Norfolk author's childhood in a 'cult' helped her write latest novel

Rebecca Stott

Rebecca Stott - Credit: Supplied by Rebecca Stott

Rebecca Stott learned to make Saxon-style swords, traced the waterlogged paths which once lay beneath city streets and visited the Roman ruins of Norfolk to conjured up the people and places of 1,500 years ago.  

Magnificent blades emerge from forge fires, potent herbs are collected and consumed, and fragments of statues are hoarded by women living in the collapsing buildings of Roman Londinium as Rebecca, of Thorpe Hamlet, near Norwich, carefully pieces together an ancient world almost lost to history. 

History and geography merge with myth and magic in her latest novel as two sisters navigate the dangerous tidal marshes and complicated rules of tribal life and death in Dark Ages Britain. 

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott - Credit: 4th Estate

For five years Rebecca researched a period of history which once seemed so unknowable that it was called the Dark Ages. With virtually no written records of life after the Romans left Britain, historians were left with artefacts, folklore and conjecture.  

But Rebecca also had her own experience of living in a society bounded by religious fervour, fear of outsiders and complex rules. 

While the superstitions and rituals of people living in 500AD Britain might seem to have little in common with life in a 20th century Christian sect, the febrile atmosphere Rebecca creates, with everything from health to harvest subject to gods and spirits, owes a lot to her childhood. 

“I was raised in an extreme religious community, a coercively controlling one. A 'cult' that controlled every aspect of our lives,” she said.  

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“I know, not just from my own religious background but because I am a historian, that it is impossible to try to reconstruct periods of history before perhaps the 19th century when most people's lives were not governed by religious or spiritual or superstitious beliefs,” said Rebecca. 

“So in my view if you are going to write historical fiction you have to imagine yourself into a world in which your people pray and sacrifice and have the gods - or a god - in their minds most of the time. And for me, raised in an extreme religious group like the Exclusive Brethren, it is not as difficult to think myself into that way of being as it perhaps is for writers who have been raised in a secular, agnostic or atheistic culture.” 

She wrote about how her family broke free from the Exclusive Brethren in her 2017 book In the Days of Rain.  

In her childhood, like her imagined Dark Ages, women were subservient. But in her novel two exiled and bereaved sisters find their way to a group of women foraging through the abandoned Roman city on the site of present-day City of London. 

“My interest in this period began when I saw a brooch in a tiny frame on the wall of the Museum of London,” said Rebecca. “I was fascinated by the fact that so few of the people living and farming around the ruins of Londinium ventured in.  

“Archaeologists think that they may have considered it haunted. But one Saxon woman did go in. And we know this because she dropped her brooch as she walked across the fallen roof tiles of a ruined bathhouse on the north bank of the Thames. 

“I couldn't help wondering what had taken her in there.” 

Struck by how little was known about the lives of women in what she calls ‘this darkest corner of the Dark Ages’ she read archaeological papers and books, learned how to make the great swords of the period and researched the marshy estuary landscape that her characters walked and boated through. 

And again, the keys to this ancient landscape were not far from home. She roamed Caistor St Edmund, near Norwich, and Burgh Castle, near Great Yarmouth. “The reed beds around Burgh Castle were very important to me, especially as they grow so close to the old Roman walls,” said Rebecca. “I walk in Norfolk every day and have done for some years, sometimes very long distances, so the flat lands, the reed beds, the marshes around Cley, have all inevitably shaped the landscapes of the novel. 

The ruins of the Roman fort at Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth

The ruins of the Roman fort at Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth - Credit: James Bass

Remains of a Roman tower on the site of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund near Norwich.
Photo: Bil

Remains of a Roman tower at Caistor St Edmund near Norwich - Credit: Archant

She also spent time with Anglo Saxon re-enactors at the reconstructed settlement at West Stow, near Bury St Edmunds. 

The result is Dark Earth, an evocative and compelling story published this week and named for the centuries-deep layer of soil which archaeologists find above Roman remains.  

The plot sees Isla defying rules banning women from forges, to help her exiled father make powerful swords for tribal leaders. “There are all sorts of beliefs about smiths that suggest they had access to magical powers so it seemed to me likely that there'd be rules about who could go into a forge,” said Rebecca. “I call them fire-tongued swords but archaeologists call them pattern-welded. They are extraordinarily beautiful and intricate.” 

Her landscape of river, reeds and ruins, partly inspired by present-day Norfolk, overlays the modern City of London and Southwark. She populates it with women who have fled into the decaying city of slumping walls, shattered statues and crumbling plaster paintings, and are storing up provisions, scavenged metal and stories against an uncertain future.  

She calls it the Rookery and says it might have grown from her own experience of having women writers lodging with her when she was a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia. 

“After the pandemic started my lodgers moved out and my two grown-up daughters moved in for five months, keen to live safely away from London,” said Rebecca. “One of them is an actor (she read the audiobook of Dark Earth) and the other works in film. So the creative all-female world of my house continued.” 

Now a full-time writer, Rebecca is also a member of the Norwich Extinction Rebellion communications team and said “I learned more in XR than I have learned for a long time, not just about what is happening with our climate emergency, but how a group of diverse people, good activists, teachers and finance workers and pensioners and teenagers, can work together to make change, not just in terms of actions (protests and marches and occupations) but also in lobbying local government and in talking to members of the public with good humour, style, and passionate words and with hope for change.” 

Her previous novels include Ghostwalk, a ghost story set in modern and 17th century Cambridge, The Coral Thief, mixing love, evolution and revolution in 19th century Paris, and In the Days of Rain about her childhood in the Exclusive Brethren church which won the Costa Biography Award. 

She is now working on a television project about Boudicca, the Norfolk warrior Queen who almost defeated the Romans. 

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott is published by 4th Estate.