Herbs, herbal medicine, herbalism. I lived in England for nearly 14 years, so I think of pronouncing it with the “h” and a gentle “r”. Herbs.
Whenever I talk to my American family, it’s not quite so gentle! “EERrrrbzz”.
The inspiration for my books often begins with a fact, tidbit, or story from history – usually related to science and medicine.
With my first poetry collection, Darwin’s Microscope, it was (surprise,) Darwin: more “the life and times” than “the scientific treatises,” more “Voyage of the Beagle” than “Origin of Species”. Though all would come into the poems and the subsequent song cycle, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”.
My novel Double the Stars was based on the extraordinarily resilient and stubborn woman, Caroline Herschel: assistant to her brother William, who was astronomer to King George III. Caroline was a skilled astronomer and mathematician in her own right.
Opera di Cera, my verse drama, is about the anatomical wax models of Renaissance Florence. I was completely taken by a passing comment in a lecture, many years ago, about Cintio (Giancintio,) the assistant/porter at La Specola, whose job it was to take body parts to and from the Museum, which used the body parts to make casts. The other end of his journey was morgue, orphanage, and cemetery. Who was this man, who requested an oilcloth cloak and hat, for his many morbid journeys through chill rain and fog?
Ophelia Swam, my latest novel, is a bit different. When I moved to Oxford in 2016-17, I began to walk regularly out along Port Meadow, past the ruins of Godstow Nunnery (it’s not large enough to be an Abbey, though it is often called such).
There are plenty of creation myths about various forms of art, and in this case, the best word seems to be channelled – quite a clear, steady voice began speaking, and, after several months of dithering, I began to write the voice down. This is my main character, Sister Grace. She is Infirmaress of Godstow: that part is fiction, as far as I can tell, but who knows? I’m allowing for magic.
I did a great deal of research for this book, as I have done for most of my books, but I allowed my characters to be much more free and fictional than I used to. The herbal references, the general scope of the history of the Nunnery (for example, the date it was closed by King Henry VIII,) are taken from historical sources. Many of the characters’ names are taken from historical documents. But the character of Sister Grace is that voice which came to me from my walks around the Nunnery. And, of course, the character of Ophelia is drawn, in many ways, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The herbal medicines in my novel draw on many marvellous historical references for inspiration, (though should not to be taken as medical advice,) and of course, I tried out some of the simple infusions and recipes myself. I was inspired to make a yarrow balm, using fresh yarrow (slightly dried) from the fields around where I live, mixed with beeswax, olive oil infused with lavender, coconut oil and cocoa butter. It smells divine, and is an amazing moisturiser.
The Hedgerow Handbook and The Handmade Apothecary are two of my favourite modern texts on home-made herbal goodness for the northern hemisphere. They have beautiful illustrations and clear instructions. The results of this lotion are inspiring – though Sister Grace would not have had cocoa butter or coconut oil to hand!
Ophelia Swam is being illustrated by my friend Eleanor Crook, about whom I’ve written quite a lot – indeed, my MSc dissertation in Medical Humanities was about her anatomical sculptures, and I first met her when I was doing research on anatomical wax models for Opera di Cera. We’ve since worked together with the University of Reading and the Ruskin School of Art, and I’ve been privileged to have some work-in-progress glimpses of some of her largest-scale projects, like Guy the Gaunt and Santa Medicina. It’s Eleanor’s first time illustrating a book, and I’m humbled and honoured to see her creative responses to my book, which she’s beginning to share on instagram @eleanorcrooksculpture – her style draws out the dark, gothic tones in the text…
The novel is due to be available from Blackwell’s from early 2021. Watch this space…