My grandparents had servants, and my grandmother helped bring me up, and she would tell me about her cook and nursemaids and so on. And then there was a time when my mother was a housekeeper in St. John’s Wood in London, and I was basically the housekeeper’s daughter. So I knew that world from both sides. I knew what one lot thought about the other.
Why did you return to the historical novel?
It was a great relief. Contemporary fiction is very difficult to write. Times change so fast, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s going on. And novels take quite a long time to get out. By the time you’ve got one done, nobody’s interested. So it was wonderful writing about the past.
Why did you choose to write about this time period — from 1903 to 1906 — which is also when “Upstairs, Downstairs” begins?
It was the time my grandmother used to talk to me about. She would tell me about how dirty the streets were and how you’d have to spend 15 minutes when you came in from a walk brushing your skirts to get out the dirt and horse dung that was around at the time. She would talk about the literary world and the artistic world. It was like “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” — this thick book that outlined duties of the scullery maid and how to choose your table settings for your elegant dinner for 12 and 18, and what you would provide servants in the kitchen dinner.
How much did you elaborate on historical facts? For instance, was there a man killed in a King Edward VII hunting party, as happens at the end of “The New Countess”?
That’s the only thing that I made up. The problem was, this was in the third book of the trilogy, and by then I thought they were just my characters. In my book, this event was hidden from the public, and I’m quite sure things like that were hidden — which is how I tried to justify myself. But I think it is unjustifiable, actually. Of course, as soon as you make someone historical say something, you’re inventing, really. Otherwise, no historical novel would exist.
You return to some familiar, feminist themes in this historical novel about the condition of women’s lives.
It’s a source of perpetual indignation. Changes in the lives of women just in the last 50 years have been enormous — with domestic technology and contraception — but you see the seeds of all this back in this period.
Why do you think things haven’t changed more?
Because of women’s nature. I don’t think anymore we can blame men. I think we blame our own natures and our own follies and our own irrationalities. It’s not in women’s self-interest to love men, or to have children, but they keep doing it.
Recently, you were quoted as saying the novel is dead.
In some respects, it is. It seems to me that the novel has become just entertainment. Fifty or 60 years ago, the novel was the only way you had of finding out what was in other people’s heads. You didn’t know anything other than what you read in fiction about how lives were for other people. But now we have film and television, and the novel as a source of understanding and information is no longer really necessary.
What about the novel as a piece of art?
Now we live in a digital age. And it’s an age of disambiguity. Art deals with the ambiguous. And I don’t think language carries the weight it once did. The resonance and beauty of language is, I think, not particularly understood by readers. So I’m not finding fault with writers, only with readers.
In that case, why are you writing?
I like it. Can’t stop. It’s a habit, it’s my addiction. I mean, I’m a writer — I’ll write anything. Advertisements, plays, reviews, articles, novels. But novels seem to me the main thing that you just invent, and it’s so wonderful to arrange the world as it’s convenient to have it.
Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.” She teaches creative writing in the United Kingdom.