Catching Shadows

Michelle, the setting for The Shadow Catcher is a new one for you…  much of the story takes place in colonial Jamaica.  How did you go about researching that period?

First of all I had to do masses of reading in the British Library, and the Colindale Newspaper Library – which has all the Jamaican newspapers, an amazing resource in itself.  Then I went to Jamaica.  Luckily, I have relations there – my mother’s sister married into an old Scottish family which has lived on the island for generations – so apart from having somewhere to stay, that also got me introductions to some of the surviving great houses, and to members of the Jamaica Historical Society.  And as Jamaica is a small community, where everyone seems to know everyone else, having a ready-made way in like that helped enormously.

My cousin’s own family history proved inspiring in unexpected ways.  My cousin’s great-grandfather was a canny Scots engineer who made his fortune in the Kingston earthquake of 1907, when his hardware store was the only one left standing.  With the profits from that he bought a large tract of land on the north coast, and set up as a gentleman farmer.  His estate had a colourful history.  It encompassed what remained of a sugar plantation which had once belonged to one of the oldest families of the ‘plantocracy’.  It also included the ruins of Rosehall great house, notorious for its lurid (and probably apocryphal) legend of the villainous ‘White Witch of Rosehall’.

Rosehall has since been sold and is now a tourist attraction; and instead of growing sugar-cane on his estate, my cousin breeds champion race-horses.  But nevertheless, the past is everywhere – as I found when I went to stay there.  Still standing behind the modern-day stables are the ruins of the great boiling-house, which dates back to the Georgian heyday of the sugar barons.  Overlooking the paddocks is the roofless, incongruously elegant ‘hothouse’, or slave hospital: designed in 1797 by an Englishman, who went on to father seventeen mulatto children (as Englishmen regrettably tended to do in those days).  For me the hothouse had an incredibly haunted atmosphere, and it inspired a major element of The Shadow Catcher.

The descriptions of the lush Jamaican forests, and the Cockpit country, are extremely vivid.  How did you research this?

By getting hot, dusty, soaking wet, and bitten! I spent a lot of time walking in the bush with my trusty guide David, a young Jamaican whom my cousin had assigned as a ‘minder’, and who turned out to be a mine of information about birds, medicinal plants, and traditional weather lore.  Those walks were invaluable (if exhausting, as I was simultaneously listening to David, pushing through the undergrowth, and taking notes).  There’s no substitute for actually being there: in the forest, or on the banks of the Martha Brae, or down a cave in the Cockpit Country.  There’s no substitute for being surrounded by all that incredible, exuberant vegetation; gazing up at the tree-ferns, smelling the lilies, listening to the parrots…and getting soaked in a tropical downpour, then bitten by the mozzies.

The magic in the story is fascinating – both obeah and myalism.  How did you research this?

Generally not by asking around – you tend to get stonewalled! In any event, I was less interested in bush-medicine as it’s practised today, than in the old ways of practising obeah (basically, black magic) and myalism (white magic), which were still rife in the 1890s, when the story is set.

Luckily, some extremely good contemporaneous accounts have survived.  In particular, The Reverend Thomas Banbury went into the whole thing extremely thoroughly and with obvious relish – although he professed to find it ludicrous.  It’s unclear to me whether he genuinely held that view, or whether he was simply in denial about how fascinated he actually was.

Armed with my copy of Banbury, I was surprised to find evidence of magic on my cousin’s estate.  At the foot of the drive-way I found an enormous silk-cotton tree.  Silk-cottons are the ‘duppy trees’ of Jamaican folklore, duppies being a kind of evil ghost which sometimes take up residence in the trunk.  This particular duppy tree had a number of old nails embedded in the bark: a clear sign, as I knew from my research, that someone had been casting spells.  As with the hothouse, that helped to crystallize an important element of the plot.  This is why research trips are so useful and fun: they always throw up something you never expected.

Well, you’re known for the depth and quality of your research – I think this is one way in which you really succeed in transporting the reader into another time and place.  Tell me, how did you discover the slang of the period covered in The Shadow Catcher…  Ben Kelly’s language is so rich and colourful…

It’s surprisingly hard to find out how people like Ben actually talked.  The classic studies of the Victorian poor, such as that by Henry Mayhew, were written by educated middle-class intellectuals who weren’t all that interested in speech patterns; and although novelists like Dickens did lots of first-hand research, they were writing for the respectable middle classes, and had to clean things up a lot!

But if you look hard, there are a few written reminiscences of ordinary people.  Also, the accounts of the more daring journalists reveal a good deal.  For example, Jack London, more widely known today as the author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang, was truly intrepid: he actually swapped clothes with an East End vagrant and ‘went undercover’ for several days, to experience what it was like to be poor.  His fascinating account reveals much about the attitudes of the poor, the strategies they developed to survive, and how they spoke.

However, I must confess that I still had to clean up Ben’s speech quite a bit.  According to Jack London (and he should know), in reality, every third word would have been f**k.  No wonder Dickens had to do a clean-up job!

The London streets names you mention will be local to some readers – but they may wonder why Ben talks about `the Portland Road’.  Is this now Portland Place, or Great Portland Street?

It’s now Great Portland Street, and has been since about 1917.  I’m afraid I don’t know why the change came about.  There are limits to the amount of research one needs to do on these things!

However while we’re on the subject of street names, I should perhaps explain that anyone trying to locate Holywell Street, the Mecca for Victorian pornographers, will be disappointed.  Holywell Street most certainly did exist, and in late Victorian times it did have its name changed to Bookseller’s Row in a futile bid for respectability.  But the whole street was destroyed in 1905 to make way for Kingsway and the Strand.  I find it amusing to think that when I was a lawyer, conducting trials in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, I was only a stone’s throw from the site of the pornographer’s street in Victorian London!

In the early part of the story, the quotations from Dr Philpott’s manual on Victorian women’s health are fascinating.  Was there a real Dr Philpott in either living or book form? Where did you find him?

The Wife’s Handbook by Dr H.  Arthur Allbutt was published in 1886, and cost, I believe, one shilling and sixpence.  When I came across it in my research at the British Library, I just knew I had to use it.  It was so vivid, and so packed with everyday detail: a real glimpse into what it was like to be a pregnant Victorian! I also became quite fond of the good doctor, who is in many ways eminently sensible, and yet definitely from another age.

For example, he forbids pregnant women not only alcohol, but also tea, coffee and new bread – while suggesting cocaine for treating toothache.  It just goes to show that while middle-class Victorians were more easily shocked than we are by some things (such as nakedness and female sexuality), they didn’t bat an eyelid when it came to what are today illegal drugs.

Did you come across any other Victorian ‘self-help’ manuals during your research?

Yes, dozens of them, and it was a wrench not to be able to use more of them in the story; but that’s writing for you.  There were lots of pamphlets on sex and marriage, almost all of them hopelessly vague and packed with euphemisms.  They’d have been no use at all to anyone seeking real information!

But what they did reveal, reading between the lines, is just how insecure many Victorian men actually were.  That comes as a sharp contrast with the popular image of the bewhiskered paterfamilias who ruled supreme in the home and patronized the ‘little woman’.  I found that fascinating, and it greatly influenced the story, particularly the character of Sinclair Lawe.  As with The Wife’s Handbook, it’s another example of the unexpected influence which research can have on a story.

Another pamphlet I didn’t expect to find was published by the Home and Colonial Matrimonial Agency in 1875, and entitled How to Get a Husband.  Basically, it’s an advert for a dating agency.  The female client paid a fee of a shilling or two, provided a photograph of herself, and filled in a form, giving her ‘name, personal description, occupation, means, location preferred, and brief details of requirement of husband’.  The agency would then publish the application in circulars at home and in the Colonies.

And the rules were strict.  No-one might enrol without a ‘certificate of good character from their employer, minister, guardian, or parent’ – imagine the embarrassment of asking for that! I was also intrigued by some of the sample advertisements.  Almost to a woman, they wanted their future husband to be tall, dark and handsome.  Some things never change.