Past tense

RUGGED LANDSCAPE: Top Withens near Haworth which partly inspired Sophia Tobins new novel.  Picture: bruce rollinson
RUGGED LANDSCAPE: Top Withens near Haworth which partly inspired Sophia Tobins new novel. Picture: bruce rollinson
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Author Sophia Tobin’s new novel is set in 19th century Yorkshire. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston about what inspired it.

Young author Sophia Tobin is making a bit of a name for herself – and the attention it is well-deserved.

Quite apart from anything else you have to admire the fact that, while holding down a full-time job, she has managed to produce three novels in as many years.

Her first book The Silversmith’s Wife was published in 2014. It received much critical acclaim – Sophie Hannah described it as ‘a dense, intricate historical thriller in the tradition of Hilary Mantel’; high praise indeed – and it was also shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction prize. Not bad for your debut work.

Set in 18th century London The Silversmith’s Wife was a winning combination of murder mystery and love story, inspired by a real-life figure of the Georgian era that Tobin had done some research on while working for an antique dealer. “I was really interested in him – his shop was on Bond Street, near the shop I was working in at the time,” she says. “And that stayed in the back of my mind.”

With the success of her first novel she went on to write The Widow’s Confession which appeared in 2015. Another historical crime thriller it is a story of secrets, lies and lost innocence, set in motion when the body of a young girl is washed ashore in the seaside resort of Broadstairs in 1851. This too garnered excellent reviews.

Her third novel The Vanishing, set in 19th century Yorkshire and published earlier this month, looks set to become another winner with critics and readers alike. It is a perfect blend of well-crafted literary historical fiction and contemporary thriller.

Reminiscent in tone of some of our best-loved Victorian classics, it is at the same time a pacy page-turner that keeps the reader gripped and intrigued right to the end. The central figure in The Vanishing is Annaleigh Calvert who reluctantly leaves her adopted family’s home in London to take up the job of housekeeper at White Windows a grand house far from anywhere on the dark and desolate Yorkshire Moors.

She is employed by Hester Twentyman and her brother Marcus who both appear to have something to hide. Isolated and lonely, Annaleigh finds herself drawn to Marcus but soon realises that the house is not a place of sanctuary, far from it. “I knew I wanted to write something about a foundling,” says Tobin. “And I knew I wanted the story to be about revenge and a destructive relationship.” Strong, practical and principled, yet vulnerable, Annaleigh is an immediately engaging character. “Her early experience of love and support from her foster father has made her a stronger person, she has a psychological resilience,” says Tobin. Readers have responded to Annaleigh in different ways and Tobin has been surprised by her own reaction to that. “Some of them have been critical of her decisions and the choices she makes and I get quite defensive about that,” she says. “I came to empathise with her so closely when I was writing the book – it is the first time I have written in the first person and I think that must have increased the feeling of empathy.” Tobin spent a lot of time researching what it was like to be a servant in that era, looking at historical documents and servants’ diaries. She also read newspapers of the time – including the Leeds Intelligencer, forerunner of the Yorkshire Post – and studied coach routes and architectural plans.

The setting suggested itself to her on a bus journey between Hebden Bridge and Haworth. “I was looking out of the window and the moors just looked sublime,” she says. “Then suddenly a cloud went over the sun and the atmosphere completely changed – and I thought ‘this is it’. I wanted the central character to feel like a stranger in the landscape.”

The house in the novel, White Windows, is loosely based on a ruined farmhouse that Tobin spotted near Top Withens on the moors above Haworth. “The books I write kind of shape themselves as I write them,” she says. “I don’t plot them in advance and the twists and turns happen as part of the writing process. The landscape, though, was really key. And I went back to Yorkshire again to make sure that I had got the atmosphere right.”

The atmosphere is spot-on – the descriptions of elemental walks across the moors are very evocative as are the passages set within the claustrophobic walls of White Windows. The prevailing mood is gothic. Reviewers have made comparisons with the Brontës, of whom Tobin has long been an admirer, with one describing the book as ‘a cross between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.’ Tobin, however, demurs.

“The Brontës definitely brought me to that landscape but I didn’t consciously try to make it like their work,” she says. “As I was editing the manuscript I could see the similarities but this is written for the modern reader and is much grittier, so there are parallels but it is different.”

Tobin has wanted to be a writer since she was seven years old, she says, but growing up in a working class family in Kent she felt it was out of her reach. “I just didn’t think it would be possible with my kind of background, but then I got into my thirties and I thought ‘I just have to do this.’”

And she is totally committed to it, writing in the evenings and at weekends. “It gives the writing quite an intensity,” she says. “And I do quite a lot of murmuring to myself on the train in to work – I think up the plots during the morning commute. It seems to have worked so far.”

The Vanishing by Sophia Tobin is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99.

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Even Tobin’s day job has a satisfyingly quirky historical connection. She is assistant librarian at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, an ancient trade guild in the City of London established in the 1300s, where she is “literally surrounded by history every day.” For her next novel – as yet still in the thinking-about-it-on-the-daily-commute stage – she will be attempting something slightly different, setting it partly in the 19th century and partly in the 20th century.

Tobin is at Nunnington Hall on April 1 as part of Ryedale Book Festival. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/nunnington-hall/whats-on