Editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL interviews novelist Kate Mosse about her campaigning for feminism, and now for carers, and why she won’t be writing a Brexit or Covid novel just yet.
The thing about rights, says historical novelist Kate Mosse, is that it can take years, decades, centuries, to win them, but they can be lost all too quickly. The thing about history, she adds, is that “it is a pendulum, not a constantly forward-moving arc of progress to better times for all”.
Right now, in different parts of the world, and in the UK too, at least in part thanks to Brexit, she feels the pendulum going very much in the wrong direction, and plenty of rights being lost. “It seems nonsensical that people in power would do something to damage their own country, and their own people, simply because they wanted more power than other politicians at the time. But that’s what’s happened. This kind of national self-harm has happened before in history and it will happen again. Humankind never really learns. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards, throughout history we see enormous conflicts, millions killed, displaced, often because of the actions of people at the top – governments, or in the period I’m currently writing about, because of power struggles for dominance between kings and princes. But, in the end, the killing stops, talking starts, peace rules for a while until stability becomes commonplace and we forget, and grow complacent again.”
She is of course not saying that current unrest, Brexit not least among them, will lead to the kind of savagery which forms the backdrop to her latest book, The City of Tears, the second part of a series of novels covering 300 years of history beginning against the backdrop of the religious wars of the 16th century (though I point out that the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland are one of the things spoiling my sleep just now.)
Rather, the point is that the UK is putting an awful lot at risk by “shooting ourselves in the foot so spectacularly”. The City of Tears focuses on the battle between Catholic and Protestant. “France continued to persecute the Huguenots though everyone knew it was damaging the country’s own interests in the long-term. People do damaging things, even when they know they are damaging. They persuade themselves they are right. They dig in rather than admit to the damage.”
What she calls a permanent drumbeat of anti-EU propaganda in the UK media, over decades, helped prepare the ground for politicians to exploit and manipulate. “We all like to know where we stand, and we were given such straight-forward messages about how easy it would be, and how good. It is neither, and we are seeing that now. Chichester, where I live, narrowly voted Brexit. The people who voted for it voted in good faith. Many of them wouldn’t vote for it now because it is clear there was no good faith on the part of those leading the campaign to leave the EU in return. What we read in so many of the British newspapers, what comes out of the mouths of so many British politicians, I still do not believe that represents the majority of people, regardless of how they voted.”
Is she never tempted, I ask, to set one of her novels, with their great political and human themes, in the modern day? Brexit? The Northern Ireland peace process? Trump’s rise and fall? The Middle East? “I don’t think that I have the skill to do a modern panoramic novel,” she says. “That might not be true, but my stories and books have to be about something that makes the hair on my neck stand on end. Oddly recent history doesn’t do that for me. What I like about the distant past is that we are who we are because of what happened then, the continuity of human experience.
“On Brexit, and on Covid, I am sure there are lots of people writing drama and fiction now, but without the hindsight that you need to find a story about big events, rather than just analysis. If you look at the First World War, there were a lot of people writing during the war, the great poets, others, and it was valuable, but there was a gap of ten years before you got what I still think was the best anti-war novel ever written, in German in 1928, then translated and published here in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front [Im Westen nichts Neues, by Erich Maria Remarque] So I think it is perhaps too early for anyone, let alone me, to do a Brexit novel, so I will stay back in time.”
“Back in the 16th century?”
“I’m moving into the 17th in the next one. Positively modern for me.”
There are plenty of themes in The City of Tears that resonate today – nationalism, tribalism, abuse of power, big beasts fighting, fake news, polarisation, prejudice against refugees – but she insists: “As a writer of historical fiction, you cannot let the thoughts of the 21st century enter the mind of a 16th century character. That way lies failure. It’s why the research matters so much, and why I do so much of it.”
I interviewed the 59-year-old former publishing executive with my daughter Grace for the next episode of our podcast, Football, Feminism and Everything In Between. Football wasn’t mentioned. Feminism was, a lot. “All of my working life,’ she says, “has been about trying to stand shoulder to shoulder with other women and trying to tell the truth about women’s experience, to put our stories at the centre of the narrative.”
Her first big job in publishing in the 1980s was editing Tony Benn’s diaries, a good fit given she was a union rep, fighting for equal pay, creches, proper respect for women in the workplace and broader society. “I was very interested in industrial relations, and unions were stronger then and although there were big battles when Margaret Thatcher came along, the odd thing was how quickly the unions were vanquished, and it led to workers’ rights being taken away. It happens.” Similarly, she argues, there was lots of progress in the second wave of feminism, “but then in the early 80s there was so-called post-feminism, the idea that if you were not doing well it was your fault, nothing to do with social structure, glass ceilings, inequalities because of being a woman, because of race, because of different physical abilities. It was the Thatcherite ethos, survival of the fittest and a simplistic mantra that if you’re not the boss it was simply because you were not good enough.”
Into that environment, partly in response to an all-male Booker Prize shortlist in 1991 – “can you imagine the furore if it had been all-female?” – she and others launched the Women’s Prize for Fiction. “At the launch in 1996, a tweed-jacketed arm went up and the first question I was asked was ‘are you a lesbian?’ I said ‘No, are you?’ He was from the Daily Express. Things have changed a great deal in 25 years, but that hostility to women supporting other women was the media background to our early years. People would look me in the eye and say ‘if women were any good they would win the real prizes’.
“Often contemporary politics and society uses and distorts and abuses a partial view of history to justify what happens to women now. This idea that women just sat around and did, say, nothing but embroidery – it’s not true. The lives and the rights of women go up and down too. In some ways life for women in the 16th century was better than in the 19th century. If you want to understand the fight for equal rights, follow the money. It’s the same in the 20th century. Businesses didn’t want the Equal Pay Act to pass not for ideological reasons (or at least not only), but more significantly because they didn’t want to add to the wage bill on the bottom line.”
Though her life is dominated by her role as a carer, it sounds settled, and blessed, in comparison with the heroines of her novels: Not just the security brought by book sales well into the millions, titles translated into 38 languages, films, The City of Tears straight in at No 1 in the UK bestseller list, and in France, Spain, Holland and South Africa; but a happy childhood, loving parents and sisters, marriage to Greg, her first boyfriend at 15 who she met again by accident on a train six years later, two grown up children out in the world.
And though the idea of caring for a 90-year-old mother-in-law might be some people’s idea of hell on earth, she says: ‘I love my mother-in-law. She is known to everyone round here as Granny Rosie. At one minute past 12, I will hear the wheelchair, her head will appear around my study door and she will say ‘Is the sun over the yardarm?’ and I will say ‘it is somewhere, do you want a G and T?’ Then at the end of the day, she says ‘I’m off to bed’, and I say ‘would you like a restorative?’ and she has a whisky mac. Rosie is a total hoot.”
In between working on the next novel in The Burning Chambers series, she has written a book about caring, partly to put a more positive view of ageing and being a carer. “It should be a source of celebration that people are living longer, but it’s too often talked about as if it is a problem. Though I don’t shy away about how hard it is to be a carer – especially for those caring for someone suffering from a life-limiting illness or dementia, or those sole carers – the book is, at the same time, a love letter to my parents [her father died from Parkinson’s in 2011 and her mother died in 2014] and to Granny Rosie. It’s a story of landscape and childhood, a story about quiet heroism, about grief, and being disabled by it after caring for someone till they die and being with them when they die. It is not all ‘flowers are all growing in the garden’, but it is positive about the experience of being a carer.” It is also – back to feminism – about how and why women do most of the caring, and – back to the importance of research – she reels off the stats to prove her point.
From 2009, everyone lived together. Having supported her mother caring for her father in his later years, keeping a watching brief for her mother until she died, and now as a full-time carer to Rosie, she says: “I spend a lot of time with older people, and for their generation, the European Union was about ‘never again’, about safeguarding peace in Europe, alliances, you have each other’s backs, you don’t turn on your neighbours. I worry about picking that apart. Do I think the EU is perfect, that its systems and the way it operates are perfect, very far from it? But I do think it is better than the alternative.
“Factionalism is almost always dangerous. Left or right, the more extreme elements meet at the top of the circle, and all too often a totalitarian attitude is the result. There are two approaches to how we debate – one is that you listen to other people, you don’t have to agree but you listen and seek common ground; the other is ‘he who shouts loudest’ – I am using ‘he’ very deliberately. That is the period we are in now. There is a clarity in extreme views and they become appealing when people feel a bit adrift. In The City of Tears that comes through religion – if you pray in your own language, you are seen as disloyal to the King. Enemies within. The truth doesn’t matter, what you believe matters, regardless of truth. It’s dangerous. When it happens in politics, it is very dangerous. History has shown that, time and again.”
The City of Tears, published by Pan Macmillan, £20; An Extra Pair of Hands: A Story of Caring, Ageing and Everyday Acts of Love will be published by Wellcome Collection, June 2021, £12.99
The full interview can be heard on Football, Feminism and Everything In Between, all usual podcast platforms
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