I knew the landscape a little; my father was brought up in Keighley, on the other side of moor, and some of my extended family still lives in the area. There’s something very strange and special about Ilkley Moor; it’s littered with boulders carved with ancient markings, and no one really knows what they represent. It’s a wild place too, somewhere Doctor Charles Fuller feels is, ‘a place out of time . . . where the old gods might yet hold sway.’
In the course of my research I learned the asylum was almost self-sufficient, owning six hundred acres of land, most of which was given over to farming. It was many of the male patients who tilled these farms while the women were kept inside, mostly working in the laundries. In a Yorkshire winter this might have felt like a fair enough arrangement, but during a summer as magnificent of that of 1911, it must have seemed deeply unfair.
As he works on the land and that heatwave summer of 1911 starts to take hold, John Mulligan begins to emerge from the depression that has gripped him. The natural world touches him and he in turn wishes to share and communicate its beauty. He begins to write to Ella ‘something smuggled from the bright world to the dark corridors inside,’ little knowing that she cannot read. So language and landscape are intertwined in the book, and both offer a sort of liberation to those lucky enough to access them.
Another theme of the novel is eugenics, and the attempts of those in power to control the lives of those they deemed less ‘fit’ to breed. This was a time when many in power were anxious about people – particularly the poor – becoming wild, ungovernable, a time of burgeoning strikes and industrial unrest.
I loved the idea that cheek by jowl to this place of incarceration was this mysterious country; that there is something wild and ungovernable, just waiting to break through the veneer of ‘civilisation’. And I wanted this wild current to be an ever growing presence in the book, touching all the characters in their own way, as the summer grows hotter and hotter, and all sorts of forbidden desires rise to the surface, insisting on making themselves felt…