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Cambridge Literary Festival interview: author Nicola Upson reveals Bloomsbury Set house inspired her novel

Author Nicola Upson’s latest novel continues the series which stars real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth and centres on the events of the summer of 1915 when the sudden death of a young girl brings grief and notoriety to Charleston Farmhouse on the Sussex Downs.

Years later, Josephine returns to the house – now the home of the Bloomsbury set – and remembers the two women with whom she once lodged as a young teacher during the Great War.

Nicola Upson's latest novel, Sorry for the Dead
Nicola Upson's latest novel, Sorry for the Dead

Past and present collide, with murders decades apart, and Josephine sets out to discover the truth behind the scandal that threatened to destroy those women’s lives.

The book takes the star of series and puts her in a new setting: “I always want to do something slightly different with each book so I thought it would be nice to see Josephine as a younger woman in this book,” said Nicola. “As well as having the present day of 1938 in the story, which continues the series, we also go back to 1915 which was an interesting time for her because she was just coming to the end of her time in college and going out to teaching placement at a physical training college.”

Nicola spends a long time researching each novel to get the facts of Josephine’s life right and to understand details of the period. This time, it was a visit to Charleston House and a series of coincidences that helped her create her new novel, Sorry for the Dead.

“These ideas happen by chance,” says Nicola. “My partner Mandy had taken me to Charleston one year for my birthday because I had never been, although I love the Bloomsbury Set, and so we were on this guided tour and were looking at all the wonderfully painted rooms when the guide told us that it used to be run as a boarding house by two women before Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant got there in 1961.

“You could still see the ceramic room number plates above the doors and that was just so intriguing because I’m always quite interested in the history of places before they become famous for what we love them for. So I thought it would be fun to set it at Charleston at that brilliant farmhouse. Also the Downs and Sussex were so important to the real Josephine Tey. It was a place she absolutely adored even though she lived all her life in Scotland. She used to visit frequently and she often referred to it in letters as my country.”

Author of Sorry for the Dead - Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Author of Sorry for the Dead - Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell.

We find Josphine working at Cambridge’s Arts Theatre, where her play The Laughing Woman is premiering, when the traumatic memories of the summer of 1915, when rumours about the affair between Georgina Hartford-Wroe and Harriet Barker, partners in the horticultural school Moira House, came to a head with the death of Dorothy Norwood.

The story gives Josephine food for thought before she writes her next mystery novel, The Franchise Affair.

“I knew I wanted to write a book that was in some way connected to Tey’s novel The Franchise Affair which was the first novel of hers that I read, and I still think it is the most amazing novel. It came out in 1948 but it’s so ahead of its time.

“It is about two women who are accused of kidnapping and abusing a young girl – in 1948 that was quite heady stuff. I thought it would be interesting to explore that idea of shame and rumour and how that kind of event can escalate and get out of hand. The two women in The Franchise Affair used to be in a boarding house, so suddenly there was that magical moment when all those different threads came together in that setting.”

Josphine really did put on plays at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, so Nicola’s novels weave in these elements from her real life into the mysteries. Although the biggest mystery was the woman herself, who was extremely private.

“All of the books start with something real about her life and work to varying degrees because it was originally going to be a biography. Then it metamorphosed into a series of novels and Mandy said, ‘for God’s sake just make it up’.

“And instantly I knew that was really more the sort of book I wanted to write because you can explore all the romance of the theatre in those novels. She was an interesting person and because the gaps in her life were just as interesting as the facts, she lends herself very well to that sort of treatment.”

She added: “It’s interesting that one of the conditions of her will was that, on her death, the keys to her house were to be handed over to her sister and nobody else was to go into that house until all of what her sister deemed to be sensitive material was completely destroyed. So lots of people like me, potential biographers and historians of the future, were never really going to have a great deal of material to work with. Although having spent years researching her life there are still pockets of information in various archives and letters.”

Nicola Upson will discuss her novel about the life and loves of artist Stanley Spencer at the Cambridge Literary Festival
Nicola Upson will discuss her novel about the life and loves of artist Stanley Spencer at the Cambridge Literary Festival

One such revelation was a diary written by an actress of the day who describes her romantic feelings for Josephine.

Nicola says: “There is a sexuality issue, which in the 1930s was obviously much more dangerous than it is today, but there is also the fact she is fundamentally a very private person. Sometimes we find it hard to gauge that difference in identity because she lived in an era when the currency of who you were had a completely different value to what it does today.

“One of the most fabulous pieces of research we have found on Josephine was in an archive in Winchester – a year-long love letter written in the form of a diary from the actress, Marda Vanne, to Josephine. It is the most extraordinary document, so when my character Marta Hallard becomes a serious character in the series, some of the letters she writes to Josephine in the book are based word for word on Marda’s diary.”

n Nicola will be speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival about another book, Stanley and Elsie. It was based on the friendship between artist Stanley Spencer and his housekeeper. Saturday (November 30), 2.30pm at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Tickets, £11. Box office cambridgelive.org.uk.

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