Janet Ellis is best known to my generation as a presenter on the much-loved children’s television programme “Blue Peter” in the 1980s when, among numerous craft projects involving stickyback plastic, she gamely threw herself out of aeroplanes doing freefall jumps with the RAF. To others she is perhaps more famous as the mother of glamorous pop star Sophie Ellis Bextor. But this February sees the publication of her début novel, The Butcher’s Hook (Two Roads), and Janet Ellis, author, may be about to overshadow all of her previous incarnations.
For The Butcher’s Hook is terrific. Set in London in 1763, it is narrated by 19-year-old Anne Jaccob, the daughter of well-to-do parents who has led a sheltered life but not a particularly pleasant one. Her father is a churlish, ill- tempered boor whose chief pleasure is haranguing the servants, and her mother is grief-stricken and remote after numerous miscarriages. Lessons with a tutor, her father’s great friend Dr Edwards, were a welcome escape from her home life, but these stopped abruptly when he took advantage of his young charge and now Anne is adrift. She finds a new diversion in the virile form of Fub, the butcher’s boy, for whom she conceives a passion. But Anne is no 18th-century milquetoast heroine in love. Her savagely witty observations of those around her reveal a sharp and cunning mind and it becomes clear over the course of the novel that she has an entirely different moral agenda to everyone else—and that her desire for Fub, and for revenge, will lead somewhere completely unexpected.
In Anne Jaccobs, Ellis has shaped a truly memorable heroine but when we meet at her publisher’s offices she admits to feeling slightly daunted about creating a character “who is inherently dislikeable. It takes you back to the playground; you spend all your time wanting to be liked, or certainly wanting to be forgiven for things”. Yet Ellis, who is every bit as warm and chatty as she appears on television, also found writing Anne liberating: “I so enjoyed being her. I trained as an actress so I suppose it goes back to that notion of improvisation and how far can you take it. What’s missing of course [when writing] is the look in the other actors’ eyes or the feeling from the audience, so I had to trust my way in the dark with Anne. But in the end she and I were just rattling along and I thought, ‘well, who cares if they don’t like me!’”
Georgian London is vividly evoked in the novel as Anne traipses around the city on her way to clandestine meetings with Fub and when on other, more nefarious activities. “I’ve always been interested in the notion that history is us,” says Ellis. “That somebody waking up in Georgian London, or Roman London, has the same emotions [as we do].” The Georgian age holds a particular thrall: “I love the look of it. I love the imaginary smell of it and the jostle and the chaos. It was a time when things were quite stable really, it was just before the Industrial Revolution but there wasn’t a sense of being held back. There was no great religious conflict and they were perfectly happy at that point with George III.”
She was also fascinated by a time when, as a woman “all you pretty much knew was what you’d been told. Your frames of reference were so limited. If, as with Anne, [learning] stops abruptly, then if you have a vivid imagination you go on creating the details for yourself.” Anne is someone trying to work out the world, Ellis says, specifically the world of 1763, but also the world in her head.
The Butcher’s Hook manages to avoid one of the pitfalls of historical fiction—cramming research into the novel at the expense of pace—partly Ellis thinks, as a result of her having judged the Costa First Novel Award in 2012: “I know how hard it is. Once you know something, especially something really interesting, you want to tell everyone about it. But [the characters] are people— don’t let anything get in the way of that. Just because they have wigs on their heads or tricorn hats, they are still behaving like people.”
Ellis started writing The Butcher’s Hook in April last year and had produced 3,000 words (coincidentally the minimum submission requirement) when she was accepted into the Curtis Brown Creative Writing School. She waited so long to start writing a novel partly out of fear, but also a “happily distracted laziness”, yet the course, led by Erin Kelly, provided the fillip she needed. It was also, she says, “the first time in my adult life that I properly accepted criticism”. She adds: “I’ve got plenty of friends who are writers and I’ve shown them things before and they’ve said: ‘Yes, but . . .’ And the minute I heard that I thought: ‘I can’t do it!’ The knowledge that you can move a whole chapter around, you can flip characters, you can change events and [the writing] doesn’t all slip through your fingers like water—it still stays if it’s strong enough—[it] was such a liberation, I can’t tell you.”
After the course finished in July, Curtis Brown agent Gordon Wise expressed an interest in seeing more, sending Ellis into a panic. “I said to my husband: ‘He doesn’t understand—there’s not a book!’” But she did have a bit more material (“if I have a really strong idea for a scene I will write it way out of context, as I know at some point it’s going to have to happen, so I had random little bits, like a kind of pinboard”) and managed to deliver a first draft in November 2014.
The novel was then submitted to publishers under the pseudonym Jo Winter (Ellis’ maternal grandmother’s name), an interesting tactic given that so many submissions must be fighting for attention and a recognisable author name would surely be an advantage? It was Wise’s suggestion, she says, to “make it about the book” rather than her name. And, she observes shrewdly, if it had been rejected under Jo Winter they could have had “a second bite of the cherry” submitting under her real name. But, in the event, that was unnecessary. The book prompted a three-publisher auction in the UK, and then a two-book deal with the victor, Two Roads, which declared itself “surprised and delighted” to discover the identity of their author.
Which brings us to the delicate issue of novels purporting to be “written” by famous names off the telly (many of whom, one suspects, might struggle to write a shopping list unaided, let alone a full-length novel). Ellis is amused: “I can’t imagine the equivalent of anything I’d want to put my name to that I hadn’t done. I don’t want someone else to run a mile very quickly and then for me to stand at the finish line [claiming to be] out of breath. The amount of effort that goes into writing a book—every word of that is mine!” And every word of it is really very good.
Picture: Leigh Quinnell
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 11th December 2015.