Writing A Secret Alchemy
Some years ago a cousin of mine rang up: did I want a ticket for the Young Vic Theatre, to see Shakespeare’s entire trilogy Henry VI, played by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a single day? It was an amazing day indeed. I knew the outlines of the history, but for the first time the character listed in the programme as ‘Lady Grey, afterwards Queen to Edward IV’ intrigued me. She fitted, too, into memories of Richard III, the folk-history of the Princes in the Tower, and Josephine Tey’s classic of historical detection, The Daughter of Time. By the time I was trundling home late that night on the bus, battle-weary and triumphant, there was a question ringing in my head: ‘What would it be like to be Elizabeth Woodville?’ By the time I got home, I knew I had to write a novel about her.
But straightaway I came up against the great dilemma of using real historical figures in fiction: what facts must you stick to and what may you invent? And there was too much that shaped Elizabeth’s life which she couldn’t have witnessed. I remember thinking, ‘If I have to make one more messenger ride up and tell the story of a battle that’s happened off-stage, this book’s going to sink forever.’ How I envied Elizabeth’s brother Anthony Woodville! He was a minor character in that novel, but such a compelling a figure: ‘An Elizabethan courtier a hundred years before his time’, one historian has called him. Frustrated, I put that novel on hold, while I set off into Wellington’s Europe with a soldier called Stephen Fairhurst.
But I couldn’t bear to put Elizabeth aside forever, and I’d fallen badly for Anthony. By the time The Mathematics of Love was well on its way I knew that my second book for Headline Review would be another go at Elizabeth. So far, so simple. But still there were things I wanted to say about that glamorous, violent age, when the business of the kingdom was a family business: things which they couldn’t see or wouldn’t have known, things about families, people who bring up children not their own, marriage for love and for politics, secret love and unsolved mysteries, things about storytelling and how it shapes our lives.
I’ve always been acutely aware of the presence of the past in the present, and rarely walk down a street without being conscious of how thin the divide is between ‘now’ and ‘then’. Lighting that divide, I realised, was how I could light the glittering darkness of the past. Una Pryor was born into the London I know: newly bereaved, once an orphan child within a family business, again the kind of business where jealousies and secret loves can make or break a whole world. Because Anthony Woodville was Caxton’s first English author I made Una a bibliographer; because I was wrestling with finding the life and breath in his real history, I made her do the same.
I’ve no time for historical fiction that just takes the text of a history book and colours in the food and the feelings, that puts period clothes on modern souls, or jerkily animates the puppets of the historical record. I love writers like Peter Ackroyd, Barry Unsworth and Rose Tremain: writers who take the heart of history and re-imagine and re-voice it, loosen the tethers of historical fact to find the human truth of the time. How was I ever going to do that?
Slowly, amid all the distractions of being a debut author – interviews, literary festivals, reviews, sales conferences, signings, readings and prize shortlists – I began to spin and then plait the different threads of my story. The breakthrough moment was when I saw Anthony’s single day’s ride to his death as a pilgrimage, his memories of his life like the Stations of the Cross. If I didn’t try to write a biography with conversations, but found and wrote such single, crucial moments of their lives, the stations of their pilgrimage, then I, too, could loosen the tethers of historical fact, and write the human truth of their story.
And if I did that, I realised, perhaps I would discover, as only a novelist can claim to discover, what happened to the princes: little Dickon taken from his mother Elizabeth, and Ned, the uncrowned boy-king, taken from the man who was his father in all but name, Anthony Woodville.