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Interview with Francesca Kay: Death and mourning in a time of commotion

by
17 May 2024

Her new novel is set during the upheaval of the Reformation. She talks to Sarah Meyrick

Mark Alexander

Francesca Kay

Francesca Kay

THE year is 1546, and in a manor house in north Oxfordshire a man is dying. He becomes obsessed by the building of a glorious new chantry chapel in the village church, where prayers will be sung for his immortal soul by a chantry priest dedicated to the task. The chapel is to house an ornate tomb, adorned with elaborate carvings that commemorate not only his first wife and their dead children, but also his — still living — much younger wife, Alice. She, meanwhile, marks her days according to a calendar of saints and seasons as she awaits her husband’s death.

But change is afoot: the English Reformation looms. “These are troubled times and the world is turning faster than a weathervane in a gale,” Alice observes. The old religious ways are under threat: it is “commotion time”, where “what was truth one year is heresy the next.”

For Alice, solace is found in the rituals that she knows, the ceremonies that keep the dead — who include her beloved infant daughter, Catherine — alive. “For as long as there is somebody to call you by your name, you are not forgotten,” she reflects. Fear and suspicion flares up in the village; it soon becomes clear that the chantry project is not only doomed to failure, but presents a threat to the family’s safety.

This is the premise of Francesca Kay’s fourth novel, The Book of Days. It follows An Equal Stillness, which won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers; The Translation of the Bones (2012), longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction; and The Long Room (2016). The language is sumptuous: fan vaulting “flows like honey or like skeins of silk”. The new priest’s true singing voice “has woven a new strand into our worship, enriching it, as an embroiderer sews gold thread into a plain woollen cloth”. The smell of stone carving, the richness of the new coloured glass, and the natural beauty of the changing seasons all leap off the page.

Many years in the writing, the novel touches on themes of life and death, grief and mourning, and profound religious upheaval. Above all, it offers an exquisite exploration of a core question for us all: how shall we sing for our dead?

 

WHAT has been the response? Positive, Kay says. “The best thing, for me, has been the reception of friends, and friends of friends, for whom it seems to have struck a chord in different ways. And I’ve loved that. It makes the solitary business of writing almost a shared experience.”

Readers have been taken by different threads of the novel. “Some people are interested in the historical side, some people are interested in the feminist angle, and for others it’s just the sense of doom,” she says. “And some people are interested in the idea of seasons.”

Last time we met (Feature, 9 February 2018), Kay said that the overtly religious elements of The Translation of the Bones, which is about a modern-day miracle in an inner-city Roman Catholic church in London, had caused “a general intake of breath” in the literary world. Has The Book of Days provoked the same response?

“No. There’s been no anxiety this time,” she says. Even the most atheist of her readers don’t seem to have found the subject-matter alienating. The new book is not really “about” religion, anyway, she argues: it is about a particular period — a couple of years — in history.

Kay resists being pigeonholed as a Roman Catholic writer, and it is certainly the case that The Book of Days is about much more than religious turmoil. Yet the world that she creates is one in which belief is woven into the fabric of everyday life. It is hard to imagine an author writing about the consolations of faith with such authenticity without having the lived experience of religion. Yes, she says, her faith gives her a powerful sense of the seasons, “an added dimension” to life. Or, as Alice expresses it: “The reason I can bear the years ahead is that the seasons change.”

Has this book ridden a wave of enthusiasm for all things Tudor, a trail blazed by Dame Hilary Mantel and others? “Interestingly, I didn’t realise I was writing a historical novel,” she says. “All fiction is historical fiction, unless it’s science fiction, or some sort of conditional future tense. It’s bound to be.” She concedes that it will be categorised in this way. “But I didn’t know I was riding that wave, because it took such a long time to write.” (Her writing fits around her day job as the director of a charity.)

Alice’s sense of suffocation and enclosure might suggest that it was written during the Covid years, but this is not the case. “I submitted it to my agent just before the pandemic. I didn’t know what was coming — although, in some ways, that sense of impending catastrophe was a kind of drumbeat of the time.”

Far more significant was the death of her husband, Mark, when she was halfway through the novel. “It was very, very sudden and out of the blue,” she says. “It didn’t change the shape of the fiction, but it did deepen the process.”

She had to resist the nagging fear, however irrational, that, by imagining a book about the death of a husband, she had somehow conjured up her own bereavement. Still harder was the fact that Mark died away from home. “Some of the rituals associated with death were impossible,” she says. “I didn’t think about it at the time, but fiction became a way of expressing something, which may or may not find its way to the reader. It made it feel less solitary.”

 

THE BOOK OF DAYS is set in an unnamed, fictional village, but is “very vaguely and loosely” inspired by two Oxfordshire churches that she knows well. St Mary’s, North Leigh, has an extraordinary double tomb commemorating William Lenthall of Wilcote, who died in 1549, his wife, four sons, and four daughters, as well as fan vaulting, a doom wall-painting, and medieval stained glass; the similarly resplendent St Mary’s, Ewelme, contains an alabaster effigy of Alice Chaucer (a granddaughter of the poet), which represents her both in the flesh and as an agonised cadaver.

Kay also mentions as an influence the 17th-century painting of the Saltonstall family, by David des Granges, which shows a man offering a glove to his dead wife in her bed, while his living wife sits beside her on a chair, with a baby on her lap. The final piece of the jigsaw was provided by “one particular moment” in William Byrd’s “Civitas Sancti Tui”, “a desolating lament of the exiled for the places they have lost”.

Although not herself a musician, music is important to Kay. The fact that her son was a choral scholar gave her access to “all sorts of early church music that I particularly love”, she says. (She never works to music: “When I write, I speak. I say the words out loud.”)

So, what was the starting point? Back in the 1990s, she read the newly published The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy. “It was just so vivid. I owe him a great debt,” she says. “Brought up as a Roman Catholic in an English convent boarding school, [the Reformation] is part of my own tradition. But it was this book that made me understand that it was not just about monarchs: it was about how people’s daily life was irrevocably changed.”

As she writes: “The English Reformation brought gains but also many losses and among them was a sense of community between the living and the dead.”

Kay is particularly good at creating characters who appear to think as people of their time rather than allowing them 21st-century thought patterns. In the course of the novel, we meet Agnes, the only surviving daughter of the first marriage, who is bitterly opposed to her stepmother, and equally, if differently, constrained by her circumstances as Alice. There is Joselin, the old priest, who “believes in the unchanging law of God” and that “authority comes with centuries of practice, not with changing fashions.” He stands up for the simple people to his own considerable cost. There is William Clare, the new chantry priest, whose music — and company — causes Alice’s heart to race.

The story gradually evolved as she worked on it, and, alongside, the characters and their relationships. “I’d like you to think that I plan all these things in advance, but I have no idea where it’s going to go,” she says. “The relationships between the people find their own reality as the novel goes on. There’s no route map.”

The Book of Days is “like one of those convex mirrors often seen in Renaissance paintings”, she has written of the novel. “Although they are small and self-contained, multitudes are reflected in them. This novel is set at a particular time and in a particular place, and the events in it are seen through the eyes of a particular woman, and yet it explores universal themes: Where do we belong? What do we believe? How do we love? How do we deal with grief? The scene of the novel many seem enclosed — a house, a church, a village — but it is in a turning world, and the skies are open above it.”

What will come next? The subjects that she picks for her books are “plucked out of the air”, she says. “Things people have said, conversations overhead, sometimes bits of music. Somehow, something crystallises.” The next book is “such a little embryo” right now that she is unwilling to discuss it. She smiles. “It’s a handful of scrappy inky pages, and I may abandon it all.”

The Book of Days by Francesca Kay is published by Swift Press at £16.99. Read the review here

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