Saturday, July 15, 2023

Q&A with Katie Lumsden




Katie Lumsden is the author of the new novel The Secrets of Hartwood Hall. She lives in London.


Q: You’ve described The Secrets of Hartwood Hall as being “in conversation with Jane Eyre.” Could you say more about that?


A: I’ve loved Victorian literature for a long time, and that all started with Jane Eyre. I first read it when I was 13 years old, and it hugely changed my reading, opening up a new world of classic literature to me. I quickly became passionately interested in Victorian literature and history, and that longstanding interest has really influenced my writing.


The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is, I suppose, a love letter to Victorian literature. It’s filled with references to Victorian novels and with Victorian and gothic tropes used in different ways. Jane Eyre was one of the main influences, along with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall [by Anne Brontë].


I wanted to begin with a common Victorian setup – the opening is reminiscent of Jane Eyre, with a new governess taking up a position in a mysterious country house that clearly holds a few secrets – but I wanted to take that setup and do something different, questioning and twisting Victorian tropes.


For me, writing historical fiction about the Victorian period is a chance to re-examine Victorian history and literature. The Secrets of Hartwood Hall isn’t exactly a retelling of Jane Eyre or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but nor would it exist without those books having come first.


Q: The writer Sarah Penner said of the book, “Ultimately a story about women and the haunting secrets they keep, Lumsden’s debut reminds us never to trust first appearances.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: It rings fairly true to me. The first scene that came to me for The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is one in which Margaret Lennox, the protagonist, is talking to Mrs. Eversham, her employer, about marriage. They’re both widows, and they’re both keeping secrets. They are not really talking openly to one another, but Margaret is still aware of some connection between them.


A lot of the characters in the novel are hiding things. Margaret is trying to uncover the secrets of the place in which she works, but she is also keeping secrets of her own – from those around her, from the reader, and to a certain extent from herself.


I really like what Sarah Penner said about not trusting appearances – because it applies to a lot of the characters, but I hope to the novel, too. On the surface, at first glance, The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is a Jane Eyre retelling, a Victorian story about a governess in a house with secrets – but as the novel goes on, I hope you’ll find that it becomes something quite different.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I’ve loved Victorian history for so long that, in a way, I feel like I’ve been researching to write The Secrets of Hartwood Hall most of my life. A lot of the background research I might have had to do regarding daily life in the Victorian period, etc, was already in my mind.


I did do a lot of more specific historical research, though. My favourite kind of research is reading primary sources, texts written at the time, so I read handbooks and advice books for governesses from the 1840s and 1850s, which were fascinating, and I read a medical handbook for doctors from the 1840s, which was hugely helpful.


I read old folklore about South West England and Victorian descriptions and accounts of that part of the world. I reread some of my favourite Victorian novels that examine the daily life of governesses, like Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey. 


I didn’t meet with that many surprises, but reading the medical handbook from the 1840s was especially fascinating. There are so many ways in which Victorian medical knowledge was far more advanced than we might think, and so many ways in which it wasn’t.


They knew a lot about infectious diseases, for example – although this was before the germ theory, doctors of the 1840s had a clear idea of the practical steps required to limit the spread of disease. But there were other issues, especially around women’s health and bodies, where knowledge was very limited.


In the novel, Margaret and her late husband Richard were trying for several years to conceive a child, so I wanted to research Victorian understanding of struggles with fertility. The medical handbook I read had one page on what it called “barrenness,” and the contents could be summed up as: some women can’t have children, but we have no idea why. It was grimly fascinating.


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I always had the big things about the ending in mind as I went along – I’m the kind of writer who plans a lot before beginning a novel – but some of the specifics did change. I’m also the kind of writer who edits a lot; between the rounds of edits I did on my own and the edits I did with my agent and editors, I must have done more than 10 drafts of the book.


The novel changed very dramatically from the first draft to the final draft – Susan, for example, was an entirely different character in the first draft, and any plot points surrounding her came later. However, the middle sections of the book probably changed more than the ending itself.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a new novel, which is also set in the early Victorian period but is quite different from The Secrets of Hartwood Hall. This new novel isn’t gothic at all, and it has a much bigger cast of characters – something that I find huge fun to write.


I’d say that if The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is a love letter to the Brontës, then the new book is a love letter to Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, and Anthony Trollope. But I won’t say more than that!


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As well as writing, I also review and recommend books on my YouTube channel, “Books and Things” (, where you can find me talking about historical fiction, classics, and much more.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment