I hated history when I was at school in England – all those kings and queens! At 11 I was made to learn about Alfred the Great, and had I stuck it out until 16, might have learned about Elizabeth II. But I dropped history after Henry VIII, dropped English a couple of years later, gave up my notion of becoming a writer, and went on to become a paediatrician.
Yet here I am, writing historical fiction…
I’ve learned that history shines a light on why we act as we do in the modern day. History repeats itself and people replicate themselves. Sometimes in my paediatric clinic, a parent consults me with a child who is their exact mini-me; the parent may even when themselves a child have had the same physical or behavioural problem. It proves to me that human nature is much as it always was, and that we have the same personality traits and are still making the same mistakes as our forbears.
Heart of Cruelty is set in Birmingham, England, where I used to live. It’s a busy, modern city that’s always redeveloping- reinventing – itself, but not far under the shiny new surface is its Victorian past. The hospitals where I worked always had some run down 19th century buildings, old workhouses with a creepy, gothic atmosphere. Usually that was where my office would be, or else I would have to park beside some derelict hulk and return to my car after work on a dark winter’s evening.
I eventually found time to study Creative Writing with the Open University. One of my assignments became a radio drama about a Victorian coroner: Dr William Doughty. I remember my tutor, Gill Ryland, saying: he’s a hero, isn’t he? I started to enjoy writing about him, almost falling a little in love with him. I borrowed some of his features from a real-life coroner, Thomas Wakley, a 19th century doctor who was also a politician and the founder of The Lancet medical journal. Wakley’s aversion to lawyers resonated with my own experiences of cross-examination in court when giving evidence in child protection cases. The adversarial court system, and the care taken to presume innocence until guilt is proven, do the victims no favours.
In Heart of Cruelty an abuser operates unchallenged in an institutional setting and in a family. To understand how this works this I drew on modern cases such as the Jimmy Savile inquiry. Even in the #metoo age, victims struggle to disclose abuse and to evidence allegations. They endure the blame and shame that attaches to the abused, while the system works to protect the perpetrator from scrutiny.
I also re-visited the Victorian Gothic genre. There are some fabulous modern books in this genre by authors like Sara Waters, Essie Fox, and Laura Purcell, but the mother of them all is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. A key element of that novel is the balance of power between Jane and Rochester: Jane’s internal conflict between her self-determination and the temptation to give in to the man she loves. She will not allow him to dictate the terms of their relationship and although she ‘marries the boss’, it’s only when he’s blinded and becomes reliant on her. I gave Doughty a Jane of his own, to be both a beloved and the catalyst of his downfall.
I rewrote my novel several times, while learning my craft through trial, error, and workshopping with other writers. I kept up with a monthly short story competition with the Telegraph Creative Writing Group. I joined Birmingham NaNoWriMo in 2014 and belted out 50,000 words from Jane’s viewpoint. I turned that into a two-hander with alternate chapters from Jane’s and Doughty’s viewpoint, in close 3rd person. In 2015 I joined the Writers’ Workshop (now Jericho Writers) Self-Editing Your Novel course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin, and with mutual critique and support from two other students finished another draft.
I’ll never forget the life-changing Friday morning in June 2016 when the EU referendum result was announced. That weekend my partner and I started to clear out our attic; I updated my CV and applied for jobs in Ireland. The following Tuesday I was contacted by a Dublin recruitment agency.
We sold up and moved to Wexford in January 2017 and for several months I had no time or place to write. I was nagged by John Braine’s statement in Writing a Novel: ‘once put aside, the novel is never taken up again’. But in summer 2017 I joined a MOOC run by the University of Iowa International Writers Program and made contact with three other writers of historical fiction: Joanna Orwin, Annette Libeskind Berkovits, and Jo Schaffel. It was the first time I had buddied up within my own genre and they’ve been an incredible critique group.
I took my novel up again. After a year I sent a new draft to a professional editor, Louise Walters. Her advice was absolutely correct, but paralysed me for about 6 months: make Doughty more likeable; make the other characters more complex; give Jane more agency and make her the sole, first-person narrator. But, supported by my critique buddies, I did it, and also converted from present to past tense. I pastiched Victorian newspaper reports of inquests, court proceedings and workhouse committees, to show scenes where Jane couldn’t be present.
After that rewrite I felt that the novel was good enough for publication. But I kept tinkering with it, dreading the time-honoured process of writing ten letters at a time to literary agents in the expectation of being rejected. I was wary of self-publication, having brought out a short story anthology in 2014, which had sold about 10 copies.
I became a member of Wexford Write Club. This writing group is totally fearless about publication, and one member, Wally O’Neill, who runs Red Books in Wexford, told me to enter the 2020 Wexford Literary Festival ‘Meet the Publisher’ competition. For about three months, every time I saw him, he’d nudge me about it.
In the end, I got Louise to do a synopsis critique, submitted a tidied-up version, had a Zoom interview with Paula Campbell of Poolbeg Press, sent her the manuscript, and here I am, writing about my journey to publication.
I’m really grateful to Paula for giving me this opportunity, and to Gaye Shortland, my editor at Poolbeg, who is both sharp-eyed and insightful and has enabled me to make some final tweaks without losing confidence in the whole project.
Now the challenge is to write the sequels in eighteen months apiece. I’ve already moved Doughty and Jane to a Dublin overwhelmed by famine and epidemic disease…
(c) Maybelle Wallis
About Heart of Cruelty:
It’s 1840 and Jane Verity’s dream of a romantic life in the theatre has ended in the Birmingham workhouse, where a serial abuser’s victims are ignored. When Coroner William Doughty encounters her it alters the path of his life. Instantly and profoundly attracted, he rescues her, but as she works as his maidservant and cares for his ailing wife Harriet, she learns about his inquests and pieces together the secrets of the workhouse. As Doughty struggles with his passion for her, she must convince him to act, even though exposing the truth will destroy his marriage and his career.
The twisting darkness of this Gothic novel pervades a bittersweet romance which explores the risk of allowing desire to triumph over common sense.
Order your copy online here.