Eleven years ago, I interviewed Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman, as part of a series of interviews for the online literary journal BiblioBuffet. It’s about time I shared it with you. It’s long, but worth it. Elizabeth Chadwick is, of course, a History Girl, and I’d love to know what she thinks about these subjects, eleven years on. I might ask her some day.
A chat with Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick
It's about time I introduced you to two of my favourite historical fiction writers: Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick and more than past time that I asked them a few questions. They happen also to be two of my favourite people.
I will let them introduce themselves, as I have asked other writers in other interviews. In this instance, however, I did threaten to invent pasts for them. Neither of them trusted me – and they quite possibly have due cause. We've known each other (online) for some years and they are far too well-acquainted with my sense of humour. This proved just as well, since e-mail misbehaved and computers misbehaved even more, and a whole bunch of stuff went wrong during the interview process. Both writers were troupers, and answered my questions come hell, high water or email failure. They also provided me with bios, which is a great pity, because I had two lovely invented histories I was going to present.
Born in Bury, Lancashire in the UK, Elizabeth Chadwick began her story telling career aged three when she made up a tale about some fairies on her handkerchief. Her first attempt at writing fiction came when she was fifteen in response to falling head over heels for a tall, dark, handsome knight on a children’s TV drama. Wanting her story to feel as real as possible, she began researching the Middle Ages and fell in love with the era too. She swiftly realised that writing historical fiction was what she wanted for a career. It took her another fifteen years to realise that dream but her first published novel The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask Award, which was presented at Whitehall by HRH the Prince of Wales – a somewhat different life experience from stacking supermarket shelves, which is what Elizabeth had been doing to earn a crust prior to publication. Her 19th novel To Defy a King has just been awarded the UK’s RNA Historical Fiction Prize 2011. Her 20th novel Lady of the English, about Empress Matilda and Queen Adeliza of Louvain has recently been published, and she has signed with her UK publisher Sphere to write three novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine – which she hopes will not be a fairy story!
Sharon Kay Penman was born in New York City and grew up in Atlantic City in its pre-gambling days. She has a BA in History from the University of Texas at Austin and, in her misspent youth, she also earned a JD degree from Rutgers School of Law. She even practiced tax and corporate law for several interminable years, which she considers ample penance for sins past, present, and future. These days she is fortunate enough to write full time. She has written eight historical novels and four medieval mysteries, one of which was nominated for an Edgar. She considers writing historical fiction to be the next best thing to time travel and feels blessed to have the Angevins for source material, for they are surely history’s most dysfunctional family. She’d expected to close the book on the Angevins after Devil’s Brood, the final volume in her trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, but they had other ideas. So she has just finished Lionheart, the first of two books about the most famous of the "Devil’s Brood," King Richard I, known to history and Hollywood as Lionheart. She currently lives in New Jersey and naturally spends as much time as she can in France, Wales, and England
Gillian: This is a question I’ve wanted to ask both of you for a very long time. Do you have favourite Medieval chronicles? Can you tell us about them? How do you use them in your fiction?
Elizabeth Chadwick: Well it would have to be The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal – a family history I guess rather than a chronicle, but it does chronicle events. There are several reasons for this.
1. I'm interested in the Marshal anyway, so that makes it ever so fascinating to be able to pick up a source that was so close to him, often with eye witness reports.
2. It's a darned good story well told. Okay, some of the tourney stuff can get a bit wearing, but all the fascinating snippets about daily secular life in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century England and France are so hard to come by for a writer like me anywhere else. Actually even the tourney stuff is interesting if you look at the fine detail. There are puzzles I am still trying to work out – like how in hell's name do you grab an opponent's reins in the thick of the fray without getting your wrist chopped off! There are all sorts of little comments pertaining to the role and tradition of Marshal that established historians have not picked up on yet. There are wonderful small details – references to sparkling wine and ship's biscuits for example. Proverbs and sayings. The whole gamut of secular life really. Also it brings it home that while these are people with different mindsets and customs, still some things never change. William being called 'Gaste Viand' in his youth and being accused of always eating or sleeping, reminds me so much of modern teenage boys!
3. It's secular as mentioned above, so one gets all the joie de vivre of daily life out in the open.
I would add that it needs taking with a pinch of salt and reading with other sources because it can rather over-egg its hero and gloss over some of the rougher edges, but were I a scholar, I would spend hours investigating it. It's a real garden entrance into the world next door.
I use it in fiction by picking up on the detail snippets to include them. I pick up on the nuances of character and emotional responses to situations. I pick on the colourful incidents and put my own mark on them for a modern audience. I also use it to inform more research which perhaps goes into the writing further down the line, or may even get used in another novel.
Other chronicles I like. Well I would say Gerald of Wales, but he is such a liar and a poisoned little git, that while I enjoy the colour and whimsy he brings to his writing, I really have to say caveat emptor, especially when it comes to people. But he does tell an entertaining story. He needs backing up from other sources in my opinion but when he's being not too bitter, he has a sharp, observant eye. Sometimes when he is being bitter you can pick up the background to the negativity and it can lead to other avenues. So he's one I enjoy but with extreme caution.
I also like Richard FitzNigel's Dialogus de Scaccario. That's written in quite a witty, avuncular style that often seems a lot more modern than the mid twelfth century. I am not sure I understand all the points of the exchequer, especially the bits about blanche farms, but he does his best to explain. I love the way the piece opens with a bit of scene setting. He is “sitting at a turret window overlooking the Thames.” Again, it's painting a picture isn't it, so I guess that's what I like. It's also probably the reason I really like FitzStephen's Description of Norman London and all the detail about Smithfield Horsefair and the cookshops, etc. I wish that one had been twice as long. Other chronicles I tend to find a bit dry and read them because I have to read them. There are the occasional interesting pieces – always to do with detail and they always make me want to go away and find out more. I must admit I would far rather rummage about in pipe rolls and household accounts than I would in the lives of the saints and which bishop had gone to Rome and what he did there. That's the part of chroniclerism that bores me, personally.
Sharon Kay Penman: I’d have to say that my current favorites are those chronicles that I used to research and write Lionheart. Roger de Hoveden and William of Newburgh are two of the most highly regarded historians of the twelfth century. Roger was with Richard I from the time the king sailed from Marseille in July, 1190 until August, 1191, when Richard sent him from the Holy Land with urgent messages about the departing French king. William of Newburgh never left English soil, but he had an invaluable source in Philip of Poitou, Richard’s own clerk, who’d been at his side during the crusade and his subsequent captivity in Germany. But I also had access to five chronicles written by men who’d witnessed many of the events they were writing about—two Christian crusaders and three contemporaries of the Sultan of Egypt, Salah al-Din, more familiar to us as Saladin.
The Estoire de la Guerre Sainte, the History of the Holy War, translated by Marianne Ailes, was written by one Ambroise, who may have been a jongleur rather than a cleric, the usual “suspects” where medieval chronicles are concerned; as Elizabeth points out, secular sources are rather rare in the Middle Ages. Ailes is dubious of the jongleur theory, but all we know for sure is his name and that he was a Norman. The Itinerarium Peregrinarum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, The Chronicle of the Third Crusade, was translated by Helen Nickolson; the author is believed to be Richard de Templo, prior of the Augustinian House of the Holy Trinity in London. What is certain is that both writers accompanied Richard on his crusade to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin.
Of the chronicles written from a Muslim perspective, Imad al-Din was Saladin’s secretary and chancellor, Ibn al-Athir was a Kurd like Saladin and served for a time in the sultan’s army, and Baha al-Din was a member of the sultan’s inner circle. I found his book, The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, translated by D. S. Richards, to be absolutely fascinating.
Being able to draw upon these chronicles was a unique writing experience for me. I’d never had such a wealth of eye-witness accounts. Baha al-Din watches as Richard storms ashore on the beach at Jaffa, vividly describing his red galley, red tunic, red hair, and red banner. Ambroise tells us about the French king’s lost falcon at the siege of Acre; Philippe offers a large reward for its return, and is very disappointed to learn it was given, instead, to Saladin. The Itinerarium author tells us of the death of the French Marshal, Aubrey Clement, who is killed when a ladder breaks under the weight of the soldiers following him up onto the city walls of Acre, and he then relates how Richard avenges the marshal’s death. Not fully recovered from the mystery malady, Arnaldia, that nearly took his life, Richard has himself carried out to the siege on a silken quilt, and when he sees a Saracen wearing Aubrey Clement’s armor, he shoots the man in the chest with a crossbow. Ibn al-Athir tells us about the Saracen slave girl who delights Richard with her singing when the English king pays a visit to Saladin’s brother, al-Adil. When Richard’s galleys encounter a large Saracen ship attempting to run the blockade at Acre, the subsequent sea battle is related in astonishing detail. We experience the intense heat, we hear the incessant thudding of the Saracen war drums, we feel the fear of the crusaders on the march to Jaffa, and then the misery of Saladin’s men when they face a defeat that “wounded Muslim hearts.” We learn about Saladin’s colic attacks, Richard’s despair when he finds out that his brother John is conniving with the French king to usurp his kingdom, the unexpected friendships that Richard forms with some of Saladin’s emirs. Both sides give us the names of Mamluks and knights struck down in battle, thus conferring a bit of immortality upon men who’d otherwise have been long forgotten.
The immediacy of these eye-witness accounts is utterly riveting; they are also uncommonly well-written. The only problem is that they’ve spoiled me for future books, for I’ll never have such a treasure-trove of research riches to plunder again! In a final word about chronicles, I agree with Elizabeth. Some of them can indeed be dry and dull; a few ought to come with warning labels that they are coma-inducing. But chronicles still remain my favorite research source. At once familiar and foreign, they offer us a tantalizing glimpse into a bygone world. I still remember being taken aback by a chronicler’s comments about the young daughter of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence. She was deaf and mute and, after relating her parents’ intense grief when she died at age three, the chronicler then dismisses her as “pretty but useless,” a grim commentary upon medieval attitudes toward disabilities. An indication of prevailing beliefs about the binding nature of plight troths is the snarky comment by Ralph de Devizes; he observes that when Richard I sailed from Sicily for the Holy Land with his betrothed, Berengaria “was probably still a virgin,” clearly expecting Richard to have jumped the gun. Thanks to a chronicler, we know that when Richard’s release from German captivity appeared imminent, the French king sent his partner in crime, Richard’s brother John, a terse warning: “Look to yourself; the Devil is loosed.” Again, thanks to a chronicler, we have Richard’s sardonic response when told about John’s plotting: “My brother is not the man to conquer a country if there is anyone to offer the slightest resistance.” You just know John never forgave him for that! Chroniclers give us the actual words spoken in anger by Henry II and Thomas Becket and Henry’s sad statement after the death of his rebellious elder son: “My son cost me greatly, but I would that he’d lived to cost me more.” And it seems fitting to end with the words spoken by Simon de Montfort as he realized that he and his men had been trapped at Evesham by the army of the future Edward I, for it is surely one of history’s more memorable epitaphs: “We must commend our souls to God, for our bodies are theirs.”
Gillian: How do you use these chronicles in your work? I’m thinking of specific processes and techniques you might use to turn what the chronicles give you into stories that come alive. For instance, some writers sit down and do schedules of dates and structures of lives and make themselves a technical apparatus so they can keep control of everything. Some read the primary sources and dream vaguely of the Middle Ages and then let their imaginations go wild. Some do an active translation, stepping into the past using the research as a firm foundation. What do you do? How do you turn history into story?
Elizabeth: I read the source as part of my general research reading and I don’t take notes, but the full gist will sink into my awareness. Brighter nuggets of information will stand out and I will use these later. I suppose an analogy is like sorting through treasure. All the ordinary gold and silver coins go into a nice big chest, where I can get them out if I need them, but they’re mainly there in the background. The brighter nuggets, the best bits, I will take away with me to craft into an object to show people. Some of these may end up in a chest too for later use. It’s always good to have a surplus and no research is ever wasted.
The background treasure consists of things I don’t immediately need to know for the story, but which inform me about the life and times and thought processes of the people involved in it. I do evaluate what goes into the background chest though. If I’m not certain of the chronicler or the source, then it will go in a separate area in that chest and be measured against what I know and what else I can find out. A lot of the information from Gerald of Wales goes in the divider pocket, for example, but he also supplies material to the main treasure chest and also to the nugget items. It’s just a matter of testing his statements against what I know from other chronicles and sources. Even the dodgy statements have their own worth. Why were they made? What were the thought processes behind them? (e.g. Gerald moaning that Henry II was illiterate. That’s not to be taken at face value, but comes from a time when Gerald was thoroughly annoyed by Henry refusing to patronise his work). What does it mean for my writing? How can I use it? Should I use it?
When I was writing my story about John Marshal, I was faced with the infamous anvils and hammers scene where John says of his hostage son that he does not care if the opposition hangs little William because he still had “les enclumes et les marteals dunt forgereit de plus beals.” – “the anvils and hammers to forge even finer ones.”
When I read this as part of my earlier research into William Marshal, it was immediately a bright nugget. I began to wonder what kind of man would say such a thing about his own child – who went on to be such a great man. This led me to further reading and expansion of my sources. I read secondary books and articles, and I hunted down other scanty but wide-ranging primary sources to find out more about John Marshal. I found out where his house had been in twelfth century Winchester and what he did with it. I found out what his duties were at the Exchequer and what his role was at court and how he made his money. I found out what land he owned and then I followed up what the land was used for and what he did with it (e.g. giving some of it to the Templars). I found out that “anvils and hammers” were symbols belonging to the royal marshal as well as being euphemisms for the regenerative organs. I discovered that tales of fathers emasculating themselves to try and save their sons were a motif in the literature of the time. So how much of the anvils and hammers incident was true and how much was it a case of the writer having a bit of literary fun? And if it was true (or the main thrust) then the Marshal family must have been happy for it to appear in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal because it was a paean to family ancestors, and John’s action must have been viewed as a very ballsy act (if you’ll excuse the pun), rather than the act of a callous indifferent father. I also use, as Gillian knows, psychic sources, and I personally consider them to have as much veracity as the primary resources. To me they ARE primary resources but accessed in a different, unconventional way. The John Marshal I discovered by such means was a complete revelation, but never at any time did he buck the primary resource history. He was totally a man of his time. I learned a lot when writing that novel. (A Place Beyond Courage).
To get back to the point in hand, I take the primary sources garnered by the usual means and by sorting and blending them with the Akashic Records – as my consultant calls the psychic ones – I then begin to form a story. Using the gem analogy, I craft a setting using my imagination, that I hope has integrity and that is a fitting platform to display the jewel at the centre.
So basically, I take my resources, sort them into usefulness, take them to my work table and use my story telling skills to put them in a setting.
Sharon: I have never used the chronicles for inspiration or as sources for story lines. One of the advantages of writing about people who really lived and events that actually happened is that I always get to start out with a road map; I never find myself staring at a blank computer screen, wondering “What now?” The drawback is that often the road map takes me places I’d rather not go! So I am definitely one of those writers who makes “schedules of dates and structures of lives,” using chapters as an outline.
For as much as I love to read the chronicles, they are not always reliable. The chroniclers often repeated stories that they’d heard, yet those stories sometimes turn out to be no more than rumors. Baha al-Din, a member of Saladin’s inner circle, reported that the French king, Philippe Capet, died on his way home after abandoning the crusade. But Philippe made it safely back to France, although it is interesting to think how history would have been changed if Baha al-Din had been right. A chronicler claimed that after the Welsh prince, Llewelyn ab Iorwerth, defeated his uncle Davydd and took power in Gwynedd, he had Davydd put to death. In actuality, Davydd went into English exile. So it is better to approach the chronicles with a healthy dose of skepticism.
We also need to bear in mind that they often had “agendas” of their own. A good example is the twelfth century churchman, Giraldus Cambrensus. Embittered by his failure to gain the bishopric of St David’s, Giraldus wielded his quill pen like a sword, doing whatever he could to put the Angevins in the worst possible light, to such an extent that the German historian Hans Eberhard Mayer once described Giraldus’s writing as “always delightful to read but often hard to believe.” Most chroniclers did not have such a sharp axe to grind as Giraldus did, but they were rarely neutral. They were Yorkists or Lancastrians, supported King Stephen or the Empress Maude, reflected the animosity between the English and Welsh, the English and French. And of course, as Elizabeth pointed out earlier, secular writers were rare indeed. The great majority of chroniclers were monks. So for them, God’s Hand was ever-present, and they interpreted events through the prism of the Church’s teachings. Some of them believed that Henry II’s wretched death at Chinon Castle was his punishment for his role in Thomas Becket’s murder and for his failure to fulfill his vow to go on crusade. And when Richard Lionheart was captured and held hostage by the Duke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor, a few chroniclers saw that as divine retribution for his sin of fighting against his father.
And yet the chronicles remain my favorite research sources. Some of them provide invaluable information. Roger de Hoveden includes royal letters and treaties. The murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral is one of the best-documented events of the Middle Ages, thanks to the men who reported what they had seen or heard. And if I may borrow Elizabeth’s very apt analogy, the chronicles can be mined for nuggets of pure gold. There is a still-popular myth that the fashion of riding side-saddle was introduced into England by Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia. But a chronicler hostile to the Empress Maude gleefully described how she had to flee the siege of Winchester riding astride like a man. If women always rode astride, he would not have seen that as worth mentioning, or as shameful. I knew that the term “Last Rites” was coined in the twentieth century; it was not until I was researching Lionheart that I learned twelfth century men called it the “Sacrament of the Faithful.” And I can thank a chronicler for letting me know the Mediterranean was also known as the Greek Sea.
And where would historical novelists be without those chroniclers kind enough to offer physical descriptions of the people we write about? They told us that both Henry III and his son Edward I had a drooping eyelid, that Edward had a lisp, but his speech was persuasive, nonetheless. We know that Richard Lionheart was “tall, of elegant build, the color of his hair between red and gold,” that his father Henry was just above average height, with grey eyes and a ruddy complexion. I was delighted to come upon Burchard of Ursperg’s description of Richard’s nemesis, the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich VI: “His face was pleasant, but very thin, and he was only moderately tall with a slight and frail physique.” And I was charmed by this vivid image of the Queen of Jerusalem, Isabella: “One of the daughters of heaven, her face shining white, appearing like the morning in the night of her very black hair.” All of the chroniclers seem to have found Isabella very beautiful, but this poetic praise is rather remarkable, for it comes from Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, Saladin’s scribe! I just wish one of the chroniclers had thought to mention the hair and eye color of the celebrated beauty, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
So while I would never attempt to build a factual foundation for a novel upon the bones of medieval chroniclers, I cannot imagine writing a novel without them, either. They breathe life into the process, and are just as important as the Pipe Rolls, the Patent Rolls, those few extant royal letters, etc. And as I said in my earlier answer, their intriguing mix of the familiar and the foreign is often irresistible; I will be reading pages that could come right out of any one of today’s newspapers—complaints about bad roads, high prices, corrupt sheriffs—and then suddenly mention will be made of a dragon or green children found in Kent. At such times, I can only marvel that I actually get paid to have so much fun!
Gillian: Readers often have a clear idea of their favourite people from the past. Some of them have clear views of their least favourite (sorry, Sharon, Simon de Montfort is in this category for me). Quite obviously, you can’t take this kind of thing into account when you write. So what do you take into account? How do you develop your sense of who a person was and how they lived and what choices they made?
Elizabeth: Your comment on reader reaction.
I disagree. You have to take reader notions into the room with you when deciding what to write. For example, if I wrote a pro Henry V11 anti Richard III novel, I’d be pushing my luck and would probably begin receiving hate mail! So in the interests of career and self-preservation, I wouldn’t go into the ring and tear down cherished idols, especially when powerful novels have been written about them. There’s room for wiggle with lesser people perceived as heroes or villains by the general public. John Marshal for example. Readers who think they know about him, believe him to be a crap father and a madman – but when you look at the history, that viewpoint bears challenging. Since no one else had told that story and since he’s a kind of tributary in history rather than a marquee figure, there was scope for me to make people think again about their attitudes without getting too defensive. It’s also probably easier to make a hero of a villain than a villain of a hero. Imagine casting William Marshal as the bad guy. It wouldn’t work, would it?
Anyway, once I’ve chosen who to write about, how do I develop who they are?
1. I trawl the primary and sources and academic secondaries for descriptions, hints and overviews. It’s driving me mad with Eleanor of Aquitaine because the sources themselves are contradictory and scantier than they might be, and the secondaries are very unreliable. I digress. I get an overview sense of who they are by their actions, by their attitudes towards others, and the attitudes of others towards them, and by details of their daily life should any crop up. I also study the people surrounding them and find out about friendships (or hatreds),and what their affinities were. I study the general culture of the time. If you’re going to study a fish in the sea, you need to know its habitat and familiarities.
2. Hugely important for me now – I then take what I’ve researched above to the Akashic Records which will then throw up motive, thought, feeling and every facet of personality from every angle and inform me about the person’s mindset when they were involved in a particular happening. I will put together what I have learned conventionally with what I have learned from the non conventional resource and see how the pieces gell, and then craft onwards from there. So recently, for example, while researching Eleanor of Aquitaine, I was looking at the personality of Abbot Suger of St. Denis in relationship to the famous ‘Eleanor’ vase that Louis VII gave him at the consecration of St. Denis. It had originally been a wedding present from Eleanor to Louis. Some historians have wildly speculated that Eleanor would have been furious that Louis had given the gift away. Others have said that it was a peace offering and given in the hopes that the couple might conceive a child. Others have said that they can’t understand why such a drab object would be so important. Reading around the subject, I discover that such rock crystal vases are highly valuable and that despite suppositions, there is no evidence anywhere that Eleanor threw a hissy fit about her vase being given to Suger. In the Akashic Records, I got the below about Suger’s relationship to the vase and his attitude to beauty. From a recent session when I asked Alison, who delves into the past for me, to look at Suger’s reaction when he first sees the Eleanor vase.
“I can see him looking at the vase, and I can see it as a vase, without all the embellishment. I can see the light shining through it. It's fantastic. Suger's eyebrows go up. It's kind of amazement and a very smooth feeling inside. Suger isn't a very smooth person, he's always got lots of deals going on inside. This calms it all down and smooths it all out. I suppose it supersedes all that, it overlays all that. It's the beauty of it, it clears everything else out. He has this aesthetic ambition and I think this is what it is. It calms everything down in him. He gets a sense of being at peace; he's not at peace generally, that's not his nature, but being able to be overwhelmed by something beautiful and magnificent allows him that time of peace where he doesn't have to think.”
The above to me, is a real insight into the man and what drove him. It accords totally with my researches, and gives me a powerful platform from which to build the character when writing.
Before I used number 2 in my earlier works, I just had to rely on number 1 and decades of background research and hope for an understanding of the medieval mindset.
Sharon: It is true that many of our readers do have strong feelings about the characters Elizabeth and I write about. I imagine my favorable depiction of Richard III came as a surprise to many. I still remember a letter I received from a reader in which she said she was 300 pages into the book before it all came together for her and she startled her sleeping husband by suddenly crying out, “Oh, my God, this is the Richard III!” And I do not doubt that readers will be surprised by the Richard they’ll find in Lionheart, for I was surprised myself to discover such a disconnect between the man and the myth. Some of them may be loath to surrender their preconceived notions, always a risk when we write of a controversial figure like Richard. But that is an occupational hazard.
So I have never attempted to “soften” or change a characterization in order to make that person more appealing or sympathetic to readers. That would be a lost cause even if I were not so obsessive-compulsive about historical accuracy! Readers have minds of their own and it is impossible to predict whom they will take to their hearts and whom they will cast out into darkness. I’ve had readers write to tell me that they cheered the Empress Maude on in her doomed struggle for the English crown, and others who thought she was too proud, too cold. Some—perhaps most—of my readers damned Davydd ap Gruffydd for bringing about the Apocalypse that destroyed Welsh independence, but there were also those who found him to be devilishly charming. King John in my novel Here Be Dragons betrayed his dying father, betrayed the brother who was also a crusader king, had his nephew killed, hanged a number of Welsh hostages, some of them children, and starved to death the wife and son of a baron who’d lost royal favor. Hardly a whitewash of John, then. Yet I’ve had readers offer up a spirited defense of John, and when I asked them why they were willing to give him the benefit of so many doubts, they “blamed” me, saying that I’d made John very human and therefore very sympathetic in Here Be Dragons. So it would take a Ouija board to predict how readers are going to react to a particular character.
I do feel, though, that readers need at least one character to root for. In my novel, When Christ and His Saints Slept, I was not sure that readers would be able to embrace wholeheartedly either the Empress Maude or her rival, King Stephen, for while they both had many admirable qualities, they were often their own worst enemies. So I deviated from prior practice and for the first time I created a purely fictional character to fill that void, at least until Maude’s son, the future Henry II, grew up and took center stage. Since King Henry I was known to have had at least twenty illegitimate children, I figured one more couldn’t hurt and gave him Ranulf fitz Roy, who turned out to be a roaring success with my readers, so much so that several told me they were disappointed to read my Author’s Note and discover that he’d not actually lived.
How, then, do I bring a long-dead king or queen or bishop to fictional life? The advantage of writing about people in power is that their lives were better documented; we can turn to sources like the Pipe Rolls, Patent Rolls, Calendar of Inquisitions, the chronicles, even a few rare extant letters. It is relatively easy where kings are concerned, for the chroniclers tell us about their personalities as well as their actions; we know about Henry II’s fiery temper, John’s suspicious nature, Henry III’s indecisiveness, and Edward IV’s love of the ladies. It is more of a challenge when we are given only the bare outlines of a life, for then we must draw conclusions from what they did and that is hardly an exact science.
Sometimes I’ve had to reconcile behavior that seemed utterly contradictory, as in the case of the son and namesake of Simon de Montfort—your favorite, Gillian! Bran, nicknamed by me so I could avoid having to write “Simon said to Simon,” is best known for two dramatic episodes, one in which he saved a life and the other in which he took a life. Because of his carelessness, he reached the battle of Evesham after it was already over; the victory had gone to his cousin, the future Edward I, and Bran arrived in time to see his father’s head on a pike. Stunned and grief-stricken, he and his men retreated to Kenilworth Castle, where the garrison reacted to the news with horror and fear. Henry III’s brother was being held hostage at Kenilworth, the perfect scapegoat, and the anguished men turned upon him. He was mobbed and would have been beaten to death right there in the castle’s bailey if not for Bran. He was in a state of shock, dazed and disbelieving, and yet he came to Richard of Cornwall’s rescue, stopped the others from killing an innocent man. Under the circumstances, he deserves great credit for that. Yet five years later, he joined his brother Guy in one of the most infamous crimes of the Middle Ages; they burst into an Italian church during High Mass and murdered Richard of Cornwall’s son as vengeance for the dead of Evesham, the mutilation of their father’s body, the exile of their mother and sister, murdered a man who had not even been at Evesham. It is true that Guy was the instigator and Bran seems to have been swept along in his wake. But he did take part in a killing as brutal as it was illogical, a killing that would doom him. How to explain it? Since I couldn’t lay the blame upon an evil twin, I had to make my readers understand what had driven Bran to such madness. I concluded that this was a man devastated by guilt, a man who blamed himself for his father’s death, a man whose life since Evesham had been a slow wine-soaked spiral down into the dark¸ and that was how I explained that vast and tragic chasm separating his heroic action at Kenilworth from that bloody day at Viterbo.
Gillian: Finally, tell us about five books you think we should read, and tell us why. They can be your favourite books of all time, or ones that have special meaning, or simply books that ought to inescapable for entirely other reasons.
Elizabeth: Ugh, you don’t ask for much, do you – school essay time! I hate doing this.
Okay. These are all novels that I have re-read and that have stayed with me and made me think long after I’ve put them down. They’re also very readable – in my opinion, which won’t be everyone’s!
Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebee Hill. Because it’s so different to my life experience. Because whether accurate or not, I don’t know, but it completely absorbed me in the life of the Lakotah Sioux and it made me think about my own attitudes to life, the world and everything.
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett. Because everyone should read a good Terry Pratchett book. They are not all good, but the ones that are wonderful will break your heart with joy, wonder and grief. It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud, but Wyrd Sisters does so as it reinvents the Cinderella story and has great fun with various other fairy stories, myths and legends (including vampires and zombies) along the way. Even if you are not into Pratchett, you have to read this book for the character of Greebo, who is quite possibly the greatest alpha male EVER written. His main scene could teach romantic novelists everywhere a thing or two about how in a few lines to encapsulate the ultimate in virile masculinity. Beyond that, with my connections with other worldly things, I can tell you that Pratchett walks the walk. He knows. Oh boy does he know...
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Because fantasy doesn’t come more epic than this and it has been the starting point for so many fantasy authors writing now. Even if they say it stinks, they still had to have it in their psyche and decide to do something different. At times you feel as if you’ve been to Mount Doom and back ninety times yourself, but it’s a novel with layers and it makes you keep on thinking long after you’ve put it down.
The Shining by Stephen King. Because I love a well-told ghost/horror story and I am not easily scared. But King’s The Shining made me afraid to turn the pages at times. The build up, the atmosphere is so tense, you’d jump if someone came into the room behind you. I believe that King, if he wasn’t a genre author, would by now be considered a classic. I’d give him the Booker prize.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – because it will surprise you. Who wants to read about missionaries in the Belgian Congo in the 1960’s? I so thought I didn’t, but a friend told me to read this one, and I was blown away by the beauty of the prose and the depth of perception. It’s joined my best novels hall of fame.
Sharon: This was actually the most challenging question, Gillian, for how could we ever pare the list down to just five books? Elizabeth, kudos to you for showing such self-discipline; I am going to cheat a bit by going with six. Yours was a fascinating list, by the way; I’d read three of your five, and am definitely going to read Wyrd Sisters, probably on my new Kindle which has become my favorite toy! Here are my choices, not necessarily in any particular order:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; a brilliant book that shines a light into the darkest corners of the human soul while showing us the best of human nature, too. I read somewhere that Harper Lee modeled the character of Atticus Finch upon her own father, and if so, she was blessed. This is an unusual book in that it gave rise to an equally brilliant film with Gregory Peck.
2. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. This vivid, brutal, humorous, bloody account of life in the American Old West was also brought to the screen successfully in the form of a very good television mini-series, but I always prefer the book to the film. It is a long book, and I remember my mother asking me if they were ever going to get off the porch of their Texas ranch and do something! I told her to hang in there, and she admitted that once they started out on the cattle drive, it was Fasten Your Seat Belt Time. It was very easy to explain why To Kill a Mockingbird topped my list. At first glance, Lonesome Dove seems to be a more surprising choice. But he created some truly memorable characters, especially the Texas Ranger Gus McCrae, and like George R.R. Martin’s amazing Ice and Fire series, McMurtry makes the reader turn each page with trepidation, for we know that no one is safe in McMurtry or Martin’s world!
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. When I first read the Bronte sisters, I was partial to Wuthering Heights, but as I grew older, I came to appreciate Jane Eyre as the better of the two books. For one thing, I cared about what happened to Jane and Rochester. Has anyone truly been able to say that about Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff?
4. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. This book seemed to embody life as we knew it in the twentieth century and it is no less relevant in the twenty-first century. I suspect that readers will be able to say that, too, a hundred years from now. What person trying to escape a bureaucratic quagmire has not muttered “Catch 22,” interspersed with some colorful expletives deleted, of course.
5. Mila 18 by Leon Uris. A compelling and ultimately heartbreaking account of the rising in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. More than any other book I’ve read, this one shows us the horrors of war as ordinary people seek to survive in extraordinary circumstances.
6. One Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The author has managed an amazing feat, for his second book is even better than his highly acclaimed The Kite Runner. This story of two women enduring life under the Taliban in Afghanistan is sure to stay with the reader long after the last page.
Cheating again here—I am going to cite two non-fictional books that I found absolutely riveting, Schindler’s List (published in the UK and Australia as Schindler’s Ark) by Thomas Keneally, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. I will sign off by mentioning a few exemplary writers of historical fiction since that is Elizabeth’s and my province: Elizabeth, of course, and then Margaret George (Elizabeth I), Anya Seton (Katherine), Colleen McCullough (Masters of Rome series), Robert Graves (I, Claudius), and Susan Kay (Legacy).
Thanks, Gillian. This was fun.
Some of the books mentioned in this column:
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (Simon and Schuster, 1996) 978-0684833392
Devil’s Brood, by Sharon Kay Penman (Ballantine, 2009) 978-0345396730
Elizabeth I - a novel, by Margaret George (Viking Adult, 2011) 978-0670022533
Hanta Yo: an American saga by Ruth Beebee Hill (Warner Books, 1983) 978-0446321440
Here Be Dragons, by Sharon Kay Penman (St Martin's Griffin, 2008) 978-0312382452
I, Claudius Robert Graves (Vintage, 1989) 978-0679724773
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Tribeca Books, 2011) 978-1936594191
Katharine, by Anya Seton (Houghton Mifflin, 1954) ASIN B001ISFABC
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Trade, 2004) 978-1594480003
Lady of the English, by Elizabeth Chadwick (Sourcebooks, Landmark, 2011) 978-1402250927
Legacy by Susan Kay (Avon, 1987) 978-0380703227
Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman (Putnam Adult, 2011) 978-0399157851
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (Pocket, 1988) 978-0671683900
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Mariner Books, 2005) 978-0618640157
Master of Rome series, by Colleen McCullough
Mila 18 by Leon Uris (Bantam, 1983) 978-0553241600
One Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Trade, 2008) 978-1594483851
A Place Beyond Courage, by Elizabeth Chadwick (Palimpsest Book Production, 2008) 978-0751539011
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) 978-0061577079
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House Trade Paperback, 2008) 978-0812979305
Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally (Touchstone, 1993) 978-0671880316
The Shining by Stephen King (Gallery, 2002) 978-0743437493
To Defy A King, by Elizabeth Chadwick (Sourcebook Landmark, 2011) 978-1402250897
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Harper, 2010) 978-0061743528
When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman (Ballantine Books, 1996) 978-0345396686
The Wild Hunt, by Elizabeth Chadwick (Ballantine Books, 1992) 978-0345377241
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett (Harper Torch, 2001) 978-0061020667