Historical fiction is important as a way of seeing the past in new ways, and since I’ve always had an interest in “real” history, I have mixed feelings about how rigorous historical novelists must be in recreating their periods. For example, I get frustrated with steam-punk because the historical inaccuracies too often seem, well, silly, and I’m not really interested in alternative histories—except as social commentary. Historical fiction, however, allows for imaginative re-creation of a distant place and time that provides a new perspective on the present—while staying firmly rooted in the real world.
When I began my fictional series, The Cross and the Crown, I wanted to present Tudor England from the perspective of a woman who was not noble, not royal, not famous—but who is intelligent and resourceful. Staying away from the famous characters, whose stories we all already know, gave me some wiggle room to create Catherine Havens, my heroine. I wanted to see what might happen to a “regular” woman who is confronted with the upheavals of Tudor England under Henry VIII.
I think historical fiction can present a “what if . . ?” that can change the way readers view the past, and in so doing change the way we look at the present. (I believe good science fiction does this as well—just in the opposite direction in time!) I do blend fiction with the facts of my Tudor series, though I wouldn’t change the details of the monarch or well-researched historical figures. I’m more interested, generally, in the development of character than in plot, so I have chosen to create Catherine as a fictional character who has only passing (though significant) interaction with the famous people.
Of course, I love the famous people. My interest in Tudor England comes from an inherent fascination with turbulent times in the past and in charismatic leaders. My doctoral work focused on the late Renaissance, so I have a long personal background in reading and teaching Tudor literature, and that’s probably why I set my story in the 1500s.
But when I turned to fiction after seven books of poems, I wanted to “flesh out” the culture, and so I created Catherine Havens. She’s entirely a fiction. She’s a novice who is thrown out of her home when the convents are closed. She is given permission to marry. Did this happen? Not that I’m factually aware of in any particular instance. Could it have happened? It certainly could have. The laws of England were firm, but they were also subject to interpretation—and to twisting by clever lawyers and courtiers.
These ideas have been explored by novelists like Phillippa Gregory and Alison Weir, and they’re influences, of course, but I wanted to think about how this changing power system affected ordinary people, who must have struggled to understand how and why the new religion and the court could control their everyday lives. People revolted. They challenged authority. They went on with their lives, sometimes in spite of the king (or queen).
Half of these ordinary people were women. We have many more records about men, but women worked and prayed alongside their brothers, husbands, and fathers, and I wanted to re-imagine these invisible foremothers into flesh-and-blood life. They raised families, healed wounds, treated the sick, and washed the dead. They oversaw households and undermined expectations.
I travel frequently, and I love to be in the spaces where people lived, because I can feel their lives when I can see where they lived. Even ruins seem to talk to me, and though I rarely take photographs (I prefer my own faulty memory) these places change the way I think about the lives women lived. I particularly like looking at kitchens (Hampton Court and Sutton House are favorites), because I can see the women and men who sweated and labored in them to feed the people above, who might not even know their names.
The ease with which research can be done on the internet is probably the biggest change I have seen in the genre in the last ten years. Both writers and readers can check up on facts and details, and this puts greater pressure on the writer to be accurate. Happily, online research also makes it easier for the writer in a moment of forgetfulness; I always know I can find images that I need to put me back into a moment or a location.
I’ve recently become interested in genealogical research, as a result of my daughter’s questions about our family’s past, and I’ve found yet another instance of “historical fiction”—oral histories. In many ways, finding out about one’s family is like writing historical fiction—one changed detail shifts the whole picture. Will I always write historical fiction? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know, however, that we hunger for answers to the past, to understand the people who came before us and in doing so to better understand how we have come to be who we are today.
Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels The Altarpiece (Knox Robinson 2013) and City of Ladies (Knox Robinson 2014). Her third novel, The King’s Sisters, will be released in September 2015. She has also written seven books of poems, including The Gold Thread, Home Remedies, A Witch’s Dictionary, Consider the Lilies, Double Exposure, and Flow Blue. A professor of English with at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah.
It’s midwinter in 1539, and Catherine Havens Overton has just given birth to her second child, a daughter. The convent in which she was raised is now part of the Overton lands, and Catherine’s husband William owns the properties that once belonged to her mother’s family. With a son, Robert, and her new daughter, Veronica, Catherine’s life as the mistress of a great household should be complete.
Henry VIII’s England has not been kind to many of the evicted members of religious houses, and Catherine has gathered about her a group of former nuns in hopes of providing them a chance to serve in the village of Havenston, her City of Ladies.
Catherine’s own past haunts her. Her husband suspects that Catherine’s son is not his child, and his ambitions lie with service at court. Then the women of Overton House begin to disappear, and though one of them is found brutally murdered nearby, William forces Catherine to go to Hatfield House, where the young Elizabeth Tudor lives, to improve the family’s standing—and to ensure, for her own safety, that she is as far away from connections to her old convent as possible.
Reluctantly, Catherine obeys, only to find herself serving not only the Protestant Elizabeth but also the shamed Catholic Mary Tudor. As the murders in Yorkshire mount up and her loyalty to the Tudor sisters grows more complicated, Catherine must uncover the secret of the killer and keep her dream of a City of Ladies alive.
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