I recently read A Type of Beauty by Patricia O’Reilly. It was my first introduction to Kate Newton and I was fascinated and moved by this dramatisation of her life.
Prior to the book’s release authors Christine Dwyer Hickey and Carlo Gebler made these comments about the book:
“In this, one of the great romances of the Victorian era, Patricia O’Reilly has brought to life a past that is at once vivid and utterly credible. A joy to read.” Christine Dwyer Hickey
“An engaging and illuminating exploration of the intersection of these Irish, English, Indian and French worlds in the intriguing, tragic and very modern relationship of Jacques Tissot and Kathleen Newton.” Carlo Gebler
I’ve asked Patricia O’Reilly to visit Ascroft, eh? to answer a few questions about the story. Welcome, Patricia! Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
Patricia: Strictly speaking A Type of Beauty does not fall into the traditional ‘novel’ category. It’s what they call in the business fact-led fiction or bio-fiction. It is the life of Kathleen Newton (nee Kelly). Her arranged marriage in India at 17; divorce, pregnancy with the man who became obsessed by her and birth of his daughter before she was aged 18; finding and losing love with French artist Jacques Tissot, another pregnancy resulting in the birth of her son, finally re-united with Jacques only to succumb to tuberculosis and rather than watch him suffer, she takes her life and dies aged 28. Set in London, Agra, Bombay and Paris from 1868-1882
What prompted you to write about Kate Newton, an historical figure?
Patricia: Her beauty as captured by Jacques Tissot in a painting titled Mavourneen captured my imagination when I was about 12; I re-discovered the painting in a coffee table book about 20 years later and started looking into her life. I was particularly interested to discover she had an Irish background – a medical family from the Wexford area.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
Patricia: I stuck as closely as I could to what was on record. There was not much written about Kathleen (called Kate by her family), except in the context of her relationship with Tissot, so I went through various biographies of him. Surprisingly the Internet proved an invaluable source of information – I even found record of her marriage in Agra in January 1870 to Isaac Newton, a surgeon with the Indian Civil Service. One of the facts that whet my interest during preliminary research was that Isaac Newton wanted an ‘untouched’ bride; Kate was catholic and during the outbound voyage she became a source of obsession with a Captain Palliser of the Bengal Rifles; before marrying on the advice of her confessor, she confessed to Isaac about Captain Palliser’s interest in her. Immediately and without even consummating the marriage, he returned her to her father in London.
What research did you do for this book?
Patricia: Did loads of research – Biographies of Jacques Tissot; various histories of the time, particularly those set in India; National Library, Dublin, National Archives, Kew, London – even had a designated researcher which proved invaluable; walked in Kate’s footsteps in London and Agra in as far as possible. Saw over the house she lived in in St John’s Wood with Jacques Tissot. Seeing it, it was so easy to imagine her living there and I am firmly convinced her spirit still lives on.
You use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
Patricia: In this book, I tried to use as few invented characters as possible – the main ones are Miss Carmody (head of finishing school and chaperone), Mrs O’Connor (landlady) and Kate’s friend. Invented characters are easier for me to write as I can let my imagination flow freely, whereas with historic figures I have to stay close to what facts exist which can be stifling – although I do take creative liberties!.
In the novel you vividly re-create nineteenth century London and Paris, two very different places. How did you bring these places to life?
Patricia: First I used travel books and features from the 19th century but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t access the scents and sounds of the various locations. But when I was in London, I walked in Kate’s footsteps and realised that worked; I had done similar in Paris for Time & Destiny, so used that material working from the notes I’d made some years previously. I ended up going toIndia with the Travel Department which proved invaluable for getting the feel of the sensory pulse of the places, seeing the species of monkeys who have lived in the ruins from time immemorial; the roadside shacks; the Taj Mahal. I even discovered, unchanged, the trading company office where Kate’s father worked while posted to Agra. We’d a wonderful guide who had given up on lecturing in one of the universities for guiding, and she was very helpful.
Thanks for answering my questions, Patricia. I always love getting a peek behind the scenes to discover the story behind the book.
About the author: In her time Patricia has written acres of newspaper and magazine features; radio plays and documentaries; scores of Sunday Miscellany pieces; and dozens of short stories.
An undreamed of and most rewarding spin-off for her has been convening writing workshops, including on-line ones, as well as providing an editing service to help writers bring their work up to professional standard. She also writes a blog – www.lovewriting.patriciaoreilly.net and visit her website at www.patriciaoreilly.net.
Thank you Dianne, I hardly recognise myself.