How Victorian Leeds is about to take centre stage

Already with a string of successful novels to his name, Leeds writer Chris Nickson has written his first play. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

Carolyn Eden plays Annabelle in Chris Nixon's new play.
Carolyn Eden plays Annabelle in Chris Nixon's new play.

Prolific feels too inadequate a word to describe Chris Nickson.

There are, to date, 18 ovels – including several series of novels, with seven Richard Nottingham novels, four Inspector Tom Harper novels, two Dan Markham novels and... you get the picture. Nickson’s output is impressive, to say the least.

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Having worked extensively in America as a music journalist, the Leeds native returned home in 2005 and published his first novel featuring detective Richard Nottingham, set in Leeds in the 1700s, in 2010. Once he’d started, Nickson didn’t take a backward glance and his output since has been extraordinary.

Detective Nottingham made a return in May 2011, a third and fourth novel appeared in 2012 and the fifth and sixth in the series hit the shelves in 2013. At the same time, he introduced two new series of novels: the Dan Markham series, set in Leeds in the 1950s and the Tom Harper stories, also set in Leeds in the 1890s.

The news is now that the novelist has found the time to write a one-woman show, The Empress on the Corner, based on a character from the Tom Harper series. While preparing to write the first of the Tom Harper series, which graphically evokes a Leeds of the Victorian era, Nickson had a peculiar experience.

“Annabelle first came to me in a short story based on a painting by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw. Then, when I was writing Gods of Gold, the first mystery in my Victorian series, she sat down next to me and said, ‘I was there, luv, I can tell you all about it,” says Nickson. “She’s a Victorian working-class Leeds woman, growing up in an Irish family on the Bank Richmond Hill as we know it today, and experiencing the only options open to women in the 1800s – mills or maids. She ends up working at the Victoria pub at the bottom of Roundhay Road, a real place, my great-grandfather was the landlord there for many years.”

Annabelle has grown to not only become a major character in the Tom Harper books, she’s also been made flesh by Leeds actor Carolyn Eden, who will play her in Nickson’s one-woman play telling the story of the character, which premieres in Leeds tomorrow.

“Annabelle has become a major character in the books,” says Nickson. “By Skin Like Silver, the third book in the series, she’s a speaker for the early Suffragist movement, a working class woman who’s done well for herself, owning a pub and three bakeries, a force to be reckoned with in Sheepscar – the empress on the corner. She has a bigger role in The Iron Water, published this July.” And, says Nickson, the character became ever more demanding. “Annabelle wants more. Carolyn performed Annabelle’s Suffragist speech at an event last December, and suddenly I knew how to tell her story: in a play.” The play already exists in some forms, with an audio recording and a film made at the Victorian pub at the Abbey House Museum, but the live performance is at Leeds Central Library at 2.30pm tomorrow as part of Leeds Big Bookend Festival. It will be followed by a Q&A with the author, director and actor.