Kate Foster grew up in Corstorphine. As a child she was afraid of The White Lady, the ghost of Christian Nimmo, for all the rumours and tales that surrounded her, though she actually knew very little about her. All grown up and now a writer, Kate remained intrigued by the historical figure of Christian, one of 150 criminals who had their heads severed by ‘The Maiden’ – a guillotining device used for public beheadings – for committing a horrendous crime. In Kate’s debut novel, The Maiden, she digs deep into Christian’s motives and gives a voice to the women in this scandalous tale. SNACK sits down with Kate to chat about local legends, being afraid of ghosts and writing a novel.
This is your debut novel, but how did you start out writing, Kate?
I’ve been a journalist for a long time, coming up to 25 years. I’ve always done a bit of creative writing on the side, I suppose, and I’ve tried and failed to write a couple of times. And it was just because a few things happened: I’d got into a Curtis Brown creative writing course, which is a very intense course. And then we had lockdown, so I didn’t really have anything else to do. These two factors propelled me into actually getting a good substantial amount of work down as a draft.
And then, after being selected to take part in Bloody Scotland’s Pitch Perfect, what made you choose historical as opposed to crime fiction? Though I guess it does overlap.
I was very interested in history. It’s just so rich, isn’t it? And with a historical novel, you get some facts already, rather than try to make something completely up. I work best when there’s a bit of structure like that. And we kind of know what happens. So, reinventing history – I find that a bit easier than if I was to start with a blank page, personally, and I’d really enjoyed a few historical novels. I truly enjoyed Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is in a similar vein.
And I enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, which is, again, a similar sort of topic, and I found that there was something about it which was kind of taking my breath away in terms of the rules and regulations by which women lived under in those days, and casting a fresh light on it.
What made you feel compelled to choose the trial of Christian Nimmo?
I grew up in Corstorphine, which is where the novel is set, and it’s a suburb of Edinburgh, I know, but back in the day it would have been its own independent village. As a child, we learned about the story of the murder, under the sycamore tree. It’s a local legend in Corstorphine. It’s built into the whole identity of the village: we’ve got a pub called The White Lady named after the ghost of Christian Nimmo because she said to haunt the spot where the murder happened. When I was growing up I was quite frightened of the story, and I was particularly frightened of the ghost of Christian Nimmo. I thought she would come out and get me if I walked past the murder scene – the sycamore tree only came down to the 1990s.
I found Christian Nimmo a frightening character because she’s a ghost, she’s a murderess, she’s a ‘whore’ – all these things are frightening when you’re ten years old. I came back to Corstorphine two or three years ago because my mom had just died, and I remembered the ghost of Christian Nimmo as a side thought. I realised I wasn’t scared of her any more. I think the reason was because I realised that whatever it was that drove her to murder her lover, there was probably a good explanation for that. And now we have a better understanding of domestic violence than we would have done in the 17th century. None of us know what really happened in their relationship, but I don’t think a murder like that comes out of nowhere, and I wonder whether there’s a more sympathetic telling of this. That was really why it resonated with me at that time, rather than just picking somebody that I didn’t feel an emotional connection with.
And I am aware that some of this is historical and some fiction. Did you feel any obligations or weight when considering the options on how to tell and frame this story, with it being autofiction?
Yeah, I did. So, the fact that it was so long ago made me feel freed up, whereas in fact, there was another thing that I’m considering writing which is much more recent. I’ve held back on it because I think it’s recent, and do we really want to go there and what would people think and all the rest of it. But because this was so far in the past, and because it had become folklore, I felt okay. I’m just having a go at it. It doesn’t really matter. And I didn’t put any great weight on what I was writing because somebody else can come along and do their own thing. I wanted to give her a voice because I think she hadn’t had a voice to date.
You also give a voice to the ‘harlot’, Violet Blythe. Was this an intentional balancing technique you used?
I think so. I felt that we needed to have her as we’ve got quite a bleak story with Christian. I wanted to do something which was almost like a counterpoint for her, so I needed somebody to come along and give it a bit of vibrancy. But I also felt that I didn’t want to locate the whole story in Corstorphine because it’s not a very interesting place. At that time, Edinburgh was exciting. Violet, to me, is Edinburgh, and encapsulates the voice of an Edinburgh woman who would have lived at that time. I really wanted to bring Edinburgh into it, because it has so much history, and is so fascinating.
Is there any part of you tempted to play with Violet again and pull her into another tale?
I like her. I mean, I feel I’ve not heard the last of her!
The Maiden by Kate Foster is out on 27th April, published by Mantle