In November 1679 a young married woman, Christian Nimmo, was executed in Edinburgh for the murder of her uncle by marriage and lover, Lord Forrester. The instrument of death was the Maiden, a device that preceded the more famous guillotine by 200 years. This is the subject of Kate Foster’s first novel. Her source is a 19th century account of the crime and execution, which described Christian as having led a godless life. Her treatment is, not surprisingly, more sympathetic. It does, however, give little indication of the fervent intensity of religious feeling in 17th century Scotland. For this reason it is perhaps correct to describe the novel as being set in a mostly imaginary past rather than in history. This was, after all, what Presbyterian posterity would remember as the Killing Times, when government troops were making martyrs of the Covenanters.
Kate Foster’s interest is different. She has written the novel in an attempt to understand why and how a well-brought-up young woman with no history of mental disturbance, intelligent and with some artistic talent, securely and respectably married to a decent man, should have been seduced by her uncle not much against her will, and then, provoked by his infidelity, have run him through with a sword. This is certainly a question worth exploring and Foster does so with sympathy and understanding. There is evidently a sense in which this is a timeless story. It could happen, could have happened, in any place and any culture. Set aside the violence of the killing and the horrible penalty Christian is condemned to suffer and the book resembles many 19th and 20th century novels. It is, of course, none the worse for that.
The novel begins with the sentence of death, and this is certainly an eye-catching opening. It begins in Christian’s voice. Subsequent chapters are also spoken or thought, remembered by her. Others come in different voices, so there is no unity of point of view. The best parts of the narrative are indeed retrospective. What happens in Edinburgh and the city’s Tolbooth between the sentence and the day of execution is for the most part less convincing. There is little sense of drama or urgency, even when Christian is seeking a means of escape. The novel is continuously interesting, but not perhaps gripping.
This is a first novel and, like most first novels, should be treated with a certain indulgence, often with the trite expression of certainty that better ones will follow. Fair enough, but the author’s acknowledgements raise a matter of some interest. The novel was written on an online creative writing course (promoted or devised by a literary agency). Foster thanks the course tutors for helping to give Christian her voice and for encouraging its sense of place (though she comes from Edinburgh herself). Other aspiring writers on the course chipped in. All this makes the writing of a novel a collaborative enterprise and, to my mind, results often in a deadness and the absence of an individual voice.
I’ve known a fair number of good novelists, and while some – William Golding for example – might seek and indeed need help from their editor, most of the others regarded the novel as a one-person work. Like Jehovah, they said “what I have written I have written.” This wasn’t, I think, arrogance or conceit; it was simply that the voice of their novel was an individual one, theirs alone. They might consult others on certain points but essentially the finished work – the published book – was theirs. They recognized that writing a film script or a play was different, because their work would be spoken and often, of necessity, re-worked by others, but a novel was different. Whether good or bad, successful or not, it was their individual voice speaking.
It is impertinent of a reviewer to offer advice to an author whose book he has dealt with, but at my age I may permit myself impertinence. So I would say two things to the tyro novelist. First, it is easy to talk your book away and find your original impulse dying. Second, speak to nobody about what you are writing, till you have a draft that satisfies you. Only then should you invite advice, or better still, tell your publisher that the book’s done and you stand by what you have written. Writing a novel is – and should be – lonely work.
The Maiden, by Kate Foster, Mantle, 374pp, £14.99