A CITY break in Cork and a visit to Cobh were the catalyst for Kate Baker’s forthcoming novel, Maid Of Steel.
It charts a forbidden love affair set against the backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage in Ireland in the early 20th century.
Kate, who lives on a farm in Suffolk in England with her husband of 28 years, has been running a successful business for the past 15 years, washing and repairing horses’ rugs.
She has 400 clients in the East Anglia area of England. But writing is something that has a certain pull for her.
As a child and a teenager, Kate loved to write. However, motherhood put paid to that. For 20 years, she never even opened a book.
But six years ago, she started to read again and then began writing.
Kate realised she needed guidance and did a number of courses.
Maid of Steel is actually her second novel. The first one is “so dreadful that it needs rewriting”.
Because Kate’s farmer husband doesn’t get to leave the land much, she goes on short breaks with a friend, Hannah.
“We’re like farmers’ wives on tour!” laughs Kate.
The travelling companions wanted to visit Ireland.
“We put a pin on a map and it landed on Cork so we visited the city in 2019. It’s absolutely beautiful.
“We stayed in Cobh also, in a hotel next to the Cobh Heritage Museum. In the museum, where Hannah and I spent an afternoon, we started with the coffin ships and the potato famine.”
As she stood in the museum, Kate was horrified “to discover the truth about emigration on coffin ships to far away continents in the mid 19th century”.
She adds: “I began to wonder what it might be like for someone to return to Ireland; to retrace their grandparents’ footsteps and perhaps discover secrets.
“I am fascinated by the dark and the forbidden, and I began to plot a love story often untold in romances.”
Kate adds that she found writing her complex characters “a great exploration of how they found their true identities against the backdrop of political turmoil and prejudice”.
After the museum visit, over a bottle of wine, Kate disclosed to her friend that she could see a story emerging.
The main character of Kate’s novel is New Yorker, Emma. The year is 1911. Against her mother’s wishes, Emma is dreaming of getting involved in the women’s right to vote. She is sent to Ireland in the hope that distance will curb her desire to volunteer with the suffrage movement. She is told to spend time learning about where her grandparents came from.
Meanwhile, in Cobh (known as Queenstown), hotelier Thomas dreams of being loved - even noticed - by his actress wife, Alice. Their marriage was arranged. Eight years later, Alice has her own plans and they certainly don’t include the fight for equality or her dull husband.
Emma arrives in Ireland, where she discovers family secrets and joins the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society in Cork. She also embarks on a forbidden love affair with Thomas.
Kate says the nature of the love story is important as she wanted to “raise the stakes and touch on the fact that Thomas is a good Catholic man who had been faithful to his wife. But he’s human and these things happen.”
When Kate returned to Suffolk, she wrote a first draft of her novel, some 54,000 words, in one month. After re-writing what she had, she realised she needed to return to Cork to do further research.
Her packed itinerary on that next trip included a visit to the former women’s gaol in Sunday’s Well. This allowed her to write about Emma spending a short time in prison after throwing an object at a council office as part of her suffrage protest.
Kate also visited St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, where she was given a guided tour, and she sought out an old workhouse.
Back at her desk, Kate spent two years working on her book and last summer, she was offered a publishing deal from The Book Guild. The cover includes the Titanic and Brooklyn Bridge in New York, where the story begins and ends.
While most of the novel is set in Ireland, Emma sails on the Titanic to New York when everything in her life goes horribly wrong.
The narrative switches to Thomas. His wife, Alice, is also on the Titanic with her agent. She plans to travel to Hollywood to try to break into the black & white movie scene.
“For the last three chapters, everything is from Thomas’s point of view,” explains Kate.
“He and the reader don’t know if the two women survive. There is no social media so he has to wait for a newspaper report on the Titanic tragedy.”
Kate’s book touches on the politics of the day “when England treated Irish people terribly”.
The author is working on another novel entitled The Projectionist. It’s about an old man who has worked in a cinema all his life apart from a stint in the army in the 1950s during the Suez Canal crisis.
“It’s an intergenerational love story about a man who has lost his wife,” says Kate.
“He walks past a dilapidated cinema every day at the same time to remember his wife. There’s a young boy in the town who is being bullied. The man recognises the signs and becomes the boy’s mentor.”
This story is set in a fictional town in England.
Kate will always remember her time in Cork and Cobh, which sparked a writing career that she hopes will blossom.
Maid Of Steel will be published on February 28 at £8.99.