KATE BEAUFOY looks beautiful in jeans topped by a floaty over-shirt as she arrives by bicycle to talk about her latest sparkling novel.
Set in two timelines — the 19th century, and the 1930s — it’s a magnificent read. And it all started, Kate tells me, with a house.
She came across a fishing lodge in Mayo one day, and it was love at first sight.
Once beautiful, the house overlooked a lake.
She dreamed of selling up in Dublin, restoring the house, and opening it up as a retreat for writers and artists.
“I would not let the idea go,” says Kate, over lunch in Dublin.
“The house was for sale, and because it had been virtually destroyed in a flood and landslide, we could get it for a good price, but we would have had to fork out a fortune to make it habitable.”
Her husband, the actor Malcolm Douglas, was wary, to say the least. And before Kate could follow up on her idea, fate intervened.
She contracted breast cancer, and during the treatment she refers to as “poison, cut, and burn”, all her plans were put on hold.
It wasn’t until the end of 2012, when Kate needed to write a second historical novel to fulfil a contract, that she thought of the house again.
“I thought that if I couldn’t own the house, then at least it deserved a story,” she says.
Research showed that the sons of the Earl of Sligo used to journey from Westport House to fish in the lodge, which in latter years had become a youth hostel.
Transporting the house to Cork, Kate set about assembling her cast of characters, deciding to include a more modern story along with the older one.
She started with Edie Chadwick, an editor with a London publishing house in the 1930s, who, grieving for a friend, goes to Cork to clear out her uncle’s lakeside lodge prior to its sale.
Writing that in late 2012, Kate then visited her daughter, Clara, in Australia.
“I’d meant to write 1,000 words a day while I was there, but I was so happy with my girl, and I wrote nothing. I came home and realised it was time for the earlier character, Eliza Drury to come in, but I was terrified of writing her.
“I was scared I wouldn’t get the voice right or the 19th century vernacular. But she almost announced her arrival on the page. She speaks very considered English and she dictated her own rhythms of speech to me.”
Eliza Drury is, indeed, an unforgettable character. A feminist who is forced to make her own way, she works as a governess before being set up as a mistress in that fishing lodge, while trying, hard, to become a lady novelist for the sake of expedience.
Many literary characters make an appearance. There’s Thackeray, whom Eliza meets on board a ship on her way to Ireland, when his wife jumps overboard, driven mad by post-natal psychosis. She later works for him in London.
“He did have a governess during the time I describe, and her name was Eliza Drury.” There are nods to the Brontes, and Ian Fleming appears in the modern story, adding a touch of dash to proceedings.
It’s a fabulous read, wearing its meticulous research lightly, and is full of Kate’s landmark witticisms and artistic references.
But it’s Eliza, with her brave audacity that carries the tale.
“There’s a link between Eliza and me, and that’s feminism,” says Kate. “Eliza is a prototype 19th century feminist. I read Mary Wollstonecraft to get Eliza’s ideas and views.”
Eliza’s is possibly the strongest character Kate has ever invented, but her books have always been peopled by strong interesting women.
Also an award winning actress — as Kate Thompson, she famously played the seductress Terry Killeen in Glenroe — Kate’s first book, More Mischief, written in 1998, centred on the actress Deirdre O’Dare. Was it hard, as a new writer, to find her voice?
“If I was to read that first draft now, I would want to spit! But the more engaged I became with my character, the more I loved her the more I got into her head. The character just took off.”
Kate wrote several more books anchored in the world of the arts and business; one, The Blue Hour, was shortlisted for the Parker, Romantic Novel of the Year. Then, in 2009, came the Lissamore trilogy showing a more mature voice.
“My characters were more grown up, because I had grown up too.” The trilogy complete, Kate decided on a change of direction. Taking her grandmother’s letters, she began to plan a book about three generations of women. But it wasn’t until after the cancer that Liberty Silk came to fruition, with a change of agent, a change of publishing house and a name change.
Published last year, the book was well received, and Another Heartbeat in the House has confirmed Kate’s place as a historical novelist to be reckoned with. One review compared her writing to that of Jane Austen.
I adored the book, with its look at motherhood, literary snobbery, and the rich and poor in society, and loved being swept back in time in the company of such a feisty, engaging heroine.
“I do feel that this is the best book I have ever written, and that at last people are taking my writing seriously,” says Kate.
“With Liberty Silk I was testing the water, and it helped to have my grandmother’s letters and artifacts to give me structure. This time, I felt I had learned how to swim.”
It’s ironic, though, that back when Kate started writing, Irish authors were getting paid well. “I got a six-figure advance for my first book,” she says. With publishing now in the doldrums, and good advances difficult to acquire, Kate isn’t at all sure that she can afford to continue writing.
“When I hear people talking about a cut in income on radio shows, I’m tempted to write in and say, ‘this is how much my income has gone down’. I’m working harder than I ever was. Another Heartbeat in the House was sheer slog; there were no days off.
“Whilst the characters felt very real, the writing was painstaking, and the research was phenomenal. I would stop writing at the end of the day, having achieved maybe 2,000 words, and the next day I might have to cut a lot of it. I’d take eight volumes out of the library, and have them around me to read every night. And when I finished the book I had to start thinking about the promotional aspect. I love Facebook, but I can’t come to terms with Twitter.”
Kate had considered giving up writing altogether, and, maybe, returning to her first career of acting. But then a new book came into her head.
“I’m hoping to start the book as soon as the media dies down for this one,” she says.
She doesn’t need a huge income to sustain her lifestyle. But if this book makes her a pile of money she would buy the house that inspired it in a heartbeat.
“Last time I went there — when the book had gone to my publisher, we had walked through the woods when it started to rain. I had this strong feeling that the house was open, and when we walked round to the front, sure enough, the front door was open wide.
“I called out and nobody was there, so we walked around. It was weird. I felt the house had opened its doors to welcome me. It’s not the best house architecturally, but I feel a great affinity for it.”
Another Heartbeat in the House Transworld, €11.32; Kindle, €2.82
Published in the Irish Examiner on 21st November 2015
© Sue Leonard. 2015