Writing about other people’s art for a living is often the best job in the world, particularly when it means you get to shine a light on underground or under-appreciated stuff and introduce it to a wider audience. But it also has its occupational hazards, particularly when it’s the people that you love the most putting their art out into the world.
What if I don’t like it? Or, worse: what if I don’t like it, and she asks me for my opinion?
I was a little more nervous than usual when The Wages of Sin, Kaite Welsh’s debut novel, was released to the world last month. There were a couple of reasons for this, none of which are a reflection on Kaite as a writer – her columns on feminist and LGBT issues in the Telegraph always struck the right balance between informative and entertaining, while her telly columns on the shows we both love for Indiewire were often better than the episodes themselves. But the Headline-published novel is probably one of the most high-profile things that somebody in my inner circle has ever done plus, as her debut, Wages has been bubbling away in the background for a good part of mine and Kaite’s decade-long friendship.
Even more significant, though? I just don’t like historical fiction. I hate the outfits, I hate the accents and I hate Downton Abbey and Jane sodding Austen (I suspect Kaite would let me away with most of these apart from that last one…). The rich, historical details that I could imagine literary critics swooning over wouldn’t move me, especially if they came at the expense of the central mystery…
Spoiler alert: they don’t.
The Wages of Sin is a confident, gripping debut that is as much a book about ambition, betrayal and womanhood as it is its Victorian Edinburgh setting. Kaite’s particular skill is in knowing when detail serves the story, and knowing where to hold back. The Edinburgh of her protagonist, medical student Sarah Gilchrist, is vivid and well-researched, as are the various scenes in operating theatres and mortuaries, but there’s no feeling here of the author trying to show off how clever she is or how much work she has done.
“I wish I could say that I had some kind of forensic process,” Kaite says, when we meet up in Edinburgh to discuss the book. “I think what it comes down to is very specific details. If you add enough of those in, you don’t have to bog the story down with a glossary or a historical preface.”
“Although the world of today is very different from Sarah’s world – you and I met while we were both studying at university, and our opportunities weren’t limited because of our gender – the emotions haven’t changed over the course of a century or so. So I like the idea of having familiar, understandable and relatable characters, but then drip-feeding little bits of other context.”
The first in a series, with two more books already under contract, The Wages of Sin is “feminist historical crime fiction set in Victorian Edinburgh”, about the first generation of female medical students at Edinburgh University. Sarah Gilchrist is a fallen woman, medical student and amateur sleuth, and in this first book gets drawn into the murder of a sex worker she meets while working in a chaotic Edinburgh infirmary.
A book about Edinburgh’s medical students is the one that Kaite had wanted to write for “basically my entire life”, according to Kaite. She had been obsessed with the 19th century, particularly Victorian medicine and the first women to enter the professions “since I was a teenager, because I had no life and I read textbooks in the summer for fun”.
“I was so much fun at parties,” she says. “Nobody wanted to hear me talk about syphilis or the invention of anaesthesia…”
The idea “loitered at the back of my head for a while” until, when Kaite was studying at Edinburgh University, she spotted two plaques outside the medical school buildings. One was for Arthur Conan Doyle, and the other for Sophia Jex-Blake, who in 1869 became the first woman to demand admittance into the medical school. “I thought, ooh, that would make a good story,” she says.
“I’ve always been obsessed with history,” she says. “My aunt’s a historical interpreter at museums and has been since I was little, so I used to think that growing up meant you got to dress in awesome clothes and pretend to be a Victorian.”
“The Victorian period is such an interesting time, because they thought they were at the pinnacle of social and technological advancement – and we can see now how far off they were. At this point in our society we’re pretty clear about how much we don’t know and how much there is to discover, but at that point it was more like: yep, we’ve sorted it. Evolution, got that down, that’s all fixed. Psychology? Pretty much all figured out, because of Freud. This was civilisation. And yet, in so many ways, it was so unequal for anyone who wasn’t a white man. Particularly a straight white man,” she said.
If you’re beginning to see the connection between Kaite’s historical fiction and her writing on contemporary feminist and LGBT issues, you’d be right. For Kaite, it comes down to writing about the things she is most passionate about.
“It’s probably not for me to say, but I doubt I could write a non-feminist novel,” she says. “It’s just a different vehicle to talk about the things that I like to talk about.”
“Basically, every terrible thing that happens to women in this book comes from my research. I’ll happily give anyone a reading list. But also: I’m writing historical fiction. I’m not writing in the 19th century. So it’s a very different style, it a very different approach. But these are the issues that were talked about in the Victorian press, and in women’s writing in the late 19th century, so nothing there has been invented – even if it does come through the eyes of a 21st century queer white woman.”
Kaite Welsh (right) reads from The Wages of Sin at the Waterstones, Edinburgh launch event, hosted by Lucy Ribchester.
While the antagonistic actions of the male students, and even teachers, towards Sarah and her classmates are clearly inspired by the struggles of the so-called “Edinburgh Seven”, some of the most horrific things to befall Kaite’s characters actually happen off-page. It’s not much of a spoiler to describe Sarah, for example, as “not so much a fallen woman as she was pushed” and that violent act, and the fall-out from that, will be explored further as the series develops.
“There are some small flashbacks in there, but I didn’t want to go into forensic detail,” she says. “It’s enough that you know that this thing has happened to her, but I think it’s lazy and voyeuristic writing when you go into that level of detail – particularly for a character who has experienced sexual assault.”
“For me, it’s much more important to talk about the fallout from it. I mean, I think she pretty clearly has PTSD. Part of the series is about Sarah coming back to herself, and processing it, but it’s also about the way that society has reacted to it. It’s like she’s barely had a chance to react to it herself, because her experience has been all about managing other peoples’ feelings.”
Given Kaite also studied, and has since returned to live, in Edinburgh, there are also interesting parallels between the locations in the book and the modern-day city. In fact, Kaite confesses that the places that Sarah spends most of her time as a student are “basically the places I spent most of my time as a student” – Ruby’s brothel excluded, we think.
“That actually used to be Subway on the Cowgate,” she admits. “It’s not changed all that much.”
And while the curious could recreate Sarah’s adventures in contemporary Edinburgh with a little bit of research, the plan is to make this a little bit easier through the University of Edinburgh’s Lit Long project – a database of maps based on the characters’ journeys around the city in novels set in Edinburgh.
“It’s funny, because a lot of the horrible murderous slums are now nice restaurants and bars – but the waiter will not serve you if you say I murdered someone in here…”
The Wages of Sin is out now from Tinder Press, with a paperback release in January. Book two in the Sarah Gilchrist series, provisionally titled The Unquiet Heart, is due out in June; in which, I can reveal, “somebody gets punched, somebody gets engaged and somebody gets syphilis”.
You can catch Kaite at both the Harrogate Crime Festival (22nd July) and Edinburgh Book Festival (21st August) this summer – as a debut novelist, she’s also eligible for the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award. Kaite and queer activist and musician CN Lester will be chatting about their new books and more on 18th August at Waterstones in Glasgow – and you can go back in time and read Kaite’s interview of CN for this very blog.