Solander, Vol. 10 November 2006
All material copyright © 2008 Lucinda Byatt
MAKING THE LEAP FROM FACT TO FICTION: POPULAR HISTORIAN ALISON WEIR TALKS TO LUCINDA BYATT ABOUT HER FIRST HISTORICAL NOVEL
Alison Weir is a name that will be familiar to many: her nine previous non-fiction books provide a meticulous analysis of some of the most intriguing figures in medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan history. Her own trademark style is a densely narrated storyline tightly based on original sources: as one reviewer wrote last year “Alison Weir is a one-off. To describe her as a popular historian would be to state a literal truth – her chunky explorations of Britain’s early modern past sell in the kind of multiples that others can only dream of.” Yet, earlier this year, she decided to do the unthinkable for a serious historian and make the leap from fact to fiction. I met Alison Weir after she had spoken to a packed audience at the 2006 Edinburgh Book Festival about Innocent Traitor, her first historical novel, and I began by asking her what it was that had prompted her to embark on this uncharted journey into the murky waters of fiction?
Having written her first historical novel as a teenager, Alison said that she always wanted to try her hand at another. Finally, while she was working on Eleanor of Aquitaine, she realised that because much of the work had been done in the 1970s it really only needed “topping up”. Given that she had a little spare time, she decided to write a novel “for fun”. But she needed to choose a subject that wouldn’t be too demanding, and above all wouldn’t need any extra research. Moreover, it had to be a subject that would turn into a relatively short book but at the same time be a “gripping tale”. “There was no other choice,” she added, “it had to be Lady Jane Grey whose story is very tragic, but also very compelling.”
Innocent Traitoris written using an intriguing framework of changing narrators. This is clearly an ideal device for conveying different information and motives, and it adds to the tension of the novel by offering “an opportunity for all perspectives” to be included. Alison confessed to keeping one of her earlier books, Children of England: Heirs of Henry VIII, open beside her as she wrote Innocent Traitor. This suggested the narrators: “Jane couldn’t have known about certain aspects and events, and so I had to have different narrators. That’s how it came about.” Alison originally included sixteen narrators, but eight were edited out, although these parts have been rewritten into the main narrators that are left. In response to the complaint that some readers might find it confusing to distinguish between the minor characters, she replied, “I’ve read successful historical novels with over twenty narrators. I love the thread of dramatic irony that runs the book.” Then, with a laugh, she added self-deprecatingly, “I’ve seen it done better by other authors, but I’m a novice.”
It is a prohibited luxury for a historian to “get inside” a character’s head, making her say and feel things in a way that is completely off-limits for an “academic” historian. “Obviously,” Alison continued, “a historian does it at her peril. Often when I’m researching, I wonder how the characters felt. But, as a historian, you have to restrict yourself to real facts, to what you can infer legitimately from what you’re reading, so it’s liberating to make that leap of the imagination and to be your character.” She added, “that’s why I like writing in the first person. Although I have to say that my publishers would like to see me cope with the challenge of writing in the third person, in the past tense. So the next book is going to be a mixture: I’m going to be writing about Katherine Howard. There will be preliminary passages to each chapter with her interrogation in the present tense. Then she will go back in the first person, into the past tense to remember what really happened behind that interrogation.” She then admitted to another ambition by stating that she’s “long wanted to write a time-slip novel”. Although, she added, “I’d really have to think that through.”
Alison Weir’s best-known books have been about women: strong queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Isabella, also known as the “She-Wolf of France”, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots. I asked her whether she finds it easier to write from a woman’s point of view? She admitted that this was much more evident in her earlier work because “There were some female historians at the time, but I wanted to focus on people’s personal lives: the minutiae, the details of everyday life, the clothes. I think women readers, in particular, want to find out about this. Women have a more particular view of things, men have a broader view.” When writing Innocent Traitor, she found that “all the details that I have learnt about over the years are very helpful when writing a novel because they’re in your head and you just put them in naturally. I’d spent time reconstructing past worlds and I now had an opportunity to do it very, very colourfully, and it really helps.”
However, can’t too much detail be a hindrance? Doesn’t it drown the story, I asked? “When my agent saw the first draft of the novel, he commented that the first few pages were just a long spiel about the historical background. ‘There’s far too much information,’ he told me. This should be woven in naturally – into episodes, into conversations. He said, ‘Show rather than tell.’ This was a completely new concept for me.”
Leading on from there, I asked whether there was any area of research specifically required for a historical novel that was new to her? May be something that she would not have covered for a history book? Surprisingly, she replied that only one area was obviously new: Jane’s visit to the printers where she met Caxton. Otherwise, Weir admitted that the main bulk of the research had already been done.
One reviewer of Innocent Traitor picked up on a couple of anachronistic slips in the dialogue. In her own defence, Alison claims that you can never please everyone. This is language that she has dealt with over the years, and she has immersed herself in it by reading letters, speeches and plays. You get to know the turns of phrase, but “we’ll never know how they spoke”. “What is clear is that I’m writing for 21st-century readers. You’ve got to make the two lots of speech ‘meet in the middle’ and make it sound accessible to a modern reader. I was horrified to see that a couple of anachronisms had slipped in – they should not have got in there!” Comparing her approach to that used by other author, she added, “you can go ‘very modern’ as in Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen of Subtleties. But, I thought that her novel worked – I got a very real sense of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, more than in most historical novels about them. The language made me wince, but it was the author’s deliberate choice. Whatever you do, the language must be real.”
One of the problems about choosing such a well-known figure as Lady Jane Grey is that it can be hard to write a fictional account of story with a well-known ending. I asked Alison how she succeeded in maintaining the suspense and pace of this tragic story, as well as keeping tension and interest in the plot?
“A lot of people know Jane Grey as the Nine-Day Queen, and they know she was beheaded, but they don’t know about the inside story. Also right up to the end, Jane had a choice – she could have saved her own life, but she chose not to. Her faith wouldn’t allow her to, she couldn’t compromise. So even though you know the ending, you almost wish you could change it!” “However,” she went on, “in the end, readers don’t know how it will be told.” Moreover, she added, “sometimes a violent ending to a book can itself be an attraction. Look at how many novels are sold about Anne Boleyn and Mary Stuart – there are loads of them. It’s a genre that went out of fashion for many years, probably as much as three decades: there was a huge surge of interest in the 50s and 60s in historical novels centred on well-known figures, usually queens.”
I questioned Alison in particular about the Catholic confessor, Dr Richard Feckenham, who tries to help Jane come to terms with her conscience and with the impasse in which she finds herself while she is imprisoned in the Tower. Is he a real character, I wondered? Alison told me that he was Abbot of Westminster and a remarkable figure, one of the few who showed real compassion for Jane and her predicament. Unfortunately, she added, “the debate in the Tower was edited out, but in that scene Feckenham was the only one who was kind to her and made any attempt to understand her.” But, she stressed, the relationship with Feckenham “was another opportunity to demonstrate Jane’s ‘fundamentalism’. Throughout the novel, I was very conscious of the need to justify Jane’s dogmatic stance on religion. In other words, why did she decide to make herself a martyr?” In fact, in the closing chapters, it is clear that Jane sincerely believes that she would never meet Feckenham in the Hereafter. “In Jane’s mind, it is a stark ‘all or nothing’ situation.” When writing the novel, Alison Weir was also keen to show that Mary Tudor demonstrated unusual tolerance: “she was set against killing Jane. But she had no choice but to execute Jane, she was in a corner. It was Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, who was the real villain. In fact, the letters written by Jane to him are printed verbatim in the novel.”
Alison Weir started writing at the age of 14, and her first book was a novel about Anne Boleyn in which each of the 20 chapters was narrated by a different person. However, as with many teenage novels, it ended up in her bottom drawer, along with several others. She is now planning to write a non-fiction book about Anne Boleyn, based on her 17 days in the Tower – and, she joked, the novel might reappear in the future. Later, Alison went on to write The Six Wives of Henry VIII in three years in the early 70s, but was “very demoralised when it was rejected in 1974. After that, I didn’t finish anything else for a long time.” As often happens, work and family took over and writing was relegated to the odd spare moment. However, “when children went to school I thought, I’m going to have another go.” The rest is history, you might say.
A writer of Alison’s experience is well placed to comment on the changes that have taken place in both the popular history genre and historical fiction over the years. In particular, she told me how, “in the early days popular non-fiction was not allowed to have notes and references. It was seen as potentially alienating for the readers who were used to reading historical novels. Instead, I had to weave the sources into the text. It was horrendous because you wasted so much text. But after Eleanor of Aquitaine became a bestseller, I was allowed to include footnotes.”
When asked about which historical novelists had inspired her, Weir is lyrical in her praise of Hilda Lewis. “She was a great source of inspiration for the narrative – all written in the first person. Her books are among the finest historical novels ever written.” I was interested to learn that they are being reprinted by Tempus, thanks to Alison’s intervention since she edits one of their “Queens of England” series.
Norah Lofts is another inspirational writer. Alison Weir confessed that she has all 63 of her books, adding, “She is absolutely stunning”. And, of course, there’s Anya Seton. These three authors, she thinks, are “way ahead of any other historical novelist I know, though that’s a personal choice.” She stresses that “there’s a big push towards historical novels at the moment. Thank goodness for that! A lot of my author friends are thinking of crossing the divide.”
However, when I asked about some contemporary writers, Alison was less fulsome in her praise: “Tracy Chevalier writes beautifully and I’ve enjoyed reviewing her books. But sometimes I find them so slow. Where’s the narrative? I feel so overwhelmed by details that I don’t get any sense of her characters as real characters. They feel very shadowy, but that’s my own personal view. Her descriptive writing is wonderful.” Coming back to the genre, Weir emphasises that historical fiction is “undergoing a renaissance. Publishers are racing to get historical novels.” The genre has been influenced by the modern novel. “Sarah Dunant writes the most exquisite novels – she really brings a period to life. Although”, Alison pointed out, “her second novel (In the Company of the Courtesan) was over-heavy with description. You find yourself thinking ‘get on with the story’. But that’s me – I like a narrative that moves along quite quickly. I don’t have the patience to read a lot of description. However, it’s a new take on the historical novel.”
I am impressed by the work schedule that Alison Weir outlines for the coming months: she is currently writing a non-fiction book on Katherine Swynford, due to be published at Christmas. Thinking back to Anya Seton’s famous novel, Alison said that she “is quite amazed at what the research has thrown up. It’s very different from Anya Seton’s interpretation, in some ways, but in others I’m amazed at how Seton arrived at her conclusions. She had extraordinary insight.” Then, of course, there’s another novel in the pipeline: this time the heroine will be Katherine Howard and it’s scheduled to be written in the early part of next year. Having met Alison Weir and heard her talk about her writing with such passion and enthusiasm, I know the stories of both women are in safe hands.
© Lucinda Byatt