Today on the blog, I am very excited to welcome Lucinda Hawksley, the author of three books I have read and enjoyed recently - The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter; March, Women, March! Voices of the Women's Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women; and Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel
In the past few months I’ve read three of your books – on Lizzie Siddal, the suffragettes and Princess Louise – and I’ve enjoyed them all enormously. I read a great deal of non-fiction as research for my novels, and it is such a rare pleasure to find a non-fiction book that is both brilliantly informative and beautifully written.
How did you first begin writing biographies and narrative non-fiction?
I always intended to write fiction – as I child I was mad about Roald Dahl, so I always wanted to do what he did. The only biography I ever planned to write was on the artist Katey Perugini (née Dickens), because I became fascinated by her when I was very young. She was my great great great aunt and I felt she deserved a biography. The others all grew out of that, and when I discovered how fascinating non-fiction can be, it’s so intriguing and although it’s a well-worn cliché it really is true that fact is very often stranger than fiction. I often get emails saying how much people have enjoyed my “novel” about Lizzie Siddal, which I always take as a compliment and I love the fact that people think a real life can’t actually have been like that.
What was the greatest challenge for you in this work?
The salary – that sounds crass, but as I’m sure you’re aware, most authors get paid an absolute pittance. Don’t even think about working out a day rate, let alone an hourly rate. It is a struggle for about 95% of authors to try and work on the money that publishers pay, especially as non-fiction requires so much research. Princess Louise took me 6 years to write and research and the advance covered a fraction of one year of that, so alongside writing, I needed to take on huge amounts of extra work, hence I do a lot of lecturing and public speaking. I also write articles. Last year I was elected onto the Management Committee of the Society of Authors, and it has been a shock to discover how appallingly badly the vast majority of authors are paid. Most end up giving up and finding a different job, which is very sad. Virginia Woolf was so correct when she said that a woman needs an income and a room of one’s own in order to be able to write. Oh for a trust fund!
How do you choose your subjects?
Once you’ve got started, they tend to all start suggesting themselves. I chose to write about Katey and Lizzie Siddal (as I had studied the Pre-Raphaelites as part of my Masters degree work), then Princess Louise came about because she kept popping up in my research. Dickens came about largely through my Katey book, and also because I’m related to him, so people tend to want me to write about him. March, Women, March came about because my publisher wanted me to write about the suffragettes, but I wanted to write about the women’s movement as a whole, as it played a large role in my Princess Louise research. Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards grew out of a lecture I was commissioned to give at the National Portrait Gallery – and that grew out of my telling them I have a beard phobia and them saying I needed to face my fear!
How do you begin to go about your research?
I start what I call my “skeleton timeline” in which I plot every bit of information I have, no matter how minor it seems, and then decide which bit I want to work on first. I use the internet, the London Library, the British Library, the National Art Library and as many local studies libraries as I can find (they are an amazing undertapped resource). I also interview people and try to find out information from things such as parish records and by visiting places that had a connection with the person / events. For March, Women, March I spent a lot of time at the London Library and the Wellcome Library is also really useful for any medical research.
Tell me a little more about how you work. Do you keep notes on palm-cards, or on a whiteboard? Do you use a computer program to help? Do you take notes by hand? How do you keep your research notes in order?
I have a very small working space, so a whiteboard would not fit! I don’t use a special computer programme, but I keep obsessive notes both on the laptop and by hand and files of notes. I try and copy all handwritten notes into a computer file as well, so that I reinforce them and have everything together. I always have at least one notebook and a pencil case in my handbag. I also make notes on my phone to email to myself. I am not a naturally organised person, so I have to really work at it, and every now and then I need to have an “admin day” to sort it all out.
What was your favourite book to write so far?
That’s very tough, as that’s like asking which is your favourite child! I really enjoyed writing the biography of Katey, because I learnt so much about my family. I also had a great time researching Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards for the National Portrait Gallery, it was a much smaller book to write than any of the biographies and the NPG publishing department are really easy to work with. It was interesting, very different from the type of research I’d done before (medical as well as social history) and finished remarkably fast!
What was your most difficult book so far?
Definitely The Mystery of Princess Louise as there were so many obstacles put in my way when researching her: I wasn’t allowed to see her files in the Royal Archives, her husband’s family also made it impossible to get into their archives, so much has been destroyed. Having said which, once I realised that was how it was going to be, I really enjoyed it, as it was basically like being a detective. I began slightly nervous that I wasn’t going to like her (not great for a biography subject) as there was so much negatove information out there about her, and I ended up by really liking her and realising that so much of that negativity was rumour spread so that people wouldn’t look beyond it and find the truth.
Do you grow to really love your subjects? Are you invested in their stories? Or do you retain an objective detachment?
You have to love them. I don’t think I could write a biography of someone I wasn’t fascinated by and I liked. You start off by putting them on a pedestal, then you get to know their bad points and irritating foibles and all the nitty gritty and by the end you love them for their good, bad and ingenious sides. If I started a biography and didn’t find the person interesting, I would have to give up on it.
Tell me about your research on Lizzie Siddal. What was your most interesting discovery about her?
I think perhaps the fact that she made her childhood sound much more impoverished than it was, for whatever reason she and Rossetti made out that she grew up in a “slum”, when it was actually a very normal working-class home. She romanticised so much of her childhood and that was intriguing to me. I was also intrigued by what a cult figure she is and how many people are obsessed by the idea of her dying while posing for Millais’s Ophelia (she didn’t…) and that she remains “undead” (courtesy of Charles Augustus Howell telling Rossetti the lie that when Lizzie’s coffin was exhumed she looked as beautiful as she had done in life. I checked, and laudanum is not a preservative!).
A pen and ink drawing of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
What first drew you to be interested in her story?
The poetry of Christina Rossetti got me into the Pre-Raphaelites and Lizzie always just shines out of their story. I wanted to write about her when I was a teenager, I think a lot of teenage girls go through a Lizzie Siddal stage. She’s gets the same kind of cult attraction as Marilyn Monroe.
And what about Princess Louise?
When I was researching Katey & Lizzie, I kept coming across this princess who was hanging out with Whistler and going to parties at Leighton’s house and visiting Rossetti when he was ill. I assumed she was a minor foreign royal who had come to London to be bohemian. I was amazed to discover she was one of Victoria and Albert’s daughters and astounded to find I had often walked past one of her sculptures in Kensington Gardens. She has been very deliberately whitewashed out of much of royal history, despite having actually been an integral part of several reigns.
I was thrilled by your book on suffragettes, ‘March, Women, March’ – I want all teenage girls to read it. I’ve read many books on the topic before, but yours really brought the stories of the women behind the cause to life. How long did it take you to research and write?
It took me about a year to research and write it, because that’s the time frame the publisher gave me. I could have gone on for much longer! I would love all teenagers to read it, when the publicity department sent it away for review, my favourite comment came from the radio DJ Lynn Parsons who wrote “I want my sons to read this”. I thought I knew a lot about the subject before, especially as I’d researched so much of it for Princess Louise (so, being honest, the research took several years, I suppose), but I learnt a great deal when I was researching it. Sometimes it was heartbreaking. It was not an easy book to write as it frequently made me cry. I remember one morning waking up to the radio news and hearing the presenter say “Should women be allowed to be bishops?” and in my bleary-eyed early morning state I genuinely wondered if I was awake or dreaming about being in the 19th century.
You must always be reading for research. What types of books do you like to read for pleasure?
Golden Age crime fiction! That’s my favourite type of escapism. I also love really good, witty, intelligent novels, Rachel Joyce, Salley Vickers, Sebastian Faulks, Ian Rankin and Mavis Cheek are some of my favourites.
What’s a few of the best novels you’ve read recently?
I’m reading Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy at the moment and I’m loving it. I also really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. One of my favourite ever books is Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy. If you haven’t read it, I would thoroughly recommend it. It should be on every school syllabus.
What book of yours should I read next?
Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, surprisingly interesting social history all around facial hair (the beard phobia got worse not better when I was writing it…). The Victorian Treasury came out last week. Or wait until March and read my upcoming Dickens and his Circle.
What are you working on now?
Dickens and his Circle is coming out in March, so I have been finishing doing the edits on that. I’ve also just finished writing The London Treasury which is also coming out next year. I’m going to take a few months off writing, as I’ve worked on 4 books this year and am exhausted, and concentrate on lecturing for a while, before I decide next year what I want to do. I have finished a first draft of a YA book (fiction) so I’d like the time to work on that and develop it.