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From Biography to Young Adult Fiction, Lucy Jago Launches New Novel

Posted: 13th Oct 2021

Since 1992, the Wells Festival of Literature has created a space to celebrate the thriving literary community of Somerset, inviting readers of all ages to engage with authors in person to discuss the themes and ideas in their work. This year, Somerset-based novelist Lucy Jago joins this lineage.

As a former documentary producer for the BBC and Channel Four, Lucy Jago is well acquainted with the rigorous demands of fact checking. Her first book, ‘The Northern Lights’ is a biography of the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland. It won the national biography prize and has since been translated into eight languages. Her second, a young adult novel ‘Montecute House’ is a gripping mystery that combines witchcraft, politics and religion in 1590’s Somerset, a place well known to Jago, whose grandparents lived a stone’s throw away from the real Montecute House.

 

 

This Autumn, she visits the Wells Festival of Literature with a new book, her adult fiction debut ‘A Net for Small Fishes’. Described as ‘ a Thelma and Louise for the 17th century’ by Laurence Norfolk, the novel is an exhilarating look into the complex daily workings of the Jacobean court.

Frances Howard has beauty and a powerful family – and is the most unhappy creature in the world. Anne Turner has wit and talent – but no stage on which to display them. Little stands between her and the abyss of destitution. When these two very different women meet in the strangest of circumstances, a powerful friendship is sparked. With the marriage of their talents, Anne and Frankie enter this extravagant, savage hunting ground, seeking a little happiness for themselves. But as they gain notice, they also gain enemies; what began as a search for love and safety leads to desperate acts that could cost them everything.

 

 

We spoke to Lucy ahead of her talk at the Wells Festival of Literature, sponsored by Lodestone Property, to learn more about the novel and her lifelong relationship with Somerset.

 

Hi Lucy, thank you so much for speaking to us. Could you tell us briefly about your connections to Somerset?

 My grandparents on both sides lived in Somerset so I visited often as a child. My maternal grandfather was an engineer at Westlands Helicopters and lived with my grandmother in Montacute. My widowed, paternal grandmother moved to Bridgwater to live near my uncle and aunt who were doctors there. As a child I believed that Montacute, with its incredible Elizabethan Manor and extraordinary hill, was a magical place and I still do. I have intense memories of climbing St Michael’s Hill and once, in a deluge, sliding down it on my bottom in the mud. I remember being alone or with just a friend on these adventures and the freedom of that stays with me. Four years ago we moved from London to a tiny hamlet near Wincanton and I can’t imagine ever leaving Somerset now, I love it so much.

 

 This is your third book, and first piece of adult fiction.  You have been quoted to say that you don’t take a relaxed approach to historical accuracy, do you draw similarities to the view of Hilary Mantel that “we do not passively consume the past but actively create it in each act of remembrance?”

 I seem to agree with Hilary Mantel about many things. I certainly believe that we are neither passive in our reception nor in our creation of history. We bring our own perspective to bear – as do historians, of course. Facts need to be interpreted to make them useful and in doing so, historians use imagination as does the novelist. Like a historian, I prefer to stick to the known facts. I want my readers to know that I have done my utmost to base my own interpretation of past events on those facts. But it is surprising how few ‘facts’ there really are and how much ‘history’ is actually gossip and hearsay regurgitated in different forms over centuries and served up as ‘fact’ by later writers. The Overbury Scandal has accrued many layers of such gossip and bias in the four centuries since it occurred, especially as sex, women and power were at the heart of it. One has to be archaeologist, forensic detective and historian in one, especially when writing about women, who are either ignored or stereotyped in the main.

 

You studied archaeology, anthropology and history of art at Cambridge and later went on to do a Masters at the Courtauld institute. This novel took you 8 years to research, a process you enjoy; what is it you find so engaging about the research process?

 I happily lose myself in research for months on end, following one line of enquiry after another. Research is as close as I can get to time travel; it takes me somewhere new and I learn things I didn’t know before.  I am interested in the history of experience, in which women, people of colour, the working class, children and the domestic sphere, the backstreets and material culture, play an equally important role to that of Kings, Prime Ministers, the landed aristocracy, parliamentary laws and large houses. I want to find those small, magic details that bring alive the period to a modern reader and to me.

 

 

Clothing is a central narrative tool in your work. In March, you spoke to Radio 4’s open book on the importance of women’s clothing in fiction and sited that this is a tool to express and gain power. During the period in which the novel is set, there was a cultural shift taking place, with women wearing traditionally masculine doublets and feathers – why is it you pay such close attention to clothes?

 I resisted the fashion element at first – I feared it was a cliché to talk too much about clothes in a novel mainly about women, especially women from this period who wore clothes very alien to us – vast farthingales that made their skirts stick out like cartwheels, huge ruffs and so on. But after a while I realised that clothing was absolutely central to understanding relationships between equals and subordinates, gender conflicts, ideas of nationality, religion and power. To understand the friendship between my two main characters, and their attempts to find freedom and contentment, clothing was central. It played a role of such huge importance that it takes a leap of understanding for us to grasp its relevance.

 

Your most recent novel explores both class and female agency in early 17th century England. The title of the novel itself  ‘A Net for Small Fishes’ refers to the propensity of justice to catch small fish whilst letting larger fishes go free. It’s easy to connect that to today’s justice system.  Was that on your mind whilst creating the work?

Everything in the novel is relevant to today – justice, gender relations, sexuality, personal expression, power, freedom, love. As the writer William Faulkner famously wrote: ‘the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.’ The novel also highlights the need to question how our past is written and taught to later generations. Certain sections of society have largely been written out of history until very recently, and this effects how we think of ourselves as individuals and as nations. As Bob Marley sang, ‘If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from…’

 

 

The Wells Festival of Literature has been running for nearly 20 years, encouraging a love of the written word for generations. What is it you enjoy most about events like this?

 Writing is a solitary process, so it’s a joy to meet people who love books as much as I do. I particularly love receiving questions from the audience; to witness other people’s interest in the period and the process of writing is very nourishing after long, solitary labour.

 

You have hinted at working on a collection of short stories.  Might that be what’s coming next for you?

If it is, it will be emerging at the same time as the next novel for Bloomsbury which is meant to be finished far sooner than it will be.

 

Book to attend ‘ Net For Small Fishes’ – Lucy Jago in conversation with Andrew Miller on Tuesday 19th October here.