On Hist Fic Saturday I am excited to welcome back to the blog
best-selling historical fiction writer
Anne's latest book Queen of the North is due to be published on the 31st of May by HQ and I am thrilled that she has taken the time out of her busy pre-publication schedule to talk to me about why she writes historical fiction.
Why I write historical novels by Anne O'Brien
My most vivid memories of childhood are those when I visited historical monuments. My father was a keen historian so holidays were spent in ruined abbeys and castles, iron age hill forts, roman villas and stately homes. His enthusiasm was contagious. I loved the atmosphere, the sense of stepping back into the past. Sometimes the vibes were so strong that they remain with me to this day. The floodlit plainsong shivering through the ruins of Fountains Abbey. A cold wind-swept day on Hadrian's Wall, the rain beating down. The winding staircases in Caernarvon Castle, leading up to dramatic views.
But what about the people who lived there?
I am now privileged to write about the lives of these people from the past, to recreate as far as it is possible their lifestyle, their relationships and the influences that made them into dynamic characters. I have chosen to write about medieval women, because it seemed to me that they were given so little time and space in most history books. Mostly they are a brief paragraph, or sometimes simply a footnote. It pleases me to bring them from the shadows into the spotlight, to clothe their skeletons and make them rounded individuals with emotions and opinions. History does not often open this door for us. It is my pleasure to do so.
Even more enjoyable is to put them into their place in history. What is happening in the world around these women of the medieval court, and how does it affect the lives they lead? While their menfolk are negotiating, fighting, killing and being killed, manipulating for political gain, what are the women doing? These were intelligent women, often well educated, from powerful families History might not give us their thoughts and words, except for the few women who were writing, but I am certain that they had them, as I am certain that they were not silent when their families were torn apart by uprising and treachery. We should be able to enjoy these women in all their complexity. That is why I write historical novels.
So why did I choose to write about Elizabeth Mortimer? Her husband played a far more important role than she did. Here's the reason why she has joined the panoply of my historical heroines.
Some of my favourite scenes in Shakespeare are those in Henry IV Part One between the magnificent Hotspur and Lady Kate (Elizabeth). It is a relationship full of politics and power, one of conflict of personality and also of flirtation, of love and affection. As a couple they are very appealing and dominate the scenes in which they appear.
Hotspur, Sir Henry Percy and heir to the Earl of Northumberland, was such a vivid, mercurial, glamorous figure in our history. The perfect hero. Brave and courageous, winning glory on the battlefield, he was also flawed, bringing his own downfall. He was more than tempting to write about. But what about Lady Kate? If I continued to follow my passion to write about medieval women, looking at history from a woman's viewpoint, who was she? Had she anything of importance to add to the medieval scene? Would she be a suitable heroine to give depth to a novel?
Historically Lady Kate was not Kate at all, but was Elizabeth Mortimer, one of the powerful Mortimer family that ruled over the Welsh Marches where I now live. I am surrounded by Mortimer castles, so immediately Elizabeth was of interest to me. Great-grand-daughter of King Edward III, Elizabeth inherited royal Plantagenet blood through her mother Philippa, daughter of Lionel Duke of Clarence, King Edward III's second surviving son. This placed Elizabeth in the very centre of the struggle for power from the Mortimer claimants to the English throne, after the death of Richard II and the usurpation by King Henry IV. All royal cousins, this would be another compelling family saga of power and treason, of betrayal and death. The Mortimer Earls of March had a strong claim to the throne even if it was through the female line.
Even better, Elizabeth's story would also draw in a whole spectrum of exciting characters. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, cunning and ambitious, determined to keep Percy hands on the reins of power in the north of England. Owain Glyn Dwr, the great Welsh Prince, driven to take up arms in his struggle for Welsh hegemony. King Henry IV, the Lancaster king, fighting hard to stabilize a dangerously uneasy country after the death of Richard II. And then Thomas de Camoys, a most sympathetic character who played a large part in The Queens Choice. What a marvellous set of characters to engage with, not to mention Hotspur himself.
So why was I compelled to write about Elizabeth? Because of her Mortimer blood, she was a woman who deliberately took on the role of traitor in support of her nephew Edmund, Earl of March. She would know at first hand the resulting struggle between family loyalty and a desire to pursue what she saw as the rightful claim to the crown of England, despite all the pain it would bring her. She would also learn the constraints on her freedom, common to all medieval women. It is a story of loss and acceptance, of love and tragedy. How could I resist such a marvellous tale?
Such is history, and why I write it. The stories are better than any I could make up, not least the one that is unfolded in Queen of the North.
31 May 2018
A year of great upheaval in England.
England’s crown is under threat.
King Richard II's hold on power is undermined when exiled Henry, Duke of Lancaster, returns to reclaim his inheritance and ultimately the throne.
For Elizabeth Mortimer the succession is clouded with doubt. With King Richard dead in Pontefract Castle, there is only one rightful King by the law of inheritance – her eight-year-old nephew Edmund, Earl of March.
But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, the mercurial Sir Henry Percy known as Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, do not want another child-King.
Questioning her loyalty to the new King Henry, Elizabeth places herself in conflict with Hotspur and the powerful Percy family, but to concede to Henry's claim challenges all her Mortimer principles.
This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.
A tale of love and loyalty, of tragedy and betrayal.
Will Elizabeth be prepared to pay the cost of personal and family ambition?
Huge thanks to Anne for being such a lovely guest and for sharing her love of historical fiction with us.
Queen of the North will be available to buy from all good book stores on the 31st May 2018
You can read my book review here
You can read my book review here
Follow on Twitter @anne_obrien #QueenoftheNorth