I was born and brought up in London, the middle of three sisters. My mother was an English teacher, and my father was a lawyer in the Foreign Office. Perhaps inevitably, in my memory, supper table arguments were usually about words: their exact meaning, ambiguities, overtones, etymology and changing use. Driving across the USA in a camper van, my father retold the stories of the Greek myths, and my mother read us Edward Lear, The Princess and the Goblin and Noel Streatfeild. Later, in airports and on cross-channel ferries, it was Shakespeare, Kidnapped and Jane Austen.
We spent many holidays on the Essex/Suffolk border, where much of The Mathematics of Love is set, but when I was nine my father was posted to Brussels, when Britain joined what was then called the EEC. We spent three years commuting between London and Brussels, and travelling around Europe for holidays. Those memories have shaped my work too: the battlefield of Waterloo, and the road from San Sebastian to Bilbao. We were even once caught by the Guardia Civil when we set up camp by mistake on General Franco's country estate.
A Secret Alchemy has many of its roots in my London childhood: films like Olivier’s Richard III, visits to the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, memories of Josephine Tey's detective story The Daughter of Time, and always the layers of history that underlie everything, and show wherever the modern surface cracks.
I liked writing stories as a child, but history was my passion. I read Geoffrey Trease, Cynthia Harnett, Barbara Willard, and time-slip novels like Penelope Farmer's frightening Charlotte Sometimes. I moved on to Hornblower, Heyer and Mary Renault, but as a teenager I caught the theatre bug and went up to the University of Birmingham to read Drama. To this day I use what I learnt of characterisation, subtext and stagecraft in my own writing, but I also worked through my stage-struckness and out the other side. My Finals dissertation was on play publishing; realising that the book industry was a place where I felt at home, I spent some years in academic publishing, and it was only when I had two small children that I started writing a novel. Then I was diverted: my first camera had been a tenth birthday present, and now I finally acquired a darkroom.
But I became more and more sure that writing was what I should be doing, and I got a place on the MPhil in Writing at the University of Glamorgan, where my tutor was novelist and poet Christopher Meredith. By that time I had discovered Peter Ackroyd, Allan Massie, Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel and A. S. Byatt. Historical fiction for adults had become what it has always been for children: a unique space where serious writers can explore fundamental desires and fears, while revelling in the nearness and otherness of worlds that we know were here, but can' t quite see. The novel I wrote for the degree became The Mathematics of Love., and I wrote a critical paper on narrative and structure in A. S. Byatt's novel Possession.
I graduated from the MPhil just as The Mathematics of Love was being sold to Headline Review and then to William Morrow in the US. I found the form of a practice-led research degree so fruitful that I decided to study for a doctorate at Goldsmiths, where my supervisor was Maura Dooley.
The Mathematics of Love was published in 2006; The Times described it as “that rare thing, a book that works on every conceivable level. A real achievement”, and the Daily Express as, “an addictive, engaging foray into historical fiction that leaves the reader believing in the art of perspective and the redemptive power of love.” The Mathematics of Love was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers and Goss First Novel awards, longlisted for the Prince Maurice Prize and the RNA Novel of the Year, and translated into many languages. As far as I know, The Mathematics of Love is the only novel to be listed simultaneously for the Commonwealth Writers' and RNA prizes. Since then, I've appeared at literary festivals from Hay on Wye to Brisbane, by way of Swindon.
My second novel A Secret Alchemy was published by Headline Review in 2008 and by Harper Perennial in the following year. It reached the Sunday Times Bestsellers Lists in 2009, and was named as one of The Times Top 50 Paperbacks of 2009. The Daily Mail called it “powerful and convincing”, and the Times “spellbinding”. As 2009 was also the Bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, I had a busy year, and was asked to Mexico and later Spain, to lecture on creative thinking in my extended Darwin-Wedgwood family tree.
A Secret Alchemy also formed the major part of my doctorate, which explores how historical fiction works as storytelling: voice, structure, using real historical characters, and the genre's place at the intersection of the reading and writing of fiction, and the reading and writing of fiction. I was the first writer to be awarded a PhD in Creative Writing by Goldsmiths, and among the first in London University as a whole.
I'm an associate lecturer at the Open University teaching creative writing; I have also taught at Arvon, and I'm a regular at the York Festival of Writing, giving workshops and mini-courses, chairing panels and competitions, and doing "book-doctoring" one-to-one. Meanwhile, of course, the Harrogate History Festivals and the Historical Novel Society Conferences are particularly close to my heart. I also co-developed and co-teach a highly successful series of online courses in Self-Editing Your Novel for Writer's Workshop.
In such gaps as writing novels and teaching allows, I write short fiction, and my stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and the national press, and been broadcast on Radio 4; click here XXX for more about my short fiction. I've also written a few non-fiction pieces for the national press.
I now live in South East London, still surrounded by history: there was a Viking fort on the hill behind their house, and down the road is Eltham Palace, where many important scenes in A Secret Alchemy are set. No further away is William Morris’s Red House, which inspired the Chantry and the Pryor family in the novel. Down House, home of my great-great-grandparents Charles Darwin and his cousin and wife Emma Wedgwood, is not far away: for more about them, click here. I'm also proud to be a great-great-great niece, on my maternal side, of the Victorian master of the uncanny, J. Sheridan LeFanu.