Giveway now closed.
Ebony checked the binding on her legs, squeezed a handful of flesh into a more comfortable position, ran a thumb over the sailor’s knots she had tied, and wedged the wooden bar of the trapeze between the hollows of her feet. Annie passed her the banner and she bit its silk, and grimaced as its slippery perfume coated her teeth. She had done higher leaps than this and had felt sick before each of them too. But this time they both had Holloway to look forward to.
Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, and Annie Evans, seamstress, are set to make the front pages of the newspapers for their stunt in front of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister. But it is April 14th 1912 and the Titanic is about to sink.
Six months later, we meet Frankie George, trouser suit wearing reporter for the London Evening Gazette. Sick of her only journalistic action being the column, ‘Conversations from the Boudoir’, she writes for the Ladies’ Page with rumoured former courtesan, Twinkle, she repeatedly asks her boss to give her juicier assignments. He tells her he wants her to do a profile of Ebony Diamond. Teddy Hawkins, a reporter who frequently gets the front page tells her:
‘There’s a suffragette performing at the Coliseum tomorrow night, an acrobat. Ebony Diamond. Know her?…None of us have a damned clue who she is. That’s why he wanted you in.’ He skimmed a glance down her trouser suit. ‘You’ll know a thing or two about suffragettes, won’t you?’
Unfortunately for Frankie, the only connection she has to the suffragettes is the Punch style cartoon she drew, published in the London Evening Gazette satirising force-feeding and the social class of the women in the movement. When she finds Ebony at the corset makers who provide her costumes, Frankie’s name is recognised, associated with the cartoon and she is given short shrift. Although not before Frankie has witnessed Ebony argue with Olivier Smythe, the shop’s owner, about a woman – ‘She’s up there, isn’t she?’ – and throw a large silver brooch with a gold pattern carved on it at him.
That evening, Oliver Smythe and a woman mistakenly identified as Ebony Diamond – she’s wearing one of Ebony’s corsets – are murdered. The following evening, Ebony disappears in the middle of her act at the Coliseum while Frankie watches. Ignoring her boss, Frankie sets out to investigate.
She’s not the only one doing so though. This is a murder investigation and the police are involved. They’re also not very big fans of the suffragettes, a movement of which Ebony and Annie were members.
Detective Inspector Frederick Primrose leads the investigation. He’s been placed in charge of the branch allocated to deal with suffragettes after an incident during the Black Friday demonstrations, November 1910.
Primrose, one of the hundreds of uniformed sergeants drafted in that cold afternoon, had found [May Billinghurst] abandoned in an alleyway with the wheels ripped off her wicker bath chair, and kindly escorted her home in a police car. Only afterwards his Super had told him she had been ramming the lines of police horses with her chair, making them rear. ‘A vicious piece of dynamite,’ the Super had said, ‘who would endanger lives as readily as she would butter toast.’ The wheels had been removed by another officer.
There’s plenty of conflict between Primrose and the other officers – superior or not – and it’s not going to make the investigation easy for him.
The Hourglass Factory is a tale of murder, subversion, class and the fight for equality. Set against a backdrop of the suffragette movement and a significant period of change, the novel covers a number of ideas and themes without ever relinquishing the plot. There are a number of threads to the story and there was a point when I wondered whether Ribchester could bring them all to a conclusion, but she does, skilfully so, making the book a satisfying page-turner with some serious points to make. A most enjoyable read.
I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Lucy Ribchester to the blog to talk about The Hourglass Factory.
Where did the idea for The Hourglass Factory come from?
It started out life as a very garbled post-modernist play, because that was the way I was intending to roll in my mid-twenties. I knew I wanted to write something about suffragettes and corsets after making the connection that music hall’s heyday was round about the same time the women’s movement gathered momentum. The two ideas of feminine boldness, the savvy showgirl and the militant suffragette, were very intriguing to me. I was still trying to grapple with how a woman can be both feminine and feminist – thus the corset interest – and alongside that the conflicts of women adopting more masculine clothing and mannerisms versus celebrating the ideal of ‘womanliness’.
This is all making it sound a lot cleverer than it is…All the ideas for storyline threads came together in a little melting pot, the play didn’t work out, and I remembered a very important fact, which is that I love reading murder mysteries and thrillers. I also wanted to create something that was fun to read and would give me the ability to share some of the suffragette stories I had come across, and hopefully pique an interest in readers to find out more about the women’s movement. So I set out to write the book that I wanted to read and anything that interested me popped up in it.
Some of the ideas in the book – feminism, class, the role of the media, issues surrounding gender identity – are current hot topics; was it your intention to write a historical novel that linked with the time we’re living in?
Not at all, not consciously anyway. It’s very interesting to see that those are the hot topics that have flared up recently. I guess they must have been flying round the minds of my generation – many of whom are now writing the news – five years ago when I wrote the first draft. I think I always set out to try and explore ways of emancipation and finding freedom; different ways of being ‘a woman’, and on the flip side of that different ways of performing the role of ‘man’, which in a way haven’t really changed much over the past 100 years. We still have very clear delineations and expectations for each gender, which part of me thinks is absolutely wrong, but another part thinks is a beautiful thing, so long as those different roles are kept as equals and there is ample room for crossover.
As for class, I’m not sure. I come from a very long and distinguished line of domestic servants, who, in the Edwardian era, wouldn’t have had the time or wherewithal to write, so maybe that has something to do with it. The other strands just came from bits of historical research that sparked my imagination. I do have a soft spot for (and a horror of) the seedy romance of the tabloid newspaper, so that was always going to end up in the book. Also female misogyny in the media is as fascinating as it is repugnant and that’s definitely something that’s still around today, and that I wanted to play around with parallels for.
Edwardian London feels very real in the novel – its sights, its sounds, its smells – how did you make bring it to life?
Thank you! Plain old common theft. I rifled through books written during the period – The Man Who Was Thursday, The Four Just Men, The Secret Agent, Vita Sackville West’s amazing The Edwardians (written later but based on her experiences), guides to newspaper making, a brilliant 1902 autobiog of a female journalist named Elizabeth Banks, newspaper articles in the Colindale archives, and history books – all the while sneaking little details off their pages to save for later. Sometimes I was very brazen and stole a whole real-life incident – as is the case with the suffragette courtroom riot, nicked from (but credited to at the back) a police memoir by William Thomas Ewens.
I also tried to pay attention to the techniques other historical writers use. Sarah Waters uses food so brilliantly in Fingersmith – the brandy flip! The pig’s head! Mrs Sucksby’s little rattling gin spoon – so through a combination of theft of artefacts and attempts to mimic other writers’ techniques you try to collage together a picture.
The book has a number of plot strands that you weave together to bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion; how did you go about writing something so intricate and ensuring it would be successful for the reader?
I’m so chuffed to bits that you think so. What a lovely comment. I can’t however take full credit for that. The book went through several rounds of edits before it even went on submission. One of the pieces of feedback I’d had from a couple of agents was that there were simply too many threads being told from too many characters’ points of view. There were prison wardresses, suffragettes, matrons all having part of the tale told through their eyes. One of the agents who represents me at L&R, Daisy Parente, had a brilliant idea for addressing this: cut the points of view down to two and develop Primrose as a secondary storyteller, giving all the extra scenes to him.
It was a ton of work but I loved the idea so was really happy to go for it. Then Clare Hey at Simon & Schuster was brilliant at making me see where the narrative needed to be streamlined down and where things needed better explanation. So it really is a complete team effort creating a book.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Ah-ha! A fabulous question. Most of my favourite writers are women, so I was actually a bit surprised when the ReadWomen2014 hashtag came about. But then this year I’ve paid more attention to things like award shortlists and it does seem like there is still disparity that needs to be addressed…
But here we go, top 5: Anaïs Nin, Angela Carter, Agatha Christie, Sarah Waters, and this year I discovered Caroline Kepnes. She’s only written one book so far, called YOU, but when her next one comes out I’m going to be like a greyhound out the traps to get hold of it. I also have a very soft spot for Lynda La Plante because DCI Jane Tennison is one of the most heroic women in fiction. I love my mentor Linda Cracknell’s writing and Beatrice Colin’s conjuring of place and time, and Sarah Hall’s short stories are just astonishing. Sorry that’s 9. Maths not my strong point.
Thanks to Lucy for such fantastic responses.
If that’s whetted your appetite for this fantastic book, Simon & Schuster have kindly provided five copies of The Hourglass Factory for you lovely lot to win. I’m afraid the giveaway’s UK only. All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below. Competition closes at 5pm UK time, Sunday 18th January. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.
I’ve allocated everyone who entered a number in order of entry:
1 – Cath Martin
2 – ellieaiyana
3 – Lyndsey Jenkins
4 – Helen Stanton
5 – tizzief
6 – lachouett
7 – Jess Gofton
8 – Fran Roberts
9 – Helen
10 – Wendy S
11 – Kate Terence
12 – Val Frenett
13 – meganlilli
14 – Rebecca Foster
15 – carmenhaselup
16 – Jacqueline Bunn
17 – readingwithtea
18 – sarahcretch
19 – Elle
20 – Tara
21 – Cathy746Books
22 – Kate
23 – thefemalescriblerian
24 – CPhilippou123
25 – heavenali
26 – Amy Pirt
27 – Ann Bradley
28 – Markie
29 – Katie Skeoch
30 – Debra Brown/
31 – Poppypeacockpens
32 – Maria P
33 – Cleopatralovesbooks
34 – Jennifer Laird
35 – Helen MacKinven
36 – jayandrew25
37 – Ashley Sheets
38 – Tracey S. Rosenberg
And the random number generator says:
Congratulations poppypeacockpens, Markie, Rebecca Foster, Cath Martin and carmenhaselup. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy and the giveaway.