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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Susan Higginbotham
* What was it about your protagonist, Eleanor le Despenser, that compelled
you to tell her story?
Just a few years back, I re-read Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II and somehow became fascinated by the historical background to the story. After a while, I became particularly interested in the relationship between Edward II and his last favorite, Hugh le Despenser the younger—the relationship that destroyed Edward's kingship but that strangely has been overshadowed by his relationship with the much better known Piers Gaveston.
In my research on Despenser, I saw it mentioned that his wife, Eleanor, had married one of his captors. Naturally, I wondered what had led her to marry one of the men who had helped to destroy her husband. I began to dig around to find further facts about her, and the more I dug, the more interesting things I learned about her. Her life was ready-made for a novel—love, lust, lucre, loss, land, and litigation, with some startling turns of Fortune's wheel.
* How much of your protagonist’s life is fact and how much is fiction?
The framework of the story—Eleanor's service as a lady-in-waiting, the politics and infighting of Edward II's reign, her imprisonments, the fates of her children, her marriage litigation, and so forth—is all based on historical fact. It's also evident from the gifts she was given and the trust that was placed in her that she was a favorite of Edward II throughout his reign. What the records don't reveal was what she was like as a person and what her motivations were, or what she thought of people like her brother-in-law Piers Gaveston or her grandfather Edward I. So as far as Eleanor's personality, thoughts, and relationships with others were concerned, I pretty much had to fill in the blanks. There are a few business letters of hers that survive. They have a certain charm of expression to them, but otherwise aren't very revealing—unlike the letters of her husband Hugh, where his character is very apparent.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 14th century England.
What surprised me about Eleanor, and about so many other women of her time, was how resilient they were—it's a picture so at odds with that of the damsel in distress waiting for some knight to save her. So many of these women lost close family members, either through violence or, later in the century, to plague, and yet they kept on going through the routine of ordinary life: running their estates, giving to the Church, hosting their feasts, marrying off their children. We go on today about how empowered women are, but I think in many ways the women of centuries ago were much, much tougher emotionally.
* Often, historical fiction writers will choose to tell the story of an
extraordinary woman who defied the conventions of her time. In your chosen
time period, what was the *average* woman’s life like?
Busy. Even a wealthy woman with plenty of servants had to run her household , and when her husband was away, she would have to be able to help manage his affairs too. Although a noblewoman's children were taken care of by servants, she might have other people's children in her charge, as Eleanor did in the case of the king's younger son. Visitors and travelers had to be entertained daily.
I get amused and at the same time quite irritated by romance novels that have medieval high-born heroines hopping heedlessly from bed to bed as if they're in a fourteenth-century version of "Sex in the City." While sexual mores weren't as tight as they were, say, in Victorian times, a young woman of high birth in medieval England was expected to be a virgin on her wedding day, and there weren't very many opportunities for her to run around unsupervised. (Widows, on the other hand, could get up to more trouble, as Eleanor demonstrated.)
One thing that I think tends to get overlooked by novelists, perhaps because it doesn't make for a particularly juicy story, is the importance that patronage played in the lives of noblewomen. Eleanor was instrumental in making the choir of Tewkesbury Abbey, with its beautiful stained-glass windows, the glorious sight that it is today, and her sister Elizabeth was a patron on a much larger scale, whose many good works include the founding of Clare Hall at Cambridge University.
* In what way is Eleanor le Despenser distinctive of her time (14th century)
and country (England)?
That's hard to answer, because in many ways she was a very conventional woman of her times. Certainly in what seems to have been her unswerving, perhaps even blind loyalty to her husband, she was fulfilling the role that a woman was expected to fill—it was her misfortune that her husband wasn't worthier of her devotion. On the other hand, she certainly had a reckless streak, shown by her theft of the crown's jewels—which, unfortunately, is one of those episodes in which we know nothing about her motives.
Eleanor's mother, Joan of Acre, a daughter of Edward I, was notorious in the thirteenth century for her love match with Ralph de Monthermer, a squire whose birth is so obscure that we today don't even know who his parents were. It's interesting that both Eleanor and her sister Elizabeth seem to have made similar runaway matches, though we know a lot less of the circumstances behind them. In acting in defiance of the king, all three of them evinced an independent streak that would definitely not have been appreciated by the men around them.
* Who is one historical woman you would like to write a book on, but
I'm interested in Constance, the second wife of John of Gaunt. In most novels where she appears, she's a minor character and a very unprepossessing one—dour, gloomily pious, obsessed with the Castilian throne, and not given much to bathing—as opposed to Gaunt's mistress, the glamorous, charismatic Katherine Swynford. Yet Constance seems to have tried to fit into English life as best as she could, and as a young foreigner coming to England to marry a man who already had an established mistress, she was in a very difficult position. I'd love to see a novel where she was the protagonist instead of being the foil to Katherine Swynford, but the idea of tackling her life story and all of the associated goings-on in Castile is too daunting for me.