Happy Sunday! I hope you’re having a great weekend. Today, I’m thrilled to share my recent interview with author Marianne Ratcliffe. Marianne’s book THE SECRETS OF MATTERDALE HALL releases on Tuesday, and it sounds like a fantastic read!! I had such a great time chatting with and interviewing Marianne and learning more about her road to becoming an author, her book, and her upcoming projects.
Getting to Know You:
Question: Can you tell the readers a little about yourself and your road to becoming an author?
Marianne Ratcliffe: Books have always been important to me. Growing up in Lincolnshire in the 1970s, I was something of a contradiction; an active tomboy who also loved to read. Enid Blyton was a favorite, especially Malory Towers. In the summer of 1988, we moved house, as my dad had a new job. With most of our possessions packed away, I found a half-filled box of Everyman’s Library Classics. The first one I opened was Emma, and I was entranced from the very first line. I can still remember the smell of old pages and my excitement (and surprise) to realize I was holding something special. My love for the books of the 18th and 19th century sprung from that moment. Austen, Dickens, Trollope, the Brontës, I devoured them all.
At that point, I had no idea I would write books. I’d loved writing stories as a child, but never believed I could create anything as wonderful as the books of my favorite authors. In my mid-thirties, on a whim, I attended an evening class in creative writing. There, I rediscovered my love of writing. By that time, I had broadened my reading beyond the classics and felt less intimidated about the possibility of joining the ranks of novelists. I’d realized it was possible to write enjoyable, engaging books without necessarily being a literary genius. I started with short stories and had some success, including being runner up in the 2010 Guildford Literary Festival short story competition. This boosted my confidence enough to attempt writing novels.
Marianne Ratcliffe grew up in Lincolnshire. A biochemist by training, she has always found creating new worlds and interesting characters every bit as rewarding as discoveries at a laboratory bench. She has had short stories published in literary magazines and was runner up in the Guildford Book Festival short story competition in 2010. In 2017, redundancy spurred her to focus on creative writing; the result being The Secret of Matterdale Hall, a sapphic romance/mystery set in the Victorian era. Marianne lives in Cheshire with her wife and two dogs.
Q: I read that you got the idea for The Secret of Matterdale Hall when rereading Nicholas Nickleby. Is Dickens a big inspiration? What other authors or works inspire you?
MR: I take inspiration from many writers. I love Dickens for his larger-than-life characters, Jane Austen for her subtlety and humor, and Wilkie Collins for his mastery of melodrama. The works of Sarah Waters were among the first that had lesbians at their heart, which meant a lot to me as a gay woman coming out. More recently I enjoyed the wonderful The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins. Although different in tone to Matterdale Hall, it illustrates the importance of including different voices in historical fiction.
Q: What is the first historical fiction book you remember reading? Sapphic book?
MR: If To Kill a Mockingbird counts as historical fiction (which I think it does), then that would be my first. I was thirteen, and it was the first book to make me cry. I also identified very strongly with the tomboy narrator. The first book I read that centered on the lesbian experience was Oranges are not the only Fruit, which remains a firm favorite.
Q: How has your experience as a scientist influenced your work?
MR: A common skill set between science and historical fiction is research. Also, getting a PhD means being able to defend your work, which is a skill that writers often don’t think about, but in working towards launch, I’ve come to understand the need to explain my book and my reasons for writing it. Story logic is also important to me, which I suspect is down to my rational, scientific mindset. I struggle to enjoy books that are driven by plot rather than character, or are full of unlikely coincidences.
About the Book:
Page Length: 380
Publication Date: Nov. 15, 2022
Publisher: Bellows Press
Synopsis: Susan Mottram lives an idyllic existence until her eighteenth birthday, when her father’s sudden death plunges the family into penury. To support her mother and younger sister, Susan takes employment as a teacher at a remote Yorkshire boarding school, Matterdale Hall, owned by the radical Dr. Claybourn and his penny-pinching wife. Susan soon discovers that all is not as it seems. Why is little Mary so silent? What really happened to Susan’s predecessor? Is anyone safe in the school’s draughty halls?
Through a life-changing meeting with the beautiful and mysterious Cassandra, Susan begins to uncover the truth about Matterdale Hall, and discovers the cruelty, and love, that can lie within the human heart.
Q: Congratulations on The Secret of Matterdale Hall. Can you tell the readers a bit about it?
MR: The Secret of Matterdale Hall is a gothic mystery set in the Victorian era. It follows the adventures of Susan Mottram, a naïve young woman, who is forced by sudden poverty to take up the position of a teacher at a remote boarding school, unaware that her predecessor has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. A chance meeting with the enigmatic Cassandra Sutcliffe finds the young women drawn into a dangerous world, where nothing is quite as it seems.
Q: What compelled you to write a sapphic story in this time period?
MR: Sarah Waters aside, it’s almost impossible to find books set in the 18th or 19th century that feature lesbians. If sapphic love was hinted it, it was usually in the context of moral depravity. The lack of lesbian and gay representation in the literature of the past is a constant reminder that acceptance of homosexuality is recent, and still not complete. I wrote The Secret of Matterdale Hall to try and fill in some of these gaps, although I hope I also bring a more modern sensitivity. For instance, I was keen to include diverse characters, something notably lacking from the classics.
Q: What kind of research did you do to bring the story to fruition?
MR: My sources include books written in the period, newspaper archives, medical journals and Victorian era school logbooks (which I’ve blogged about here).
Q: Can you share a favorite line or passage from the book? Why is it your favorite?
MR: I don’t think I can share my favorite scene here without spoilers. I will only say it occurs during a Christmas Party and leave readers to discover it for themselves. However, I’m rather fond of this passage, which occurs early in the book. Susan is being interviewed by Mrs Claybourn for the post of junior teacher. I think it captures the tone of the novel, as well as shedding light on the characters of Susan and Mrs Claybourn:
‘Miss Mottram, I trust you have no dark secrets?’ said Mrs Claybourn.
‘None at all, ma’am. The nearest our quiet little village came to scandal was when Mrs Milton’s gardener misheard her instructions for creating a topiary ship (her husband being nautical) and instead rendered a ewe and ram out of her privet, the latter with such anatomical accuracy as to cause a vast deal of amusement.’
‘I will have none of that here.’
‘Amusement?’ Susan queried innocently.
‘Disobedience,’ clarified Mrs Claybourn. ‘I expect my orders to be obeyed to the letter. Although I cannot abide giggling among the girls. You will discourage it.’
Q: What are your hopes for The Secret of Matterdale Hall?
MR: I hope it will resonate with readers who have not felt represented in the literature of the past. Historical fiction has long been dominated by white, heterosexual, able-bodied characters, and I’d like to be part of a movement that writes from an alternative perspective.
Q: Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
MR: I’ve just completed a sapphic regency romance that I’d love to show my publishers, once we’ve got Matterdale Hall off the ground. I’ve also started work on another novel set during the First World War.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your writings (i.e., website, Twitter, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.)