George. The Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century is one of my favourites. That kind of resource is so valuable for detail. One of the best resources I found was an anthology of erotica that is very explicit but it gave me an idea of attitudes to sex and the language around it.
That brings me nicely to a question about the language you’ve used. I think the language has quite a modern feel to it without losing a sense of the period. What decisions did you make when approaching this notoriously tricky aspect of writing historical fiction?
My main concern is not writing something that feels like a pastiche. The biggest decision was writing in the first person and that makes a lot of decisions for you. In Tom I have a character who wouldn’t stop and describe things in great detail – he’s just not going to do that. So that helps me not get caught up in details because he wouldn’t be – he’d be too busy drinking! That helps keep it tight. Beyond that I try to use common vocabulary and phrases. And then there’s the swearing! Maybe they didn’t use that language in exactly the same way we do now but those words were used and it’s a good way to remind people that these characters were not so different from us. It helps bring the period closer while maintaining a sense of it. It’s a balance.
In the new book you’ve moved from London to Yorkshire and in particular Fountains Abbey – recently voted the most inspirational National Trust property by HWA members. Obviously it’s inspiring to you, but why the move?
I was first drawn to write about John Aislabie’s water gardens, which were being created in the 1720s. What was interesting to me was that it’s actually the water gardens that are attached to the Abbey that give the site World Heritage status, not the abbey itself – a nerdy historical fact!
John Aislabie was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the South Sea crash and I’d already wanted to write something about that. It happened in 1720 but, like our own global collapse in 2008, had so many long-reaching repercussions across society. Aislabie was thrown into political exile and spent the rest of his life doing up his garden. It was a great metaphor – the eighteenth century landscape garden is all about control – and I liked the idea of this man who was still trying to control his surroundings. He never took any responsibility for what he’d done or apologised. He saw himself as the victim. I was interested in someone who was unable or unwilling to face the consequences of their actions.
And I do like to try and do something different with each book. For this one, I liked the idea of writing a country house murder mystery.
Did you miss writing about London?
Yes and no. It was good to take a break and do something different.
In the second book we were introduced to some well-known historical figures, namely Queen Caroline and Henrietta Howard. You’ve already mentioned John Aislabie in this new one. Have you felt more pressure to get the history right when dealing with well-documented lives?
First of all you’ve got basic facts that you have to work with. There are certain rocks in the road that you can’t just run over. I also feel a slight duty to their characters. With John Aislabie I felt a duty not to turn him into a villain. With Charles Howard in the second book, it was simpler; he was described as a monster by his contemporaries. But Aislabie is a much more complicated figure, like most people. I felt a duty not to turn him into a caricature, but you hope for that with your fictional characters too. I find that dealing with a real person reminds me to keep things nuanced.
Do the historical facts ever get in the way of the story?
Of course, sometimes you come across a real dramatic event that you’d like to include but can’t because the timing is wrong. But all these things help you. I’m a big believer that limitations are positive. Sometimes it’s good to have restrictions so you can flourish within that.
And have you enjoyed the contrast of writing about these high society figures, as opposed to the criminal underworld that we got to know in the Marshalsea?
I wouldn’t just write about monarchs for the sake of it, especially because, in the period I’m dealing with (1720s), George II was quite dull! But I wanted to write about Queen Caroline because she was a really extraordinary woman. She probably had more in common with, for example, James Fleet, the criminal gang leader, because she was controlling all the people around her. She was political person. It’s more about intriguing characters in their own right – if she’d been a coffee house owner she would have been an extraordinary woman. That’s what drew me in.
I think I have a natural inclination to write about what would have been referred to as the ‘middling sort’ or the ‘lower sort’, partly because there was so much going in there in this period. That’s where the stories are. I can see the appeal of writing about someone like Henry VIII who is almost a mythical figure, with a story that can be retold over and over again and I love reading about that stuff. But I do like writing about street level history and I like the fact that my period doesn’t have any famous wars or a glamorous monarch. There’s room for both.
When I’m writing I try very hard not to let it have any impact – the last thing you want is to have an editor on your shoulder while writing. I don’t think you should edit until the first draft is done. It would become a straightjacket. That said, where it helps me is when it comes to having conversations with my editor and staff at my publishers, because I already know about the background and the process. And I get a lot out of working creatively with my authors because it’s always useful to see how others approach their work. It’s invaluable to talk with people who are in the same boat – that’s one of the nicest things about groups like HWA!
So, are you able to tell us what’s next for Tom Hawkins?
I’m just starting book four. I can’t say much without giving away spoilers but it is set back in London. I am enjoying it – it’s slightly different again and I’ve got other characters I’m very much looking forward to exploring.