I grew up in Fishbourne, a small village in West Sussex. A mile and a half to the east, the spire of Chichester Cathedral dominates the landscape. To the west are the sailing villages – Bosham, Chidham and Emsworth – then the glorious naval city of Portsmouth. Further still, the docks at Southampton from where, on 10 April 1912, RMS Titanic set sail on its catastrophic maiden voyage.
To the north, the folds and curves of the Downs hold the land in their green embrace – wooded estates of West Dean and Goodwood, Iron and Bronze Age settlements, millennial yew trees, the endless blue of the Sussex sky in summer.
To the south, the sea.
Fishbourne itself is – and was when I lived there in the 1960s and 1970s – unassuming, a wonderful place to grow up. Weeping willows and streams; a Roman Palace, discovered and excavated during my childhood; the Old Toll House, on the outskirts of the village and the turnpike; the old Bake House and the forge, a post office, a Methodist Chapel; a railway halt where the rooks built their nests. There were three pubs – The Woolpack, The Bull’s Head, The Black Boy – and a modest 19th-century church. Extended from its medieval origins, the marks of pilgrims travelling to visit the shrine of St Richard of Chichester can still be seen scratched into the outside bricks on the north-west corner of the nave.
But what mattered most was the water and the shore. Not the yellow sands of the fashionable Witterings or day-tripper Bognor Regis, but the muddy, tidal estuary of Fishbourne Marshes. Feeding the ducks on the Mill Pond, playing hide-and-seek in the reed mace, sitting on the old flint sea wall and watching the tide come in. Picking my way across Fishbourne Creek at lowest tide, over the remains of the Old Salt Mill in the centre of the Channel, an explorer in a blue cagoule and black gum boots. In summer, lying on my back in the long grass and imagining myself Catherine Earnshaw in the harsh Yorkshire Moors between the Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
I had a rather Gothic imagination, even then.
Looking back now, some 40 years later, I can see the roots of becoming a writer. The particular version of storytelling that springs from that childhood, that place and that time. I didn’t know it then, but I was being imprinted by marginal lands, places imbued with possibility and threat. Places of arrival and departure, of persistence and conquest.
On the estuary, I had the space and silence and freedom both to read and to invent characters and stories against the changing backdrop of the Marshes. The white of the blackthorn and hawthorn in the spring, the variegated greens of the summer and the purple cornflowers, the glorious wine-coloured pathways of burgundy and gold in the autumn, the icescapes of the sea wall and snow on the distant Downs.
On trips to London or on holiday in the Lake District, I felt the same. Stories came into my mind that grew out of the stones and the soil. Years passed. I became a writer but, although landscape had inspired my fiction, I realised that I wasn’t yet ready to write properly about home. I had to go away, to discover stories inspired by different landscapes, to learn how to be a writer. In Sussex, I was always someone’s old school friend, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s wife.
I found that alternative landscape in the Languedoc. In 1989, by happenstance and luck, my family and I found ourselves in Carcassonne. I fell in love with someone else’s history – un coup de foudre – with someone else’s distinctive, beautiful landscape. Love at first sight. I began to absorb this different land. The fortified citadels and the pale stone circulade villages, the turrets and towers of the medieval Cité. I explored the parched garrigue hillsides and the snow-capped Pyrenees. Fields of sunflowers and the vermillion colours of the Roussillon coast.
The landscape of the south-west of France was the inspiration for a sequence of historical adventure novels – Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel, The Winter Ghosts and several short stories – each set in my adopted home, my adopted landscape. I took Willa Cather’s advice to heart – “Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet” – and began to write.
Then, more than 10 years after first putting Carcassonne on paper, I was ready to write about home. Not a piece of life writing or memoir, but an imagined story, placed in an imagined historic landscape – but my own. In my collection The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales, I’d set a couple of stories in Sussex. “The Revenant” was set on the Fishbourne Marshes, but this was the first time I’d attempted a full-length novel.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a Gothic thriller set over four days in 1912. A series of increasingly grisly murders rocks the village (this isn’t based on fact!) as the flood waters continue to rise and rise. It’s a story of revenge and justice, of how violence casts a long shadow and how secrets do not stay dead and buried.
And even though The Taxidermist’s Daughter comes from a place of imagination, not history, there was still plenty of research to be done. I spent weeks flirting with old maps in the West Sussex Record Office, working out what parts of the contemporary landscape were the same in 1912 and what was different. I read endless back editions of the local newspaper, getting a sense of local stories, of the cadence and pattern of life then in a normal town, the way people lived – everything from the names of the local removal firms to the sorts of whiskey and wine advertised. I investigated (with the help of a local archivist) the history of the West Sussex County Asylum, Graylingwell Hospital, to learn about the lives of patients then. Out of this kind of research come nuggets of information that have no chance of appearing in the book, but are fascinating all the same: for example, that Graylingwell Farmhouse was the childhood home of the novelist Anna Sewell, of Black Beauty fame.
I live in Chichester today and I can see the imposing asylum buildings, the glorious red brick structures, from my window. This makes it much easier for all of this “bookish” research to be backed up by “physical” research. For Labyrinth, I was taught how to wield a battle sword (very heavy), for Sepulchre, how to read Tarot cards, and for Citadel, to fire a pistol (I was a terrible shot, but not so bad with a rifle...). For The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I was shown how to skin a crow (an experience I will not be repeating).
But the most important part of the physical research is trying to get under the skin of the contemporary world I can see around me, in order to picture it 100 years earlier. It’s like building a stage set. Until the flats and the backcloth and the props are all in place, there’s nowhere for the actors, the characters, to come to tell their stories.
So for six months, I went to Fishbourne and walked in the graveyard or across the Marshes at dawn and dusk. I tried to overlay the picture of the landscape of my childhood with something older still: no electricity pylons, no cars in the distance, no murmur of aeroplanes overhead. I climbed the steps upon the sea wall and pictured my lead character, Connie Gifford, doing the same. I looked and saw the menace in the landscape – the place where the poor drowned girl might be found, where a dark secret might be hidden.
Little by little, the story grew out of its setting. I began to superimpose elements that had never – and will never – be part of the landscape. The reed mace and dangerous black mud of the estuary are constants, but Blackthorn House – where Connie lives with her father – and the ice house are not. Although grounded in fact, in a Gothic thriller it’s essential to give free rein to one’s macabre imagination. Slay Lodge and Themis Cottage are also imagined places. If they did exist, we would not want to find them.
And now? It has been an extraordinary pleasure to spend time getting to know the landscape of my childhood once again. To walk those same paths, as a 52-year-old novelist – no longer a solitary teenager – and understand that the reason I became the author I am is, in no small part, because I came so firmly from somewhere. This particular place.
Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel are love letters to Carcassonne. The Taxidermist’s Daughter is the first (I suspect) of a series of love letters to home, though I admit, a rather Gothic one. The others? We’ll see, we’ll see.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is out on Thursday in hardback (Orion, £16.99). Kate is in conversation with Sandi Toksvig at the Horniman Museum on 11 September. Tickets at £10 (including a glass of wine) are available from the museum: www.horniman.ac.uk/visit/events/kate-mosse-talks-taxidermy-at-the-horniman