On the wide high street in the English market town where I grew up is an old building that was originally the home and premises of an 18th-century silk merchant. It’s an imposing structure, with a sharp-toothed roofline and a brace of wide bay windows, though I paid it little attention until a return visit a few years ago, when I learned that it had recently been restored.
On that same trip, on a visit to one of my favourite museums, London’s Victoria & Albert, I saw a beautiful 18th-century silk gown with a curling pattern of leaves and flowers that seemed to glow from within and appeared to have barely aged a day. Herbal lore and medicine has long been a source of fascination to me and I began to imagine what such a fabric might look like were it designed with a pattern of poisonous flowers, what power it might contain.
A prestigious boarding school sits on the edges of my hometown, and a number of buildings, including one that was until recently a small hotel on the high street, have been acquired as boarding houses for the pupils. As someone who also went to a boarding school, I’m familiar with such enclosed societies, their rules and idiosyncrasies, and what fertile ground they offer for the writer.
As I began to research, I discovered that a number of women in Wiltshire, including four Danish sisters, had been killed when suspected of witchcraft. Often they were of low status, foreign, or herbalists and healers, and this gave me another thread for the story.
I also wanted to play with the tropes of maid, mother and crone, and so in both the historic and the contemporary strands there are examples of maids (Rowan and the schoolgirls), mothers (Caroline, who is desperate for motherhood, another for whom it is the worst possible situation to find herself in, Mary-Louise who has no desire for motherhood, and Thea, who as temporary housemistress is a surrogate mother to the girls in her care), and crones in the shape of the cook and the dame.
I’m fascinated by the way in which past events can leave their mark on a building, leaking through to the present, like ink on a page. A few years ago, I went on a late-night tour of Manly’s Quarantine Station, and there were several rooms where I felt such a sense of foreboding and unease that I had to leave them, certain that something awful had occurred within their walls. This experience fed into the book, and as I was writing I even began to scare myself with the unexplained noises I could hear in the old weatherboard cottage that I live in: footsteps thundering along the floorboards late at night, lights flickering on by themselves...
Several decades ago, my mother was one of the first women to be ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church, and as an addition to her training she underwent special instruction in exorcism, or ‘ministry of deliverance’ as it is now known. Some of her anecdotes about her experiences found their way into this book.
The Silk House is the result of these somewhat disparate threads of inspiration, and hopefully I have woven them into a narrative that will not only captivate the reader but also send a shiver down their spine.
Kayte Nunn is a former book and magazine editor, and the author of four previous novels, including the international bestselling The Botanist's Daughter and The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant. The Silk House is loosely based on a house that still stands, in the town in England where she grew up. Kayte now lives in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. You can find Kayte at kaytenunn.com
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