If Katharine Grant’s adult début Sedition (Virago, January) needed a subtitle, Girls Gone Wild would be ideal. Set in London in 1794, while the French Revolution is intensifying across the seas in Paris, it follows the plight of four fevered and corseted young ladies, set to be married off by their slightly desperate fathers.
The fathers—Drigg, Frogmorton, Brass and Sawneyford —come up with what they believe is an ingenious plan to marry off their offspring. The squabbling sisters Everina and Marriane and their friends Harriet, Georgiana and Alathea will host a piano concert to show off their talents and secure husbands of the right stock. In steps Monsieur Belladroit, a Parisian émigré and a talented pianist, who puts on a respectable front to become the girls’ piano tutor. A despicable rogue at heart, however, Grant describes him as “a complete phoney, except when he’s playing the piano. I had such fun with him.” He soon sets out on a mission to “ruin” all four of his students before their future husbands get near them—with mixed success.
A tautly plotted novel of gender politics and sexual awakening in the vein of Sarah Waters and Sarah Dunant, alongside Monsieur’s bedroom antics another love story is brewing, between the gutsy and forward Alathea, and Annie, the beleaguered and hare-lipped daughter of the piano-maker Vincent Cantabile. Grant explains: “Alathea was the first character that came to me, but she developed over time. She embodies all the things I find difficult, like detachment and silence, these very powerful female attributes that we don’t often explore. It seemed to me that she was a girl with this tremendous power of detachment, which allows her to do almost anything she wants.”
In counterbalance to Alathea there is Annie, who “has learnt the art of acceptance. She doesn’t leave the house, she doesn’t rail against her father, she just immerses herself in her music. So they are two lonely girls, who don’t live alone, and who to many people lead very normal lives, even though they don’t.”
The concert scene is the focal point for all of the characters in Sedition, and it was actually the first scene that came to Grant. “I had a vision of the turning around of a musical piece that is famous and structured and strict,” she says. Music is a powerful part of the novel; Grant herself plays the piano, and while writing Sedition she learnt many of the arias of the Goldberg Variations—the piece the group learn—alongside the girls.
“I didn’t want the novel to be about music necessarily because I think it is what music can do, rather than what music is, that can be a lot more interesting. But Alathea’s relationship with Annie came about through music; it is very rare to meet someone and find they are instantly on your wavelength. In music that is hugely powerful, when you meet someone with whom you can play. It creates a very strong, immediate bond. There didn’t need to be any winding up in their relationship, once they played together that was it, they knew.”
As Sedition’s plot thickens, it also darkens, as the disturbing nature of Alathea’s relationship with her father Sawneyford is revealed. Despite the novel including some serious themes and graphic scenes, Grant says she: “Didn’t want any kind of cheap sex . . . there isn’t one line you couldn’t read to your grandmother. The effect of the whole thing is actually quite shocking and dark, particularly the scenes between Alathea and her father” where, as Alathea says within the novel: “If there were any boundaries left to breach, there were none now.”
“But at the start it is Alathea that seduces her father, and that took a lot of thought. Sawneyford was also an interesting character to write. I was surprised at the end that he is not altogether hateful. You actually feel a little bit sorry for him. He had been overtaken by his daughter, it is very complicated their relationship, more complicated than it looks.”
It took Grant seven years to write Sedition, her first adult novel, after writing nine children’s novels. “My children’s books are also quite dark, in some ways,” she argues. How the Hangman Lost His Heart (Puffin, 2006) starts with an execution, with the heroine Alice then carting around a severed head trying to reunite it with its body. The Perfect Fire trilogy (Quercus), which is set during the Crusades, also has a rape scene. “They are quite dark, because history is full of darkness and I don’t want to gloss over that. I try and give hope at the end of the children’s books though, because there is often hope.”
A history buff, Grant sets all of her books in turbulent times, being drawn to times of “change and turmoil because it always makes a great backdrop to a book.” In Sedition, although the French Revolution is raging in Paris, the girls themselves are oblivious to the reality, preferring instead to make jokes about the blood of an executed Parisian débutant still being on Harriet’s new shoes. “That moment just came to me. I wondered what must have happened to all those shoes that were tossed aside, and the fact is, girls like these love shoes. I always try and make things as accurate as possible, and setting the novel in London made that very easy as you can walk around and see the layout and the history and see the houses they would have lived in.”
She adds: “We often forget though that ordinary life carries on during revolution—these men still have to think about their girls; times might be in flux, but they still need to be married. Domesticity carries on in times of turmoil; and you can have domestic sedition just as much as you can have political sedition.”
Publication date: 16/01/2014
Rights: US rights to Henry Holt
Editor: Lennie Goodings, Virago
Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel & Land
1958 Born in Burnley, Lancashire
1993–97 BA History and Philosophy, University of Glasgow
998–present Newspaper columnist in Scotland, also radio and TV contributor
2004 Blood Red Horse published by Puffin in the UK
2011–present Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, University of Glasgow
Katharine Grant's top two:
Blood Red Horse
In the first book in the de Granville trilogy, Will longs to be a knight.
Books sold: 4,923 since 2004
How the Hangman Lost His Heart
Feisty heroine Alice de Granville gets involved with a hangman.
Books sold: 1,126 since 2006