The pleasures of time travel
February 2011 (Note: this article was originally published in Grapevine 2009)
Alumna Rebecca Stott (English and Art, Alcuin, 1986) tells YorkSpace about York and her passion for history.
‘Crossing multiple time boundaries’ is how the author and alumna Rebecca Stott describes her approach to researching her historical novels.
In her latest novel The Coral Thief, which has been praised for its the level of historical detail, she saturated herself in the year 1815 until it became ‘an obsession’. “I wanted to send people in there to see what Paris was like, then, what it smelt like, what it sounded like, what it felt like to come of age there, intellectually and emotionally.”
It was when she was studying at York that she first discovered the excitement and importance of ‘boundary crossing’ when undertaking historical research, she explains. A graduate in English and Art History, she says, that, “Doing a joint degree taught me the benefit of combining my interests. For me my characters are explorers.” At York she completed an MA and PhD while raising her son, Jacob, born in 1984.
“Finding time to research in depth was a challenge. Now that I have the luxury of more time, I usually spend a year or so working out what I need to know before I begin writing, Having a good background knowledge of historical times and issues means I can literally travel back in time as I write.”
Rebecca’s first novel, Ghostwalk, was published in 2007, and was translated into 12 different languages. It was also shortlisted for the Jelf First Novel Award, the Society of Authors First Novel Award and long listed for the Impac Dublin Literary Award. The Coral Thief was featured on Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime programme in January, and like Ghostwalk, weaves a blend of history, ideas and scienctific discoveries. It is set in 1815 Paris just after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo, a period in time she describes as ‘a vortex’.
“Napoleon had been cock-of-the-roost in Europe for more than ten years, conquering one European country after another. He had plundered hundreds of palaces then sent back the spoils to Paris so that the museums, libraries and galleries in the city were full to the rafters with paintings, rare books and unique natural history collections. Then it comes crashing down as Napoleon is defeated.”
Into this vortex drops Daniel Connor, a young, ambitious, slightly self-regarding medical student eager to take up a prestigious job at the Jardin des Plantes. Under Napoleon, the Paris academics had been granted unprecedented authority, freedom and money in their quest for knowledge. In this environment, Daniel hopes to achieve success not through the advantages of birth but on his own merits. But by now Napoleon has been captured. The imperial city is a military encampment for the Allied forces and its looted riches are being reclaimed. Rumors persist that Napoleon’s armies wait in the quarries beneath the city, ready to mount their counter-attack.
Before he even reaches the city, Daniel encounters a woman whose revolutionary theories about the origins of the earth shock and thrill him. But later, discovering that she has left, taking his things, he is forced to choose between seeking the help of an ex-thief, or attempting to recover his possessions alone. His choice leads him into a love affair and a criminal underworld in which he is completely out of his depth.
As well working as a freelance writer and broadcaster, Rebecca is Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The author of several academic and non-fiction books, she is now working on a history of evolutionists before Darwin. Entitled Infidels, it has a much broader ‘time-travel’ brief than her novels, starting in Lesbos with Aristotle in 340 BC and then taking a route across time and landscape to arrive back at Darwin in the early 19th century, via Basra, Paris, Baghdad and Berlin.
“Some people say that historical fiction writing is escapist,” she says. “But that is only if the novelist fails to see the connections between past and present, which is why I value what I learnt at York. The Coral Thief is about science, religion, and freedom of thought – these subjects are not likely to stop being important for a while yet.”