Today sees the publication of the paperback edition of post-First World War mystery The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. Here, author Elizabeth Speller, reveals her fascination with the darker side of mazes, and how they informed the mystery at the heart of the novel.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Picardy, in northern France, doing research for the book I’m currently writing, which Virago will publish in Spring next year. I’d never been to Amiens cathedral before and to my delight I found it had a fine labyrinth at its heart. I was particularly interested in it because at the heart of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is a maze. (Technically, a maze has false trails and a labyrinth has just one path through it, but the two terms are most often used interchangeably.)
I’ve been fascinated by labyrinths and mazes since I was a child and terrified in the famous hedge maze at Hampton Court, despite it being open to the sky above and full of other people. Later, I saw the remains of the subterranean labyrinth at Knossos on Crete and realised how stories grew of an imprisoned monster and the sacrifice of young men and women, because mazes and labyrinths can be pretty pathways or a game, or they can be very sinister indeed; a trick and a trap.
Nobody really knows why human beings have been driven to create these geometric structures throughout history, yet they occur in stone, wood, hedges and turf, carved on pavements, and patterns on floors or walls, or in one case, across a roof. There are even maize mazes. The Mappa Mundi, the map of the known and imagined world dating from c1300, and a treasure of Hereford Cathedral, has a huge maze shown near at its centre. There are several in French churches: Chartres probably has the most famous one, but there is a fourth-century one in a church in Algeria, and a very old one at Lucca in Italy. There, a Latin inscription says ‘This is the labyrinth of King Daedalus of Crete. All who entered it were lost’.
Not surprisingly some clerics had mazes and their unsettling ambiguities removed, as happened in the eighteenth century at Reims cathedral, because labyrinths and mazes seem to link the pagan and Christian worlds. There is something maze-like about ancient circles of standing stones as at Stonehenge. In Britain, where there a very few church labyrinths, hedge mazes are historically well known and several have survived neglect, fashion and superstition. Again, who knows why they were built, and what it meant, and may still mean, to enter a maze?
For a novel of mystery, a maze is, of course, a wonderful starting point; an architectural conundrum but also a metaphor for secrets and an unknown outcome.
Elizabeth Speller is also the author of The Return of Captain John Emmett, a bestselling Richard & Judy Summer Book Club pick.
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