Sentenced to death for a simple confidence trick, Mary Jebb escapes the gallows …but her reprieve is harsh: seven years in the unforgiving penal colony of Botany Bay. Yet Mary is determined not to be forgotten, sending two pennies, engraved with a promise, to the two men who sealed her fate.
Timid artist Grace Moore jumps at the opportunity to marry handsome gentleman Michael Croxon – happy if only to get away from her drunken father. But when Grace takes on a new cook, the two penny heart love tokens reveal she is tied to a world she didn’t know existed.
A world of deceit, double-crossing, revenge and murder…
It was August of last year when I had the pleasure of meeting Martine Bailey when she visited Knaresborough Library to talk about her debut novel An Appetite For Violets. Her talk was quite enchanting, full of her culinary research and the historical background to the book – and she also shared some tantalising glimpses of her forthcoming book, The Penny Heart. Martine was good enough to arrange for me to be sent a trade paperback of the new book – then the deluge of other books began, and I’m rather ashamed that I never got round to reading it. But what better time could there be to pick it up? The Penny Heart is published in paperback today by Hodder.
My review follows, along with the opportunity to win a signed paperback copy of The Penny Heart. But first, I’m really delighted to welcome author Martine Bailey to Being Anne on paperback publication day…
Hello Martine, and welcome to Being Anne – I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting you before, but would you like to introduce yourself to everyone?
Hello Anne, thanks for inviting me onto your site. Yes, it was a lovely surprise when you arrived at my talk at the Knaresborough Festival!
I’m a northerner, a keen cook and novelist. My first novel, An Appetite For Violets, was about a young cook who is taken on a mysterious journey to Italy. I got the idea for the culinary aspect when I was standing in the kitchen of Erddig Hall reading the 18th-century recipes. I felt there was something incredibly powerful about those early recipe books, written by women who wanted to share moments of pleasure in precious ink.
I have been a keen cookery contestant and won the Merchant Gourmet prize which was a cookery course in France. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to learn some of the historic techniques that feature in my books from the wonderful food historian Ivan Day.
Tell me more about The Penny Heart – where did your ideas come from?
The idea for The Penny Heart came to me when I was house-swapping in New Zealand after my son and his partner were involved in the Christchurch earthquake. Before I left England I’d had a very positive meeting with a London agent about An Appetite For Violets and she soon asked me for an idea for a follow-up. I remember walking on an empty beach staring at the Pacific and trying to imagine life back in the eighteenth century. Just across the Tasman Sea was the British colony at Botany Bay, while my new hometown had been inhabited by Maori people, who my husband was teaching at the local college. Then I had my memories of history in England, and the unrest and revolutions in the 1790s.
Two opposing characters came into my head, an alluring but dangerous confidence trickster called Mary Jebb who is transported to Botany Bay. She is later employed as a cook at a remote Yorkshire Hall by a naive young wife and artist called Grace Moore. Mary sends the same Penny Heart keepsake to two men, a type of copper penny engraved by convicts as mementos. But Mary’s is inscribed with a message of revenge, though against whom is not immediately clear…
When people talk about your books, they often use the term “culinary gothic”. I love it… but do you?
I do! The night before the launch of An Appetite For Violets, Fay Weldon wrote her response to reading it and I felt she absolutely understood my love of Gothic novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. I knew I wanted to write about food but not just in a cosy way. Though I feature regional recipes such as Yorkshire Fat Rascals and Rosehip Jellies in The Penny Heart, I’m influenced by powerful symbolic food like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake in Great Expectations. So when I was recently asked to define ‘culinary gothic’ as a genre by Writers & Artists, I said that it was food writing ‘characterised by elements of mystery, death and the unnatural.’ As well as beautiful and exotic food, as an historical crime writer, I’m also very interested in poisons, remedies and quackery.
I’m fascinated by your research – and there must have been so much of it for this book. How did you go about creating that world? I’m sure the criminal world in the 18th century must have been a particular challenge…
Though the idea for this book arose because I was living in a remote part of New Zealand (without the usual library resources), in the end I did masses of research when I got back to the UK. My world creation is about taking interesting facts and then trying to use my imagination to create scenes that unfold like a film as I write.
The criminal world of that time was particularly well documented. When I finally crossed the Tasman Sea to visit Australia, the wealth of documentation of the 1788 First Fleet that left England was astonishing. There are letters, trials, memoirs of Botany Bay and dictionaries of the secret language of criminals. I became particularly interested by the tattoos worn by about a quarter of women convicts. It’s still not certain what some of the symbols mean, but I gave Mary an authentic tattoo of the garden of Eden with the sinister motto: ‘The Serpent Tempted Me And I Ate’.
When I got back to the UK my location trips included the Ask restaurant in York (which was once the Assembly Rooms), Quarry Bank Mill, and Plas Teg in Wrexham, the exterior model for Delafosse Hall.
I’m intrigued – why did they change the title to A Taste for Nightshade for the US market? Did you have any input?
My US publisher had reservations about the title because they told me that no one in America would know what a ‘penny heart’ was. I didn’t tell them that very few people in the UK would know either! They were keen to have a title that followed on from my debut and gave me about 48 hours to come up with a list. My husband and I spent all weekend drawing up lists and the winning idea was to change the ‘henbane’ in the original manuscript to its other name, nightshade. I do love the title as it has more sinister overtones than the original.
What writers do you particularly admire? if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?
I am delighted that the Americans promote my books as appealing to readers of Sarah Waters, who is one of my literary heroines. The Little Stranger is one of my favourite books. I’m also a huge fan of Daphne Du Maurier, especially Rebecca and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But I also see myself as a crime writer and read a great deal of crime fiction, from Ruth Rendell and P D James, to more literary writers who occasionally write crime, like Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Joanne Harris (Gentlemen and Players).
And what’s next for you? Are you working on something new?
After crossing Europe to write my debut, and then roaming the Antipodes for The Penny Heart, I was ready to stay at home in Cheshire for a while. I knew I wanted to write a murder mystery and set it against the rural festivals and seasons of England. Then I discovered old-fashioned almanacs that were once owned by almost a third of the population. They are fascinating mixtures of predictions, astronomy, and calendars with sprinklings of enigmas and riddles. Just as my first two books are written in the style of recipe books, the new book is like an almanac complete with 18th-century riddles. I am just writing the final few chapters and have absolutely loved the whole process.
Thank you for joining me, Martine – congratulations on the paperback release, and I wish you every success…
I don’t read very much historical fiction. It’s not that I don’t like it – I do pick up timeslip novels from time to time, and there’s nothing I like better than a book set in a dual timeframe, but historical novels just haven’t been showing up on my radar recently. But I’m really glad I tried this one – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The first thing that struck me was the quality of the writing. I have no idea how the author achieved it, but this book manages to create the impression that this is a novel of its eighteenth century age. But that doesn’t mean it’s a difficult read in any way – just that the first person voice of Grace seems amazingly authentic. The narrative shifts between first and third person, as we also follow the story of Mary Jebb, her deportation to the colonies and her return with its dramatic consequences. The whole structure really works, particularly as the stories begin to dovetail. And I loved the recipes that open each chapter, each meal or slightly bizarre concoction then featured in the chapter that follows.
Both the women characters are quite wonderfully drawn. Grace has a really endearing innocence and trusting naivety – until, of course, she realises that her trust is dreadfully misplaced. And as for Mary… she draws the eye in every scene, a magnetic presence as the story twists and turns with its layers of treachery and betrayal.
The whole book draws superbly on gothic tradition, with Delafosse Hall a vividly drawn warren of dark cellars, tunnels and creaking staircases, with thick foliage darkening its windows. And I also liked the introduction of the North’s industrial past – and the way the book dealt with the realities of imprisonment, deportation, the conditions in the penal colonies and what might be the dire consequences of encountering the tribes of New Zealand.
The story was really excellent, totally gripping, building to the most perfect climax. Because I thought the book might be slightly outside my comfort zone, I’d rather expected to take several days over the reading – I really didn’t think I’d be reading it into the early hours, just one more chapter (and several more), to find out exactly where the story was going.
I’d recommend this book to anyone – it promised love, deception and revenge, and all three are quite magnificently delivered by a very skilled story teller. A really gorgeous read.
With thanks to Martine, I’m delighted to be able to offer one lucky UK reader the chance to win a signed paperback copy of The Penny Heart. Here’s the rafflecopter for entry:
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Martine Bailey’s historical crime debut, An Appetite for Violets, took sharp-witted cook Biddy Leigh on a murderous trip to Italy. Its mix of crime, gastronomy and social history was described by Fay Weldon as a new genre, ‘culinary gothic’. An Appetite for Violets was picked by the American Library Association’s Booklist as one of the top ten crime fiction debuts of 2015.
In pursuit of authenticity Martine has studied with TV food historian Ivan Day and experienced Georgian food and fashion at firsthand with an historic re-enactment society. As an amateur cook she won the Merchant Gourmet Recipe Challenge and was a former UK Dessert Champion, cooking at Le Meurice in Paris.
Martine now lives in Cheshire, England, and is married with one son.
Follow Martine on Twitter and Facebook: she also has a really excellent website.