When Julia Golding was studying for her DPhil in English Literature, she never imagined that it would lead to a career as an award-winning children’s author. But her research spawned a series of historical novels that have delighted countless young people across the globe.
It’s a perfect example of how supporting the arts and humanities can have wide-ranging benefits. “As a writer you are applying the knowledge you’ve gained, and informing and inspiring the next generation,” she says. “I’m part of their journey to literacy. A child can be switched on by a book they love, and if there are some readers for whom one of my books is the book that switches them on, that’s such a privilege.”
Her Oxford doctorate, supported by the AHRC in its previous form as the Arts and Humanities Research Board, focused on the social change prompted by the industrial revolution, and how this was portrayed by the writers of the Romantic period. After completing it in 2000, she began working as a policy advisor for Oxfam, a role that used both her research skills and the experience gained during her previous five years in the diplomatic service. But, she says, “I had all this wonderful material still buzzing around in my head.”
It was this material that sparked her first book, The Diamond of Drury Lane, published in 2006. The novel is narrated by Cat Royal, a feisty orphan girl growing up during the 1790s at the Theatre Royal, at the time owned by the playwright and politician, Sheridan. “I suppose I identified with him as I was interested in politics and literature, and a lot of the writers I was studying were intensely political.”
The book started life as an adult detective story. “It didn’t quite work so I recast it with a child as the heroine and it started to fly. A child is much more socially mobile in the era than a woman,” she explains. In the six more Cat Royal books that followed, the device allowed her to explore the impact on all sectors of society of a period of huge social change, encompassing growing industrialisation, the French Revolution, slavery and the abolition movement. It’s an era rarely explored in children’s fiction, perhaps because of its complexity and the fact that, apart from the slave trade, it barely gets a mention on the national curriculum.
Although aimed at children, the books are an enjoyable read for adults, who will appreciate the literary jokes such as the spoof reviews by prominent figures of the day. Golding has also written a number of fantasy novels under the pen name, Joss Stirling, as well as some historical fiction for young adults, writing as Eve Edwards. Her settings range from Tudor times to the First World War. “The research methods I learnt doing the doctoral programme have enabled me to be quite confident about writing outside the period I studied. And there’s something indefinable about the security of having done that high level of academic study that gives you the confidence to try your hand at anything,” she says.
She especially enjoys bringing to life the minor characters of history, such as the playwright, Elizabeth Inchbald, author of a work featuring a hot air balloon journey. “I couldn’t use her in my doctorate but I liked her plays as they were different. She’s a woman writing about new technology and providing this very popular spectacle in theatre, so I included it in the first book. When you do such broad research you never know which bits are going to be part of the final product. You have to capture it all and then refine your argument, but the peelings you discard might well turn out to be the basis for something else.”
Becoming a writer of historical fiction is certainly one of the more fun things you can do with a PhD, she says. “As an academic, you usually end up researching in a fairly small field, but I’m more interested in being a communicator. My doctorate will have been read by a few score hardy scholars, but the Cat Royal series has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages, reaching children all over the world.
She believes that the tenth anniversary of the granting of Research Council status is something to celebrate. “Arts funding has always had to struggle with the utilitarian argument that it isn't as obviously valuable for wider society – it's not a cure for a disease or a step towards a new industrial material. Yet my own case demonstrates that funding the arts and humanities will pay back in many and varied ways.
“Some of the themes in my books, such as the anti-slavery movement and the debate about equal rights, are relevant to young people's wider development as citizens of this country. This is the seedbed out of which the future scientists, teachers, doctors will come.”