When she was a child, Rebecca Stott once surreptitiously opened the encyclopaedia at her family home and looked for the entry on Charles Darwin.
It wasn’t there. It had, as Stott put it, “been razored out”.
Now a professor at the UEA who teaches literature and creative writing, Stott grew up close to Brighton as part of a religious cult, the Exclusive Brethren, that dismissed the scientist who proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection as “the monkey man”.
“Satan was especially good in the mouth of Charles Darwin,” said Stott, explaining how the cult viewed the evolutionist.
Given this background, it is remarkable that Stott has gone on to write extensively about evolution and Darwin in the books Darwin and the Barnacles and Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists.
The main focus of her fascinating appearance at the UEA International Literary Festival 2017 was, however, her most recent book, a memoir called In the Days of Rain that deals with her upbringing in the cult.
“My father was writing his memoir when he died 10 years ago. On his deathbed, I pretty much said I would take it forward, but I cannot write his story without writing mine,” Stott told Professor Christopher Bigsby.
“I understood it was going to take me back into a history I didn’t fully understand and it would be a painful task.”
Although established in the 19th century, it was in the 1960s, under the leadership of the US-based James Taylor Jr (known as JT Jr), that the Exclusive Brethren turned, as Stott puts it, “vicious and controlling”.
People would sometimes be forced to stay at home and have no contact with even their own family, and the extreme regime behind such treatment resulted in “many suicides”.
When at school, Stott unsurprisingly found that she had little in common with the youngsters who came from outside the cult.
“The children would be talking about Brighton and Hove Albion, the Seagulls. We had no newspapers, radio, television. We had almost no contact with the outside world other than at school,” she said.
The cult kept women in a subordinate role and at one point banned adherents from being members of outside organisations, which meant that doctors, lawyers and other professionals had to give up their work.
With JT Jr’s reputation having suffered as a result of a scandal,“people left in droves”, among them Stott’s family.
Her own father became addicted to gambling, with Stott noting that it was “amazing the range of peculiar behaviours that emerged in the wake of [the cult]”.
Stott herself started shoplifting books, perhaps a reaction to the fact that within the cult she had barely any access to literature.
Her thirst for literature continued at university, where she secured BA, MA and PhD degrees at the University of York’s School of English and Related Literature. She went on to hold a number of university appointments before joining the UEA a decade ago.
Although her educational background was in the arts and humanities, much of her writing has, of course, focused on the history of science. And she has identified a clear difference between the researchers of today and those of centuries past.
“Increasingly, people are very, very specialised in science and they don’t read widely. All the people in my book were polymaths, nonconformists [who] were incredibly widely read,” she said.
“They were reading poetry and philosophy as well as their narrow scientific research. That meant their vision was more creative.”
Stott’s own vision has been very creative too: as well as her non-fiction, she has also authored novels, and is currently working on another, this one to be set in 5th-century Britain
“I want to create a Saxon and Romano-British way of thinking, but the language will be quite modern,” she said.
If you enjoyed this review, please read our review of Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro @ UEA Literary Festival.