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Wildish is set in Georgian England, under King George II, one of the country’s less inspiring kings–but also during a dangerous period with the threat of invasion. What prompted you to choose this setting for your novel?
The Georgian era really was very exciting with a flamboyance of style and an extravagance of fashion that has rarely been surpassed. It was the age of the Enlightenment, too, a frontier of science and rationality, but with already the opposing forces of Romanticism gathering on the horizon. In Wildish, this conflict is represented through the pairing of the heroine Johanna and her husband Sam, the one embracing the arts and certain aspects of the occult, the other devoted to astronomy and instruments of scientific prediction.
On a more earthy level, the Georgian period was also a time of great licentiousness, an ‘anything-goes’ kind of society – the perfect stage onto which the would-be hero Mr Wildish might stride forth.
Can you give readers who may not be familiar with the era a brief summary of the state of the monarchy–the Hanoverian kings, the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender?
It can all sound a bit complex, but it’s really just an outcome of the division of the Church that took place with the Reformation. Ever since the time of the Tudors, the English ruling classes have sought to adhere to the Protestant faith, and even the slightest whiff of Catholicism was usually enough to throw them into a tailspin. They panicked in a major way in 1688 during the reign of James II who converted to Catholicism – upon which they decided to dismiss him (and the entire Stuart dynasty) and bring in a series of handy Protestant replacements from overseas, some of which had only very distant entitlements to the throne – especially the Georges. They were from Hanover in Germany and did not even speak English at first!
Meanwhile, the descendants of the exiled King James continued to maintain their rights to the throne, and they took up arms against the Hanoverian monarchy during the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 (led by the Old Pretender) and 1745 (the Young). It is the ’45 and the arrival of the charismatic figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie that forms the background to the story of ‘Wildish.’
Without giving too much away, how would you compare your protagonist’s early personality with his character near the end?
To craft a novel of almost 600 pages entirely from the point of view of just one person was always going to be a challenge, and so the hero himself had to be a highly complex and likeable person. Matthew is both complex and likeable. Trained as a Master Wigmaker in Paris, he is an Irishman living in England and a former Catholic turned Protestant. He is a poet and also a spy. He loves the arts, especially music, and he loves the ladies. Most of all he is a devotee of the masquerade, a popular entertainment in Georgian London, and even makes carnival masks in his spare time.
At the start of the story he is a purely hedonistic individual, still young and determined to enjoy his bachelorhood to the full. Gradually, however, he finds himself called upon to undertake various deeds of untypical self-sacrifice and bravery. He also realises that he is falling in love for the very first time with a woman who, inconveniently, happens to be married to his best friend. And as if all this was not enough, the drums of war are sounding. Change, for Matthew, is inevitable.
What is the significance of the seven celestial bodies, other than the obvious, literal interpretation presented?
Inevitably, this answer is going to contain some spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum. I wanted to suggest that love, like energy, is something universal, something that can be exchanged or transformed but never destroyed – so that, say, carnal love might be able to transform itself into different, higher forms of love such as compassion or kindness etc.
The hero in the story is a libertine and a serial seducer, but once he begins to set his sights on the stars as a context for his would-be conquests, things begin to develop in unexpected ways. He then inadvertently manages to stumble his way through the 7 Corporal Works of Mercy – a sequence of moral precepts that still to this day underpins many of our ideas of charity and social care (based on the biblical parable of the sheep and the goats). He is led towards these ‘good works’ by composing sonnets to seven quite powerful women who each unwittingly becomes the catalyst for change and for the enactment of a different kind of love – all the while without Matthew himself ever realising that he is somehow making the world around him a better place.
Love, in other words, should not be the subject of moral judgement. Behind the many different masks it wears, there is always something wonderful and redemptive, a universal energy at work.
Did you come across any particularly interesting material when researching this book?
Yes, indeed. Regardless of how outrageous or bizarre some of the content might seem, particularly the debauched antics of the gentlemen’s clubs or bagnios of London, it is all based on fact. The infamous Hellfire Club was developing at this time, and there was also a parallel in real life to the Cornhill Wig Club featured in the story (though this was located in Scotland). It was great fun researching all this – though I must say that learning about the Jacobite rebellion and its brutal repression was not quite so pleasant. My allegiances changed back and forth a good few times before finally settling on a slightly pro-rebel agenda – all of which eventually led back to the sheep and the goats again, and the dreadful reality of so many dear people becoming ‘lambs to the slaughter.’
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel? Was it any more difficult than your previous novels?
It would have been easy to have carried on writing Tudor novels after ‘Virgin and the Crab’, or Gothic novels after ‘The Arrow Chest’ – but I wanted to convey an image of the Georgian world that went beyond the foppish, gin-soaked interpretation that it so often falls prey to. It was, in fact, a time of the most wonderful poetry, music and architecture, and populated by men and women of immense bravery and intelligence. The potential for the unexpected is always just a turn of the page away in that kind of environment.
Maybe that’s the best thing about being an independent writer: the freedom to take risks, to explore seldom-visited places, to champion lost causes – or even to try out a multi-layered story sometimes that might be perceived as little more than a bewildering sequence of comedy sketches. Everything is possible when you are not compelled to ‘play the averages.’ That kind of freedom is exhilarating, and I hope some of this rubs off onto the reader.
On the other hand, did you find Matthew Wildish a more malleable character than John Dee, from Virgin and the Crab, since the former is purely fictional?
A writer can usually guarantee an audience by focusing on prominent characters from history – and the more famous (or infamous) the better. But, like you say, these are far from malleable. With so much interest in history these days and so many experts at large, people can become really het up about lapses in historical accuracy, and so the writer of historical fiction really has to find a way of accommodating this without sacrificing the creative imagination.
John Dee was a real person from the past, and when I wrote about him and Elizabeth Tudor in my first novel ‘Virgin and the Crab’, I kept pretty much to what could legitimately have taken place, while at the same time presenting the story as a kind of theatrical extravaganza, a history play allowing the characters a certain degree of ad lib. Later on, with ‘The Arrow Chest’ I lifted the real historical events and characters out of the era in which they belonged and dropped them into an entirely different one, thereby providing even more room for them to operate without constraints. With ‘Wildish’ I hope to have gone a step further with an entirely fictitious set of characters who represent far more than just who they are.
Perhaps historical fiction is at its most beguiling when it can transcend history itself, liberating the characters into a space where they, and the readers, are encouraged to explore and to question – not just about events that are known to have happened in the past, but about universal things that concern us all, no matter what time or place we find ourselves in – just like Mr Wildish and his ‘different kinds of love.’ I like to think that, anyway.
Thank you, Arleigh, for such super questions and for giving me the space to answer them in full. It really has been a pleasure.