Jenny Barden – The Thames Valley History Festival Interview.
When she is not penning highly-acclaimed historical fiction, Jenny Barden spends her time co-ordinating conferences for the Historical Novel Society or the Romantic Novelists’ Association as well as writing articles for various publications. Jenny’s debut novel, Mistress of the Sea, was published last year and has since been shortlisted for a number of awards. Her second offering, The Lost Duchess, is published on November 7th.
Both your novels are set in the Elizabethan period. What appeals to you about this era?
It was our Golden Age, the flowering of the English Renaissance, the Age of Discovery – a time when England emerged from the shadow of the Middle Ages to spread her wings on the world stage. The Elizabethan era saw the expression of genius in the arts, when Shakespeare and Marlowe brought people flocking to the theatre, and Tallis wrote divine music, and Hilliard and White painted beautifully in miniature. This was the age of philosophers and visionaries such as Bacon and Raleigh, a brave bold age of action when Drake and Hawkins began to assert English dominance at sea and saw off the threat posed by the Spanish Armada. It was colourful and bawdy, vigorous and liberated. We had a queen on the throne who, after the catastrophic reign of Mary, ruled courageously and wisely. Gloriana gave everyone confidence. I enjoy going to that age in my writing.
Hilary Mantel once said that “the Tudors are the great national soap opera”. This evaluation certainly true holds true when we consider the many larger-than-life characters who populated the royal court during this period. Mistress of the Sea centres on the exploits of one such character, Sir Francis Drake. What drew you to him in particular?
The great Elizabethans were larger than life, it’s true, and Drake was remarkable even amongst them. From relatively humble beginnings (his father was a preacher and quite possibly a highway robber to boot), Drake rose to become a national hero purely on the strength of his astonishing achievements.
The exploit that set him on the path to fame and fortune is one that I cover in Mistress of the Sea, and what struck me most in researching it is how close he came to disaster on many occasions yet he never gave up and always managed to sustain the morale of his crew. He lost two brothers in that early enterprise against the Spanish in Panama, as well as over half his men, suffered numerous setbacks but remained completely resolute.
He showed extraordinary daring and consummate panache, cocked a snook at the Spaniards, and could lead his men into Hell and back, which he later did, metaphorically, during his circumnavigation of the globe. What’s even more amazing is that all this followed the most ignominious of career starts when he nursed his first command back to England, one of only two ships to survive the rout of John Hawkins’ fleet at San Juan de Ulua, with his crew in desperate straiazAts, battered, starving and short of water, only to be later accused by Hawkins of abandoning him in his hour of need.
Drake sought retribution all his life for what he saw as the Spanish treachery that led to that disaster. He could be utterly ruthless, but Drake is also fascinating for his honour and generosity, particularly to underdogs such as the Cimaroons, the escaped Negro slaves who helped him to victory in Panama. He formed a close bond with them, and one in particular, Diego, was to remain with Drake for the rest of his life.
The language spoken in Elizabethan England is markedly different to our modern tongue. Was this a problem for you when writing the books? Or did you decide to eschew all the ‘prithees’ entirely?
Most ‘prithees’ were eschewed, I’ll confess. Obviously, to attempt to write in authentic Elizabethan English would be to produce material largely unintelligible to readers now. So novelists have to compromise – The question is how far do we go? Do we write dialogue using modern idiom (as does Suzannah Dunn, for instance) or do we avoid that and add occasional flourishes to give a veneer of Tudor style (which Hilary Mantel manages brilliantly)?
I think both approaches can be effective when applied skilfully. I’ve tried to sprinkle a seasoning of Elizabethan expression over the way my characters speak, and to do so unselfconsciously where turns of phrase and exclamations come naturally. But the language issue goes much further than that – Do we use the old familiar for you (thee and thou)? Generally I’ve avoided this archaic form and only introduced it once or twice for a bit of local colour.
Much harder to address is the subject of which words are ‘within bounds’ for writing Elizabethan fiction and which are not. A novelist probably shouldn’t say: ‘Raleigh was hot-wired for success’. But is it acceptable to speak of him experiencing a ‘flashback’ or admiring the ‘cobalt’ sky (when the word cobalt didn’t come into use until the seventeenth century)? May we describe him as ‘out of sorts’ when this would probably have meant something completely different to an Elizabethan from feeling in low spirits?
The subject is a fraught one, not least because the effect of not using any words that an Elizabethan wouldn’t know is a markedly restricted vocabulary – one that cannot be padded out with words that an Elizabethan might have used which are no longer in use today (because the present day reader wouldn’t understand them!). (I’m breathing a sigh at this point!)
The Tudor period is one of the most familiar eras to modern readers. Is such familiarity a hindrance or a help for the historical novelist?
In general, familiarity with the period, a character or a key episode is a terrific help in getting a novel off the ground. In the US they make a big fuss about what they call ‘marquee names’, meaning those that are well-known and will draw in a crowd – this can apply to events as well as people.
For many publishers of historical fiction, a marquee name is a must, because, for example, a novel about Henry VIII or one of his wives will be much easier to market than, say, a novel about Pope Marcellus II whom few readers will have heard about. It’s good to use points of common reference as a springboard, but then I like to go further and explore areas that are relatively little known or consider them from an unusual angle.
So with my new book, The Lost Duchess: its background is the ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke’ and in the US I need say nothing more because everyone over there learns about that at elementary school, but in the UK I’ll go on to say that it concerns the first attempt to establish a permanent English settlement in America, one that was initiated by Sir Walter Raleigh and which met a mysterious fate. Usually that’s enough to hook interest!
What challenges have you encountered when researching this period of history?
The challenges are mainly to do with the passage of time. After over four hundred years, much has been destroyed or altered beyond recognition. Towns and villages are no longer the same, and, with the exception of a few well-preserved buildings, scenes that would have been familiar to the Elizabethans are no longer accessible to us now.
The countryside has changed totally; gone are strip fields and rutted main roads, wherries on the Thames, and singular wonders such as the old house-covered London Bridge with its heads on spikes and nineteen arches on ‘starlings’ which used to cause the river to freeze over in winter.
It’s not just the physical environment that has changed markedly but attitudes and mindsets as well – something that can cause particular problems for a novelist concerned to engage the reader in empathising with characters. How can readers now appreciate that many Elizabethans actually enjoyed watching the ‘sport’ of bear-baiting? (Certainly Queen Elizabeth did.)
Historically accurate descriptions of lice, toilet habits, dental hygiene and attitudes to punishment and religion can be very off-putting! I’ll give you an example of the difficulties I’ve come up against: one of the settings for The Lost Duchess is Richmond Palace, but that was pulled down after the execution of Charles I and only a few small fragments survive. Most of my description of the place is based on accounts found in ex-library stock texts.
I still went to visit the site and tried to visualise the palace in its glory despite the fact that most of it now is simply lawn, garden and modern development. I like to touch the stones, trace the line of old gateways and windows in bricked up walls, and get a feel for the shape of the land. I’ll do that until I hear footsteps in my mind – then the characters walk in and I’m away!
Tell us what we can expect from your latest offering, The Lost Duchess.
The Lost Duchess is both an action-packed adventure and a high-tension love story, while the backdrop is one that goes to the root of England’s development and the birth of modern America. I hope readers will pick it up and then not put it down!
Longhand or laptop?
Longhand at first for me always when drafting novels, though I quickly progress to my desktop. My laptop is for travelling!
Describe a typical working day for us.
Wake to hear the cockerels crowing and light rising over the fields – let out the chickens, turkeys and ducks – feed the dog, cat and pig, and see to any other animals that need attention – get back into bed for a cup of tea and my first scribbling of the day. I’m often at my most productive first thing in the morning (or last thing at night!). Then get up and start the computer.
I have no strict timetable, just a monumentally long list of things to do that I try to keep under a semblance of control. If I’m not novel-writing to a deadline then I’m preparing articles or interviews, travelling to give talks, or helping out the Historical Novel Society or the Romantic Novelists’ Association, or running a creative writing workshop, or doing any number of jobs around the farm, much of it quite hard physical labour (which is good for me), or researching for future projects, or walking the dog. (Monty helps me do my best scene planning!)
Sometimes I’ll work into the small hours, sometimes not.
What advice would you have for the aspiring historical novelist?
My advice would be to read plenty of historical fiction and really think hard about what makes your favourite books work, join the Historical Novel Society and follow their reviews (later, once published, then join the Historical Writers’ Association!), connect with a local writers’ circle or online community that can give constructive feedback, and consider the long road to publication only after you’ve become accustomed to taking criticism and reacting well to it!
What do you like about events most?
The networking opportunities and the buzz – the chance to feed on the energy generated by delight in a shared enthusiasm – and meeting wonderful authors like Andrew Taylor.
What makes your event special, unique, or controversial?
Andrew and I will be talking about ‘The Lost Colony’ – England in America from beginning to end – and the programme tells me that we’ll be doing so unapologetically.
So we’ll be looking at the genesis of modern America from the seed-corn of the very first colony, which left little that was enduring other than the aspirations of those who promoted the endeavour, to it’s bloody birth as an independent nation – and we’ll be approaching this from an unusual perspective, considering America not as the superpower we’re all familiar with, but as a colony, a struggling offshoot of England that turned rebellious, and as a rich backdrop for writing fiction.
I’ll be bringing along my caliver (an Elizabethan firearm) too – just in case anyone gets out of hand!
Thanks for the interview Jenny. We look forward to seeing you at the event.
Find out all about Jenny Barden @ www.jennybarden.com
Jenny Barden is a guest author at the Thames Valley History Festival
Jenny Barden will be speaking at The Lost Colony
Friday 15th November, at 7.30pm
Tickets are £7.50 (10% discount with advantage card)
If you buy tickets to two different events you get a third event free.