Readerly Chats: Martine Bailey, Author of A Taste For Nightshade

Martine Bailey
Photo Credit: Martin John Bailey

Martine Bailey’s latest work of historical fiction,  A Taste For Nightshade, an intoxicating and suspenseful novel filled with passion, intrigue, danger and period recipes for the food of the time as well as spells and enchantments. We had the opportunity to chat with Martine Bailey and she shared with us some of the research that inspired her novel as well as the books on her shelf. 

Readerly: A Taste For Nightshade is filled with lots of wonderful period details, can you tell us a little about your research? Did you have expectations that were fulfilled, or were you surprised by what you found out?

Martine Bailey: I loved researching old country houses, fashion, and all sorts of history, from servant hiring fairs to what people drank at Yorkshire Assemblies. Delafosse Hall, the dilapidated manor where much of the action takes place, is based on a once abandoned Jacobean house called Plas Teg, close to where I live on the Welsh border. The sophisticated shopping culture of the 1790s surprised me, that women like Grace could choose furniture and wallpapers from beautiful pattern books. At the other end of the social scale, I also enjoyed reading criminal trials, especially when the words spoken were recorded verbatim. For example, the murder inquest at the end of the book is loosely based on a report in The Times at that period.

I also researched a number of objects related to memory. For example, Grace often takes courage from a crucifix containing a lock of her dead mother’s hair.  On the other hand Mary, her adversary and cook, cherishes a ‘Penny Heart’ hidden under her bodice. These were copper pennies engraved by criminals about to be transported to Australia, a terrifying place back then, at ‘the ends of the earth’. When I travelled around Australia and New Zealand I discovered these tokens were part of a vibrant  subculture of thieves, with its own slang and notions of bravery or ‘pluck’. Symbols similar to those on Penny Hearts – chains, anchors, Irish harps and mythical figures, were also tattooed onto the skin of about a quarter of women convicts. A number of designs such as five dots and sequences of letters still remain unidentified, their meanings lost in time.

I love the idea that these ‘souvenir’ objects – portrait miniatures, hair jewellery and memento coins – are like our own compulsion to take photographs, expressing the need to leave a trace of our identities at a time of turbulent social change.

Readerly: Recipes back in eighteenth-century England are not the detailed instructions to which we’ve become accustomed to. How did you decide which ones to include, and how did you create them?

I love to use early recipes because they are like poems and evoke so much about pleasure and memory. But when I began historic cookery I was entirely flummoxed by the instructions. As when writing An Appetite for Violets, I had practical help from TV food historian Ivan Day (HistoricFood.com) and access to his library of old cookery books. In his archives I discovered two further historic objects, a sugar doll-sized bed to be placed on a bride-cake, and a tiny cradle and swaddled baby.

The Georgian era was an age of ‘remedies’ and elixirs, peddled by criminal quacks and charlatans. I knew my villainess Mary could have known about these but the recipes were not, to my knowledge, written down. This meant I had to be creative and elaborate on home remedies such as Poppy Drops, and old wives’ cordials made from narcotic herbs or aphrodisiacs.

Some of the familiar recipes representing homely ‘Old England’ were a pleasure to recreate, such as Apple Pie, Pease Pudding, Cherry Trifle, Gingerbread, and Yorkshire Fat Rascals. I also tasted some extraordinary food on my Antipodean travels, including Maori foods cooked underground with hot stones in a Hangi pit oven, kangaroo, crocodile, paua (black sea snails), campfire damper and grubs.

Readerly: What was the biggest surprise after the publication of your first novel? How do you feel about this new one being published?

Martine Bailey: Once a novel leaves your imagination it seems to develop a life of its own. I was intrigued to read people’s different interpretations of An Appetite for Violets and attempts to fit it to a genre: suspense, romance, mystery, crime, and even what Fay Weldon generously called its own new genre, ‘culinary gothic’. One great pleasure has been to connect with other people who love historic food, such as a book club in Chicago who created a themed menu for their meeting, including a salamagundy salad and taffety tart. As I do love crime fiction, a welcome surprise was when An Appetite for Violets was picked as one of the Ten Best Crime Debuts of 2015 by Booklist.

Like most authors, releasing a new book brings a queasy mixture of excitement and apprehension. A Taste for Nightshade is a darker book, but then some readers have said, ‘We love dark, don’t worry.’ So far it has been reassuring that The Sunday Times in the UK picked it as a Top Summer Read. In the end, you simply have to have faith in your own voice. I always try to write the kind of book I like reading – one with a powerful atmosphere, authentic period details, and a twisting, serpentine plot.

Readerly: Can we peek at your shelves? What are you reading now?

My reading is always split into two: firstly there is research for whatever I’m writing. So at the moment I’m reading Food and the Rites of Passage, edited by Laura Mason, about the historic foods eaten around times of baptism, marriage, childbirth and death. And as my new heroine is a ‘lady of the town’, I’m about to read Facing Beauty: Painted Women And Cosmetic Art by Aileen Ribeiro. I’m fascinated by the changing perceptions of female beauty and how women have chased the ideal of their era.

Secondly, I’m a voracious reader of intelligent crime and contemporary fiction, but with so little time, I often give my eyes a rest and listen to audiobooks. I recently loved The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer, because it confounds expectations of the child abduction novel and was about something much more intriguing. I’m currently listening to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and being half-Dutch myself, responding to the Dutch art theme as well as the intimate, disturbing narrative. Next on the audio pile, as I cook or sit by the fire this winter, are Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Louisa Treger’s The Lodger, and the great Ruth Rendell’s last novel, Dark Corners.

Readerly: What’s next?

Martine Bailey: My current work-in-progress is an intricate murder mystery set in an English village. When my worldly heroine is stranded in the countryside after a robbery, she joins forces with an urbane hack writer and together they solve a series of enigmas. My research so far has sent me looking at the seasons, traditions and rituals of country life. To get into the mood I recently went to the Acton Scott Museum in Shropshire, where the BBC’s Victorian Farm was filmed. I had a lovely time pretending to be a farmer’s wife, dressing up, churning butter, and feeding livestock. Time really did seem to flow more slowly there, chatting over needlework on a long rainy afternoon.


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