Author and historian Pamela Hartshorne’s novels link the past and the present in an intriguing way. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston about her latest book.
York-based novelist and historian Pamela Hartshorne is fascinated by the relationship between the past and present and in particular draws inspiration for her fiction on her academic research into the 16th century.
She also has sixty Mills and Boons romances under her belt – written under the pseudonym of Jessica Hart – so it’s no surprise that her most recent novels have combined history and romance.
Her last book Time’s Echo, which was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s 2013 RoNA Award, featured two women – 21st century Grace Trewe and Hawise who lived and died in York four hundred years earlier and her previous book, The Memory of Midnight, was also set in Elizabethan and modern-day York with a narrative connecting two women over the centuries.
Her latest novel House of Shadows, published last month, has a similar theme but with an interesting twist. “I have been doing more historical research than fiction over the past little while,” says Hartshorne. “And with this book I tried to do something a bit different. I had this idea of a story set in a gothic house in the mist.”
The main setting of Askerby Hall where the central character Kate Vavasour lives with her late husband’s aristocratic family and her young son is partly inspired by Burton Agnes Hall, an Elizabethan stately home in East Yorkshire. The novel opens intriguingly with Kate waking up in hospital from a coma with no memory of what has happened to her and why she is there. Even more mysteriously, she seems to be remembering events from someone else’s life – the book’s tagline is ‘what if the life you were remembering wasn’t your own?’ – which sets up a fascinating premise.
“There has been a lot of work done on how memories are created,” says Hartshorne. “Somebody conducted an experiment talking to people after 9/11. They asked a group of students what they were doing when they heard about the incident shortly after it took place and then asked them again five years later and they all said something different. We construct these very strong memories, that aren’t necessarily real. I then thought about somebody who woke up with no memory. It’s a kind of ghost story – and it is a way of linking the past and the present.”
What gradually transpires is that Kate’s husband died two years previously, she has been grieving and she is in hospital after a fall from the roof of the Hall. She can remember none of this and any memories she does recall seem to belong to Isabel Vavasour, who lived at Askerby four hundred years earlier. “I think the 16th century is quite an interesting time for women because they actually had rather more freedom than we think,” says Hartshorne. “In England, at least, women were allowed to go out on their own – Isabel could go out riding, for example, she had that freedom.”
Hartshorne says that in creating Kate – whose parents are aid workers stationed in a remote part of Somalia – she drew on material closer to home. “I grew up overseas and a lot of her background is quite like my own. I didn’t ever have that sense of being rooted in a place so I used my own experience. And I wanted to make her a believable person who was struggling with this grief. I spent a lot of time thinking about why she was still at Askerby.”
There is some suggestion that Kate may have jumped, but also life at the Hall wasn’t as illustrious as the family would have people believe – and when she returns to the house to recuperate, it is clear there is a mystery to be solved.
Hartshorne’s next book will be set solely in the 16th century and she describes it as a historical psychological thriller, a kind combination, she says, of The Miniaturist and Gone Girl. “The past has this great exoticism and yet we can relate to it,” she says. “I am fascinated by how much is the same and how much is different.”
House of Shadows by Pamela Hartshorne, £16.99, is published by Pan McMillan.