A Rich & Bittersweet Confection: The Chocolate Maker’s Wife
If you’re an Australian member of the HNS, Karen Brooks will need no introduction. For the rest of us … where do I start? As an academic, you can catch her giving her expert opinion on TV, radio and print media. She is the author of nine novels, the most recent being The Locksmith’s Daughter (William Morrow, 2018), which involves the machinations of the Tudor spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.
The Chocolate Maker’s Wife (Oneworld UK / William Morrow US, 2019) takes us forward to Restoration London. The drab years of the interregnum are gone, London’s theatres re-open and the presses roll, trade burgeons importing new ideas, colours and flavours from around the world. Before I introduce you to beautiful and determined Rosamund Tomkins, I have to tell you that by the time you have finished reading this page-turning tour-de-force, you will, if not already, be addicted to chocolate! Be warned.
The novel begins on a roasting hot May morning in 1662 in Gravesend on England’s south coast. Catherine de Braganza has arrived from Portugal to marry the king, and the inns are full. Rosamund, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who is now the step-daughter of an abusive publican, has been working hard since dawn. When taking a breath of fresh air, she is knocked over by Everard Blithman’s carriage. His help also offers the opportunity to escape her misery, which she grabs with both hands and makes her own.
He, a wealthy, widowed merchant, plans to open a chocolate house and place Rosamund, his wife, at its head. Although she has much to learn about this new product and its preparation, she is soon the most talked-about woman in society, desired and respected in equal measure.
But Sir Everard’s plans are by no means altruistic; they involve dark family secrets. His beloved first wife and daughter are both dead, and his son is missing somewhere in the New World across the Atlantic. He blames his son-in-law for the death of both his beloved daughter and her infant, as well as the disappearance of his son.
As the chocolate house thrives, attracting many influential customers, Rosamund is surrounded by death and danger, not just from the devastating plague of 1665 and the fire that follows on its heels, but from the secrets the Blithman family fights to hide. How will she survive in this sweetly sinful world?
So, how on earth did Karen even begin to write such a fascinatingly detailed and historically accurate novel?
“I begin my research with ‘big picture’ stuff – biographies of the reigning monarchs, then the work of fabulous historians which cover a range of topics from culture, society, politics, right down to fashion, food, parliamentary policies, trades, etc. I delved into studies on chocolate and coffee and their social and economic impact as well as how they worked upon politics and, throughout the Restoration and beyond, were integral to the fomenting of rebellion. Then, I turned to the history of journalism. I wasn’t aware when I first began how interrelated all of these things were – that was fascinating. And then there were the diaries of Samuel Pepys – what a boon. I also read wonderful historical fiction set in the period, plays from the 1600s, and I listen to the music of the era while writing. I note-take as I research, flag the books I read, and mostly remember where I find fascinating titbits that I want to include. Once I start writing, I am very linear, but will pause to fact check things like fabrics, idiom, road conditions, proper names, and so on. When I am editing, I do more research to make sure that any facts I have included are correct (to the best of my ability!) and that anything I have invented rings true to the era. To know you thought it fitted together seamlessly is such a relief, let me tell you. It’s what every author intends and hopes. I just adored this period (as I have the others I have researched). It was so rich, decadent, exploitative, adventurous, cruel and yet full of hope, resilience and awareness of rapid social, political and scientific change. I hope to revisit it again in the future.”
Impressed by the breadth and depth of Karen’s research, I then asked her if she’d enjoyed school history lessons. This is of real interest to me as I found it and my teacher as dry as dust until historical fiction taught me that history was more about people than dates and treaties.
“I understand completely. Back then, I wasn’t a lover of history – certainly not the periods I write about now (medieval through to 1700s). But, in high school, I was passionate about ancient history. I put that down to my amazing teacher, Mrs Bourell, who made history come alive by introducing me to the works of Herodotus, Suetonius and the plays of Euripides and Sophocles, and so many others. She made sure that her students didn’t only know about wars and leaders, but the human side of history – what motivated people – desire, rage, love, sex, sorrow, poverty, power, wealth, etc. Once I went to university, I thought I wanted to study history, but it was made lifeless and dull, so I dropped the subject. Like you, I came back to it through literature and, especially, historical fiction. I think it was Rudyard Kipling who said, ‘If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.’ I think that’s true. It’s also an enormous responsibility, which means story-tellers owe it to everyone to keep history in our memories and thus alive. The past, after all, is the greatest predictor of the future and how we learn not to repeat mistakes – lessons I fear, the more I learn, we don’t heed so well.”
On that sobering note, my only remedy was to indulge in a delicious cup of chocolate and decide whether to add a dash of cinnamon or even chili powder.
About the contributor: Sally Zigmond writes, edits and reviews both short and long fiction. Her Victorian saga, Hope Against Hope, was published in 2011.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)