I am pleased to welcome a Belfast-born author Carol McGrath whom I met through Unusual Historicals. In addition to being an author, she's also an avid traveler and photographer. Please say hello to Carol as she talks about her Normal Conquest series The Daughters of Hastings.
MJN: I am fascinated by the history of Northern Ireland and have used it as a setting for several historical novels. You have your PhD from the University of London. At that level of scholarly and artistic achievement, are people still aware of the cultural differences between Northern Ireland and England?
CM: There is an exchange of ideas between Universities. There are, of course, specialisms and at Royal Holloway there were Joyce experts, Yeats experts and so on. Though some might regard this as Anglo-Irish literature. I suspect that in History Departments you will find experts on all kinds of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English Cultural differences. My own conversations concerned my areas of interest such as Anglo Saxon and Anglo Norman Literature. On my MA from Queens Belfast there were representatives of Irish Culture and also many many visiting English writers such as Sarah Waters. My MA outside examiners were Paul Muldoon and Andrew Motion. One was Irish, the other English. I must insist here that whilst the past informs the present it is time to look forward and embrace the best of European Culture and literature. This is of relevance for all English and Irish Universities. It broadens understanding.
MJN: You have a glossary in the beginning of your novel, which I find very useful, as well as the family tree. How much background knowledge do you think your readers have on the subject? I suppose, if you read well-researched historical novels set during the Middle Ages, you learn to recognize certain terminology.
CM: At first I did not include a glossary or a family tree in The HandfastedWife , assuming readers would work out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary either by using a dictionary or by context. I was wrong. I had many requests for both. As a consequence the second edition of The Handfasted Wife has both. There is also an audio version of The Handfasted Wife now. This will have neither . I despair because I am not impressed by the reading of the prose parts of the novel. It is expressionless and line breaks are ignored. The dialogue is much better. Those who listen may not even know what to look up as pronunciations are often incorrect. On the balance I think a glossary is useful but it should, I feel, be short. I think family trees fascinating myself. We are always learning. These characters, most of them, did exist and the family tree shows relationships at a glance.
I have no idea how much background readers have but it does appear to vary according to the reviews of the books that I have read. I think going for a compromise is helpful. I would never want to underestimate my readers' intelligence or knowledge nor would I want to take that for granted either.
MJN: As far as portraying the Middle Ages accurately, there appear to be two schools of thought, two extremes. Some authors focus on the art, architecture, music, theology, while downplaying the less pleasant elements of the era. And some authors go to the opposite extreme and focus on the filth, the brutality, the epidemics. For a while it was fashionable to focus on the gritty. In reality, the ugly and the sublime have always co-existed side by side. Where does an author find that balance?
CM: The stories are informed fiction. I research background thoroughly but I think the story is most important. I write about women. Their day to day lives interest me. I also write mainly about noble women. It could be grittier, but I think I probably incline more towards the art and culture aspect of the Middle Ages. I do give hints of the harshness of war but then isn't war ever that? This is not a unique feature of The Middle Ages. I hope I strike a balance. I think the juxtaposition of the ugly and the sublime a fact of life and a very interesting aspect of historical fiction.
MJN: There seem to be some confusion regarding the beauty standards of the High Middle Ages. Some sources claim that poets and artists admired the "tall and slender" form. And some authors will depict a female character stressing out over being "too thin" at a time when a full figure was associated with health and fertility.
CM: The virgin is the norm for female beauty in this period. She is usually tall and slender. She does look the epitome of perfect womanhood. She is never plump nor is she overly thin.
MJN: The covers for your two novels in The Daughters of Hastings series are very different. The first one depicts a scene from a Medieval script, and the second one looks more timeless with two swans. What is the science behind the cover art?
CM: The covers relate to the context of the novels. The Handfasted Wife was inspired by The vignette of The Burning House on The Bayeux Tapestry. Some Tapestry historians have posited that this could represent Harold's Handfasted wife and their youngest son fleeing from Crowhurst Estate near Hastings just before the battle. There are only three women depicted on the Tapestry and the other two are thought to be noble. It may be that this indeed is Harold's lady. The second cover reflects the romantic element of a The Swan-Daughter. This novel, whilst inspired by a recorded event, the elopement from Wilton Abbey of Gunnhild , Harold's younger daughter, with Alan of Richmond, William of Normandy's Breton cousin , and her eventual relationship with his brother, is a conceit on medieval romance. The Author's notes in both novels explain the historical aspects and those imagined. I chose the cover for The Swan-Daughter thinking of swans and how they mate forever. That, of course, is a little satirical but without spoiling the story there is an element of truth there also. I loved the painting which is, in fact, from the early 20th C.