Tracy Chevalier and I are bonding over a mutual loathing of PC ethics being implanted into historical fiction - and worse still, non-fiction.
From the bustle-wearing ladies making post-feminist speeches in books and on screen, to that much-derided scene in Darkest Hour when the prime minister hops on to the Underground and, having listened to a vibrant black Londoner seamlessly complete Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, decides to take his cue from the commoners and stand up to Hitler, historical characters do seem to be uncannily 'woke'. But you'll never find the smallest trace of that in the bestselling American writer's fiction.
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'There was a great example of it, actually, with the film version of Girl With a Pearl Earring,' says Chevalier of the 2003 Peter Webber adaptation of her global bestseller - inspired by Johannes Vermeer's painting of the mystery girl who might have been the artist's maid.
'There was an actress who was interested in playing the role before Scarlett Johansson,' begins the 56-year-old, with the kind of side-smile every interviewer recognises - and relishes - as the sign of an impending indiscretion. 'OK, it was Reese Witherspoon. And she so badly wanted there to be a 'happy ending' that she suggested a final scene where the girl would be painting herself.' Chevalier cringes. 'I just thought: 'Noooo...' That somehow this whole modern-day woman could have been born? And I should say that this was all hearsay from the producers, but I did think: 'Wow.''
As the daughter of a Washington Post photojournalist and a one-time reference book editor herself, Chevalier learnt the importance of accuracy early on. It was in that job that she became fixated on the kind of historical detail many novelists and scriptwriters like to garnish their stories with, but Chevalier chooses instead to use 'as a skeleton - while the skin, make-up and hair is all me'.
After The Girl With a Pearl Earring - which has sold more than five million copies since it was first published 20 years ago, there was Falling Angels, which follows the formation of a young suffragette in Edwardian London; and The Lady and the Unicorn - inspired by the set of famous 15th-century tapestries. And in her new novel, A Single Thread - born of a trip to Winchester Cathedral, where the author became fascinated by the embroidered kneelers that form a part of century-old tradition - Chevalier continues to use her fiction to illuminate the past.
Set in 1932, A Single Thread follows the evolution of 38-year-old Violet Speedwell: a fictional 'surplus woman', as were charmingly named the women doomed to spinsterhood after so many men were killed in the Great War. When real-life embroidery pioneer Louisa Pesel starts teaching Violet needlecraft, she gets drawn into a society of broderers at Winchester Cathedral, where she finds community and comfort with the other 'surplus' women.
'What women went through after the First World War was just horrifying,' winces Chevalier - a witty-eyed Washingtonian who moved to London in 1984, where she still lives with her husband, journalist and author Jonathan Drori, and 20-year-old son Jacob. 'The incredible condescension of the press at the time, somehow treating single women as though it were their fault that they hadn't managed to snag a man. And there were all these self-help manuals: How to Be a Bachelor Girl and Love It, etc.'
Writing about historical societal injustices, without trying to retrospectively rectify them in the way so many do, isn't always easy, Chevalier admits. 'Even if there were moments when I wanted Violet to stand up to her boss more than she did, for example, I held back on imposing a modern feminist's sensibilities on her.'
The same went for her heroine's mother, who at one point (spoiler alert) misses her husband so much that she collapses - which makes perfect sense on a human level, but among those pushing a 'women are more than romantic heroines' agenda, might be frowned upon. 'And yet, for all the modern thing of us saying careers are important, we're all also looking for love. And we can't deny that in novels just because it's seen as off-message.'
'So peculiar' are the times we're living in that Chevalier often feels relieved to be spending a large part of her days in the past. 'I have friends who write contemporary fiction and they're having a really difficult time because the world is a little crazy right now, and what you publish today might seem very dated in six months' time. I'm sure that's why there's so much dystopian fiction around, but I feel lucky that my way takes us out of it all, too.'
Although the author's in no doubt that she 'would still rather be living now than then', A Single Thread does make the reader question how far we've come in certain areas. The stigma of the single woman is very much still there, for one thing. And whereas the 'bachelor' tag has a 'man about town' feel to it, she points out, there isn't a female equivalent, 'with even 'singleton' seen as sort of ironic. Bridget Jones gave being single fun undertones, but she still wanted to find a man, didn't she?'
Modern women are also still put into situations where they are forced to acknowledge that they are the 'weaker' sex. When Chevalier's heroine is forced to walk from Winchester to Salisbury alone and turns to find a stranger following her through the cornfields, she feels her female vulnerability acutely. But so, too, did Chevalier almost a century on when, for research purposes, she determined to hike those 26 miles along the Clarendon Way - but found herself too scared to do it without her husband.
'MeToo has been so important,' she frowns, 'but that day I realised: women still feel like that. Women are still scared. And it's incredible that that hasn't changed. But the reality is that it's very hard for men and women to be completely equal in every area. Men are stronger and faster and they can rape us - and that's never going to change.' The kind of 'historical appropriation' we initially bonded over doesn't seem to bother people nearly as much as 'cultural appropriation'. I point to the famous recent case of author Amelie Wen Zhao being forced to pulp her fantasy book, Blood Heir, dividing the literary world. While her detractors believed she wasn't allowed to write a story inspired by American slavery (Zhao's not black), many writers argued this was censorship of the most stringent kind.
Chevalier hangs her head, conscious of the complexity of the argument. 'Yes, but: if you take a book like Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give, which is about a young African-American girl who sees her cousin killed by a white police officer and the reaction of the community around her, I couldn't write that book. I could research it but it wouldn't have the authenticity, because I didn't grow up in a similar Mississippi town.
'And if I try to write it and take that slot in publishing, then that means I might be blocking someone else's slot - someone who could actually write something much better than I. But, honestly, in practice, most of us write about what we know.'
Chevalier has a point - and a positive outlook in several areas where I expected to find despondency. Although she still writes her books longhand (before typing them up), she's far from technophobic, thinks 'Instagram is great', and slaps me down when I try to suggest it's rare to see a Brit reading a book in public. 'Twice last week I saw adults reading as they walked, and I loved that.'
She does concede, however, that thanks to the allure of the iPad, it's now necessary to promote reading to children more actively than before. 'I think parents have to stop trying to be friends with their kids so much and set boundaries,' says Chevalier, who is a trustee of the British Library. 'There can be no screens in the bedroom; no screens at the table - and screen and phone time needs to be limited.
'It helps if they see you reading, too, so that after supper, instead of all going off to your rooms and screens, you say: 'We're all going to the sitting room to read.' Because, in the end, whereas all that technology can leave us feeling a little bit robotic, there is nothing like the feel and smell of a book: it's one of the greatest physical experiences out there.'