One enduring pleasure of the novel throughout its history has been the opportunity it presents the reader to feel a sense of escape. Sometimes, that’s true for the novelist, too. This was certainly the case for Scottish author Margot Livesey when she wrote her 10th novel, the sparkling The Road from Belhaven (Knopf, Feb. 2024).
“This was my Covid novel,” Livesey says, speaking via Zoom from an unadorned home office in Cambridge, Mass. The Road from Belhaven follows young Lizzie Craig as she strives to find a place for herself in late-19th-century Scotland, while occasionally glimpsing psychic visions of the future. “I suddenly realized in March of 2020 that I wasn’t going to be able to go to Scotland that summer,” Livesey adds, her easy smile fading, for a moment, at the memory. “I put aside the short stories I’d been working on and turned to writing a novel that allowed me to go there every day, in my head.”
Livesey, a recipient of grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, dreamed of an earlier home—one that existed many decades before her own life: a farm called Belhaven in Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife, where Lizzie, raised by her grandparents, chats with cows, hens, jackdaws, and an older sister as she grows from girl to woman. The story was inspired by the life of her grandmother.
At Belhaven, amid the passing of seasons captured with Livesey’s customary precision, Lizzie faces urgent questions about who she wants to be, what men urge her to be, and what she’s even allowed to be.
The novel exemplifies the qualities Livesey’s editor, Knopf’s Jennifer Barth, has long appreciated in the author’s work. “Not only is Margot a gifted storyteller,” Barth says, “but she has the ability to map the human heart, and explore moral choices, with great empathy and subtlety.”
When writing The Road from Belhaven, Livesey drew on her own memories of working for four years on a farm in Scotland, run by a brother and sister who, she says, “seemed to have wandered out of a William Trevor novel.” Livesey gathered eggs, dealt with rats, and milked “the incredibly patient cows.” She breaks into a sly smile: “It’s unbelievable to me now as an adult that the farm made any kind of profit or even stayed afloat.”
For all its attention to chores, furrows, and the rippling of the wind on a lochan, The Road from Belhaven challenges the conventions of the pastoral, as Livesey’s narrative centers on concerns of inheritance, of what young women understood of their options in life, and whether this farm and family, to which Lizzy has dedicated herself, truly offer her much in return. As she experiences something like first love and comes to understand that she’s unlikely to inherit Belhaven Farm, Lizzie finds herself tempted by a more modern life in Glasgow, represented by both a handsome lad and a surprising opportunity—the chance to work a trade.
Readers of Livesey’s novels know that no decision for her characters is ever simple. “Cities obviously offered much more employment for young women, but much of that employment was invidious and repetitive and soul destroying,” she says. “So, there was an apparition of freedom or an idea of freedom that in truth wasn’t.”
Livesey doesn’t favor the term “historical novel” for her own work—it suggests, she says, “the author carrying in suitcases of research and trappings and furnishings.” Instead, she prefers to write a novel that “just happens to be set in the past.” Still, as Livesey examines Lizzie’s life and choices—continuing the suspense-of-the-everyday storytelling employed in earlier novels such as The Boy in the Field (2020) and The Flight of Gemma Hardy (2012)—The Road from Belhaven explores the weight and drift of history itself, and how it shapes our lives as we live them.
The questions Lizzie faces—whether to live in the country or the city, to have sex or not, to strive for economic independence or settle into a traditional domestic role—are circumscribed by her era. But Livesey notes that the lives of women like Lizzie were more nuanced than many 19th-century novels suggest. This conviction was confirmed, she says, by some unexpected family history that inspired crucial elements of The Road from Belhaven.
“One of the surprises from using Ancestry.com was discovering that my grandmother, Barbara, was illegitimate,” Livesey says. “There was something very powerful about seeing that birth certificate with the word illegitimate on it, handwritten in jagged black ink.”
Meanwhile, Livesey was contacted in 2017 by a woman who revealed that the author had many relatives living in and around Brisbane, Australia. On a visit to meet them a year later, Livesey says, “I learned that my great-grandmother had second sight and could read the future.” Even decades later, she adds, “everyone in the family acknowledged this in a very matter-of-fact way.”
That fit with the conviction, in Livesey’s immediate family, that her own mother, Eva, also had a form of second sight. In the case of her mother, Livesey is no skeptic, though she has not experienced anything similar herself. “I had seen it as a surprising gift,” she says. “Like having perfect pitch or being able to make a perfect souffle. But suddenly I saw my mother’s second sight in a very different way, as being a family legacy rather than a singular occurrence.”
That family legacy lives on in Lizzie, who occasionally experiences clairvoyant visions, both mundane and menacing, of what seems to be the future. These sometimes drive her choices, though she doesn’t discuss her second sight with anyone, save her sister, Kate, with whom she develops a touching intimacy. The two share what they’ve learned about the facts of life—which, of course, isn’t much in an era when women’s health was often treated as a secret something akin to second sight.
“One of the infuriating things,” Livesey says, “is how a lot of knowledge is just passed down as folklore or superstitions or customs rather than as information. And so, Lizzie has some ideas about how you might perhaps get rid of a pregnancy; she has no idea about how you might actually avoid one, or even that such a thing is possible.”
Livesey’s research into the stories of what used to be called “fallen” women in rural and urban Scotland, she says, “indicated that there was much more accommodation around scandalous matters than you would think from reading, say, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and that people did have children out of wedlock and often went on to lead full and happy lives that accommodated those children.”
The Road from Belhaven probes, with insight and empathy, what such accommodations must have felt like. It’s an illuminating treatment of the dilemmas Livesey’s own forebears must have experienced, and the novel connects to Livesey’s 2001 novel Eva Moves the Furniture. Livesey considers Belhaven a sort of prequel: “Eva began in 1920 and was very, very loosely based on the life of my beloved mother, and Belhaven is very, very loosely based on the life of my grandmother.”
Livesey may not have second sight, but her vision of the past—and the people who lived it as their present—remains extraordinary.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Livesey’s editor as Penguin's Jennifer Barth. Barth is an editor at Penguin's Knopf imprint.