Author Anne O'Brien, an authority on Medieval and Renaissance court politics, whose fiction has revolved around the fates of women in a male-dominated world, joins us to discuss the research behind her novels
MJN: When researching the lives of English monarchs for your novels, did you ever run into contradicting information? I'm not talking about factual accuracy. I'm talking about certain editorial liberties that biographers take when depicting a particular historical figure. And that's understandable. Each biographer wants to highlight the figure in a unique light. It would be boring if all biographies were clones of each other. But how do you, as a historical novelist, decide whom to believe?
AOB: There are always contradictions in interpretation of history in historical novels - I suppose this is what makes historical fiction fascinating. But interpretation is personal, and many novels take little or no account of the historical evidence. Drama is allowed to dictate the story, rather than the truth.
For this reason, when I decide to write about a particular character or relationship, I quite deliberately do not read novels which feature those characters and that historical period. Instead I go back to the medieval chroniclers, to the research of historians and to the historical evidence, to see what was said by contemporaries about the people who will become my protagonists. And often what is not said. Then I write as I see the characters in their relationships with each other and the historical events. It has to be realistic and authentic, as close to the truth as the evidence will allow. If my interpretation is different from that portrayed in other novels, I take the responsibility.
How close to the facts and the evidence must my interpretation be? I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to those who lived in the past. My characters must remain true to the evidence of their life. This accuracy to facts and events in my heroine's life must be the bedrock of her story. Where facts exist, they must not be changed or manipulated, and so research must be thorough.
Saying that, where there are areas of debate or uncertainty or simply gaps in our knowledge, the writer must make a choice - as long as it is an informed one. In a historical novel, characters need to become three-dimensional to make them realistic and gain the empathy - either compassion or hatred - of the reader. This is where the role of the novelist comes in, to interpret what we know and make the character come alive. But it has to be true and authentic. If it is not, it becomes simply fiction rather than historical fiction.
MJN: Let's talk about the trends in cover art for high-end historical novels like yours. Many of them don't show the full face, just the lips. But I see more and more covers showing the eyes. One of my friends mentioned that readers react better to covers that leave some enigma, and the eyes give too much away. By the way, the model on the cover of The Forbidden Queen is the same as Joanna Hickson's The Tudor Bride.
AOB: Covers are all about trends and fashion. And usually it is an editorial decision as to what appears on the cover of a novel. I have some input into the costume and accessories and the historical accuracy of the whole impression, but the final decision is that of my editor.
So first it was the headless woman, so that readers could imagine the face for themselves. Then a beautifully gowned or cloaked view from the back, with plenty of tumbling hair - very un-historic since no well bred young woman would appear in public with her hair loose and unveiled, except on her wedding day. Fortunately I never had to suffer one of these. Then the trend was to show a complete, full-face view of the heroine, and I agree it is not to everyone's taste.
In the UK trends are moving on again, and I think for the better. I am delighted that my newest novel, The King's Sister, has only a splendid antique crown on the cover, and my back list has been recovered with similar designs. Looking at other historical novels published in the UK, I think this will be the trend for the future.
The cover is all important. There is only one chance to make a first impression on readers and persuade them that this is a novel they must read. It is all a matter of marketing and promotion.
MJN: I assume you are familiar with the works of Maurice Druon, the author of the "Cursed Kings" series. In one of his books he states, "It's not necessary for a queen to be happy as a wife." Something along those lines. I assume he meant that for a queen, being happy in her marriage is a rare luxury. Can you think of any English royal couples that were an exception to the rule?
AOB: How many times do we feel compassion for the daughters of royal and aristocratic families? Happy marriages, if we presume a love match, were the exception rather than the rule for daughters, and to be fair they expected no less. Girls of royal blood were raised to understand that they would be part of a diplomatic and dynastic plan, to win friends and supporters. The views of neither royal bride nor groom was of any importance. Some marriages were notorious for the ill-feeling, such as that of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in their later years. Another short lived union was that of Richard II and Isabelle de Valois who was six years old and travelled to her marriage with her dolls and their silver furniture.
So surprisingly, perhaps, there are some some extremely happy marriages in medieval England. One of the most famous that of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. When she died bear Lincoln in 1290, Edward had her body transported to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. On the site where her body rested on the journey, Edward had twelve decorative crosses erected, three of which still remain. What a magnificent symbol of his love and sense of loss for his wife.
Another long and happy marriage, with twelve children who lived beyond infancy, was that of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. Philippa's death broke Edward's health. He never recovered from his loss but slid into dementia and ultimate death.
It is certainly presumed that Edward IV married for love, since his wife was considered most unsuitable to be Queen of England as Edward's consort. Of a minor family, and a widow, she was unacceptable to many but Edward chose here and wed her in secret. No surprise then that the rumours abounded that Elizabeth Woodville had achieved her new role by witchcraft.
Happiness was not a prerequisite in marriage between members of the royal family and aristocracy. It was all about alliances and power. I suppose that most couples at least tolerated each other - but it's good to know that some found love together.
MJN: Katherine de Valois is presented as an innocent, at least in the book blurbs. That was an interesting word choice. The novel is written in the first person, and Katherine comes across as very articulate, eloquent, observant and far from naive. She seems to have a very sober view of her parents with all their flaws. I would say, Katherine is definitely thin-skinned, but not exactly innocent. Would you agree with that?
AOB: No I don't think I would agree. If innocent is interpreted as politically naive, this definitely can be applied to Katherine de Valois. Product of a convent upbringing, neglected by her parents, without strong guidance, for most of her life there is much evidence that she was immature and uneducated in her role as a Valois princess married to a foreign prince.
Did she expect Henry V, attractive and charismatic though he might be, to have any affection for her? It must have been a sad awakening when she realised that her life as Queen of England would be a lonely one. Katherine might have made something of her life if she established her own court with her own friends and interests, supporting art and music, receiving petitions and dispensing gracious patronage. Katherine never did - she was not raised to know how to go about doing so, as royal daughters generally were - and so remained isolated and without influence. After Henry's death, she made little effort to create for herself more than a ceremonial role in the upbringing of her son.
This naivety is even clearer as Dowager Queen. Katherine's role here was sacrosanct, to appear whiter than white, so that the claim of her baby son to the crown of France should never come into question. Yet she engaged in a romantic relationship with Edmund Beaufort, sufficiently dangerous to call for decree by the Royal Council to forbid any marriage without their consent. And then when Beaufort and disappeared from the scene, she fell in love with Owen Tudor. Welsh and a servant in her household. Both unacceptable. Katherine had absolutely no political nous.
Once married to Owen, Katherine simply retired from public life into domesticity. Perhaps this is what she was best at. Although it has to be said that, in the final years, Katherine grew into maturity at last and fought for Owen's rights. However romantic Shakespeare's view of her, Katherine de Valois was far from being the most able or most politically aware of English Queens. (It is still a beautifully romantic story.)
MJN: Let's talk about The King's Concubine. The female protagonist, Alice Perrers, an obscure orphan refuses to take the veil and instead winds up in the court of Edward III. In the 14th century, taking the veil often afforded women more independence and security than being married to a powerful man, or at least being his mistress. In many societies, married women enjoyed the least amount of freedom and influence. Being a courtesan or a powerful man's mistress afforded more opportunities. Yet that "golden age" in the life of women who chose that path has an expiration date. Either her looks fade, or she rubs someone the wrong way, and that's what happened to Alice. Do you think that the famous mistresses in history were aware of the likely pitfalls of their station?
AOB: Absolutely they did! Any royal mistress worth her salt made provision for the days when she was no longer young, beautiful, attractive and in favour - and Alice famously did not have the good looks to lose. All mistresses must have anticipated the day when they fell from power. Some of them, in their search for security, could only be described as mercenary, and their royal lover usually remarkably open-handed to their mistress.
Charles II was generous to a fault. Louise de Kerouaille, his French mistress, needed a fleet of her own ships to carry all her treasure – much of it in the form of jewellery but also paintings – back to France when Charles died.
Nor were English kings alone in succumbing to a predatory female. The magnificent Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henry II of France, twenty years her junior, managed to ensnare the whole of the French crown jewels for herself.
And then there is Alice Perrers. Alice’s notoriety was a very particular one because her ill-gotten gains tarnished the memory of the much loved Queen Philippa, Edward’s wife when Alice acquired for her own use Queen Philippa’s personal jewels. Philippa had left them in the safe keeping of her senior lady-in-waiting, but Alice persuaded Edward to give them to her. Alice then proceeded to wear them with great flamboyance as if she were Queen, flaunting them at Court and in procession through the streets of London as Lady of the Sun, seated in a gilded chariot, clothed in ermine and gold tissue. They were considered to be worth the vast sum of £20,000.
And of course rumour says that Alice - callous to the last - stripped the rings from the fingers of the dying King Edward.
But unlike many royal mistresses, there was far more depth to Alice. Somewhere she learned the skills to read and write and particularly to understand the legal demands of landownership and he workings of the courts. Some of Alice's land rights came from king Edward as gifts, but most she acquired for herself with astonishing acumen for a woman of the fourteenth century. And all to give herself and her children security when her influence at court came to an end, as it must. Alice was impeached by parliament and Edward too weak and ill to save her.
Not every woman had the chance of marriage. Not every woman felt the vocation or desperation to take the veil. For the favoured few, being a royal mistress presented the opportunity to be courted, feted, and possibly to wield political power as did Alice. Smart, opinionated and driven, Alice was a born survivor. And beneath it all, she proved to be an exceptional businesswoman. I admire her ability to snatch at what fate threw in her path.
Royal mistresses always provide good copy for historical fiction.