Rebecca was born in Cambridge in 1964, the second of five children. She grew up in Brighton where her grandfather and father ran a wholesale grocers business, Stott and Sons, which had once been a ship’s chandlers in Port Seton and Cockenzie on the east coast of Scotland. Stott and Sons supplied dry, staple and exotic foods – tinned, sacked, bottled and boxed – from a large warehouse in Hove to all the major hotels in Brighton. Her father and grandfather were also senior ministering brothers in a fundamentalist Christian sect called the Exclusive Brethren which kept themselves separate from the rest of the world in order to prepare for the Second Coming; her grandfather ran a publishing company that published and distributed religious tracts. The family, who had been members of the Brethren for many generations back to its formation in 1815, left the sect after a series of scandals in the 1970s.
Rebecca won a scholarship to Brighton and Hove High School for Girls in 1975 and then studied English and Art History at York University. At York she completed an MA and PhD whilst raising her son, Jacob, who was born in 1984. She has since had two more children, Hannah and Kezia.
Rebecca is the author of several books on Victorian literature and culture, two books of non-fiction, including a biography of Charles Darwin called Darwin and the Barnacle (Faber 2003), and a cultural history of the oyster. She now works for half the year as a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and the other half as a freelance writer and broadcaster.
Rebecca’s first novel, Ghostwalk, conceived in a 5 am taxi ride in a conversation with a meteorologist on route to Stansted airport, was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the UK in 2007, and was the launch novel of the new fiction list of Spiegel and Grau in the US (a new division of Random House). It has been translated into 12 different languages including Russian, Hebrew, Serbian and Mandarin. It was shortlisted for the Jelf First Novel Award, the Society of Authors First Novel Award and long listed for the Impac Dublin Literary Award.
Her second novel, The Coral Thief, a historical novel and a coming of age story in which a young man falls amongst a group of infidel thieves and philosophers in Paris in 1815, just after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo, was published in the UK in December 2009 and in the US in January 2010. It was read by the actor Daniel Stevens on BBC’s Book at Bedtime in January 2010. It is also to be published in twelve languages.
She has just finished a non-fiction book, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists which tells the 2,200 year history of evolution before Darwin, through the lives of the heretics and freethinkers who were prepared to risk their freedom by challenging religious orthodoxies about the origin of species. It will be published by Bloomsbury in the UK and Spiegel and Grau in the US in May 2012.
She is currently writing a third novel set in London.
Rebecca lives in Cambridge with her daughters in a house to the north of the city. She writes either in the West Room of Cambridge University Library or in one of the many architecturally-various Faculty libraries on the Sidgwick Site. She rows on the River Cam in a crew of eight women several times a week.
Map of Cambridge as it was in the seventeenth century