Kaite Welsh on The Unquiet Heart and Edinburgh Book Festival

Kaite Welsh discusses setting her writing in the Victorian era ahead of her appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 07 Aug 2019
  • Kaite Welsh no credit

Kaite Welsh self-deprecatingly muses how fun she was at parties: "Nobody wants to hang out with the girl talking about the history of anesthesia." We respectfully disagree. Still, it was this childhood and teenagehood obsession with Victorian medicine that brought about the Sarah Gilchrist novels – The Wages of Sin and The Unquiet Heart – with a third on the way.

"It was surprisingly easy to research because I started off with a good perspective, having read so much fiction about the Victorian era," Welsh admits. "The specific details were hardest and most rewarding. The average day of a medical student at Edinburgh University in the 1890s, as well as really specific stuff around poisons and murder weapons."

Welsh’s dad is also instrumental in her crime writing career. He used to be a nurse, so is a handy medical fact checker. "Kind of alarming when I’m texting him at night: What are the symptoms of syphilis?” When Welsh was ten, he made her sign a contract promising him 50% of her royalties once her career kicked off. Luckily, she’s since been made aware it’s not legally binding.

From the youngster fascinated with the potions and poisons that come with Victorian crime and medicine, Welsh has grown up to make a living exploring this time period – and the misogyny, gender roles and peak white male arrogance that comes with it. The Unquiet Heart was released earlier this year, the second part in the story of Sarah Gilchrist, a young woman trying to be taken seriously as a doctor in late-1800s Edinburgh.

Welsh studied at Edinburgh University, taking a couple of classes in the old medicine buildings. It was here that two plaques stood out: the first a dedication to Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the Edinburgh Seven who led the campaign to get women into university education when they began studying medicine in 1869. The second was a memorial to Arthur Conan Doyle. The two brewed in her head until the idea formed fully: crime-fighting lady doctors. Of course.

"[In the Victorian period] there was this mixture of arrogance and enthusiasm around the idea that they were at the pinnacle of technological achievement," Welsh says. "The combination of the patriarchy, the empire and colonialism: the idea that this was the best it could possibly get is very seductive to me. There’s so many ways to puncture that, both in the narrative and from the readers’ perspective."

Recently, Welsh – also a journalist – published an article in The Guardian detailing the process surrounding writing about rape in fiction, particularly crime fiction. In it, she notes that women are consuming crime fiction at a rate that some might find concerning; in fact, Welsh believes one reason for this could be that women are reclaiming their own situations and experiences through the ephemerality of fiction.

"There has been a lot of debate in the media – it bubbles up every couple of years or so... crime fiction is, by its nature, violent, and a lot of those crimes happen to women, and is that responsible?" Welsh says. "I think it’s actually crucial, because we can’t just gloss over it and pretend we’re in some kind of feminist utopia. Other people come to crime fiction to experience that catharsis, you can get that fear out of your system and eventually close the book. It’s very literally a contained experience.

"We do have far too much violence against women in our media, in our culture, but that actually means we have to not talk about it less, but talk about it better. Sarah’s backstory of sexual assault is actually, in the grand scheme of the book, not a major plot point. It’s just that people’s responses to it influence almost everything that’s happened to her since. It doesn’t mean she’s a victim, it doesn’t mean that she’s emotionally scarred or broken or damaged, it just means she’s a person with a certain set of experiences moving through life."

As it happens, The Unquiet Heart is actually Welsh’s fourth novel. Originally, she tried to write contemporary crime fiction, but was tripped up by modern day dialogue coming out too stilted: "It sounded like someone who’d never heard another person before." Luckily, there’s a particular place for Victorian literature in today’s scene.

"We’re having a fantastic resurgence, particularly around a very specific subgenre the last couple of years: Victorian medical crime fiction. It’s such a personal way of discussing our own issues. The 19th century in particular has always been whatever the particular age you’re in wants it to be," Welsh explains. "We project a lot onto it. All historical fiction reflects contemporary anxieties, but the Victorian era is deliciously adaptable because there is so much going on. For a long time, it was held up as this bastion of sexual morality, now everyone’s obsessed with discovering the dirty secrets behind it. Victorian crime is the perfect nexus for that."

For her event as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, History’s Mysteries Unwrapped, Welsh joins fellow crime writer Caroline Lea, whose novel The Glass Woman came out in February. Welsh wonders whether some of her time might be spent fangirling over Lea. "It’s one of my favourites this year," she says. They’ll be discussing the role of feminism in Victorian fiction, the challenges that arise when researching your project, and the difficulties that come from trying to separate your specific interests and create something that’s as true to the period you’re portraying as possible, while still resonating with readers.

"A lot of the themes we’ll be discussing, as well as being relevant to our own work, are about the genre itself," says Welsh. "I really hope people will come away with the sense of the breadth of Victorian fiction: how much scope there is there; how much there is to read; and maybe thinking about the 19th century in a slightly different way. Because certainly my goal with the Sarah Gilchrist books is to show that it didn’t look as straight, male, cis and white as people think it did. It’s interesting to tell those undiscovered stories." 

As for post-Book Festival? Welsh is going caving. It’s all part of finding that elusive work-life balance, something Welsh admits she’s historically not been the best at.

"It’s so easy, particularly in Edinburgh. Since it’s the first UNESCO City of Literature, there’s always something book-related to do any night of the week. It’s easy to get trapped in that bubble where all your social experiences are people’s book launches or reading groups or poetry slams. Those are amazing and I’m so lucky to get to do all that, but I have realised I need to do stuff that’s not word-based," Welsh notes. "You can’t read in a tunnel. I’m going caving at the end of August to wrap up the Festival by hanging out in an abandoned mine with a bunch of strangers. What could possibly go wrong?"

At the very least when Welsh makes it back from exploring terrifying underground tunnels, we might get a book out of it. Sarah Gilchrist explores Edinburgh’s vaults and shows up the patriarchy at the same time? We’re in.

Kaite Welsh will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Caroline Lea, 19 Aug, 2pm