Time-slip & Local History: Interweaving Past and Present

It is a question that may have crossed your mind if you live in a historic neighbourhood, with a rich history: why not write a novel which refers to well-known local events and buildings? In Down to the Sea (Saraband, 2019), Sue Lawrence has done just that, recreating this distinctive community in vivid and at times poignant detail. What’s more, she is an award-winning cookery writer (and a past MasterChef winner), so her books are also steeped in the knowledge of local Scottish dishes and traditions.

One aspect that is more complex to pull off is that she has used time-slip for all three of her novels to date. Time-slip can risk leaving the “historical novel” enthusiast feeling a little short-changed because of the more limited space for the historical plot, but it is also a very effective narrative technique. Down to the Sea is partly set in the late 1890s, and partly set in the 1970s and 80s when a couple, Rona and Craig, acquire a large Victorian property, known as Wardie House, with plans to run it as an upmarket care home. The house is in the well-to-do area of Wardie, not far from Newhaven, an ancient fishing village on the Firth of Forth. The fishing community provides the historical setting of the book since Jessie’s family are fisherfolk who earn their livelihoods from the herring industry. I asked Lawrence about her choice of structure, and she justifies it as a useful plot device. “By using time-slip,” Lawrence tells me, “I can divulge information about the house subtly in the contemporary story and Rona finds out about what happened to the family that used to own it. Without this device it would be harder for readers to discover this because the historical part is written mainly from Jessie’s point of view. She would have had no idea about the posh families who lived up the hill.” Unusually, in Lawrence’s plot, the separate strands finally overlap in real time, which adds poignancy and depth to the story.

The history and the folklore of the herring girls also fascinates the author. She tells me how the Newhaven girls were some of the few who did not travel up and down the east coast of Scotland, following the migrating shoals of herring. Instead, Jessie and her sisters were kept busy gutting enough fish to fill the creels their mothers, the famous Newhaven fishwives, would carry on their backs in order to sell the fresh fish to their clients in Edinburgh. Lawrence uses a notorious historical calamity – a terrible storm in which many fishermen are known to have drowned – as the catalyst for her story. Jessie, who was born with a distinctive birthmark around her upper lip, is banished from the village because she is thought to have cursed her father’s boat, causing it to sink. She has nowhere to go but the local poorhouse. As Jessie gradually becomes aware of the mysterious circumstances of its owners, the tragedies of the past become increasingly pertinent to the house’s later occupants.

Evocative local detail abounds throughout the book: Newhaven harbour with its Stevenson lighthouse (shown on the book cover) and the Chain Pier are local landmarks; smuggling tunnels did indeed run “down to the sea” from many of the larger houses; photography developed early and became very popular in Victorian Edinburgh; and ships from the port of Leith plied back and forth across the Atlantic. Lawrence says she researched the local history in depth, but when she began to write the story the characters came to life. A good tip, she says, is to search out local historians, and better still, talk to them in person, since they will have the best stories to share and can identify local secrets. This is how Lawrence heard about the tunnels and, although they had long since been blocked off by the construction of the seawall along the Forth, the detail was enough to concoct a series of vivid scenes in which the tunnels play a key role.

Lawrence’s previous novels, both historical thrillers, were also structured around time-slip plots. Fields of Blue Flax (Freight, 2015) was her debut and is described as a genealogical mystery. Here, her parallel plotlines achieved an even more complex feat: they worked in reverse, moving in tandem back through time to solve the mystery of a missing birth certificate that lay at the heart of the story. The Night He Left (now published as The Last Train, Allen & Unwin, 2018) is a more traditional time-slip narrative that recounts a contemporary mystery set against the backdrop of the Tay Bridge disaster in December 1879, when a train travelling over the newly-built bridge to Dundee plunged into the freezing waters beneath.

Sue Lawrence is also a very successful author of several cookery books and a former president of the Guild of Food Writers, so it seems natural to ask whether she takes a particular interest in the food of the period. She tells me that this angle of research was fascinating. In Down to the Sea, the detail certainly feels authentic, whether it was the watery porridge and thin soup served to the inmates of the poor house, or the more lavish offerings for the Governor’s table, including meat in rich sauces and Madeira cake. For Jessie, however, what really makes her feel homesick is the scent of fresh herring coated in oatmeal and sizzling in butter.

For her next project, Lawrence has moved back a century, to the 1730s, and this time it will be a straightforward historical narrative. Yet, different voices and different settings in Edinburgh, East Lothian and the Western Isles will bring variety to the plot, Lawrence says. Here again, Scottish ingredients seem to have played a key role, since it was lobsters and lobster fishing on the Outer Hebrides that encouraged her to research the story further. The title is still under wraps, but it will be published next year.

About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is HNR’s Features Editor and by coincidence lives within a short walk of Newhaven. She is a historian and translator. www.lucindabyatt.com

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)

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