I WAS BORN in Chester, not far from the part of North Wales where much of The Hopkins Conundrum was set. My mother was Welsh, and it was her first language, so many of the locations and sounds of the novel formed the backdrop to my childhood. Exploring the area in more detail as part of my research yielded some surprises. For example, I never knew that the village of Holywell, in a depressed ex-industrial part of North East Wales, is built around a shrine that Catholics still regard as the Welsh version of Lourdes. Hopkins visited it often, and I place one scene of the novel there.
Like many people, I first encountered Hopkins at school. I struggled with him at the time but in adulthood I found myself coming back to him. I have rarely read poetry for pleasure but I came across a Hopkins Complete Works and found myself picking it up again and again. By this time I had learned a little of his life story – his conversion, the succession of Jesuit institutions he lived in, his unrequited passion for a flamboyant youth – and I saw ferocious sexual repression in the language of the poem, as well as unintended comedy.
My novel was originally conceived at a time when the churches – and particularly the Roman Catholic church – were putting up intense opposition to gay law reform. Some of the public positions taken by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and their representatives in Britain were deeply hurtful. But in Victorian times, any man of a remotely gay sensibility was naturally drawn to the Church of Rome and for young men in Hopkins’ and Dolben’s time, conversion was a defiant act of rebellion – not dissimilar to getting your ear pierced and wearing eyeliner when I was their age. I wanted to explore how an institution which to me represented the worst excesses of modern homophobia appeared to represent the complete opposite a century and a half earlier.
Somewhere along the way my own attitude evolved. We won the law reform battles, a new Pope seemed to bring a new approach and, in my personal life, I met and married a former Catholic priest who had spent many years in the kind of seminaries where Hopkins lived. He helped me understand the richness of seminary life, and what the attraction of living in a religious community might have been to Hopkins.
Still an atheist, I started attending Masses, in both English and Italian. I visited my partner’s old parish in Rome and was pleasantly surprised at the warmth of the welcome I received. I met nuns socially, seeing them for the first time as people rather than oddities. When my partner fell ill with cancer and we were in grave need of support, some of the strongest came from very religious people, including strict Catholics. So I came to see the Church vaguely as Hopkins must have done, as a complex entity comprising all manner of different attitudes and beliefs, rather than as some hostile monolith. I also came to understand that Hopkins’ years in Jesuit seminaries were not lonely, isolated or wasted.
I imagine everyone who researches a historical novel discovers coincidences that firm up their own personal affinity with their subject. One of those for me was that I briefly lived in Stratford, east London, where Hopkins was born. It has changed a huge amount from the days when it was a Victorian village on the edge of the city, and the house where Hopkins is born is now occupied by a huge branch of Morrisons.
The big coincidence for him was that the nuns of his poem were brought to Stratford after the shipwreck and were given a massive funeral at a church a stone’s throw from his childhood home. They were then buried in the Catholic graveyard in Leytonstone, where you can still see their grave. When I went there, I realised it was about 10 minutes walk from a street where I had lived for eight months. These connections are probably no big deal to anyone else but they resonate powerfully when you’re immersed in the research.
My visit to the graveyard was far more emotional than I ever expected. The nuns of the novel – Henrica, Barbara, Aurea, Norberta and Brigitta – were all real women, and we know their dates of birth and their original names before they entered the convent. But that’s pretty much all we know about them. Fleshing them out as characters – making Barbara sullen and resentful, Brigitta a frightened mouse, and so on – was my own invention, and of course after a while they take a real form in your head and they feel like your own personal property. To walk into that graveyard and see their names inscribed on the headstone was a sudden reminder that these were real women who genuinely did experience the horrors I have put them through in the shipwreck scenes – but as individuals they may have reacted in very different ways.
I was hit by a mixture of sympathy and guilt when I saw the names like that – that I genuinely felt their pain but also that I was playing with their memory. That subsided and now I hope I am helping their memory live on.