Passions that spark crimes: Louise Doughty on infidelity, revenge and the feminist revival

Interview: Doughty's thrilling novel of adultery and murder captures the zeitgeist in women's fiction.

Louise Doughty was given a special-access tour around the Palace of Westminster some time ago which confirmed her suspicions –possibly all our suspicions – that Parliament carries within its hallowed corridors an undeniable whiff of sexual peccadillo. Many of its cubbyholes and restricted-access areas appear in her seventh novel, Apple Tree Yard, a thrilling story of infidelity and murder which ties its characters’ secrets and lies most subtly to the aphrodisiac effect of Parliamentary power.

“They must be at it like rabbits,” Doughty says about the MPs who may or may not make illicit use of Westminster’s secret spaces. “What really struck me [during the tour] is how the whole ritual of the institution invests people with a sense of their own importance… The wonder is not that scandals happen but that they don’t happen on a weekly basis.”

There is a fair amount of sexual scandal in Doughty’s novel; adultery begins as stranger sex and is conducted in snatched, surreptitious encounters by a middle-aged woman and her lover. Much of it takes place in Westminster, and in the first instance, in the crypt of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.

The message is clear even if Doughty, 49, had not just spelt it out while sipping coffee in a North London café, close to where she lives with her partner, a radio producer, and two children. None of the novel’s characters is a politician but sex invariably corresponds to power.

Serendipitously, her publisher was giving away free copies of the book when “a tall, dark-haired man turned up and I thought ‘that looks like David Miliband’. Anyway, it was David Miliband. A small crowd gathered and afterwards he tweeted: ‘Just met Louise Doughty #appletreeyard. Sounds a bit racy’. I tweeted back, ‘Racy but all set in Houses of P. Read on plane on the way to NYC? Might make you’re glad you’re out of politics”.

Themes of revenge and infidelity first emerged in Whatever You Love, Doughty’s Costa-shortlisted sixth novel about a mother whose world is shattered by her daughter’s death (by a dangerous driver) and her husband’s infidelity. The thematic overspill here is addressed more fully as well as the subject of how women are viewed within criminal justice, and the hypocrisies of the class system.

The protagonist, Yvonne Carmichael, inhabits a reassuringly middle-class world– she is a wife, mother and accomplished scientist – yet she finds herself embroiled in an affair that, from the courtroom witness stand in which she finds herself at the outset, appears wholly lurid. “If you lead one of those middle-class lives, you think those things happen to other people,” says Doughty. “And there’s a terrifically classist thing” about adultery, she adds.

“Footballers and their affairs are seen as sordid but somehow, when the middle-classes do it, it is intellectualised. I wanted it [the affair] to be rash and out-of-character for Yvonne and something that could be presented as seedy.”

Though the sex scenes could easily have gone awry, erotic exhilaration is brilliantly captured: “What I feel is the same breathless excitement I imagine people feel when they are on fairground rides, where it is possible to take pleasure in the fear because the danger is illusory”, says Yvonne.

Significantly, the first sexual encounter takes place a stone’s throw from a plaque commemorating Emily Wilding Davison, the miltant Suffragette who threw herself under George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby and whose centenarary is marked this year, which Doughty noticed on her Westminster tour.

“That was such a gift. She hid in a cubby hole [in the crypt] on the night of the 1911 census so she could register her residence as the Houses of Parliament at a time when women were not even allowed to vote. Over a century later, we have Yvonne who is, if you like, a symbol of everything women have achieved, doing this extraordinarily out-of-character thing with a man she has only just met in the same place as this famous Suffragette.”

The resonance, of just how far women have come, is undercut by another plot thread which reflects how powerful women remain powerless in some respects. There seems to be a wider literary resonance in Doughty’s chosen themes, too: murder in connection to marital dysfunction is increasingly raised in popular and literary fiction by women. There is the bestselling Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes, and Sabine Durrant’s Under Your Skin.

Is there something in the air? “Well, it has always been around,” says Doughty. “It goes back to Medea, but women have the means to articulate the raw anger at this particular juncture in the feminist revival. I think there’s a groundswell of female anger at the moment. [The campaign group] UK Feminista is run by young, feisty women. I think we are seeing the backlash of the backlash… but there is a long way to go and the world is still run by men in suits.”

Despite the change of direction in her past two novels, Doughty is perhaps best known for her historical fiction which references elements of her own Romany ancestry and reflects her meticulous research process.

Her fourth novel, Fires in the Dark (2003), is about Yenko, a Romany boy whose family is annihilated at Auschwitz, and Stone Cradle (2006) begins in the mid-19th century and incorporates Romany characters . In 2007, she wrote a non-fiction book that has turned into something of a bible for aspiring writers.

A Novel in a Year was based on her column for The Telegraph and, at one point, it advised writers to throw an utterly unexpected element into the plot, a narrative curveball. Doughty has clearly taken her own advice in Apple Tree Yard in which the story diverges from its presumed path to give readers what they don’t expect.

Narration slides slickly from past to present and uses the famously tricky second-person voice. The narrative address is the one element of creative writing that cannot be theorised, thinks Doughty. “The tone of voice in which a novel is written is one of the great mysteries of novel writing. It comes to me very early on and it just either feels right or not.”

This book is also, in part, a riveting courtroom drama. Its circular structure begins with Yvonne on the witness stand and culminates in a tense verdict. For her research, Doughty spent three weeks sitting in on a murder trial at the Old Bailey in which she heard how two women invited a homeless man to their home and killed him. It had all the hallmarks of outcast lives – drink, drugs, homelessness, a history of abuse, and it drew little attention from the press.

“At something like 3am, the women turned on him and beat him to death in a senseless, Lord of the Flies killing. They stole a pound out of his pocket and a travel card. Both were from terrifically abusive backgrounds. What was as shocking was that no-one was interested in it. One local reporter from Dagenham turned up at the end to get a quote.”

In the courtroom next door, meanwhile, the Milly Dowler case was taking place, and its sense of melodrama swirled around Doughty as she entered court each day. The ritual of adversarial justice that she saw play out in front of her and in the drama that took place next door added to Doughty’s “profound ambivalence” towards the criminal justice system.

“In principle, the system of adversarial justice we have in this country is fine and good, but what it means in practise is that defences will automatically rely on attacking the victim in many, many cases. We have seen this through the grooming cases in Oxford. You have multiple people involved and multiple barristers attacking one vulnerable victim, often a young girl in the witness stand. It seems to me that the balance is not right. And in the adversarial system, each barrister picks their narrative. You fit the facts to your narrative and only present those – that’s what this whole novel is about.”

Doughty received special permission to sit in at the Old Bailey, and to roam the holding cells in the bowels of the building. “It was the most fascinating research experience of my career. I was sitting in the well of the court, and it’s a completely different experience to the public gallery. I was on the benches, I had the jury bundle, all the forensic evidence. It was very unusual access. I had everything that the jury and lawyers had.

“At the end of the trial, the judge granted me an interview. He took me into his chambers directly above the cells. The chambers had a carpet and silver monogrammed ice buckets and men in wigs being served lunch by a manservant.

“Directly beneath, there are the defendants in their plastic bibs, in airless cells. I think we have this idea that somehow prisoners in the criminal justice system have it very cosy but the pressure you’d be under, I think I’d go mad.”

‘Apple Tree Yard’ is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

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