Briefly tell us about your book?
Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first Plantagenet monarchs, could be described as the Adam and Eve of the English royal family: despite the Tudors’ overthrow of their dynasty, the longest in English history, Plantagenet blood still runs in the veins of royals of the House of Windsor. This novel, which is the final in a quintet, relates how a serpent in their garden cost them Paradise. Passionate love, family rupture, and finally, most importantly, betrayal, combined to leave the king broken-hearted and his wife to say of herself, ‘Eleanor, by the wrath of God, Queen of England.” Henry was one of England’s great monarchs: he was father of the English common law, he instituted the jury system, he unified a country wrecked by anarchy into a cohesive, prosperous nation, he befriended enemy kings and kept England out of war in the middle east. Eleanor was a patron of the arts, a champion of women and, like her husband a brilliant diplomat. Readers will discover that the 12th century was an era of innovation in architecture, music, poetry and learning. It saw the creation of the ideal of romantic love, and of chivalry. Living to one’s 80s was not uncommon. People were tall and strong. But Henry is mostly remembered for something he never said: ‘Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest?’ (re Thomas Becket), and Eleanor, until the 20th century, as a vengeful she-wolf. In her life-time, her reputation was shredded by Parisian courtiers who hated her for divorcing the French king, and centuries later by Shakespeare, who occasionally wrote as a hired gun for the Tudors.
What inspired the idea behind this book?
For no reason I remember I became interested in the 12th century in my twenties, when I bought lots of little books about people’s gardens, pets, food armour and superstitions. Somehow, after a life of living in many different countries (and once having almost all I owned destroyed by fire), these books survived. Following the suggestion of a friend, years later I chanced across them in my library. It was a rediscovery of early love. I began to research more seriously and focused in on the power couple, Henry and Eleanor. I made two research trips to England and France (with a French historian as my guide). I immersed myself in the countryside and what’s left of palaces and churches. The French side of my family comes from Eleanor’s domains; the other, from Cornwall, and according to family lore, dates back to 12th century small landholders.
Each morning at my computer, I slipped from the 21st into the 12th century, as if slipping off a coat. An astute reviewer noted, ‘…you will swear she’s bringing us a first hand account’.
I use a ‘dark’ computer for writing: no emails or social media to distract me.
What are you hoping the reader will take away from this book?
Anyone who has been rejected by a lover, any parent spurned by a child, anyone with difficulties in their family, will connect with these two mighty characters, the most illustrious of their age. I hope too that readers will have their eyes opened to the Little Renaissance of the 12th century, the religious devotion of people in what was still an age of miracles, a time when the Church was the second strong arm holding up the State. The English coat of arms, the Lion (crown) and Unicorn (spirit), are the symbols of this honoured tradition.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
I’d say this: ‘First learn the craft. Then write with pleasure, for pleasure, to give pleasure. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about grim and horrifying subjects. You can, with relish. Hillary Mantel’s description of the beheading of Anne Boleyn in Bring Up the Bodies, is a classic example of a gruesome act so elegantly described it gives a thrill of pleasure. Imagine your reader is someone who admires your work and is hanging out for every new twist in the story. Never write defensively, and never preach.’
Are you able to switch off at the end of a day of writing? If so, how?
The only way I’ve discovered to switch off from the day’s work is to go for a long walk, and while writing fiction I read poetry or factual books, instead of other novels. This is to avoid being influenced by their style. I’m always concerned to keep my own ‘voice’. (This means I’ve not read nearly as many novels as other writers.) My daily routine is to start at 9.30am, break every hour for 2 minutes exercise, and work until 2pm, when my stomach demands food. Next morning I read over what I wrote, and edit it. But this, of course, is only the first draft. Many more follow.