My first novel was intended to be a book about the construction of Britain's railways and those whose lives were changed forever by their pitiless march into the heart of Victorian London. As it turned out, The Great Stink was a story of murder and corruption set in the capital's sewers. There is not a single steam locomotive in it.
My research into the railways began conventionally enough. One day, when reading about 19th-century inventions, I discovered a paragraph about a revolutionary gas-lamp. Located in Dansey Yard, Soho, it bore the legend Webb's Patent Sewer Gas Destructor and, in the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, ran off the gases produced by the noxious cargo of the sewer that ran directly beneath it. I laughed out loud.
In the diaries of John Hollinghurst, I came across his account of a journey by rowboat through the newly constructed sewers in 1862. Hollinghurst was struck by the grace of the Gothic arches, which in places rose 14 feet above him, and by the masterly brickwork. At one point during the voyage, the oarsman stopped and, removing his hat, broke gustily into a rendition of the National Anthem. When Hollinghurst enquired why, he replied that they were at that very moment directly beneath Buckingham Palace.
Then, in an issue of The Times from 1858, I found an account of the event that the newspaper famously dubbed the Great Stink. In the early 19th century, the new fashion for water closets meant that instead of household waste being stored in cesspits, as was customary, it was being flushed into the rudimentary drainage system and from there into the Thames. By the 1840s the river was a vast open sewer. For over a decade Parliament ducked the problem, but during the scorching summer of 1858 the stench grew so overpowering that curtains soaked in chloride of lime were hung in the windows of the House and Disraeli himself was seen rushing from the chamber, green-faced, with a handkerchief pressed to his mouth. Within two weeks, a jaw-dropping £3m had been approved for new sewers and London embarked upon the most ambitious feat of civil engineering in history.
After that, the trains did not stand a chance. This was a subject too absorbing to ignore. Less than a year later, I finished The Great Stink.
With my latest book, The Nature of Monsters, the starting point was an invitation from a wall-painting conservator friend called Sophie to visit her latest project, the cleaning of the eight frescoed panels in the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, painted by Sir James Thornhill, father-in-law to Hogarth, between 1715 and 1719.
Sophie's working conditions were spectacular. She worked on a scaffolding constructed around a central pillar suspended from the cathedral's lantern. Between the planks that served as flooring, you could see the marble floor some 350 feet below. It felt perilously unsteady but, as Sophie pointed out, it was luxurious compared to the rickety platforms hoisted by a primitive system of ropes and pulleys upon which Thornhill and his team of artists had been obliged to work.
Having undertaken months of research for The Great Stink, it would have made sense for me to stick with Victorian London. But later that afternoon I stood in the nave of the cathedral gazing up into the dome, awe-struck. Sophie had told me that it was not in fact one structure but three domes stacked one inside the other, thereby providing not only sufficient support for tons of lead but also the perfect proportions, inside and out. I knew then that my next book would have to be set in the shadows of that remarkable building. As I looked up I could not shake the image of scores of tiny painters suspended above me like spiders on a great web.
That image found its way into my novel but it is no more than a throwaway line in a letter. St Paul's remains an important landmark in the book, physically and thematically, but the novel is about something else. Yet again I had found myself distracted.
The first thing that struck me about 18th-century London was how much the period had in common with our own. It was capitalist, materialist and market-oriented, driven by acquisitiveness and opportunism. The London population went into regular paroxysms over the drawing of the national lottery which made millionaires of ordinary folk. What was more, frantic speculation on the new stock market ended, much like the dotcom bubble, in a sensational crash in 1720. The famous English stiff upper lip had yet to be invented and life was noisy and violent, compensated by the aggressive pursuit of pleasures and passions. Drunkenness was endemic and sexual prowess a matter of public pride. Foreigners found the English extraordinarily politically well-informed and assertive, as well as jaw-droppingly frank. In one newspaper, a married woman advertised for a young man "endow'd with a good Carnal Weapon [...] to perform Nocturnal Services", her husband being temporarily incapacitated. Because of mortality rates, many people married several times, resulting in step-families much like those produced by divorce today.
For all this, the political and social structures of the period remained rigidly hierarchical and hereditary. A woman, once married, was wholly at the will of her husband. All of her personal possessions, down to her undergarments, became his in law. As one contemporary observed, "In marriage, a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband." This had its advantages. When she married, a woman's debts, like everything else, passed to her husband. It was not unheard of for women in debt to pay a man already imprisoned on his own account several guineas to marry her. When the creditors came to be paid, they could arrest neither of them, for she was no longer liable and he was already in custody. Many widows continued to run their husband's businesses; women ran chop-houses, taverns, brothels, even lunatic asylums.
Unlike their Victorian counterparts, then, Georgian women inhabited a society that bestowed upon them both considerable licence and suffocating limitations. For a novelist, it was an irresistible paradox. I knew immediately that I wanted to write about a woman who struggled with both and whose ultimate fate would be decided by her skill in managing their contradictions.
It was a chance reference to an old medical orthodoxy that gave me the bones of my story. According to the convention of maternal impression, the violent experiences or emotions of a pregnant woman would imprint themselves upon her unborn foetus. An unsatisfied longing for strawberries, then, would stain the child with a strawberry mark, while the case of the mother who had witnessed a man being broken upon the wheel and subsequently bore a child with broken limbs was well-documented. This orthodoxy was endorsed by Hippocrates and Plato, and Martin Luther declared it one of the most certain principles in medicine. In 1732, the great classifier Linnaeus, examining a child with a squint, enquired of the mother if she "had seen someone squint or cock the eyes in a similar manner while she was pregnant". When she replied that her mother-in-law had died during that time, Linnaeus ascribed the squint to the mother's tears of grief.
It was not until the late 1720s that a serious debate began about maternal impression, and even then its detractors struggled against the weight of contemporary scientific opinion. The College of Physicians was a closed shop; it abhorred challenge and change. Even Harvey, who had in the 1650s proved categorically that blood circulated about the body, had been obliged by the College to continue to teach the discredited principles of Galen and his four humours because his associates feared public humiliation. In considering Harvey's frustrations I found Grayson Black, the apothecary in The Nature of Monsters, who, incensed by the loftiness of the medical establishment and propelled by his own physical and intellectual inadequacies, is consumed by the need to prove his theories, whatever the cost.
At its heart, The Great Stink was about the price of progress, the sacrifice of the people and values of the old world to the relentless advance of the new. Set in a city where the no-holds-barred clamour for advancement was unrestrained and failure often ruinous, where upward mobility was individual and untrammelled by collective codes of behaviour, The Nature of Monsters explores the conflict between religion and science, and the corrupting power of obsession.
It is not, however, a book about St Paul's. With all its bustle and noise, its abundance of distractions and diversions, it was perhaps inevitable that I would lose my way in 18th-century London. It left me, like many of its occupants, breathless and exhilarated, dizzied by its possibilities. All the same, the cathedral, at once a monument to God and a testament to the wealth and might of England's capital, itself embodies the paradoxes that inform the book. The roots of this novel remain firmly embedded beneath the 300-year-old paint of Thornhill's frescoes, high up in Wren's remarkable triple dome.
'The Nature of Monsters' is published on 22 February by Viking, priced £16.99. To order a copy for £15.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content