An Interview with Katharine Grant
Author of Sedition
Q: Sedition is set during a very tumultuous time in history. It’s 1794 in London and the French Revolution is raging across the Channel. What inspired you to write about this particular moment in time?
A: A tiny snippet in Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire caught my imagination. Georgiana arrived in Paris as the revolutionary mobs rampaged, but in her hotel she was besieged by mobs of tradesmen trying to interest her in silks and stays, satins and lace. Revolution isn’t total. Ordinary life goes on. In London, amid the gossip, speculation and fear, domestic concerns prevail. I love this juxtaposition between “public history” and “private history.”
The year is also important because turns of centuries often herald change. In 1794, in poetry, painting, music, and fashion, the classical was giving way to the romantic. Wordsworth and Coleridge were preparing the Lyrical Ballads (published in 1798). Mozart was dead, Schubert about to be born. Women rejected heavy brocades, velvets, and stiffening in favor of muslin and gauze and a more natural look. America was held up as a utopia, where Europeans could shake off their rigidly hierarchical past and bring into being societies fit for the future. So, 1794 was a year of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the novelist’s friend.
Q: Traditional gender roles and sexual power are both important themes in the novel. Were these themes that you set out to address when you began writing, and was feminism’s role at the turn of the century a consideration?
A: Only after I’d finished Sedition did I realize that I’d struck a blow for feminism. So, curiously, the role of feminism at the end of the 18th century wasn’t really a consideration at all, but I’m glad to have got there in the end.
As for sexual power—ah! Sexual power is like a twisted rope: tangled and difficult to break. Sexual power binds people together whether they are willing or not. Like my blow for feminism, my foray into sexual power wasn’t pre-planned. Alathea just was sexually powerful, and I wanted to chart her course.
Q: Sedition is generally a term used in political contexts, but, in your novel, it is used in private life. Can Sedition be private? Why did you choose to address it in this connotation, and how does it play out in your novel?
A: Sedition is most often private. I’m seditious in a small way every day, as I’m sure you are. I park on a yellow line, ignore red tape across my path, cross the road when the light is red. I wore pink to my graduation. We’ve come to associate Sedition with something grander than these small actions, but Sedition is really just an undermining, and that’s how it plays out in my novel. The girls, while doing exactly what they’re told, contrive to do exactly the opposite. That’s neat Sedition, much neater than I’ve ever achieved, and much more effective.
Q: Music is as much a character in Sedition as your leads: Alathea, Annie, Harriet, Georgiana, Marianne, Everina, and Monsieur Belladroit. In fact, the plot of the novel follows a rhythmic ebb and flow. What are your thoughts on the marriage of music and writing, particularly as it relates to the story in your novel?
A: Music runs through my life, and so through my writing, although Sedition is the first explicit acknowledgement of this. I hear Sedition—language, plot, tone—as ebb and flow just as I hear music, and there’s a musical device in chapter 16 where we see the scene first from Sawneyford’s point of view, then, using almost exactly the same words, from Alathea’s. If you love music and you love writing, the marriage between the two can be happy.
Q: The love story between Annie, the hare-lipped daughter of the piano maker Vittorio Cantabile, and the aggressive and daring Alathea is an interesting one as they come together through music. Why did you choose to pair these two in the novel?
A: They paired themselves. Or at least the choice was Alathea’s.
Me: What do you want to do?
Alathea: I want to do this.
Me: There’ll be consequences.
Alathea: So be it.
Q: You have been teaching yourself Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which is the same musical composition practiced and performed by the daughters in your novel. What is the role of the pianoforte in Sedition, and why that piece of music?
A: I began my musical life at the piano and returned to it for the writing of this book. This return was central to Sedition. Long before I called the book Sedition, I called it “the piano book” because the first scenes that presented themselves to me were the concert scene and the burning scene.
As for the Goldberg, the variations are precise, enigmatic, structured, imaginative, sly—perfect for Sedition. So far, I’ve mastered the Aria, Variations 1 to 10, and Variation 30. All the Variations are difficult to play well; some are difficult to play at all. Despite this, for Sedition I needed to feel them under my fingers and to see how Monsieur and the girls might physically interact at the keyboard.
Q: Your family history is extremely fascinating (and a bit gruesome). Lord Burghley, the treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I, described your family as of “more than usual perversity” for clinging to their Catholic faith, an act, during the Reformation, of blatant Sedition. In 1746, your five times great uncle, Francis Towneley, was the last person in the U.K. to be hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was spiked and, thereafter, had a series of macabre adventures until it was finally laid to rest following World War II. How did this personal history influence your writing?
A: I’m used to the peculiar, I suppose. A lock of Uncle Frank’s (as we always called Francis Towneley) hair sits in a leather frame in our drawing room. Every Sunday of my childhood, this drawing room was turned into a chapel and we were reminded of the sacrifice our ancestors had made for their faith. Perhaps this gives me a gothic view of “normal.” It’s said that you write what you know. This is what I know.
Q: This is your first adult novel, but you are an established and beloved children’s book author as K. M. Grant. What was different about writing Sedition? Was it more (or perhaps less) challenging?
A: Differently challenging. My children’s novels also deal with dark material: the third crusade (The de Granville Trilogy); the persecution of heretics (Perfect Fire Trilogy); Uncle Frank’s execution (How the Hangman Lost His Heart); self-harming and OCD (Belle’s Song); disability and cowardice (Hartslove). Phew! With children’s books, though, I think you must offer hope. You can make young readers cry, but they need uplift at the end—nothing saccharine, that’s not me at all, but some light. Then there’s the question, in historical novels for children of pre-existing knowledge. In the 21st century, how much must you explain?
Writing for adults is, in many ways, a liberation from such constraints. There’s still a concern about the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of history, but in all other ways you can let rip. I’ve done things with writing, plot, and character in Sedition that wouldn’t work in a children’s novel, for example the irony, dark humor and sheer bawdiness of Monsieur’s meetings with the girls. I don’t think parents would like to find that in a book for ten-year-olds.
Q: What draws you to write historical fiction?
A: I was brought up in a strict Victorian household—nannies, rules and a butler named Carmello. Flower power and multi-colored hippiness more or less passed us by. My mother, who was only thirty in 1965, had heard of “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” but couldn’t name the Beatles. At home, the past dictated the present, which means, I think, that for me the past has never been the proverbial “foreign country.” Rather, it’s the country in which I feel most at home.
Q: Is there anything else you think we should know?
A: One thing: To celebrate Sedition’s publication I’ve bought long boots of the softest Italian leather. Black, with zips all the way up the back, they almost purr. Alathea would like them.