Hi Julie – thanks so much for having me on Northern Reader and for kicking off the blog tour for In Two Minds.
1.In the first book, Harry had a personal interest in discovering the killer of Margaret. Why do you think he insists on doing the right thing by this faceless corpse?
Harry’s a complicated character and I don’t always think he’s honest with himself about his own motivation. So I suspect that, on one level, the death of Margaret Jones and the feeling of culpability he carries for that is always going to drive him – to a lesser or greater extent – to do right by the dead.
Then there’s the question of not knowing what’s happened to someone you love. In In Two Minds, Harry clashes with Inspector Bellis, who wants a quick, tidying-up inquest and isn’t bothered about identifying the faceless corpse. ‘Somebody, somewhere,’ Harry tells him, ‘is waiting for news of him.’ Those words remind us of Harry’s own feelings in None So Blind – he waited seven years to find out what had happened to Margaret, he knows what it’s like to live in limbo, not knowing what’s happened to somebody you love.
The other – and possibly least admirable aspect of Harry’s determination – is his refusal to be told what to do by the magistrates or police. His blindness has left him feeling bereft and vulnerable and this, combined with the fear he has always had of simply being made in his father’s establishment image, pushes him into carving a different niche for himself. He’s almost obsessionally determined to steer his own course and, sometimes, the direction that course takes is defined simply by what other people don’t want him to do.
- John, Harry’s helper, is hoping for a ‘proper’ job as a lawyer, and begins this book being disappointed than Harry only seems to want him temporarily. Is John being overly ambitious, or is that just the sort of person he is?
In the mid-nineteenth century, it was possible for somebody like John – a bright lad with no family background of acheivement – to succeed in one of the professions, but many didn’t even try as they lacked the necessarily financial backing.
Having said that, before Harry walked into Mr Schofield’s office in None So Blind and procured John’s services as his assistant, I’m not sure John had necessarily given a lot of thought to his own advancement. As far as he was concerned, he’d done pretty well for himself given that he’d found himself alone in the world, without home or job, at the age of twelve. But working with Harry has given him what Mr Probert-Lloyd senior would call ‘ideas above his station’. John has taken Harry’s talk of equality and advancement seriously and has begun to think that perhaps he can do better than clerking for Mr Schofield. And why not? His mother had always told him he was a bright lad.
This strand in the book has the benefit of arising naturally out of what happened in None So Blind but it also provides a useful element of tension between Harry and John in In Two Minds.
3.You have set up some barriers to the investigation – Harry’s poor sight, his father’s opposition, a doctor’s alleged drink problem – will Harry ever get an easy time? Or is that the point of the books?
Harry doesn’t want an easy time. If he did, he would just have come home meekly and done what his father wanted – taken over the running of the estate and his father’s seat on the magistrates’ bench. No, Harry wants to be his own man. He doesn’t like or approve of the status quo and the way he chooses to forge a separate identity for himself is never to take the easy, expected way. He is determined to plough his own furrow, even if he has to relinquish the horse and drag the damn’ plough himself!
But, as your question suggests, at a conceptual level, if there were no barriers to his investigation, the book would be awfully dull!
4.More of a direct question; do you find the Welsh language element of the book easy to write? The names, the words and everything? It is difficult avoiding anachronisms in two languages?
For me, the books wouldn’t be remotely authentic without any Welsh. As a Welsh speaker, it’s both hard and easy to include Welsh language elements – easy because I know what I’m saying and never need to check spelling or grammar and hard because I have to bear in mind that the vast majority of my readers won’t be familiar with the language and, therefore, I mustn’t put too much in lest it become confusing or irritating.
As far as the use of personal names are concerned, the series illustrates a very Welsh phenomenon. In a country where the original way of marking surnames by patronym – that is, X son of Y as in Dafydd ap Gwilym – had been reduced by English bureaucracy to the modern forms we know. So we get, for example, David Johnes (ie John’s son – which became ‘Jones’) or John Davies (Davy’s son). And, because a few English names predominated, Welsh names having fallen into disuse at that time, the list of indigenous surnames became, and remains, very short.
When I was a child the local telephone directory was full of Davies, Evans, Jones, Thomas, Williams, the occasional anglicisation of a Welsh form – (eg Probert (from ap Robert, son of Robert) or Lloyd (from Llwyd – grey or brown) or Vaughan from Fychan (small) and, in those days before the major influx of incomers, few English names. It has, therefore, always been necessary to differentiate between endless David Joneses – or indeed, as in the series, John Davieses. So, farm names, occupations or nicknames were often pressed into use amongst locals. Hence the names of Gwyn Pantmawr, and Dai’r Bardd in the book: Gwyn’s from the name of his home, and Dai’s from the poems he writes.
It’s a habit which persists into the modern day and nearly all the farmers in the area are referred to in that way. My Dad, who, with the surname Hawkins, would easily be distinguished from all other local Daves has, nevertheless, always been known to the other farmers as Dave Troedyrhiw, after our farm.
You mention anachronisms. Anybody who knows me well knows how seriously I take this linguistic element of my books. I mean, if you’re going to make sure the clothes and food and buildings are right, why not the idioms? One of my elder son’s friends read None So Blind and remarked that she’d liked it but was the phrase ‘softly, softly, catchee, catchee monkey’ really current in the 1850s? My son’s response? ‘Believe me, my Mum will have checked!’
Watching out for them in Welsh is less of an issue as there is so little of the language included in the books. Somebody’ll still probably tell me I’ve managed to get something wrong, though!
- Your books have a lot of call on medical knowledge, both for the living and the dead. Does this mean you poring over old medical books, or just summoning it all up from your own knowledge?
I’m fascinated by anatomy and physiology and by the social history of medicine. It was part of my studies as a Speech and Language therapist (I’m particularly good on anything above the diaphragm!) so I do have some knowledge but I never trust my memory and am always fact-checking. For instance, I’d come across the story of Phineas Gage, which is recounted in the book, when I was studying neuroanatomy and cognitive neuropsychology but I still went back and checked the details for the book as it’s quite fundamental to Benton Reckitt’s theories.
In fact, pretty much everything Dr Reckitt says and does involved a lot of research. For instance, we’re so used to the idea of post mortem examinations, now, that it was fascinating to learn about the wildly different contemporary attitudes .And even more fun finding out what Harry and John felt about the subject.
But I also researched the practice of autopsy iself. We’ve become accustomed to the (sometimes erroneous) idea that doctors can to tell virtually anything from the careful study of a corpse, so it was salutory to realise how little was known then. The analysis of poisons was becoming established but not all doctors knew how to do it, or wished to. And Benton Reckitt’s desire to autopsy all and every dead body stems from a desire – shared by real doctors in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly those who worked as or with coroners – to build up a body of knowledge about causes of death and their signs. In In Two Minds, he’s particularly keen to find out what changes in behaviour arise from brain tumours and this drives some of the plot.
I’ve found that an emerging science, like autopsy, is great fun to write about. There are all sorts of arguments and debates to be had about both practice and ethics and you can, quite feasibly, have your character doing things which were right at – or even sometimes beyond – the accepted cutting edge of medicine. Just because a thing wasn’t recorded until, let’s say, 1856, doesn’t mean that somebody wasn’t already doing it in 1851. And Benton Reckitt is just the kind of anatomist to doing something others are too squeamish to attempt.
Thanks so much, Julie, for having me on Northern Reader – your questions are always so interesting and make me think about my work in ways I haven’t always before!
These Q and As should have appeared as on my original post – but technology defeated me! I have returned to my old steam driven laptop to add this post – I hope that you find it interesting and enjoyable – and that it makes you even more determined to read “In Two Minds” by Alis Hawkins!