Celia Rees


Sovay posterSovay began with a ballad of the same name which I first heard when I was at university. It is the story of a girl who dresses as a highwayman and holds up her lover, demanding that he hands over everything, including a ring that she has given him. It is a test. If he parts with the ring, she will shoot him. Very romantic and dramatic and it has always stuck in my head. I wanted to write about Sovay, to give her a story, but when to set the novel? There were female highwaymen, and ballads and broadsheets about them, but they could ride at any time from the 16th Century to the coming of the railways.

I chose 1794, at the height of the Revolution in France. This would allow me to bring in bigger themes and expand the scope of the story to include the turbulent politics of the time and momentous historical events. As William Wordsworth said: 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!'. Many, like Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, welcomed the Revolution, including young women like the feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft and the writer Helen Maria Williams who both travelled to Paris to witness what was happening there at first hand. Sovay would be a young woman of her time, part of a new genus, brave and intrepid, brought up in a Radical reforming household, familiar with the ideas of Liberty and Equality that had sparked the French Revolution. In Britain, the unfolding events in France engendered a growing atmosphere of fear and repression and Sovay quickly becomes enmeshed in a terrifying web of deceit and suspicion. What begins with reckless adventure swiftly moves on to become something altogether more sinister and dangerous.

Such a time suited my purposes perfectly. 1794 also marked the publication of Mrs Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, so I couldn't resist adding a dash of gothic to the already powerful mix.

Here you can read the first chapter of Sovay.

Listen to Celia talking about Sovay on a BBC Radio 5 podcast – click here to download it.