Jane Healey’s The Animals of Lockwood Manor won the 2020 HWA Debut Crown Award, which celebrates new voices in historical fiction. In this atmospheric gothic tale of family madness, long-buried secrets and hidden desires, a young woman is given the task of safeguarding a natural history collection as it is transported out of London during the Second World War. Jane talks to Harriet Stevens for Historia about her win and her love of writing historical fiction.
Firstly, congratulations, Jane. How does it feel to win the HWA Debut Crown?
It was a lovely surprise, in a bit of a trying year. I was just so thrilled to be longlisted and then shortlisted. Also, because I’m not getting feedback in book shops and events, I don’t hear from readers. So it was wonderful to know it was well-received.
What inspired you to write the novel?
I’ve always been interested in gothic literature. I did a Master’s degree at Edinburgh University, where my dissertation was especially on Jane Eyre and its literacy descendants – Rebecca, Wide Sargasso Sea and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle – so I knew hazily that I was interested in writing gothic stories set in an old house.
But then, when I was researching online, I came across an article about the Natural History Museum evacuating its collections during World War Two. There was a line about the evacuation of its collection to stately homes, including Fawley Court near Henley, where a Major and his daughter had a contentious relationship with the evacuated museum and its workers. And that line sparked something for me. It would be an amazing setting, having an old gothic mansion but filled to the brim with taxidermy and bones – the whole collection. I thought that kind of tension between the museum, its collection, and the owners would be fascinating and exciting to explore.
How did you find the research process? Was there anything that you focused on in particular?
I really, really enjoyed it. I did a lot of research, despite already having a basis in the genre. Reading diaries and novels from the era to get the diction right, reading books that were published then, and reprints of classics. And I did some taxidermy research, and some cursory research on the Natural History Museum.
I made the decision to not go into their actual archives, because I knew I wanted my book to be gothic. It’s centred on a family, and the animals are made out to be in danger when they weren’t in real life. And I knew, because it was gothic, that my heroine had to be isolated there, when in real life there were several workers. There would have been oversight by the government, having people coming and going. I knew she had to be by herself… I didn’t want to be trapped by the historical details. I hope readers think that it’s obvious that it’s not a true story.
Are there any particularly interesting discoveries you made while writing this novel? Anything that shocked you?
This isn’t related at all to the novel, but I read Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime: Britain. One detail in there that stuck in my mind was that in 1940 about 15,000 Londoners used to take trains out to spend the night in the Chislehurst caves. They had a dance hall there, a children’s hospital, a cinema and a canteen.
How did it feel to publish your first novel compared to the other things you’ve had published?
Wonderful! I’ve previously had short stories published and poetry, as a child, in an anthology. It was amazing to get the first proof and then get the hardback and hold it in my hands.
Any advice for aspiring historians? Or people who are writing historical fiction?
Read a lot! Obviously, read historical and non-historical novels. See what’s out there, spend a lot of time in bookshops and see where your book would go, on the shelf or on a table, and then read all those books.
Decide at the beginning what level of research you want to do. Don’t be intimidated by some of the historical novels that are so historically accurate. Don’t be intimidated by research and think you have to do ten years of it; there is so much information out there now, especially online. Just enjoy the content from the eras, like novels, or films and music, as well as looking at archival material.
What historical periods fascinate you, which you might write about in the future?
I think, the 20th century. Any time from the 1920s to the 1950s. I really like a lot of this period for the material details of the setting, like the clothes, the food and the music. I love reading books from those eras.
Can you describe your book in five words?
Gothic. Romantic, Dark. Soft. Sharp-toothed.
Finally, are there any upcoming projects that you are working on?
Yes! My second novel is coming out in July and that’s half set in 1973 and half in 1997.
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey was published on 5 March, 2020. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2013, the Costa Short Story Award 2014, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2016 and the Penguin Random House WriteNow mentoring programme 2017. Her next novel, The Ophelia Girls, comes out on 22 July, 2021.
See more about the 2020 HWA Crown Awards.
The HWA Crown Awards for 2021 are open for nominations until 30 April, 2021.
Read Historia’s interview with Andrew Taylor, winner of the 2020 HWA Gold Crown Award.
About our guest interviewer, Harriet Stevens: I am a second-year university student, studying journalism and publishing at Bath Spa University. Historical novels and events have always been something that interest me and I was so excited to get the chance to be involved with Historia magazine and the HWA Awards. I look forward to continuing my career in journalism and creative writing, while hopefully travelling and experiencing as many cultures as I can.