Friday, 26 August 2016

The Novel that got Away by Sarah Gristwood

It’s the writer’s equivalent of the dress you can’t quite fit into - but, if you lose a few pounds, then maybe . . . Every author has that back-of-the-wardrobe box of unwritten stories; the ones you can’t quite bear to throw away. But we’re always being urged to de-junk our lives, aren’t we?

So let’s accept this is one historical novel I will never write - I would have called it The Valois Bride. Good title, do we think? A bit old fashioned, maybe?

Elisabeth de Valois

In December 1559, the 14 year old Elizabeth de Valois arrived on the Spanish frontier to marry King Philip II of Spain – a man twenty years her senior, and twice a widower already. We all know a version of the story from Verdi’s opera Don Carlos, itself based on Schiller’s play - though some of us (forgive me) remember it better from Jilly Cooper’s novel Score!. That set Cooper’s trademark Rutshire rumpy-pumpy against the shooting of a film version of the opera; and its trick of making the Spanish royals into Britain’s present day royal family - and the Inquisition into the tabloid press - worked rather well, actually.

There is no historical truth in Verdi’s fantasy of Philip’s son Don Carlos’ spying out the wedding party on their way to Spain, and there falling in love with the French princess destined to become not his bride, but his stepmother. Of Elizabeth choosing duty over love to make peace between their countries . . . Though she would called Isabel ‘de la Paz’, actually. And it’s true Elizabeth had originally been destined for the son rather than the father but, hey, that was tame, by the standards of the royal marriages of the sixteenth century.

Verdi's Don Carlos

But the real Elizabeth seemed more than content with a husband who was after all in a worldly sense the catch of the century, while Philip’s son and heir would soon be spiralling downwards into his brutal madness. The teenage bride awoke a response in her dour husband, and the extravagant chit who never worse the same dress twice was nonetheless allowed, just six years later, to represent Spain in official negotiations with her own formidable mother, Catherine de Medici.

Philip goes down in English history as a dutiful but essentially uncaring husband to his previous wife Mary Tudor, but when Elizabeth was giving birth, he sat by her bed clutching her hand through every pain. When Don Carlos died in 1568, incarcerated and insane, Elizabeth wept for two days, but ten weeks later she herself was dead from another childbearing, still only 23.

She was survived not only by Philip, but by two other women whose voices I might have used to tell her story. One of them was the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola, invited to Spain by Philip and given rank as a lady of Elizabeth’s court. The other was the Princess of Eboli, with her beauty and her patch over one eye. In Verdi’s version, she is Philip’s mistress and an arch manipulator. In real life she was a schemer indeed - widow to Philip’s first great minister, Ruy Gomez (more than twenty years older than she), whose intrigues only mounted after his death - but one who loved and mourned Elizabeth sincerely. Her involvement in a scandalous political murder saw her spending the last ten years of her life under house arrest in one of her castles from where, looking back (yes, cue a time-honoured writer’s device here!), she had no doubt her memories.

Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait

So why won’t I ever write it? One reason is, I don’t know enough. My limited experience of writing historical fiction (and my far larger experience of writing historical fact) has shown me that the former is more demanding, in many ways. You don’t just need to know the great political events against which the character is placed - you need to know what someone of that age and rank, in that day, would have done when they go out of bed each morning. The sixteenth century court equivalent of switching off the radio and shoving a piece of bread in the toaster . . . And I don’t, for sixteenth century Spain, quite simply.

Could I research it? Maybe - though factual information on that kind of detail can be quite hard to come by. And the trouble is that with Spain, I don’t even have a gut feeling for the rhythm of the seasons or the way the light falls on the landscape - the things that don’t change through the centuries. Research might hack it, for a story set in England, or any country I know well. But I suspect the research would lie dead on the page if I were to write about a place still truly foreign to me.

The other reason is that I know too much. The real Elizabeth is making a very minor - but her mother Catherine de Medici a major - appearance in the non-fiction I’m currently writing: Game of Queens, about the chains of women and power running, from mother to daughter through the sixteenth century.
Catherine de' Medici

So I know about the stream of self-revelatory letters Catherine sent across the border to and about her daughter in Spain: I know that the last of them, a maternal warning as to what should be done about her daughter’s increasing weight, arrived only after Elizabeth’s death. I know that when the two met for that summit meeting, as queen regent of France and queen consort of Spain, Elizabeth would have felt the tug of loyalties known to so many a princess, between her natal and her marital country. ‘How Spanish you have become, my daughter’, said Catherine to Elizabeth, coldly.

I know that as a child in France, Elizabeth was set to sleep in the same room as that other little girl newly arrived at court - her future sister-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve read the letters Mary wrote after Elizabeth’s death - distraught not just by the death of her old playfellow, but by the loss of a possible ally, who might have persuaded King Philip to help the Scots queen in her long English captivity.

Of course I’d love to explore these things further - but I’m not sure fiction is the way, for me. Of course anyone who were writing a Valois Bride would have read up on all this and much, much more - but I’m not sure I’d be able to get past the huge rock of facts I’m still discovering, to let the fiction fly free.

Though mind you, the madness of the historical Don Carlos did in the end lead him to an obsessive crush on his step-mother . . . Hmm. Maybe I was a bit quick to jettison this one, actually.

Thanks to Sarah Gristwood for this post. Carol Drinkwater will be back on 26th September.


Miranda Miller said...

I'm interested in what you say about the difference between writing history and historical fiction. I haven't attempted to write the first but, having ventured into the second, I'm amazed by how much research I do need to do. Perhaps it isn't exactly more difficult but attracts a different kind of writer? I've avoided trying to write factual history or biography partly because I'm afraid I'd just get impatient and start making it up. It seems rather unfair that it's the Schiller/Verdi version we all remember. What a good thing that dead people can't sue!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hmm, The Valois Bride... Sounds like something by Jean Plaidy, or even Norah Lofts! ;-) I suspect every writer of historical non-fiction gets the yen to try fiction. I hear Alison Weir has done well with it, though I haven't read her novels. I think I'd rather stick to her non fiction, which is as entertaining as any novel could be.

And you're right to say it's harder to do historical fiction. I've done both, myself, though the fiction was in the form of short stories. You have to research so much about daily life and customs and understand the way they thought in your chosen era, never mind running the risk of anachronisms. Sometimes you can get caught out by the smallest things. If you get them wrong, your readers stop believing.

Personally, I prefer writing historical non fiction for entertainment - I write for children. They love to know something was true!

Sue Purkiss said...

'Game of Queens' - great title! I think you sum up beautifully one of the difficulties of writing historical fiction - as Celia Rees did a few posts ago. Whe I wrote Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, I did loads of research, and knew pretty well what happened when and to whom - but I got stumped a few pages in when Alfred picked up a cup. What would it have been made of? Would it have contained wine, beer, or what? And so on...

kold_kadavr_ flatliner said...

trustNjesus, dear...

kold_kadavr_ flatliner said...

trustNjesus, dear...