People often ask me what inspired me to write The Apothecary’s Daughter.
How it began.
People often ask, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’, as if there is a particular store where you can go to pick up a bargain.
It’s true that sometimes a dazzling idea for a new novel pops into my head but, alas, it’s never fully formed. For me, a novel takes time to grow; I have to live with an idea, running it like a constant sub-text in the back of my mind while I ask myself questions such as, ‘What if? ‘and ‘How?’
When I finished my previous novel, set in World War II, I decided I had enjoyed the research so much that I’d like to write a proper historical novel. (The second world war happened in my parent’s lifetimes so that hardly counted as historical in my book.)
Where to begin?
What period of history really interested me and hadn’t been overworked? I’d studied very little history at school. Henry VIII came up on the syllabus two years running and I remembered something about the Enclosure Act and the Potato Famine. There were rows of Regency Romances on the bookshop shelves but, although I wanted to write a love story, I didn’t fancy writing a category romance. Phillippa Gregory had cornered the market with her wonderful novels based in the Tudor period. But Charles II interested me, partly because I loved his flamboyant clothes and he always seemed to be having such fun with his mistresses.
My father lent me his copy of the Diary of Samuel Pepys. I took it to bed with me one winter’s evening and fell asleep over it in the small hours.
What fascinated me was how very vivid and alive it all was, even after over three hundred and forty years. Pepys’ character shone through and as I read about his worries and joys, his sense of humour and his misbehavior, it struck me that people from history were as much flesh and blood as you or I. They may have had a different perspective, coloured by political and social attitudes of the day but they still fell in love, worried about their businesses and grieved if someone they loved died.
Since my own historical knowledge was mostly derived from reading novels, I started to research the seventeenth century more widely. There was plenty going on; civil wars, religious fervor, plagues, great fires, kings being beheaded.
Unusually, it wasn’t a character who settled it but a city. I found an old map of the City of London before the Great Fire of 1666. I pored over it for hours, mentally walking the narrow streets, alleys and courts of Restoration London.
I began to imagine what it would have been like to live there. The timber framed houses were cramped together, all higgledy-piggledy with the first floors jettied out over the street and cutting out the daylight below. Sewage ran in open drains. I had a sepia picture in mind of a dark and airless city, hot and stinking in the summer, bone-chillingly cold in the winter with a permanent pall of smog and the stench of the tanneries hanging over everything.
Then I visited India
I was shocked by the close juxtaposition of great wealth and the utmost poverty. People lived in the streets in little shelters fashioned from packing cases, making fires and cooking in the open, while dogs nosed about in the heaps of detritus that banked up against the buildings. Suddenly my vision of Restoration London was brought to life in glorious Technicolor!
London was a cosmopolitan city, even then.
The docks were noisy, busy and smelly. Business flourished in the coffee houses. Rum, sugar, slaves and tobacco were traded. I wanted to paint a rich, sensual picture in words of what it felt like to be a part of that world. But how would I deal with the sensitive subject of slavery in such a way that it was a true reflection of the times but without upsetting the modern day reader?
I began to imagine a young woman living in this bustling, malodorous city. Who was she? I pictured her green eyes, as clear as water, and her chestnut hair shining out through all the grime. She would be strong, impatient perhaps, but able to cope with everything that life threw at her. Susannah came into being.
Then, visiting a second hand book shop, I bought a copy of Culpepper’s Herbal and suddenly Susannah’s purpose became clear; she would be an apothecary. Except, of course, that there were no female apothecaries. Women in the seventeenth century either stayed at home with their family, married or worked as a servant.
What would happen if a young woman, contentedly helping her father in his apothecary shop, was suddenly ousted from her home? And what if the plague stalked the streets and friends and family were dying like flies around her? Who could she turn to? How would she live? What would happen to her? Well, you’ll just have to read The Apothecary’s Daughter to find out. Here is the opening.
Inside the apothecary shop Susannah stood by the light of the window, daydreaming and grinding flowers of sulphur into a malodorous dust as she watched the world go by. Fleet Street, as always, was as busy as an anthill. The morning’s snow was already dusted with soot from the noxious cloud blown in from the kilns at Limehouse and the frost made icebergs of the surging effluent in the central drain. Church bells clanged and dogs barked while a ceaseless stream of people flowed past.
Susannah’s eye was drawn by the tall figure of a man in a sombre hat and cloak picking his way over the snow. Something about the way he moved amongst the hubbub of the crowd, like a wolf slipping silently through the forest, captured her curiosity …