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)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own