Birmingham, 1885.

Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.

Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood. Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora…?

With the power and intrigue of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts.

Paul Burke: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns. You first explored this story on the Writing a Novel course at the Faber Academy and it grew into the novel with time. Please tell us about the birth of the novel, did you always want to be a novelist?

Carolyn Kirby: I have always enjoyed reading historical fiction and once my children were teenagers I thought, more or less on a whim, that I should have a go at writing it too. The process took far longer and was massively harder than I ever imagined it would be. But once I had set out on the writer’s path, I found I couldn’t turn back. This novel sprang from a fascination with the idea of ‘nature versus nurture’, especially as the parent of two daughters who seemed to be completely different in character!

PB: Nature vs nurture is one of the major themes of Cora Burns’ story. So what is the big debate at the heart of the novel? 

CK: New discoveries in genetics mean that this is an area of science where the current debate is fascinating and intense. Personally, I wanted to explore the idea of how far each of us is a prisoner of biology and upbringing. How much scope do we have to shape our lives by the choices we make, or to turn ourselves into the person we want to be?

PB: We come to realise that Cora and Violet are guinea pigs for Thomas Jerwood’s experiments. Your Jerwood character is inspired by nineteenth century scientist Francis Galton (1822-1911), can you tell us about Galton and his work and how this shapes the novel?

CK: Francis Galton has been called “the most influential Victorian scientist you’ve never heard of” and his achievements are astounding in their range and enduring importance. Galton created the first usable weather map, he formulated the key statistical principles of standard deviation and regression to the mean and, through a truly dogged feat of number-crunching, he proved that fingerprints could safely be used as police evidence. He is remembered as a founding father of psychology, geography, criminology and statistics, but it was his work as a pioneer of genetics and inventor of the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ that made him the inspiration for my novel. In one of his essays, Galton suggests that the best way to investigate ‘character’ would be to study identical twins; “…if we had in our keeping the twin of a man who was his ‘double,’ we might obtain a trustworthy forecast of what the man would do under any new conditions, by first subjecting that twin to the same conditions and watching his conduct….If two or three experimenters were to act zealously and judiciously together as secret accomplices, they would soon collect abundant statistics of conduct.” Anyone who has read my book might see how the relationship between Jerwood, Violet and Cora evolved from that passage!

PB: Nearly a century and a half later we have a different understanding of the science behind nature vs nurture, so what was it like eschewing modern knowledge to write Jerwood’s character with his nineteenth century scientific attitudes and understanding?

CK: Oddly, Victorian ideas that were rubbished for decades such as pangenesis (the idea that acquired traits may be inherited) are now being considered in a new light. The radical science of epigenetics is showing how genes can indeed be changed by the environment. I did my best to try and synthesise Jerwood’s conclusions from a Victorian approach combined with contemporary thinking on gene theory.

PB: Is it fair to condemn Jerwood for the methods he uses in his experiments or is that too easy an analysis with the benefit of hindsight? He seems misguided and wrong-headed to us now, and the use of twins in experiments has some nasty echoes in the twentieth century, but he is a reflection of real scientists responsible for breakthroughs in human understanding.

CK: Galton has become one of the figures in the fierce debate that is challenging the status of formerly illustrious figures from history. This debate centres on universities and Galton was a benefactor of UCL where a building is named after him. To modern eyes Galton’s views on people who were not like him, i.e. a rich white man, were despicable. But at the time, his outlook was pretty mainstream. Even his advocacy of eugenics in his later years was not particularly controversial. So the challenge is to recognise his achievements without glorifying the now unacceptable views he espoused.

PB: The other major theme of the novel is the treatment of women, particularly working-class women. The attitude of Jerwood towards women illustrates the patriarchal prejudice of the times. Is this a class-based sense of superiority, a religious sense of a natural order (place) in society?

CK: With this issue again, I feel that the novelist should be aware of the effect of hindsight on our view of the past, but at the same time try to see the world through the characters’ eyes. One of my key sources for life at ‘The Larches’ was the diaries of Hannah Cullwick, a scullery maid who did the dirtiest, heaviest jobs in Victorian domestic service. But Hannah genuinely enjoyed her job. She even resisted marriage to her middle-class lover because it would deprive her of her independence and the real pride she took in working hard. Turning his proposal down, Hannah wrote, ‘I like the life I lead.’ It is easy from a modern perspective to view Victorian women as down-trodden but this is not necessarily the view they would have had of themselves.

PB: On a lighter note, you must have come across some illogical and strange tales during your research into nineteenth century scientific study, care to share any with us?

CK: Inventors rarely know which of their inventions will stand the test of time but Francis Galton had a particular difficulty distinguishing brilliance from nonsense. Amongst his papers, there are pages and pages of mathematical equations intended solely to produce a definitive formula for brewing the perfect cup of tea! Around the same time Galton invested a good bit of time and money producing underwater prescription goggles which he then tested by reading The Times on the bottom of his bath. He did not envisage any other use for these ‘underwater spectacles’. Even by the standard of his time Galton was an eccentric!

PB: The novel is deeply researched, which grounds the story firmly in its period, no doubt that’s the historian in you, but you didn’t use modern-day Birmingham as part of that research, why is that?

CK: I felt that I did not want Cora’s Birmingham to be influenced by my impressions of the modern city so I did not go there whilst I was writing the book but instead tried to create Cora’s world in my mind using Victorian maps and photos. Once the final edit was done, I did at last visit some of the Birmingham locations and it was a spine-tingling experience.

PB: As modern readers we empathise with the women in the novel, particularly Cora, because we recognise her suffering; PTSD, postpartum depression, grief etc. Recognition is one thing, but do you think we take these issues seriously enough yet as a society?  

CK: As part of my research I looked at the 1880s casebooks from a local asylum. These handwritten logs provide a detailed record of the condition and treatment of each patient. I was struck by the medics’ earnestness and thoughtful concern for their patients. Many of the treatments they recommended (such as bed-rest or ‘additional custard’!) seem gentle and probably therapeutic. Clearly there were harsh ‘treatments’ used in asylums at this time, but doctors’ options were limited. The most barbaric surgical and chemical interventions for mental illness came later during the 20th century. Today, many people with close experience of mental ill-health and its treatments might agree that scientific progress since the 1880s in this massively important area health care has been much too limited.

PB: Compassion and understanding would have meant Cora’s life could have been very different (the novel wouldn’t have been so exciting though!). Do you think the fact that all doctors, with a very few exceptions at this time, were men was the reason everything was chalked up to the catch-all “hysteria”? 

CK: Again, asylum records show a more nuanced picture. The numbers of men and women admitted to asylums in the late 19th century were pretty equal and their treatment and recovery rates did not differ much either. The diagnosis of mental health disorders, then as now, was controversial and inexact.

PB: Sadly, the view of station is so ingrained that Ellen accepts she has a place in life as a woman who comes from the working class. How far have we come from this age of stifling the ambitions of the female half the population?

CK: The Victorian era is characterised as a time when women were repressed but in fact it was an age of continual improvements in women’s legal rights and in their engagement with society; think of the first women’s colleges, the first women doctors and the high-profile social reformers who were women. Economic opportunities were expanding too. I was surprised when doing my research to find how many studio photographers in the 1880s were women. Personally, I feel that gender inequality disadvantages both sexes and the more gender equality there is in society, the better for everyone.

PB: Cora is a victim, a deeply traumatised woman (suffering from PTSD?, post-natal depression and the loss of a child). But she defies labelling, she is strong, resourceful and intelligent. Is Cora’s a voice for the many who suffered and have never had their story told?

CK: I feel that this is certainly true when it comes to the rehabilitation of young offenders. I was very inspired in writing Cora’s character by the biography of Mary Bell, who was convicted of murder as a child in the 1960s but who has gone on, with a different name, to live a normal, law-abiding life with children and grandchildren of her own.

PB: I know that  you’re in the middle of the promotion for The Conviction of Cora Burns, which must be very exciting, but what’s next? A second novel?

CK: Yes, to both! My diary for this year is filling up with fantastic speaking opportunities at literary events and festivals around the country. I’m also going to be touring my illustrated lecture ‘Victorian Scientists and Scandals; True Stories behind The Conviction of Cora Burns.’ I can’t wait to get stuck into all of this, and get over any initial nervousness! It has been such a privilege to find this new career opening up in my fifties and I am determined to make the most of it. And yes, my next novel, an adventure and love story set between England and Poland during the Second World War, will be published by No Exit Press next year.

PB: Who are you reading at the moment, any books you would recommend to our readers?

CK: I’m reading a fun thriller about industrial espionage called The Chemical Detective by Fiona Erskine, a debut which is out in April. My three top picks of recent novels would be Sugar Money by Jane Harris, Mr Godley’s Phantom by Mal Peet and, with a nod to my next book, All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski.

Our thanks to Carolyn and Paul for this excellent Q&A.

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby
No Exit Press 9780857302946 pbk Mar 2019