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Disfigured woman obsessed with beauty

British author Kate Howard spent time in Italy to write her debut novel set during the Renaissance, about a woman born with a bird-shaped birthmark on her face

To research and write her debut novel The Ornatrix, British author Kate Howard spent time in the pastoral, timeless Umbria region in central Italy, slowly restoring an old house that used to serve as a mediaeval watchtower.

"It's hard to spend time in central Italy without being aware of the high Renaissance - the architecture and the municipal and private art. But it was also such a productive time intellectually that there's just so much to explore in terms of the ideas and philosophies circulating then," the 41-year-old tells The Sunday Times in a telephone interview from her home in Brighton, in the United Kingdom.

Her book, which is set in Italy during the Renaissance, chronicles the life of Flavia, the disfigured daughter of a dyer who becomes a servant to Ghostanza, an enigmatic widowed courtesan.

Its title is derived from the word used to refer to Roman slaves who were trained as handmaidens to make their mistresses beautiful.

Some of the novel's main themes are concealment and obsession with beauty, which haunts Flavia, who is regarded as a pariah due to the bird-shaped birthmark on her face.

Flavia's mother, ashamed of her daughter's appearance, orders her to wear a veil and "prayed that God would wipe away the stain no human hand could clean".

Kate Howard's The Ornatrix chronicles the life of the disfigured daughter of a dyer, who is treated like a pariah.
Kate Howard.

Howard says: "There was already this huge pressure on women to be attractive at that time. You see in movies such as James Bond, it's common to have a villain with some kind of facial and physical defect. That, to me, is a narrow-minded approach to how people should look."

Howard, who is expecting, adds: "I'm worried my child will grow up in a world where there are expectations of perfection, so I did want to write something that reflects that anxiety."

She jokes that between the debut novel and her child, in a way, "everything is popping at once".

She remembers how growing up, her housewife mother would read books in the bath ("Before the age of the Kindle. It didn't matter if you dropped them into the water," she recalls), while her father, a systems analyst, would read books on physics.

She went on to read English literature at the University of Sussex and, for a doctorate from the University of Kent, 20th-century literature.

Her husband Andy Howard, 48, is a career manager at the University of Sussex.

Kate Howard's The Ornatrix chronicles the life of the disfigured daughter of a dyer, who is treated like a pariah.
Kate Howard's The Ornatrix chronicles the life of the disfigured daughter of a dyer, who is treated like a pariah. PHOTO: MARK BRISTOW

She also works in the university's trade union. Her long list of literary influences is heavily British, including the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.

"I found that they made my writing denser and more complex. But people don't write like that anymore, so I've been catching up on modern literature and reading whatever's current. I love novelists such as Kate Atkinson, who can switch between genres," she says.

Work on The Ornatrix began about five years ago.

"It took me a while to stop writing like an academic and to start writing like a novelist. I went to many writers' groups and workshops to figure out what my voice would be like," she says.

Her biggest challenge was threading the plot together and pacing the story.

"When you're writing, you want to show how much research you've done, but you have to be kind to the reader and make him turn the page," she says.

There was already this huge pressure on women to be attractive at that time. You see in movies such as James Bond, it's common to have a villain with some kind of facial and physical defect. That, to me, is a narrow-minded approach to how people should look.

BRITISH AUTHOR KATE HOWARD on wanting to write about the anxiety brought about by expectations of perfection

Now that The Ornatrix is out in bookstores, Howard is turning her attention to a mystery thriller also set in the same era.

"It's a 'disappearance' novel set in the cross-section between Jewish and Christian societies at the time, and looks at issues of immigration and segregation that I feel are relevant today."

• The Ornatrix is available from Books Kinokuniya at $19.39.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Disfigured woman obsessed with beauty'. Print Edition | Subscribe