I love Alis Hawkins' Teifi Valley Coroner historical crime series featuring partially-sighted ex-barrister Harry Probert-Lloyd and his "chippy" assistant, John Davies. So I was delighted to see that she has a new series set in Oxford University and to talk to her about A Bitter Remedy, which was published by Canelo in March 2023 and introduces readers to young Welsh polymath Rhiannon Vaughan and Oxford don Basil Rice. Alis grew up in Ceredigion in west Wales and currently lives on the Welsh-English border.  The Teifi Valley series is set in the area in which she grew up and has twice been shortlisted for the prestigious CWA Historical Dagger award. You can buy the book on Amazon US and Amazon UK and find out more about Alis on her website, Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook page. All that said, here's our conversation. —Suzanne Fox

Q. I was fascinated to see that your first novel also dealt with a university, though in a different fashion and time period(s). I see that you attended Oxford; could you talk a bit about why the university setting appeals to you as a fictional world—what possibilities for themes, tensions, or plots it offers?

I had great fun in Testament inventing my own fictional university city—a third medieval university to go alongside Oxford and Cambridge. I called the city Salster and gave my fictional college an exciting backstory as a hotbed of Lollard (early Protestant) heretics!

Writing about a real city like Oxford is obviously a much bigger challenge and it was set for me by my publishers. They’d realized that I have a bit of a habit of writing about places which are important to me (the settings in my Teifi Valley Coroner books are all real places) so when we were discussing the possibility of my writing a new series with a female protagonist, they suggested Oxford as the setting.

Now, for me, if you’re going to write historical crime fiction with a female protagonist, set in Oxford, there’s only one timeframe that’s going to interest you—the early 1880s at the beginning of the women’s college movement. That time and place ensures that your novel has a rich background of gender politics, first wave feminism, women’s suffrage campaigning, and opposition to female higher education. Perfect for creating the kind of conflict that’s meat and drink to a novelist.

Enter my protagonist, Rhiannon ‘Non’ Vaughan, a young polymath from West Wales (from the Teifi Valley in fact, I just can’t help myself…) who’s come to Oxford to attend lectures. She hates the gender roles assigned to her by conventional, middle-class Oxford and rebels in every way she feels she can get away with, including getting embroiled in the investigation of the suspicious death of an undergraduate. In this, she works with her friend, Basil Rice who as well as being a Jesus College don, is a closeted gay man who has battles of his own to fight, not to mention secrets to keep.

Q. Your Teifi Valley stories take place in Wales. What inspired you to move countries, character types and milieus for this new novel?

I’d written five novels in a row with young men as the main protagonists (the four Teifi Valley Coroner books and my Black Death psychological thriller, The Black and the White) and I was keen to write from the point of view of a female protagonist for a change. As I mentioned above, my publishers suggested Oxford and the rest, as they say, is history!

Q. The United Kingdom (and of course the world) changed so much between the1850s of the Teifi Valley novels and the 1880s of this one. Why did you choose 1881 as the focus for this series debut?

The first two female halls, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which eventually became constituent colleges of Oxford University, were both set up in 1879 so that young women could take advantage of the lecture series called ‘Lectures for Ladies’ which took place outside the University. Women weren’t admitted to lectures in the men-only colleges until a couple of years later and, because I knew I wanted to start the book with an argument between Non and preening undergraduate, I had to wait until it would be plausible for her to be in a college for a lecture!

The beginnings of the women’s college movement were incredibly tentative with the organization that was eventually responsible for getting women admitted to full membership of the University of Oxford—the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford—playing a complex game of political chess with the University hierarchy, public opinion and the parents of clever middle-class girls who were keen to get a university education. And any kind of tension and conflict is great for crime novels.

Q. Oxford was, and I imagine still may be, a bastion of British intellectual, cultural, social, and even financial power. I loved the fact that Basil and Non are both part of Oxford and yet also outsiders there, marginalized—whether visibly or not—by some aspect of their identities. Could you talk a bit about how you developed their characters?

Oh gosh, that’s a tough question. All the ‘how to write’ books tell you to plan your plots so that you know where your books are going, and draw up detailed character sketches so that you know your characters in depth are before you start, but I don’t do either of those things. I let the story develop as I write, and I wait for the characters to reveal themselves to me through their words, actions and reactions.

Both Non and Basil leapt into life in their first scenes as if they were just waiting in the ether (or my subconscious) for me to discover them. That being said, both the ether and my subconscious are always full of ideas from all the research I’ve done, so some aspects of their characters arise from the historical context they live in. But your subconscious is also full of all the people you’ve ever known, with all their little inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies, and it’s that soup of research and lived experience from which your characters come. In an event I did recently, I likened it to the web of thoughts Dumbledore pulls from his head with the magical Pensieve—it’s all in there, you just need to draw it out and put it down on paper. Well, onscreen, actually.

But, even before I started, I knew Non was going to be a feisty, rebellious, opinionated character who kicks against all the restrictions of middle-class Oxford life. Everything from having to wear certain sorts of clothes (she refuses to be corseted or to wear the pounds and pounds of underskirts that women wore in the 1880s to hide the fact that they had a lower anatomy) to being barred from lectures unless you were chaperoned! Part of Non’s personality arises from the fact that, unlike the other women who’ve come to Oxford to attend lectures, she hasn’t grown up in a middle class environment in England. She’s the only child of a sea captain who runs a coal boat up and down Cardigan Bay and, as such, she’s been allowed a lot of freedom, including the freedom to work as a deck hand on her father’s ship. That means that her experience of being a woman is very different from that of the genteel, respectable, middle class women she meets in Oxford and she has no interest in becoming one of them.

As for Basil, he’s apparently much more in his element: an establishment man from a middle class family who was an undergraduate at Jesus college and is now a fellow at the same college. But he doesn’t feel comfortable in his own skin because he’s gay, which of course he has to keep secret. This means that he is on edge a lot of the time, hiding who he really is and trying to curry favor with people so that, if any suspicions arise about him, he will have allies to fight his corner. And this is what leads him to investigate Sidney Parker’s death—he feels he has to remain in good odor with the Principal of Jesus college. And, to be fair to Basil, as the boy’s tutor, he does feel some responsibility for Parker’s fate.

Q. I can’t bring myself to do this interview without touching on the Victorian medicines and medical theory that your book evokes so brilliantly. But it’s all so mind-boggling I don’t even know what to ask. What can one ask but: WTH? Natter a bit as you please on that one!

The patent remedy industry which looms large in A Bitter Remedy was something I came across when I was researching the fourth book in my previous series, and I could see that it was full of plot potential. Every contemporary newspaper was chock-full of adverts for all kinds of remedies that were—slightly improbably—supposed to cure everything from gout to acne, ‘lassitude’ to heart disease. They were the kind of questionable claims that that tend to be caught by our spam filters these days.

For instance, the innocuous-sounding Godfrey’s Cordial was supposed to ‘cure all the family’s ills’ including teething and disturbed sleep in infants. Well, it would definitely put them to sleep because it contained opium. In fact, many patent remedies did as it was virtually the only drug known to be useful at the time in relieving pain and suppressing other symptoms, like a persistent cough. TB anyone?

Of course, in the 1880s, Britain had no Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency to oversee the production and promotion of drugs, nor an Advertising Standards Agency to ensure that all adverts were ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful.’  And of course, there was no Trades Descriptions Act, so the patent remedy sellers—some of whom (falsely) claimed Royal endorsement—could make the most outrageous claims for their pills, potions and powders and get away with it. 

Here’s just one example of many. 

HOP BITTERS advertisement, 
reassembled by Society Nineteen from text as provided by Alis Hawkins
and bottle from Hop Bitters ad appearing in
Terre Haute Weekly Gazette, 29 September 1881

Some adverts, fearing that people might become wise to their claims after a bit, began printing snippets from letters of recommendation to back up their claims, but—you’ve guessed it—nobody was checking whether these letters were genuine!

And, of course, if you’re going to produce remedies, then the next step is making sure that the public knows about disorders that only your particular remedy can cure. This is a central feature in A Bitter Remedy in which the patent remedy plot turns on the existence of ‘spermatorrhoea’, a disease which, according to some of the pamphlets written about it, pretty well all men suffered from. What a marketing department’s dream…!

Q. Many of the places, institutions and traditions of 19th-century Oxford still exist. Did you visit the city as part of your research for the book? Were there any moments, or for that matter any other elements of your research, that were especially helpful in bringing the novel alive in your imagination? 

As part of my research I was lucky enough to have the help of college archivists at Somerville and Jesus College. I’m always worried that when I talk about archives, people have this image of something dry, dusty and uninteresting—lots of old papers that nobody cares about—but that hasn’t been my experience at all.

The Somerville archivist was kind enough to give me access to letters written by the very first female students Oxford and, because they were writing to their parents and siblings, those letters provide a fascinataing insight into the everyday lives and preoccupations of those young women. One of the most interesting sets of letters was from an American in her early twenties called Frances Sheldon. The things she noticed as an outsider were exactly the kind of things I needed to know as an outsider from the twenty-first century. She talks about the weather and the dust that blows about when it’s dry, the beautiful flowers coming up in window boxes on the little terraced houses in Jericho, the current fashion among young men for striped rowing jackets (what we’d now call blazers) and red, blue or white floppy felt hats, and the sudden proliferation of all kinds of bicycles and tricycles which even women ride—‘isn’t that a step?’ She also talks about how much cheaper it is to live in lodgings rather than in Somerville itself, which was also very helpful as Non doesn’t live in one of the halls but with a landlady.

The archivist at Jesus college was also extremely helpful, answering questions like ‘when were the stables at Jesus last used to house horses, and when were they demolished?’ (I needed to put a dead body somewhere and disused stables seemed ideal.) ‘How much Welsh was spoken in college in the 1880s?’ (Jesus was, and still is, to some extent, Oxford’s ‘Welsh’ college.) ‘When was the main quad laid to grass rather than gravel?’ (In the official history of Jesus College, two dates are given and I wanted to know which was correct.) 

He was also kind enough to suggest a biography of the nineteenth century Principal of the college, Dr. D.H. Harper, who features in the book, and sent me scanned copies of some of the college’s official archives—governing body meetings where they talked about student discipline for example so that I could see some of the things the young men got up to.

Q. What are you working on currently—any new projects or news you’d like to share?

A Bitter Remedy is the first in the Oxford Mysteries series. I’m currently working on the second book in the series. It as its background the spread of a scandalous and revolutionary organization called the Salvation Army (seriously, it was seen as absolutely shocking in its tactics when it was founded) and the opposition which sprang up to it in the form of the Skeleton Army. Any kind of conflict potentially leads to violence—this conflict regularly did—and that’s a great backdrop to murder…

TOP: Somerville College, Oxford, in 1903,
courtesy of Alden's Oxford Guide, 1093, via an Internet Archive version
of a copy in St. Michael's College Toronto 
as shared by the Victorian Web.
BOTTOM: Jesus College, Oxford, in 1837, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.