Sheena Wilkinson: ‘After 20 years of happy celibacy, I fell in love with an old friend’

Author Q&A: Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau is a book with a difference: a historical feminist romance centred on a naive young Northern Irish woman

Martin Doyle: Would you tell me about your new book?

Sheena Wilkinson: Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau is a historical feminist romance. April, a naive young Northern Irish woman takes a job in an English marriage bureau, with unexpected results. It’s about loneliness, friendship and fulfilment, and though it doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of the turbulent 1930s, it’s an uplifting read.

You fell in love and married relatively late in life. Did that have a bearing on writing this book?

After 20 years of happy celibacy, I fell in love with an old friend after he was widowed, and we married in 2021. It would be disingenuous to say this had no bearing on a novel set in a marriage bureau! But it’s less the romantic element of Mrs Hart which is influenced by my own life than the central theme of loneliness. I wasn’t lonely as a single person, but it’s hard work to keep loneliness at bay in a society geared around couples. I think lockdown helped us appreciate the importance of connection. Mrs Hart is essentially a story about people reaching out to each other — friendship and community as much as romance.


You discovered the works of Dorothy Whipple during lockdown. How big an influence was she?

I love women novelists of the early and mid-20th century, and Whipple’s books enchanted me out of an anxiety-induced reading slump. She can plunge you straight into a household and make you feel you know it intimately. That’s my aim as a writer.

Your novel is set in the 1930s and follows a successful trilogy set from the Rising to Partition. What do you love about historical fiction?

I love books which are very particularly of their time, and yet which shine a light on our own times. With Mrs Hart, I explore how some of the more sinister aspects of the 1930s resonate today — the setting is domestic, but even naïve April can’t ignore the menacing rise of fascism. I must admit, it was refreshing not to have to deal with the complexities of Irish political history for once! I also love all the wee details — their frocks, the books they read and what they have for tea.

This is your first adult novel after eight well-received YA novels. How different is it writing for adults?

I’ve found it easier. I can take more for granted about the reader’s experience and concentration span — she’s probably a middle-aged woman like myself! But I’ve never compromised on the emotional depth of my teen fiction — the best children’s books don’t — so it’s more a difference of scale: I loved having a wider range of human experience to explore.

Your PhD was on girls’ school stories yet you’ve never written one. Why not?

I’m fascinated by female spaces. My story “Let me be part of all this joy” (in Female Lines, New Island, 2017) is set in a 1920s girls’ school. There definitely is a girls’ school story in me: if any publisher reading this wants to commission one, I’m your woman!

You live on the shores of Lough Neagh, which is such a feature of maps of the North but is little known. What is it like?

Having spent 20 years beside the magnificent looming Mourne mountains, I find the Lough strangely inaccessible. I love the big skies and the ever-changing light, but like April, my heroine, I’m often homesick.

You’re a folk singer and learned guitar to help you write one novel, Street Song. What does music mean to you?

My husband and I helped run a folk club in the ‘90s, and we still sing together. I had fun making April sing traditional Irish songs as she goes about her work — including some of my favourites.

You sneak an animal into every book you write. Are you an animal lover?

I adore animals and one of the best things about no longer living alone is being able to have my own dogs, a greyhound called Stroller and a terrier-cross called Daisy.

What projects are you working on?

Lots of the reviews of Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau are asking for a sequel …

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Oh yes! From Harriet Vane’s Oxford to the Swallows and Amazons’ Lake District, and once, wonderfully, to the Tyrolean lake which is the setting for the Chalet School. Mrs Hart is set in Yorkshire, a place I’ve visited often, partly inspired by a love of the Brontës.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

I have a collection of early 20th-century children’s books — battered and well-read, but I love them as enduring objects, not just as stories. I imagine all the hands they must have passed through before landing with me.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Lots of my friends are writers, so I won’t say any living ones, in case I offend those I don’t invite… I think Noel Streatfeild would have been good craic, and who wouldn’t love a dinner party with Maeve Binchy?

A book to make me laugh?

Anything by Jane Austen.

A book that might move me to tears?

I cry at things like hungry hedgehogs or lost dogs, so I may not be the best person to ask.

Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau is published by HarperCollins Ireland

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times