Andrew Hughes has written a compelling novel in which Georgian Dublin is itself a hero
It’s Dublin in 1816, the infamous Year Without A Summer. A young nursemaid conceals a pregnancy and then kills her newborn in the home of the Neshams, a prominent family in a radical Christian sect known as The Brethren.
Rumours swirl about the identity of the child’s father, but before an inquest can be held, the maid is found dead after an apparent suicide.
When Abigail Lawless, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the city coroner, by chance discovers a message from the maid’s seducer, she sets out to discover the truth.
An only child, Abigail has been raised amid the books and instruments of her father’s profession, the dawn of forensic science as we know it, after decades of the new scientific rationalisation of the Enlightenment. He encourages his daughter’s curious and critical mind despite the restrictions that society at that time placed on all women, not least a girl her age.
Thus, she begins her own increasingly dangerous investigation bringing her into contact with the Christian Brethren and a burgeoning rationalist community.
The author of this compelling Gothic crime drama is 38-year old historian and archivist Andrew Hughes, originally from Wexford but now, after twenty years or so, a naturalised Dubliner.
He spoke to the Irish World about how poring over archives gave him a cast of real-life characters from hundreds of years ago to populate his historical fiction.
“I came into writing through history, I did History in college, and when I graduated I started doing these house histories, histories of Georgian houses in particular, and people who lived and worked in and around Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin. I’d look at all the occupants of a certain house and just put together a certain history of the people there and you’d always uncover interesting characters and stories that went kind of unrecorded or missed out by history.
“So for my first book I gathered together all those stories for Fitzwilliam Square in particular, a social history of Georgian Dublin, just looking at all the characters who lived in the Georgian houses in one particular square.
“I didn’t realise that at the time but I was just giving myself a great cast of characters, these real-life stories about how they lived and how they corresponded with each other and so on, a real-life cast of characters for historical fiction.
“So after that first book and I was deciding, ‘Do I want to keep on writing? and ‘What do I want to do, should I move into the fiction world?’, and this setting was just here waiting for me, Georgian Dublin.”
It’s commonplace for people who work with archives to develop an attachment for the people featured or whose words they are reading, bringing them alive into the present. Did this happen with you?
“Yes, I trained as an archivist, mostly small family collections, (and) you just immerse yourself in the papers and it’s a great way to kind of remove the kind of mystery of historical sense or history itself. People suddenly become much more immediate, their letters and reading their thoughts and their own language, they become much more real to you, it doesn’t matter is it’s the 18th century or 19th century or whatever.
“People used to complain when text messages were new, all these annotations and abbreviations. People used to do that when they were dashing off notes to each other in the 19th century, they’d be just as likely to contract all their words.”
Given the subject matter and the role of a young woman constrained by society, albeit with a father who wants to encourage her, but at the same time is constrained, do you think there’s any analogies or pertinence to the debates about women’s rights in Ireland today?
“I don’t think that was playing in my head when I was coming up with the character but I definitely agree that it resonates now. Whenever I think about the Kerry Babies and how women were treated in the Magdalene Laundries and so forth, I am struck by the tragedy of how if we had known these women, how normal they would have seemed, like our own friends and sisters. It always strikes me as a tragedy and I get very angry about that.
“So when I was just coming up with Abigail’s character I didn’t want her to be a savant or somebody particularly out of the ordinary I just really wanted to present a modern Irish girl transported back into that time. People don’t really change over the centuries so when you’re just imagining what an intelligent Dublin girl would be like, just looking at your own sister or friends and see what they would be like, how they would react in the situation.”
You’ve accomplished that in Abigail who has just the right mixture of naïveté, curiosity and the arrogance of youth.
“Yeah, how frustrating at times that can be but also the intuition, intelligence, it definitely becomes more stark when it’s presented against the restrictions and you’ve a completely different set of circumstances to mid-20th century Ireland, Georgian Dublin and being a young woman at that time, but you can see the comparisons how a girl in that situation has to outdo the men around her and has to go above and beyond just to be able to make her mark.”
Was Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose an influence on you?
“It would have been a big influence and some of John Banville’s Benjamin Black crime novels. Having a background in history it was nice to be able to look at inquest reports and coroners’ reports that would have been published in newspapers at the time and they were a great source of inspiration – not just in the stories that were told, and the cases themselves, but also the characters of the witnesses that were brought up and interviewed, people from the poorest backgrounds who otherwise would have gone completely unrecorded in history. But here their voices are described as they give their testimony about certain cases and so you’d be able to pick up certain bits of language and just how the process worked itself, how the inquest went about.”
That was pretty much how you came about your first novel, the true life The Conviction of John Delahunt, was it not?
“(That) was very much based on a true life murder. The court reports of his trial formed what the story was going to be, first and foremost, but then you’re immersed in language and it just makes the world more historically authentic and hopefully readers will trust it.”
Would you agree that Dublin itself is a character in your book?
“I think so, yes. The work I did for Lives Less Ordinary, the first book I did which was a social history, that really became a story about 19th century Dublin, mostly, and these people who had a certain privilege of wealth but a privilege that isn’t that unusual to most people these days. They had careers and went to college and they had money enough to be able to travel. Although it was very privileged for the time it doesn’t seem so unusual now. All of Dublin came through because their stories were so varied, in academic life, or writers , or politicians, Dublin was always at the centre of whatever they were doing.
“There’s not many historical fiction writers or crime writers who are setting their books in 19th century Dublin so hopefully it is a bit of a unique selling point I have and a it’s a place I feel comfortable with. Having said that my new book ventures out to Roscommon.”
For someone so convincingly steeped in Dublin it may be a surprise to learn Andrew actually comes from Wexford but the city is in the genes.
“Both my parents came from Dublin but moved to Wexford and I was born down there. But I came back up for college twenty years ago and have remained here ever since. I came to Dublin as a kid to visit relatives and it was always a treat and nice to visit the Big Smoke. My mother’s from Drumcondra, my father was from Smithfield, right in the centre there.
“They moved out of there quite early and went out to Ballyfermot but he remembers as a child how Smithfield still had its Georgian houses and looking out the window and seeing all the mothers standing by the steps of the terraced houses.”
“Dublin was really shaped by the Georgian period (1714-1830), it had the wealth, the Parliament was still there and it had its peers and gentry. After that in the 19th century when that all disappeared and drained away there was never going to be the same amount of regeneration and construction whereby a new character would be visited upon the city. So the Georgian character has remained and it’s pretty much defined what Dublin is, in its kind of grand public buildings and public spaces, a Victorian (aesthetic) never took over to the same extent the Georgian period shaped the city.”
The eeriness appears to have its roots in real-life events?
“Some of the setting of the book was shaped by the real-life weather phenomenon of the time. It’s set in 1816, which was called The Year Without A Summer, because of the dust cloud from the volcano of Tambora in Indonesia, which covered the eastern coast of America and all the way to western Europe. It meant there was frost in mid- July, strange tinted snowfall, the sun turned blood red because of the dust cloud and people could see sunspots. There was also at that time, 1816, a conflict between the new ideas of The Enlightenment, which had been going on for several decades, and there was a burgeoning evangelical movement which became known as The Second Reformation as a result of which prosletysing Evangelical groups sprang up in Dublin.
“I (already) had the idea of Abigail as a character, and wanted to set it in 19th century Dublin, so this combination of the eerie weather and rationalist zeal and evangelical fervour just seemed a nice atmosphere for a crime story or Gothic crime fiction. I would like Abigail to be a recurring character.”
You said the novel you’re writing now moves away from Dublin and to the wild west, so to speak?
“It’s another true life character, Lady Betty, the Hangwoman of Roscommon. Delahunt was my first book, he’s a villain, Abigail is a hero so I’m back to another villainous character. She’s almost a myth in Roscommon, she was operating at the close of the 18th century and her myth is that she was a terrible villainous brutal hangwoman who escaped the noose herself by volunteering to hang the rest of her co-condemned but I’m looking at her story and telling it from the beginning and trying to present her as a much more sympathetic character in this terrible situation.”