OVER the last few months Jacqueline Yallop has had two books published which each reflect the worlds she inhabits.
The former curator of the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield has written a factual work, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, which looks at the 19th-century origins of museums in Britain.
Out this month is her second novel, Obedience, which is set in south-west France which has been her home for several years. It is a story which moves back and forth from today to the Second World War as the closing of a convent forces a nun to leave her cloistered home after more than 70 years and confront a disgrace from her past which involved collaboration, betrayal, illicit love and a crisis of faith.
“I think this is a novel I couldn’t have written until I came here,” says Yallop. Not only that but being newly arrived and thus “still having an objectivity about a place and seeing it for the first time,” she adds. “There were stories you heard and I was surprised how alive the war memories were. Living in an occupied country is a very different experience to the UK’s and the impression we get of the war years.
“Neighbours and friends talked about what went on, things like a German soldier being murdered in a shop and the body whisked away and hidden. There’s a village near here which was destroyed and then rebuilt by German prisoners of war of which apparently there were thousands. Little things make you realise it is embedded in communities for generations.”
While the wartime part of the story came from real stories, the convent side was pure imagination, although the idea was sparked by a real event.
“Not long after we began living here the grey-stone convent in the middle of the village was closed and the old nuns were moved out. It got me thinking about the idea of living for 50 or 60 years in a very close environment and suddenly having to move into a new world,” she continues. “Also I was brought up as a Catholic and went to primary school in a convent and had childhood memories. As children we are very aware of such things as a big echoing space and areas you are not allowed to go in.”
Obedience has taken a while to come to fruition, admits Yallop. “We have been in France seven years now and I started the novel soon after so it has been on the go for five or six years. It’s taken a long time and I put it aside to write my first published novel, Kissing Alice.”
And, of course, the non-fiction book, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves. Was that something that has also in the pipeline for been a long time?
“After leaving the Ruskin I did a PhD in 19th-century literature at the University of Sheffield and part of the research for the book came out of that – the germ of the idea, perhaps. When I got a publisher for my fiction I talked about it and decided to explore it further and make it more accessible to the general reader.”
How easy was that to do from rural France? “Some of the research was in my pocket but there was quite a lot more that had to be done. Some of it could be done online or you could order books to be sent out here but sometimes it meant going to the British Library or other libraries.
“It was a case of being organised so that if I was going to spend a week in London researching then I needed to make sure I did everything I required because it was no good getting home and remembering something you should have done. It was also good meeting real people in the course of it whereas writing a novel is solitary.”
Jacqueline Yallop says she and her partner feel settled in France now and see no reason why that shouldn’t continue. “I come to Sheffield to visit family and friends and see what’s happening at the galleries.
“It’s very rural and quiet which is good for work. What I miss about Sheffield or living in a city is cultural things.You can’t go to the Crucible and see a play whenever you want. You have to make an effort to see theatre or art or even decent cinema.
“If I want a cultural fix, it’s a case again of being organised. But in other respects it’s a lot easier than it was. When we first came here we didn’t have broadband, now doing stuff online is easy. It’s amazing.”
She has plans for another non-fiction study of the 19th century and objects – “but not art-focused this time, more about science” – and a novel . “It won’t be set in France, though. I don’t want to get stuck in one place but the period will be similar.”
lObedience, Atlantic Books £12.99; Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World (Atlantic, £25).