I confess that I've always been a Tudor-fiction fan. I grew up on the romantic sagas of Jean Plaidy, moved on to Philippa Gregory, and then graduated to Hilary Mantel. Aged thirteen my friends and I ambitiously attempted to re-enact the film Anne of the Thousand Days for a school drama project. (I played Katherine of Aragon, Cardinal Wolsey and Jane Seymour with multiple costume changes.) My high school was even called Thomas More College—the school for all seasons (seriously). Recently I sat through four series of The Tudors as Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ voice sank to gravelly depths in an unintentionally-humorous attempt to convey advancing age.
So I was very interested to hear that a Birkbeck alumnus had secured a publishing deal for a new Tudor trilogy. Elizabeth Fremantle’s first book, Queen’s Gambit, was published by Michael Joseph in March this year and has been very favourably reviewed in The Guardian and Stylist magazine among others. The Bookseller even suggested that ‘this book is the answer to the question about what Hilary Mantel fans should read while waiting for the final part of her trilogy.’ (Although I’m sure that most people read faster than Hilary Mantel writes, and might require more than one book to tide them over this difficult period.)
Queen’s Gambit is the story of Katherine Parr. Of all of Henry VIII's wives Katherine Parr seemed the least interesting—I had always imagined a dowdy widow, fussing and cooing over Henry in his decrepitude. Elizabeth Fremantle completely upends this perception and offers up a strong Tudor heroine who is passionate, intelligent and articulate. The use of the present tense creates a sense of immediacy assisted by a very visceral observation of the textures, tastes and smells of the era. Queen’s Gambit is a gripping and moving interpretation of the life of Henry VIII’s last queen.
I asked Elizabeth Fremantle some questions about the book and her writing process:
You went to Birkbeck to do a BA in English and then a MA in Creative Writing. The role of creative writing tuition is often disparaged. How important was it for you in terms of giving you confidence to pursue your writing and honing your writing skills? Do you believe that writing can be taught?
I suppose for me studying for an MA in Creative Writing was a commitment that allowed me to start to think of myself as a writer, or certainly as someone who was striving to be that. It was the point from which I could begin to find my voice, a process that took a decade. I strongly believe that the analytical study of texts is integral to this, and my English BA was crucial to my understanding of other writers and their place within the canon that has stood me in good stead, particularly in the case of the study of historical texts.
The MA gave me the confidence to complete my first novel, something it is unlikely I’d have managed without, and subsequently to land my first agent. That however, was just the beginning of a long journey. Several subsequent years working for literary scouts, which meant reading and reporting on vast amounts of fiction (sometimes six novels a week) of all genres, gave me an invaluable understanding of the craft of fiction. The process of articulating what it is that does or doesn’t work in a novel, really grappling with the technical building blocks of fiction, was where I learned the most about writing.
In answer to your question, yes, though an MA in Creative Writing cannot turn you into a writer, I do think writing can be taught. But a course can only take you so far; there comes a point at which you have to work it out for yourself and that’s where the hard graft begins. Much of writing is about dull things like discipline, solitude and cogitating on the seemingly insignificant aspects of life, and some people do seem to have a greater propensity for those things. I do not really believe that there is any great mystery to writing; I’m afraid I’m too much of a pragmatist for that and the adage that it’s 3% talent and 97% hard work (or in the case of a recent Tweet I read, 3% talent and 97% not getting distracted by the internet) is true.
How did you manage to fit your writing in around your kids and your studies and your work (while you were studying)? What does you writing schedule look like these days?
It’s a dream nowadays as I’m earning my living as a novelist, so I get my son off to school and walk the dogs early, then I’m at my desk all day. I set aside time for social media-ing, which is essential for any writer these days, and otherwise I’m writing or researching. I write an absolute minimum of 1,000 words a day, no exceptions, which is a system that works very well for me. As I am naturally disciplined it is not difficult. When my children were small perhaps it was my determination that got me through. With the BA I felt I had something to prove; this gave me a certain drive and that set up a good habit for work, which has stayed with me. I didn’t socialise much, so when the children were in bed I could work. I suppose I could say that the writing and studying were a good balance with the exceedingly uncerebral business of caring for small children.
How long did you spend researching the Tudors before you started writing? Was it difficult to find the information that you needed?
That’s hard to say, as I have always read a good deal of history anyway and my research was 80% textual. There is a huge amount of material on the period, historical biographies, cultural histories, state papers, letters and so on. Much of it is online, which is incredibly convenient and the rest can be found in the library. Nothing beats visiting museums for artefacts; knowledge of objects and clothing can help build a convincing world. I spent many hours too, wandering around old palaces imagining what life might have been like. I also spend a huge amount of time gazing at period portraits and paintings of sixteenth century quotidian scenes as I find they kick-start the imaginative process.
The Tudors have been portrayed many times on the page and on screen—have there been any other depictions of the Tudors in popular culture that you particularly enjoyed or were inspired by?
I have a voracious appetite for anything set in the period from The Tudors at one end of the spectrum to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels at the other. Even from the most inaccurate portrayal there is something to be gleaned.
Who are you favourite historical novelists?
I particularly enjoy Rose Tremain’s historical fiction, Sarah Waters is a favourite and Hilary Mantel’s aforementioned Cromwell novels are astonishingly good. One of my favourite novels is Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig which is written in 1933 and set in 1914 so I’m not sure it counts as historical fiction but it looks at the past from a present perspective, which is for me what historical fiction does.
Queen’s Gambit is a very visceral account—full of the tastes, textures and awful smells of the era—what did you draw on for your sensory inspiration?
It was all lurking in my imagination.
You use the present tense which is relatively unusual for historical fiction, although recently used by Hilary Mantel for her Tudor books. Has Hilary Mantel’s more contemporary style of historical fiction been an inspiration for you?
There is a great debate raging at the moment over the present tense, indeed I heard John Humphries hotly denouncing it as inappropriate for historical material only this morning. Styles in writing change and just because your subject is set in the past does not necessitate its being written in the past. Historical fiction is always seen through the prism of the present—it is contemporary fiction and should be treated as such. For me the present tense works to separate my writing from historical biography, constantly reminding the reader that we are in the fictional realm. But the great thing about fiction is there are no rules, as long as you make it work.
There are some who say that the present tense is how you are taught to write on writing courses. This is nonsense: a good writing course helps you develop your own voice! I have written three other novels, all in the present tense, so it must be the mode I prefer. I find it has a dramatic tension that is lost with the past tense, when narrators necessarily have the benefit of hindsight. Many readers of Queen’s Gambit will know at least something about Katherine Parr’s story, even if it is only that she ‘survived,’ but the present tense is a device that makes Katherine Parr, the character, oblivious to her future. The present is after all the tense of drama and perhaps I was most influenced from reading Shakespeare and other sixteenth century dramatists. I enjoy the immediacy and energy of the present.
Funnily enough I didn’t read Wolf Hall until I had a good draft finished of Queen’s Gambit, so Mantel was not an influence, though I am a huge admirer. Her style and approach are very different from mine—I don’t really think of myself as a literary writer, which she most certainly is. The present tense is not so unusual for historical fiction; a number of historical authors have experimented with it—Philippa Gregory has been using it on and off for years, Rose Tremain employed it to great effect in Music and Silence and Andrew Miller’s Pure is a more recent, and very good, example—so I always find it odd that people are now naming it as the exclusive domain of Mantel, indeed I have even heard it referred to as the ‘Mantelian present tense’. Stephan Zweig also wrote in the present tense and, as one of my favourite authors, if anyone has been an influence in that respect, it is he.
It is a lovely upstairs/downstairs device to use the point of view of the maid, Dot Fownten, as well of that of Katherine Parr—the Queen. And you made Dot quite low-born in Queen’s Gambit—was it important to you to show both perspectives?
My desire to portray the court from a different female perspective was at the heart of my project. I wanted to explore the notion of social mobility, which for women was rare and only possible through marriage, and Dot’s story in some ways reflects Katherine’s, as they both are hoisted up a social class through marriage. In the case of royal and other educated women, they can leave a little of themselves in the texts they write, the letters and suchlike. But most women were illiterate and I felt it was important for the balance of Queen’s Gambit to shine a light on the lives of those forgotten women who were not of noble birth. If you visit Hampton Court you get a sense of the vastness of the ‘below-stairs’ world and that the number of people who made the wheels of the court turn, outnumbered by far the nobles they served. Dorothy Fountain (on whom I have based Dot) was a woman who served Katherine Parr, and her stepdaughter, before her royal marriage and continued in her service, eventually marrying a William Savage. It is likely she was much more gently born than Dot, but Dot’s humble birth served the purposes of my themes.
The other perspective that sneaks in occasionally is that of the doctor, Robert Huicke, why did you decide to use his perspective as well as the two women?
It was a royal physician who is thought to have informed Katherine Parr of the warrant for her arrest. This was my starting point for Huicke. I wanted to make their friendship sufficiently close that he would be prepared to risk himself to inform her of the danger she was in, and yet I wanted it to be a friendship that was not based in desire. I also feel strongly that history has refused to tell the stories of those with different sexualities and Huicke (though there is no evidence for his real historical counterpart’s homosexuality) became the cypher through which I could express that.
Katherine Parr was clearly an intelligent, articulate woman but she did make some unwise decisions regarding men—in particular her marriage to Thomas Seymour. She was such a great character to write about in other ways—was it frustrating to have to portray her lack of wisdom in this area?
Not at all, in fact her flawed nature was one of the things that drew me to her. I think it is the contradictions in people that make them complex and interesting. When someone acts out of character there is drama, and I also feel that it is exactly at the point where Katherine Parr makes her most disastrous and ill-advised decision that she becomes human and identifiable to contemporary women.
Queen’s Gambit is the first in a Tudor trilogy, though it works as a standalone novel. You’re jumping forward in time a bit for your second novel—could tell us a little bit about it?
Queen Jane’s Shadow begins early in Mary Tudor’s reign and focuses on the two younger sisters of the tragically executed Lady Jane Grey. Lady Mary was a four-foot hunchback at a time when physical deformity was considered, by many, as the work of malevolent forces; and so as someone who was both insider and outsider she is a very interesting figure, with a unique perspective on the court. Lady Catherine was a flighty beauty who was in love with the idea of love and this eventually became her downfall. In the novel the two girls’ stories are intertwined with that of Levina Teerlinc, a contemporary portraitist who painted the Grey family. As a woman earning her living in this way she was exceptional in a world where women were largely confined to the domestic arena. The backdrop is the ever-treacherous Tudor succession and we revisit Mary and Elizabeth Tudor who are introduced in Queen’s Gambit.
What advice would you give to creative writing students wanting to write historical fiction?
Writing historical fiction is an act of imagination. Start with character and build out from there; the ‘facts’ are just a framework in which your characters operate and once you have convincing characters you have the heart of your story. Look outside the obvious places for your inspiration. In order to develop my character of Katherine Parr, I researched both Amish and fundamentalist Islamic women who adhere to their belief system in a similar way to their sixteenth-century sisters, in that they believe wholeheartedly in the afterlife and also accept the lesser status of women. Don’t allow your writing to become burdened with historical detail. Just because you know that Tudor women didn’t wear underwear, for example, it should only go into the text if it’s relevant and meaningful. Don’t worry about what the ‘historians’ are going to think; you will never please them all!
Photo: Paola Pieroni
You can find out more about Queen's Gambit on Elizabeth Fremantle's website.
Elizabeth Fremantle will also be joining us for our special Arts Week Hubbub on the 20th of May.