Today I am lucky enough to be joined by the author of The Woman in The Picture Katharine McMahon. She has answered some questions for you all today to celebrate the launch of her novel which came out yesterday, here's a bit about the book...
The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon (published by Orion in paperback on 30 July, £7.99)The page-turning sequel to THE CRIMSON ROOMS by the author of bestselling Richard & Judy Book Club pick, THE ROSE OF SEBASTOPOL.London, 1926. Evie Gifford, one of the first female lawyers in Britain, is not a woman who lets convention get in her way. She has left her family home following a devastating love affair, much to her mother's disapproval.London is tense in the days leading up to the General Strike and Evelyn throws herself into two very different cases - one involving a family with links to the unions and the other a rich man who claims not to be the father of his wife's child. Evie is confronting the hardest challenge of her career when she is faced with an unexpected proposal - just as her former lover returns. How can she possibly choose between security with a man she admires and passion for the man who betrayed her?Katharine McMahon is the author of nine novels and a magistrate who lives in London.
Thank you so much to Katharine for stopping by today, the book is out in hardback and its lush!
1. Evelyn is a woman ‘doing a man’s job’ at the time the novel is set. While she is certainly feminine, her head rules her heart. Is she typical of the heroines you have created, or more of a departure?
Evelyn is something of a departure because she’s a pioneer in the law and is fully qualified in that subject. My previous heroines such as Rosa in The Rose of Sebastopol or Emilie in The Alchemist’s Daughter generally take on an entirely unconventional role because as women they have little or no opportunity to train professionally. Evelyn is highly educated and is struggling to find her feet in a competitive male environment – her nearest counterpart in my fiction is Bess Hardemon in Confinement.
Evelyn has to be hard-headed in order to survive. She is working within the structure of a legal system based on precedent. But she does things her own way, partly because she has to. She is not supported by the entrenched conventions of the legal profession as her male peers are. And while this makes life hard for her, it also gives her the freedom to do things her own way.
2. It’s clear that you’ve done quite a bit of research before writing The Woman in the Picture. Have you stuck closely to the facts, or has there been some artistic flexibility?
This is a novel set during the General Strike of 1926, a surprisingly slippery period of our history. As always with historical research, ‘facts’ are often quite hard to establish. There aren’t many ‘facts’, for example, about the early women lawyers, let alone about what they were up to during the General Strike. There are, however, some brilliant clues. I know that some pioneering women in the law, for instance, didn’t want to confuse their work with the suffragette cause; they wanted to fight one battle at a time. Women’s opinion was also sharply divided as to whether to support the strikers or to become actively involved in shoring up the establishment by volunteering to do men’s work during the strike. The General Strike, like many other historical moments of crisis, gave women the opportunity to step beyond their conventional roles.
Part of a novelist’s task, I maintain, is to find these unique perspectives on so-called ‘facts’. Because I am creating a fiction, I am looking at history from a very idiosyncratic viewpoint, but I am not being flexible; I am being clear-sighted.
3. Many themes are explored in the novel: the place of women; class in British society; politics; race; friendship; family ties. Which theme was the most exciting, or stimulating, to write about?
I don’t think or write with themes in mind. Most of all I want to tell a cracking story, but my characters and my research take me in wholly unexpected and often quite thematic directions. Of all the themes in this book, it is women’s role within the domestic setting which I found most stimulating – perhaps because Evelyn is so determined to step outside of it. I was very interested in the Russell Case, which inspired Annabel Petit’s story, and this strand is poignantly balanced by that of domestic abuse of a much more explicit and brutal kind, which unfortunately is a recurring theme in law reports of the time.
4. As a writer, what is it that draws you to particular historical contexts, as opposed to the present day?
I’m excited by our connections with the past and I think we forget them at our peril. I like the fact that in taking a long view we can see where we’ve come from. I find that the past sheds a fascinating light on the present. I happen to be quite involved with the criminal justice system through my work as a magistrate, and what is happening in our modern world to do with the debate over human rights, for example, with funding in the family courts or with how women progress in the law is given a sharper emphasis because I am engaged in examining the past. But I am writing about the past from the point of view of a twenty-first-century woman and I find that double perspective very exciting.
5 Are any of your characters in the novel based on real people – a politician, for example, or a lawyer? A member of the aristocracy?
My characters grow from the germ of an idea. Often I’ll use the traits of people who have made a personal impact on me, which is why I never initially base characters on people I haven’t met such as celebrities or aristocrats. That said, an impact can be swiftly made. I remember meeting a local MP once who came across as extraordinarily ambitious – whilst shaking hands and holding conversations he glanced repeatedly about to see who else was in the room and whether they were potentially more useful. When I began to build the character of Timmo Petit I remembered that brief encounter and how irrelevant it had made people feel, and that provided a clue as to what it would feel like to be Annabel Petit, married to the likes of such a man. But once I’d begun to build Petit I looked to other politicians of the time and realised that a particularly charismatic and complex figure was Oswald Mosley, who swapped his political allegiances – and his wife - in pursuit of his ideology, desire and ambition.
6 How much do you think things have changed for women, both personally and in terms of wider society, since 1926?
That’s a very complicated question because I think our role now is much more complex than it was in 1926. It has taken nearly a hundred years since Evelyn Gifford’s day for us to have one woman judge in the supreme court, for instance. And we have not resolved the problem of who is to raise our children or how important close contact with a nurturing parent is in the early years, as opposed to full-time child care. We still think immensely long working hours, even whilst raising children, are acceptable, either because people are struggling to earn enough or because they are wedded forcibly or otherwise to their professional lives. Women are still vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse – as are men. So things might have changed, but they haven’t got simpler, that’s for sure.
7 Do you have any influences, in terms of other writers? Do you have a favourite book or one that sparked a desire to write?
I was an obsessive reader as a little girl and one of my favourite books was Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs. I loved the romance and the mystery and the wit. Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Handsand One Pair of Feet were other favourites, devoured time after time: self-deprecating, witty, firmly rooted in reality. My greatest influence, as an emerging writer, was probably Penelope Fitzgerald – I think her novels The Blue Flower and The Beginning of Spring are delicate and bold. And of course for bad times or flat times or just times when the brain is thirsty, Jane Austen.
Since I feel the cold terribly I wouldn’t want to go back in time for long. I love Regency frocks but have no idea how Jane Austen and her pals kept warm in them.
But to spend a few months as a beautiful and wealthy widow, a patron of the arts, in about 1600 would have been amazing – I’d perhaps have been able to arrange a few chats with Mr Shakespeare, which would be worth any amount of time travel.
I’d also like a trip back to about 1850 London so long as I could engineer conversations with Charlotte Bronte, Florence Nightingale and the extraordinary Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon.
9 Do you have any rituals that accompany your writing process – for example, do you write in a specific place, between certain hours, with or without music in the background?
My life is full of rituals. I don’t know any other way of getting things done. I work rigorously between certain hours, have breaks at certain times, do the same things in those breaks (a bit of housework, make coffee, make a phone call). I only work on emails at certain times of the day. We moved recently to a small flat and I now work in a hut in the garden which suits me perfectly. It is small, very warm, very snug, with a window overlooking next door’s trees. I can hear the bustle of the street but am not part of it.