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MY TOP TEN FAVOURITE BOOKS
Alison Weir, 2014
Norah Lofts’ Suffolk Trilogy: The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset (1959-63)
This is the history of England evolving through the generations who lived in an old Suffolk house from 1381 to 1956. Beautifully written, thrilling and chilling, and much underrated. I have to keep re-reading it.
Tudor and Jacobean Portraits by Roy Strong (2 vols., HMSO, 1969)
I bought this set with a legacy from my grandfather, and it inspired over forty years of studying Tudor portraiture, a great love of mine. Without Roy Strong’s pioneering work the genre would never have been so well understood.
Costume and Fashion, vols. 2 and 3 (Medieval and Tudor) by Herbert Norris (1927, 1938)
Norris wrote and illustrated his encyclopaedic works decades ago, but they remain a fabulous source of information and fascination, and in their own way are minor works of art, in which I love browsing.
The Complete Peerage (6 vols., ed. G.H. White et al., 1910-1959)
This fuelled my early interest in royal and aristocratic genealogy, and I have spent many happy hours dipping into it over the years. The amount of information available is staggering.
Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England (8 vols., 1851)
When I was a teenager and first became passionate – and a little romantic - about history, I was desperate to get hold of a set of Strickland’s books, and in those days they weren’t easy to find. Years later I acquired a set of my own. Hopelessly outdated they may be, but they bear testimony to pioneering female scholarship in an age dominated by men, and are worth reading for the prose alone.
Katherine by Anya Seton (1954)
Still my all-time favourite historical novel, and I know that many people feel the same way about it. It charms me as much now as it did when I was fifteen, and it inspired me back then to write historical fiction. It’s a benchmark for the genre, and vividly evokes the world of the fourteenth century.
The Royal Palaces of Tudor England by Simon Thurley (1993)
This book is one of my treasured possessions. Its abundant illustrations and treasure trove of information on the subject open many portals onto a lost age. A bible for anyone who wants to understand the power politics and social customs of the Tudor age.
London: Hidden Interiors by Philip Davies (English Heritage, 2012)
I bought this stunningly illustrated book as a gift and had to keep it and buy another copy! It offers fabulous insights into the hidden gems of historic London. London is my city – this book is sheer joy to me.
Midnight is a Lonely Place by Barbara Erskine (1994)
I love reading about the supernatural, and time-slip novels, and the mistress of both is Barbara Erskine. This one is a great page-turner, horror mounts, and the suspense is gripping. An outstanding book from a gifted author, and one I return to again and again.
Ghost Song by Sarah Rayne (2009)
I am fearfully fascinated by derelict theatres – nothing would induce me to enter one – so I was deliciously terrified by this spine-tingling tale of a dark secret hidden for over a century.
ALISON WEIR: FAVOURITE BOOKS
From B.B.C. History Magazine, 2013
My favourite history title of the year so far is Edward III and the Triumph of England by the award-winning Richard Barber, one of our finest medieval historians. But this is no dry overview of the Hundred Years War; it is a sound, lively and engagingly detailed book about the individuals who fought in that war, of knights, chivalry, fashion, literature and the enduringly fascinating private lives of everyone from queens to freebooters. It will satisfy academics and history buffs alike. I cannot praise it highly enough.
It’s a huge challenge choosing my favourite history book of all time, as I have shelves full of favourites. Yet I have to opt for The Complete Peerage, a veritable treasure trove of information that is a must for every historian – and anyone who (like me) is captivated by royal and aristocratic genealogy. I first discovered The Complete Peerage when I was just fifteen – and I’ve been discovering wonderful things in it ever since.
The history book I’m most looking forward to in the coming months is Tracy Borman’s Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Having always been intrigued by witchcraft and the supernatural, this is a must for me, and all the more so because the story it relates is a historical one – that of the notorious witches of Belvoir. Tracy Borman, the joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, is a fine historian, and in her capable hands this grim tale will be told well.
Kate Williams also contributed her choices, and was kind enough to pick my Elizabeth of York:
To hear me speaking on Novel Approaches: Writing Historical Fiction at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in November 2011, go to:
Sarah Gristwood’s fiction debut, The Girl in the Mirror, this book sets a new benchmark for historical novels. Entrancing, compelling, and beautifully written, this is a fabulous book, bursting with integrity and authenticity, with wonderful period detail. Reading this, I felt the characters come to life as never before, and I was mesmerised by their story. The Girl in the Mirror is the historical novel as literary fiction—and damned good literary fiction at that.
I have long known that Sarah Gristwood is a formidable talent, and I've been delighted to endorse her non-fiction works in the past. In this novel, she evokes the Elizabethan period in stunning detail. As a historian, I'm familiar with all the characters, and I can say with surety that they are brilliantly drawn - Essex, Cecil, Elizabeth I, Katherine Carey - Sarah has captured them all perfectly. I find the detail breathtaking, not to mention her beautiful, elegant use of language and the way she conveys the poignancy of the human condition. Overall, it's a very reflective book, and unbearably sad in parts. And because it is so beautifully written, it is doubly shocking when the reader encounters vivid descriptions of violence. The story builds to a heart-rending climax - the passages towards the end are especially riveting - and stayed with me long after I had finished it. I particularly liked the way in which all the strands in the legend of the Essex ring suddenly came together.
Sarah Gristwood's knowledge of the Tudor period is extensive, and her research impressively comprehensive. She has huge talent and writes with integrity, and deserve the success that I am sure is coming her way.
(For my reviews of Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters, see the Lancaster and York page.)
WHAT EVERY LADY SHOULD HAVE ON HER SHELF…
by Alison Weir (2011)
I can think of nothing better to suggest than The Complete Works of Shakespeare, because all human life and experience is there, not to mention a wealth of the most beautiful lines and poems ever written. As Ben Jonson so presciently wrote, Shakespeare ‘was not of an age, but for all time’, and no writer portrays the human condition as vividly as he does. Here is history, comedy, tragedy, with a good sprinkling of sex, murder, intrigue and farce. No writer has ever understood humanity, or expressed that understanding, as well as Shakespeare. For me, he is the ultimate literary hero. The vitality and complexity of his plays, the timeless beauty of his sonnets, and the eloquent, witty way he portrays his long-vanished world are beyond sublime. I’ve chosen his works too because, at a time when a new film, Anonymous, is about to challenge yet again the authorship of the plays, I want to stand up as a historian and state that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare!
THE TWISTED TALE OF BLOODY MARY (TV Choice, 2008)
I discovered this film on the Amazon listings, and was amazed to find it, as I'd heard nothing about it. I must admit that the title put me off a bit, but I soon discovered that it did not detract from the film itself, which I much enjoyed (although I could not watch some scenes - I am pretty phobic about fire - and there are a few inaccuracies in dress and minor details).
I think this film has far more credibility than The Tudors (great drama, but not much to do with the historical Tudors, and with little sense of Tudor England) and other modern films about that period, such as the highly fictional The Other Boleyn Girl. Where it really scores is in engaging story-telling. I thought it gave a balanced and sympathetic view of Mary, and that it was wonderfully filmed and very well acted - and that it conveyed a convincing evocation of Tudor England. The beautifully shot scenes of the countryside were especially moving, and gave me the sense that I was really back there in the sixteenth century. I could not believe it had all been done on a small budget, and when you consider how well it succeeds, you wonder why film makers with bigger budgets can't get it right.
I liked the way that the different viewpoints of ordinary people were presented. The film's portrayal of Henry VIII was stunning. As I watched the movie, I kept wondering why it wasn't more high-profile.
It was easy to see that this film had been made with a lot of love and commitment. More to come, I hope!
(Since this review was written, TV Choice has come up with a wonderful screenplay for my book, The Lady in the Tower. Watch this space!)
From Scotland on Sunday, March 2003 (original unedited text):
What books are on your bedside table?
Advance copies of Elizabeth and Mary by Jane Dunn and Perkin by Ann Wroe, two wonderful new historical studies that are not only riveting reads but are also beautifully written.
Which books have you book unable to finish?
A number of modern literary novels and some recent historical ones where it is clear that the writer has not done nearly enough research, or does not fully understand the period.
What was your favourite childhood book?
A Child's Book of Ballet by Violet La Mont (New York, 1953). I always wanted to be a ballerina as a child, and I was entranced by the illustrations in this book, which I still have.
What book would you buy as a present?
I buy Antony Beevor's war histories and lan Rankin's novels for my husband, Dr Who and Harry Potter novels for my son, and Russian and American fiction for my daughter.
What literary character would you most like to meet?
Chaucer's Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales, because it would be fascinating to learn more about her marital and other amatory adventures, and she was probably a warm, wise and witty character.
What would you call your autobiography?
Stressed Out! Seriously, the title would probably be a paraphrase of a well-known quote on writing, such as A Vocation of Happiness (with apologies to Georges Simenon).
What books have made you laugh or cry?
1066 and All That still makes me laugh, even though I first read it decades ago. I wept when I read the scene in Gone With The Wind when Scarlett O'Hara returns to Tara and finds her mother dead.
Which book has had the most influence on your career?
It has to be the historical novel about Katherine of Aragon - Henry's Golden Queen by Lozania Prole - that I read when I was fourteen, which sent me off to the history books to find out the facts.
Which book should get the Hollywood treatment?
The Puppet Show by Patrick Redmond would make a wonderful thriller. It's a real page turner as a novel, with its theme of an unusual obsession, and would translate fantastically well to the screen.
Do you bookmark or page corner fold?
I use little metal filigreed initial bookmarks from Past Times, and sometimes decorated leather bookmarks from heritage shops.
Here is my review of Sarah Gristwood's first best-seller, Arbella, England's Lost Queen, from Waterstone's Books Quarterly, 2003:
ALISON WEIR`S CHOICE: A NEW NOVEL BY A FIRST TIME AUTHOR, AND AN ALL-TIME FAVOURITE
Woman and Home, 2012
I`m known to be a tough critic of modern historical novels, but Juliet by Anne Fortier is a stunner, a wonderful, original book. Elegantly – and seemingly effortlessly - written in breathtaking, vibrant and witty prose that blends beautifully with the clever use of quotes from Shakespeare, it interweaves an astonishing historic take on the tale of the star-crossed lovers with a fast-paced, modern thriller. Every sentence is a joy, every character lives, and medieval and modern Siena are brilliantly evoked. Siena, you are asking? Well, read the book and find out for yourself… The theme is delightfully original – it`s the kind of tale you wish you had thought up yourself. Anne Fortier has amazing talent and she has clearly read Shakespeare extensively - otherwise she could not have written this book. She is to be congratulated on a truly fabulous read. We will never see Romeo and Juliet in quite the same way again...
An all-time favourite? This one certainly will be. It`s Ghost Song by Sarah Rayne, although it was hard choosing just one of her incredible, fast-paced supernatural thrillers, because they are all superb. If you want a compelling page-turner with an original and authentic setting, look no further. I am first in the queue whenever Sarah Rayne publishes a new title. She should be up there among the mega-sellers. Ghost Song is set in an old music hall that mysteriously closed in 1914, and is both thrilling and chilling. `All theatres are haunted…,` Rayne writes, then goes on to tell of a modern surveyor who gradually uncovers the building`s sinister secret and then becomes menaced by its past. What is the truth about the ghost, and the actor who suddenly vanished? This is a powerful rollercoaster of a novel, with robustly drawn characters and a fiendishly twisting plot. You`ll be sleeping with the lights on after reading this one… Sweet dreams!
BOOKLIST – ALISON WEIR
For The Week, 2011
Tower by Nigel Jones (Hutchinson, 2011)
An epic of a book, rich in authentic detail and drama, and packed with wonderful tales and anecdotes. The pacy narrative rattles along from Julius Caesar to the Krays, and at times makes for grim but compelling reading. It’s an ambitious project that is long overdue. Bravo!
Matilda, Queen Of The Conqueror by Tracy Borman (Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Having researched the subject myself, I am aware of how extensively and expertly Dr Borman has marshalled her sources. Remarkably, across a gap of almost a thousand years, she builds a picture of a passionate and determined woman who wielded power - and courted tragedy - in a male-dominated feudal world.
The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind The Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch (Jonathan Cape, 2010)
This is history as it should be written - lively, entertaining, engaging and soundly grounded in fact. The scope of Anneliese Freisenbruch's research and knowledge is impressive, and she brings with it the ability vividly to tell the astonishing stories of these long-dead women for a modern audience.
The Girl In The Mirror by Sarah Gristwood (HarperPress, 2011)
I was entranced by this book and enjoyed it enormously. The Elizabethan period is evoked beautifully and authentically, and the detail is breathtaking, as is Sarah Gristwood’s elegant use of language. As first-class literary fiction, this book sets a new benchmark for historical novels.
Heartstone by C.J. Sansom (Mantle, 2010)
This year, I read all C.J. Sansom’s series of books in the Shardlake series; this one in particular was riveting. How does he do it? This is the fifth in a dynamic series, and the pace and plots never flag. More please!
Arthur Tudor, Prince Of Wales: Life, Death And Commemoration edited by Steven Gunn and Linda Monckton (The Boydell Press, 2009)
This is the kind of academic history that never fails to draw me in. My children might laugh at the notion of my spending the Sixties in libraries, but I was on an exciting journey of my own, devouring excellent, comprehensive studies like this one.
BOOKLIST - ALISON WEIR
For The Week, 2014
Norah Lofts’ Suffolk trilogy - The Town House,1959; The House at Old Vine,1961; The House at Sunset,1963 - encapsulates six hundred years of England’s history told through stories of those who lived in a medieval Suffolk house. Lofts deserves to be accounted one of the great writers of the 20th century. She creates a world in which her characters wrestle with fortune or commit dark deeds, and tragedy leaves its imprint.
Green Darkness by Anya Seton,1968. I love all Anya Seton’s novels, but this one is particularly haunting. The story focuses on two mysterious houses, Cowdray Park, Sussex, now a ruin, and Ightham Mote, Kent, and the tale of a walled-up skeleton in the hall.
Wife to the Bastard by Hilda Lewis,1966. Lewis was one of the greatest historical novelists of the last century, and it is hard to choose just one of her books, but this is the novel that drew me to her work, and in weaving a rich tapestry of the life of Matilda of Flanders, queen of William the Conqueror, it sets a benchmark for the genre, combing dramatic storytelling and credible characterisations.
I Am England by Patricia Wright, 1987. This book won the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize, and deservedly so, because it is effectively the story of England’s past up till Tudor times. Its sequel, That Near and Distant Place, takes us from the Civil War to the Second World War. Both are brilliantly done.
We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman,1971. I first read this when I was twenty, and was entranced by it. It portrays Richard III from the viewpoints of several people who knew him, and does it beautifully. Today I would take issue on its sympathetic revisionist angle, but that should not detract from a mesmerising work of fiction.
ARTICLES ABOUT ALISON/ INTERVIEWS WITH ALISON
From Excelle magazine, January 2010
Alison Weir has made a name for herself as an historical biographer whose subjects have included: the Princes in the Tower; Henry VIII; Anne Boleyn and Mary, Queen of Scots. In 2006, she crossed over into fiction exploring the life of Lady Jane Grey and most recently Elizabeth I. Traitors of the Tower, a novel [sic] for emergent adult readers will be released on 4th March and The Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine will follow on 1st April.
You've written a lot on the Tudor period - why the fascination?
AW: It's such a colourful period and hugely dramatic - you just couldn't make it up! The six wives of Henry VIII, for example! This period is dynamic and exciting, but more significantly for a historian, there are plenty of facts available. The Tudors lived when the private lives of monarchs were becoming public knowledge, and with both the growth of diplomacy and literacy came some fantastic records, not just written but also visual, for example Holbein's paintings. For almost the first time, we can visualise these characters we have heard so much about. The wealth of documentation is a historian's dream.
How do you set about blending the storytelling elements of biography with the drier facts of history-writing?
AW: Essentially every story hangs on facts; sometimes you can have a huge amount of information, other times, much less. For example, for the seventeen days Anne Boleyn was kept in the Tower prior to her execution, we have a glut of knowledge yet for the first decade or so of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon, we actually know very little. It's very important to get the right balance between fact and fiction, and of course, the beauty of writing fiction is the freedom to weave a story between the gaps.
Can you provide a brief insight into what makes Anne Boleyn such an interesting figure?
AW: Everything that happened to her, quite simply. What a career that woman had and what a cataclysmic fall: love affairs, sex scandals, high politics. I find Elizabeth I a fascinating character as well, as I really think she struggled with being overshadowed by her mother, Anne.
Is there anything more to say on the Tudors, or are you looking to diversify into other areas?
AW: I'll always love the Tudor period and certainly feel there is more to write on it; I'm planning a sequel to my novel The Lady Elizabeth, and I want to explore Katherine Howard's story more. Having said that, my next novel, The Captive Queen, focuses on medieval times with the interaction between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.
Do you think the distinction between popular and serious biography has hecome blurred?
AW: As a non-fiction author, I write 'popular' history: a term which has sometimes been used in a derogatory sense, but history is not the sole preserve of academics. History belongs to us all, and it can be accessed by us all. And if writing it in a way that is accessible and entertaining, as well as conscientiously researched, can be described as popular, then, yes, I am a popular historian, and am happy to be one. However, I feel that an author has a responsibility to be as true to the facts as is possible. In The Lady Elizabeth, I introduced a controversial plot in which the young Elizabeth struggles with an illicit (and highly treasonous) pregnancy; however, I didn't just make this up for a juicy story: there is documented evidence of a midwife coming forward. When historical novelists simply fabricate facts, they distort history and lose all integrity. We can all learn from a study of the past. We can discover more about ourselves and our own civilisation.
The Richmond Magazine, April 2008
By Helene Parry
Millions of us enjoy historical dramas - from old favourites like Anne of the Thousand Days to the B.B.C.'s latest version of Robin Hood. But all is frequently not as it appears. Informed viewers of last year's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett, would have been taken aback at the sight of Mary, Queen of Scots playing with her West Highland White terrier - 400 years before the breed existed. And then there was the Sheriff of Nottingham, in the aforementioned Robin Hood, counting down "tick-tock" to peasants who would never have heard a clock.
Author and historian Alison Weir, who will be speaking at the Kingston Readers' Festival, finds such errors irksome.
"I was historical adviser for the T.V. drama Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone," she recalls. "For two years I read the scripts and made suggestions. And they ignored everything. You have to allow for dramatic licence, but the designers had all the right books and could have made it authentic. But they didn't. They had the right costumes though - to within 60 years of the period!"
And Alison should know. Her historical biographies, such as Elizabeth The Queen (a life of Elizabeth I) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, are noted for their attention to detail. More recently, she has also begun writing historical fiction - the genre that first sparked her interest in the past.
"When I was 14, I read my first adult novel, Henry's Golden Queen, about Catherine of Aragon. It was a bit fanciful, but it seemed sexy at the time!"
Her school history textbooks, however, proved less engaging. "I got my history O-level on the Industrial Revolution, but I wanted to learn about the people involved. I felt that it was human beings who made history. Sadly the history teachers wouldn't let me do A-level. I turned up with a book I'd written myself, about Anne Boleyn, and the teacher's jaw dropped, but it was too late for me to get on the course!"
In the end her work paid off. Not only did she pass her A-level "under my own steam", but she was soon researching and writing historical biographies. At the festival, she will discuss her latest, Katherine Swynford: The Story of John Of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess. Again, it was a teenage discovery that sparked Alison's interest in this character.
"I've wanted to write about her for 40 years, ever since reading Katherine by Anya Seton," says Alison. "It was published in 1954 and was very daring for its time. The heroine demonstrates the values of the 1950s. She wants to marry for love, which in her own time was quite unknown."
Such historical fiction, as Alison points out, is many people's way into history.
"There's an ongoing debate about how accurate it should be. You sometimes have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. But some readers never make the leap from pure fiction to truth. Elizabeth: The Golden Age was a travesty. The locations were 300 years out of date. Walter Raleigh would never have got into the Queen's presence wearing an open-necked shirt. And Mary, Queen of Scots wouldn't have spoken with a Scottish accent - she grew up in France, and French was her native tongue."
By contrast, Alison did enjoy The Tudors, last year's hit TV drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII.
"I expected to have apoplexy when I saw it, but while I loved it as drama, I shuddered at the inaccuracies."
The Tudor era, indeed, has always been her favourite period.
"It has such vivid, strong personalities," she explains, "and it's so well documented. For the first time in history we have good portraits of people, so the faces become real. We have letters to give insights into the private lives of kings and queens, which we didn't in medieval times."
For a writer of historical fiction, however, pursuit of accuracy is not the only challenge.
"In a biography, you go straight from A to B. But with historical fiction, twenty editors will have twenty different ideas! When I started writing fiction, I'd published over ten non-fiction hooks and thought I knew my stuff. But I learned so much from the editing process. I had to show, rather than tell; move the narrative from action to conversation."
It takes Alison 18 months to research a history book and six months to write it.
"Detail can teach us so much about character and period. Original sources are the best. But you have to look at how other historians interpret things, and make your own decisions."
And Alison has every reason in life to back her own judgment. More so, it would seem, than some of her associates.
"Since the 1970s I've been working on the genealogy of Britain's aristocracy. In 1981 I sent a manuscript to a literary agency, suggesting a book on Diana, who had just become engaged to Prince Charles. The agent said that people would soon lose interest in her!"
Readers too have been known to react to her work with disdain.
"One letter told me that my book on the Princes in the Tower was only fit for the bin. I wrote badk, saying it was best to remain objective about these things. The writer replied and apologised!"
In any case, with a wealth of rave reviews in the press - The Independent drooled over her "pacy, vivid style " that "engages the heart as well as the mind" - Alison's reputation is safe. Yet even she can fall prey to the kind of errors that so niggle her in others. In an early draft of one book, she had Anne of Cleves meeting Henry VIII in a 'Dutch cap'. Fortunately, her editor spotted the Freudian slip. How long, one wonders, before this insalubrious vision hits our screens.
MY TOP TEN HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHIES by ALISON WEIR
The Good Book Guide, June 2007
It is very difficult for me to choose just ten biographies because there are so many that I have read and enjoyed – not to mention found useful – over the years. But after enormous deliberation, I have come up with the following list (although the numbering is purely arbitrary, as it was a very close-run thing!):
1 Antonia Fraser: Mary, Queen of Scots (1969). I had to place this first since
it set a new standard in historical biography, and because it was the one
book that really inspired me to write about the lives of kings and queens.
2 Eric Ives: Anne Boleyn (1986) and The life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004)
- these are without doubt the best studies of Anne Boleyn ever written.
3 Anthony Goodman: John of Gaunt (1992). A wonderful, balanced academic study,
packed with fascinating detail, that brings to life this most controversial
of medieval figures.
4 Sarah Gristwood: Elizabeth and Leicester (2007). This book encapsulates
what historical biography should be, and is so elegantly written. Sarah
Gristwood is one of the best historians writing today.
5 Lacey Baldwin Smith: Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (1971). Simply the
best psychological study of Henry VIII ever to appear in print. Masterful
6 Jessie Childs: Henry VIII`s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard,
Earl of Surrey (2006). Another riveting example of quality historical
biography, a lively and vivid evocation of a character and a period.
7 D.C. Douglas: William the Conqueror (1964). Another early inspiration;
this is academic – and highly accessible – historical biography at its very
8 Deborah Cadbury: The Lost King of France (2002). A gripping,
mesmerising example of historical investigation that reads like a thriller.
9 Kate Williams: England`s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton
(2006). A dazzling and triumphant biography that breaks new ground
in the genre.
10 (This is really cheating.) Anything by David Loades! He’s one of the best Tudor historians writing today.
"In what ways have you tailored your writing environment to help you do the job?" (2012)
Alison Weir writes:
We converted a double garage into a library! Just over a decade ago, I lived in a three-storey house in Surrey with my bookshelves on the two lower floors and my desk on the top floor – you can imagine how often I had to run up and down the stairs whenever I needed to look up something. For a historian, that was a nightmare. Then we moved to a house in Scotland with three large reception rooms, one of which – oh, joy – I was able to use as a combined library and study. It was a necessity really, as my collection of history books was expanding rapidly.
Scotland didn’t work out, and within two years we were property-hunting back in Surrey, looking in vain, it seemed, for a house with sufficient reception rooms to enable me to recreate my library. But the description ‘study’ usually meant a shoe-box large enough only for a desk and computer, even in large properties. After looking at sixty houses and coming near to despair, we at last found our otherwise dream home, and decided we would have to convert the garage, which was even bigger than my room in Scotland. Thus it was that I was able to tailor my environment to the needs of my profession. We had the space professionally converted, then I had the walls lined with shelves, which, even now, eight years later, are always crammed thanks to the never-ending flow of new titles.
It has been wonderful to have this room in which to research and write – I spend my happiest hours here, and I’m not the only one. Everyone loves this room, with its soft and rich green tones, its spaciousness and comfort. But for me it’s more than that. As I sit at my desk, I am surrounded by inspiration in the form of the thousands of books that line the shelves – most of them historical, arranged in chronological and subject order, as well as collections of books on art, portraiture, costume and – wait for it – rock memorabilia (in my other life!). Here too are paintings, including an exceptional copy of Miguel Sittow’s Katherine of Aragon, old prints, family photographs, historical mementoes and ornaments, CDs, LPs, DVDs, even a reproduction Duccio triptych and a model of Hampton Court done in sand by an iconic Sixties rock star whose autobiography I edited. There’s a sofa, a table and four chairs for board games, and the cat’s basket. It’s peaceful and quiet here, and I can immerse myself in my work. Heaven!
From Surrey Life, 2007:
For The Book Show (Sky Arts) I was asked to select my favourite line of poetry, one that has a special resonance for me. What a tough choice! In the end I chose the last line from Robert Frost’s poem 'Hyla Brook': ‘We love the things we love for what they are.’ Those lines made an incredible impact on me as a teenager; I love the acceptance they imply. And the fact there is no need to change anything or anyone.
From the Daily Mail, March 2011:
Wicked Countesses Should Never Be Whitewashed
From my review of Unnatural Murder by Anne Somerset, The Literary Review, 1997
In Unnatural Murder, Anne Somerset chronicles the notorious Overbury poisoning case of 1613-16, which she describes as 'arguably the greatest court scandal to have occurred at any time in English history'.
There is, indeed, scandal enough here to satisfy the greediest reader. Robert Carr (above, centre left), who first rose to the rank of Viscount Rochester and then Earl of Somerset, was the beloved and indulged favourite of King James I, who reigned from 1603 to 1625. Carr had the misfortune to fall in love with the nobly-born Lady Frances Howard, who had been married at thirteen in 1606 to the Earl of Essex. This marriage was not happy, and had not even been consummated: the Earl, it was claimed, was impotent - at least with Frances. When Frances fell in love with Robert Carr, she refused to cohabit any more with her husband, and her powerful relatives applied to have the marriage annulled. Despite her clandestine relationship with her lover, Frances managed to convince a panel of matrons and midwives that she was virgo intacta, and - despite grave doubts on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury - her marriage to Essex was formally dissolved. It is certain that the King, who was not a jealous man, had exerted pressure so that his favourite could have the woman he wanted.
In 1613 Robert Carr, now Earl of Somerset, was married to Frances Howard in a magnificent ceremony at Whitehall. Some time before his marriage, Carr had come under the influence of the clever but overbearing Sir Thomas Overbury (above right), who loathed Frances Howard and had insulted her in his letters, something Frances could never forgive. Overbury had been privy to the secret love affair between her and Carr, and at a time when both parties were anxious to secure the annulment of the Essex marriage, had openly and virulently opposed their plan to marry. As a result, Carr contrived to have Overbury imprisoned in the Tower to get him out of the way and shut him up, so that the outcome of the nullity suit would not be threatened. King James was happy to comply, for he too desired a union between Carr and Lady Frances.
But Overbury would not shut up, and Frances decided to take matters into her own hands. In September 1613 Overbury died, poisoned, it was said, by an enema administered by an apothecary's boy. There is no doubt that Frances had sent poison into the Tower on at least two occasions: once in a phial and once in some tarts. Whether death was actually due to these poisons or to natural causes is another matter, about which Anne Somerset has some intriguing theories.
Many people were privy to the plot, from the Lieutenant of the Tower to the unsavoury quacks in the pay of Lady Frances. Later, it was claimed - probably unfairly - that Carr had been the instigator of the poison plot, and there were even unfounded rumours that King James himself had been involved. Nevertheless, it was two years before a murder inquiry was set up. This led to the Earl and Countess of Somerset being arraigned for murder, and to the trials and executions of various minor plotters.
An enormous amount of research has gone into Unnatural Murder and enriched the narrative. It's a riveting read, a tale fraught with suspense. The author calls Frances Howard 'a remarkable woman, differing radically from the conventional pattern of docile femininity which seventeenth-century females were expected to follow. Everything indicates that she had great strength of will and a fiercely independent spirit.' Yet everything indicates to me that Frances was a murderess (at least in intent), spoilt, frivolous and willful, and that the reputation she has had for centuries has been the one she richly deserved.
INTERVIEW FOR THE WEALD AND DOWNLAND OPEN-AIR MUSEUM'S MAGAZINE, 2012
You are appearing at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum's Historical Fiction Day on Sunday, 5th August. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
In the wake of the boom in historical novels, the relationship between academic history and historical fiction has become a subject of great interest to historians. As historians who also write historical novels, Kate Williams and I will be discussing our own moves into fiction and voicing our views and concerns, posing the questions: why have historical novels become 'respectable', and why anecdotally are historians being encouraged to write them? What is the difference between historical fiction and academic history, and how rigid are the boundaries between the two these days? How good are readers at differentiating between 'fact' and 'fiction' and how much does it matter if they don't? Is it easier to write a historical novel based on a real character than one about one who is entirely fictional? Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history, and what can literary authors and historians learn from each other?
You have visited the museum several times before, so what encourages you to keep going back?
It's a wonderful place, somewhere you can immerse yourself in living history, where the lives of ordinary people through the centuries are made vivid reality for a few precious hours. Imagine what it was like to be a fourteenth-century peasant, a prosperous fifteenth-century yeoman farmer, a toll-booth keeper or a Victorian country school child. More than any documented evidence, these immaculately rescued and restored buildings give us an immediate sense of the past.
Do you have a favourite time period or section of the museum that captures your interest more than another?
I love it all, but the Bayleaf Farmhouse draws me in again and again, as it relates to a period – the late fifteenth century – with which I am very familiar. All the medieval buildings resonate with me – they are incredible survivals, and it’s amazing to see them restored to their original state.
You will be meeting up with writers such as Maria McCann, Jane Borodale, Emma Darwin, Michael Arnold, R.N. Morris, Gabrielle Kimm, Jane Feaver, Siobhan Clarke, Lesley Parker and Kate Williams on the day. How important is it, as a writer, that you connect with others to form a writing community?
I think it’s very helpful to be able to get together with other writers to discuss individual experiences of what is essentially a solitary occupation. It’s important to have professional support networks, and it’s intellectually stimulating to exchange ideas.
You, Siobhan and Kate are part of the History Girls group. Can you expand upon this for us?
The History Girls – that’s me, Kate Williams, Siobhan Clarke, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman - are all about history with attitude. The History Girls are best-selling, critically acclaimed and engaging historians whose expertise spans more than 1,000 years of history. We work together professionally, giving joint talks and interviews, and looking at key historic figures and moments from an insightful and lively female perspective, offering a timely investigation of the vital roles that women have played in history. In 2011, we published our first book, The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011, for Hutchinson. We deal with famous names and major events, but always try to come at them from a new angle, with human stories and fascinating detail, revealing a new insight into the lives of those who lived history; both the high and mighty, and the ordinary people of the past.
Whose writing style do you admire the most?
The novelist Norah Lofts’. I have all her books.
How important do you believe it is to keep history alive through the medium of fiction?
I think it’s important to keep history alive – or rather, to make it live for people - through sound research and accessible books, be they fiction or non-fiction.
Why do you think there has been a surge in historical fiction?
For the best part of three decades, you could only obtain historical novels (such as are popular now) in libraries. Publishers wouldn’t touch them. Then someone took a risk and published Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Against all the odds, it was a roaring success, because it filled a crucial gap in the market. And then, of course, other publishers started commissioning historical fiction, and a new genre was established.
How can you achieve historical accuracy in fiction without it sounding too much like a history book?
You ‘show rather than tell’, and use your imagination credibly, keeping to the historical record where it exists.
INTERVIEW FOR THE IRISH TIMES, 2014
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
A children's book called Pantomime Stories. I had loved fairy tales from infancy, and this book held magic for me. I repeatedly borrowed it from our local library, and recently I finally obtained a copy on eBay.
What was your favourite book as a child?
A Child's Book of Ballet. I adored ballet, and wanted to be a ballerina.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Anything by Norah Lofts. I think she is one of the great unsung authors of the twentieth century.
What is your favourite quotation?
One by Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century anchoress: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner thing shall be well."
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. (Especially when played by Toby Stephens!)
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I'd find that hard to say. Oscar Wilde is a great favourite of mine, but he's certainly not underrated.
Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?
The traditional print version. I don't like ebooks.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
Gilded tooled-leather editions of four of my own books, and a stunningly produced edition of the Kelmscott Chaucer.
Where and how do you write?
In my library at home, on a desktop computer.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
My first novel, Innocent Traitor. I learned so much from the editorial process about the writing and craft of fiction.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
Two lever-arch files packed to capacity with notes and transcriptions, plus a ringlet file full of biographical notes and info on places. That was standard for most of my books until I started incorporating research into an online text.
What book influenced you the most?
What book would you give to a friend's child on their 18th birthday?
Probably a book on travel (depending on where they wanted to go) and broadening one's horizons.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. How much more enjoyable grammar would have been!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Never give up!
What weight do you give reviews?
Not much, as they represent just one person's opinion. It depends on how you rate the reviewer. What they write can tell you as much about them as the book they are reviewing, and so many have an agenda.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I hope that with the ending of the recession things will improve for publishers. After all, people will always want to read books.
What has being a writer taught you?
An inestimable amount in regard to the way books are written, and that a book is only a contribution to a debate at a given point in time.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Chaucer and Shakespeare - I couldn't imagine better or more witty company!
What is the funniest scene you've read?
Mavis Cheek's The Lovers of Pound Hill has so many funny scenes that I couldn't choose between them, and the same could be said for Philippa Gregory's Alice Hartley's Happiness.
What is your favourite word?
Love. When all else is gone, that is what remains, and it is infinitely beautiful.
INTERVIEW FOR LISA'S READS BLOG, 2014
Q1 What do you find easier to write; fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction is easier because you don't have to annotate or reference everything, yet it too has its challenges. When writing historical fiction you certainly have more scope for creativity, but you have also to ensure that you maintain credibility. And there can be so many different approaches, so you need to choose the right one.
Q2 Are you a planner or a pantser?
I had to look up 'pantser' – had never heard the term! I know where I'm going from the outset, as I've usually done decades of research on my fiction subjects. It doesn't take long before I'm on a roll!
Q3 Why do you think the fascination with the Tudors endures generation after generation?
It's such a colourful period and hugely dramatic - you just couldn't make it up. The six wives of Henry VIII, for example! This period is dynamic and exciting, but more significantly for a historian, there are plenty of facts available. The Tudors lived when the private lives of monarchs were becoming public knowledge, and with both the growth of diplomacy and literacy came a wealth of vivid records, not just written but also visual: for example Holbein's paintings. For almost the first time, we can visualise these characters we have heard so much about. The abundance of documentation is a historian's dream.
Q4 Who are your favourite historical characters?
Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katherine of Aragon (after whom I named my daughter) and Elizabeth of York. There is so much to admire in all of them.
Q5 What are you working on now/next?
I am working on The Princess of Scotland, a biography of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, and revising an earlier book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
Q6 What are your favourite books/authors and why?
Anya Seton, Norah Lofts and Hilda Lewis were all great writers of historical novels who inspired me to write. I still have novels I wrote as a teenager after reading their wonderful books, and they are still my favourite historical novelists. No one writing in that genre today can beat them.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR
When did you first become interested in history and writing?
Alison revealed that her passion for history was sparked at the age of fourteen when she read her first adult novel, Henry’s Golden Queen, about Katherine of Aragon. This prompted her to read history books to check the accuracy of the historical detail and to begin her early research and writings which would culminate in the publication of her first work Britain’s Royal Families.
Who or what has influenced your writing?
As far as fiction is concerned, the works of three historical novelists: Anya Seton , Norah Lofts and Hilda Lewis. Alison revealed that she has been instrumental in getting some of the works of these three authors reprinted.
You write both historical novels and history books. Which would you say that you prefer writing? Is the process similar?
‘The process is very different for each. History is a narrative with wonderful stories and characters but you are constrained by the sources. All facts must be checked and verified. With a historical novel you make use of the facts where they exist but where they don’t creativity can be used credibly to fill in the missing information.’ Feedback from Alison’s readers at events and from e-mails show that they care that historical novels are accurate in terms of events and other details.
An accomplished and popular historical author, what made you turn your hand to writing fiction?
In the late 1990s, Alison was researching and writing a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Where women in history are concerned, there are very few recorded facts, and these must be carefully pieced together by the historian. There is sometimes no way of filling the gaps, which prompted Alison to try her hand at writing a novel about a real historical figure, the fascinating Lady Jane Grey. A few years, and some rewrites, later, what had started out as a diversion for herself became her first published novel Innocent Traitor.
Do you like to relax when you have finished writing a book or are you itching to get on with the next one?
Alison writes her novels and history books back to back. She has just been commissioned to write three more non-fiction historical works, and has already begun work on the first of these, a biography of Mary Boleyn. There are also three new novels in the pipeline, one of which will be a sequel to the highly acclaimed The Lady Elizabeth. This year, 2009, Alison will have been working on no fewer than seven books. However she does take regular family holidays where she switches off completely from the research and writing!
How do you balance the research, writing and promotional aspects of your job?
In the last ten to twelve years, Alison’s fame has grown, and the subsequent demands upon her time have escalated accordingly. This began with the amazing success in Britain and the USA of her biography Elizabeth the Queen, published coincidentally at the same time as the release of the two films 'Shakespeare in Love' and 'Elizabeth'. However, such success has proved to be a double-edged sword, with more and more events, emails, interviews and book tours eating into Alison`s writing time.
Alison researches as she writes. When writing historical novels, she draws upon her vast bank of published and unpublished works to inform the story and background details.
Can you tell us about your writing routines?
Mornings are left free for admin, emails and telephone calls. Alison starts working at 2pm, writes until 6pm, then takes a short break for dinner – fortunately her husband is a brilliant chef - before resuming writing at 6.30pm. Unless she is doing an event, she works through until 9pm, then spends a couple of hours watching films with her husband, before working on other projects from 11pm onwards, often going to bed after 2am.
She has just finished editing her forthcoming book The Lady in The Tower: The fall of Anne Boleyn (out October 2009), and is about to complete her third novel, on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.
If you could take only one book to a desert island what would it be?
Norah Lofts` ‘Suffolk House’ trilogy: The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset. This epic trilogy spans the period from the time of the Peasants` Revolt until the 1950s. It tells the story of a house, the families that lived in it and – effectively – the history of England up to the 1950s. In Alison’s opinion, it is one of the best historical novels of all time.
LAST WORD FROM... ALISON WEIR
Interview for Ottakers booksellers, 2003
1. With which book would you choose to be stranded on a desert island?
I'm greedy, I want three books, Norah Lofts' "House" trilogy: The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset. I first read these in the Sixties, and they have been my favourite books ever since.
2. What is the worst book you have lever read?
It's a toss between To the Lighthouse or Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
3. If you weren't a best-selling writer, what would you have ended up as?
A housewife and mother with a passion for history.
4. What was the last book that you bought?
Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock’d by Janet Arnold. I bought it this week at the National Portrait Gallery.
5. Have you ever submitted a really nasty review of a rivals book anonymously to an Internet site? What about a really good review of your own book, anonymously to an Internet site?
I have never submitted any reviews to any internet sites, and I will only ever write a review if I can give a good one, because I don't feel it’s my place to rubbish other authors’ books, especially since I know how much effort goes into a book.
6. What character out of all your books do you most identify with?
I daren't compare myself with Elizabeth I, although I would like to do so in some ways, so I'll settle for Katherine of Aragon. I hope that my principles would prove as staunch as hers if put to the test.
7. Sex. Can you write it, or are you just fumbling in the dark?
I have no problem with writing about sex, since it's a subject that often crops up in historical biography, although the novels with fictional sex scenes that I have written are not yet in print.
8. At school, were you a jock, a bookworm or a nerd?
I was a bookworm. My children laugh at me for spending the Sixties in libraries.
9. Your new book, Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, has just been published, can you tell us what it's about?
It's a re-examination of one of the most controversial mysteries in history, and my conclusions were based on a wide range of contemporary and secondary sources. And what, you may ask, were those conclusions? I'm not telling - you'll just have to read the book!
10. What soundtrack is playing in your head when you write?
I usually play CDs of medieval and Renaissance music whilst I am researching, but I need peace and quiet when I come to write the book.
11. Have you ever read a Booker prize winner?
No. They're not my kind of books.
12. What was your favourite book as a child?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
13. If you could change the plot of any book, what would you do?
I wouldn"t tamper with anyone else's book.
14. If your latest book got made into a film, who would you cast as the lead?
I would probably opt for Joely Richardson or Reese Witherspoon as Mary, Queen of Scots.
15. What should be the punishment for people who break the spines of their books?
Ban them from public libraries.
16. Do you ever sneak into bookshops and rearrange displays in your favour?
Of course - I do it all the time. And I ensure that books by author friends are prominently displayed.
17. Censorship? Is there any reason good enough for banning a book?
Absolutely. Sickening violence and obscenity, and vulgarity; these elements do society no favours.
18. What are the best and worst things about being a bestselling author?
The best things are: recognition of one's work; being invited to so many interesting events and meeting so many fascinating people; the ability to do something you love, and would otherwise do for a hobby, for a living.
The worst thing is never having enough hours in a day to get on with the next book.
19. Which author has been the biggest influence or inspiration for you?
Many authors have inspired me, among them Lady Antonia Fraser, Norah Lofts, A.L. Rowse, Arthur Bryant and Sir Maurice Powicke.
20. So, what's in the pipeline now?
Books on Isabella, the She-Wolf of France (which I'm researching now); the women in Charles II"s life; and Lucrezia Borgia. There are ongoing discussions about a book on John of Gaunt, which I've been wanting to write for years. I'm also acting as historical adviser for the forthcoming Granada TV series on Henry VIII, and the BBC are currently planning a drama series based on my biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
THE LADY AND THE UNICORN by TRACY CHEVALIER
Review by ALISON WEIR for The Evening Standard, 2003
With a very few honourable exceptions, I don't normally enjoy modern historical novels. For me, the great age of historical novel writing came to an end about twenty years ago with the demise of such masters as Norah Lofts, Anya Seton and Hilda Lewis, whose books I still re-read avidly. The new tradition of historical novels does nothing for me: either they are poorly researched, or there is no proper narrative, or the use of the present tense jars. Sadly, I find few page turners in this particular genre.
Therefore I approached The Lady and the Unicorn with trepidation, wondering if I was the right person to review it and do it justice, because I am the first to accept that my tastes are rarely those of the majority. Nevertheless, as I have a special affection for the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (I have reproductions of two in my home), and had enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's earlier novel, The Virgin Blue, I agreed to undertake the review, and am now very glad that I did. For here is a beautifully written tale, 'a novel about creating art", as the author says - and I could not put it down.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musee National du Moyen Age at Cluny are famous worldwide, but very little is known about the people who created them in the late Middle Ages. They were probably commissioned by a French nobleman, Jean Le Viste, President of the
Court of Aids under Louis XI and Charles VIII, and on his death in 1500 they apparently passed into the possession of his daughter Claude
and her husband. However, the name of the artist who designed the tapestries is unknown (although several theories have been advanced), and the workshop where they were woven cannot be conclusively identified.
Tracy Chevalier has taken the few known facts and crafted an exquisite, moving and convincing story, drawing realistic and rounded
characters who each tell their aspect of the tale. The theme of the five senses that appears in the tapestries is woven into the plot so cleverly that our perception of the novel is sharpened. The author's greatest triumph, however, is her powerful and well-researched evocation of the long-lost world of late fifteenth century Paris and Brussels, which is brought to life for us in picturesque description, homely details and the skilful portrayal of a set of values that can only appear alien, and often harsh, to our modern, secular age.
This is not just a novel about the creation of a work of art, but a tale of ambition, lust, betrayal and heartbreak, a tale of how the making of these fascinating tapestries came to affect the lives of all who came into contact through them, and what inspired their creators.
If I have any criticism to make, it is that at times there is a little too much repetitious technical detail: I found myself skimming over a few of these passages, as I was too anxious to learn what happened next. That apart. The Lady and the Unicorn is a compelling and enormously enjoyable work, with characters that would not have been out of place in the frank and bawdy tales of Boccaccio, and it has proved to me that the historical novel is still alive, well and thriving. This book will delight Tracy Chevalier's established legion of readers and will doubtless - and deservedly - attract many more.
INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR
USA, June, 2008
(Me with Gary Walker, of the Walker Brothers, and Dave Cash at BBC Radio Kent)
• If you could write an article for a magazine, who would you choose to write about?
I would write about the fall of Anne Boleyn, the subject of my next non-fiction book. Because a full book allows me the scope to write in depth about this, one of the most dramatic episodes in English history, I am discovering new and fascinating insights.
• You are famed for having ‘perfected the art of bringing history to life’ (Chicago Tribune). How do you think this has been possible/how have you endeavoured to do so AND do you think your gender has aided in your ability to empathise with the past?
I can only say that I am passionately enthusiastic about history and that perhaps that communicates itself through my writing. I also believe that history is about people, and people are always interesting. I also see myself as a storyteller, because history is full of good stories, and I like to focus on details, because it is in the details that we obtain the wider picture.
• Both your biographical and fictional books have, so far, mainly focussed on powerful female characters from history. Is there a particular reason for this? What do you find so fascinating about the women that you have studied?
I`ve always been interested in female royalty. When I started researching in the Sixties, some of the women I`ve written about since were then relegated virtually to footnotes. It`s been fascinating to piece together their stories, often from fragments of information, and to rescue them from centuries of male prejudice and romantic nonsense. And what characters some of them clearly were! It`s very exciting to discover that. But I have to say that I also enjoy writing about charismatic and intriguing men too.
• Who has been your favourite character to write about/With whom have you felt the greatest connection?
I have several favourite characters: Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anne Boleyn… Anne was my starting point, the first historical character who captured my imagination and set me off on my researches. I was fourteen then, and had a very romantic view of her. I don`t like her as much now, but the fascination remains.
• The popular historian always grapples with tension between scholarship and remaining engaging/entertaining. You have been praised for both your ‘impressive scholarly pedigree’ and your ability to engage and entertain. Do you think it is difficult for broadcasting and publishing historians to gain and preserve acclaim in the academic world? Do you think this gap could/should be bridged in any way?
There used to be a big divide between `popular` and academic historians, which is far less evident now, as more and more academics hasten to publish popular history books and popular historians turn to historical fiction. There is no reason why there should be this divide; after all, we all use the same sources, and our common purpose is surely to aim for the truth and to bring history to life. An academic historian once wrote a sneering review of one of my books. Soon afterwards, we met at a radio studio, and the first thing he said to me was, `I suppose you make a lot of money from these books?` Now there`s the bottom line!
• Although writing and researching from the 70s, I notice you didn’t get a publisher until 1988, with the original version of your second work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, rejected for it’s sheer size! How did that affect your mindset - was it a knock-back at all? And do you have any advice for budding authors for getting their works into the public domain?
Yes, it was a knock-back. After finishing that book in 1974, I rarely completed a project for years. I would start, full of enthusiasm, and then give up, believing it wasn`t good enough or commercial enough. Fortunately, in the end, I toughened up and made myself see things through. Today, the advice I give to aspiring writers is never give up!
• You’re currently travelling America on a book tour for The Lady ELizabeth. Do you enjoy the travelling/promotions side of your work? Have you been to any recent interesting events? And do you prefer the writing side of what you do?
I certainly do enjoy promoting my books, and I love travelling and seeing new places, especially in America, but I also love writing, and I see that as my primary task, which takes precedence above all else. So I block off sections of the year in which writing takes priority over all else. The problem is, no one takes any notice!!
• Have you ever disliked a historical figure that you have researched and written about?
I still don`t have much admiration or respect for Mary, Queen of Scots. Conversely, I certainly didn`t expect to like Isabella of France, so what the research revealed was a pleasant surprise.
• Do you feel that female historians are ever judged differently from their male counterparts? Broadcasting historian Bettany Hughes, for example, complained in a recent interview, of the sexualisation of her image by media commentators.
I`ve never found that a problem, but then I deliberately keep a lower profile and my face is not that well-known. I would be very angry if I appeared on TV and was judged on my appearance or my clothes. How frivolous, and, yes, sexist!
UK, July 2008
Alison Weir is one of Britain's foremost historians and popular authors whose books, both novels and biographies, have been hugely successful. Her non-fiction works include Katherine Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Her historical novels, namely Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth, have been best sellers both here and in America.
Alison grew up in Westminster, London and has since lived in Norfolk, Sussex, Scotland and Surrey. She attended the City of London School for Girls, then studied at the North Western Polytechnic, where she trained to become a history teacher. The teaching methods employed were rather too trendy for her liking, so she left teaching for some years.
Her interest in history dates back to the age of fourteen when she read her first adult novel, Henry's Golden Queen by Lozania Prole, which told the story of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Enthralled and excited by it, she embarked on her own research into the Tudor period. In her spare time she would head to the school library and spend hours in the history section. She quickly filled exercise books with notes about the Tudor dynasty, wrote a biography of Anne Boleyn and several historical plays, and drew up royal family trees on rolls of wallpaper. Her genealogical research would one day feature in her first published book, Britain's Royal Families.
Writing and history remained a passion and a hobby for many years. During the 1970s, she wrote several historical works, but could not find a publisher willing to take on her work.
Alison was a civil servant for nine years, then a full-time mother to her children. However, in 1989 she became a published author when Britain`s Royal Families was published by The Bodley Head. She continued to write on a part-time basis whilst running a school for children with learning difficulties. In 1997 she became a full-time author and has to date published thirteen titles.
Alison is married to Rankin Weir. They have two grown-up children, John and Kate, and live in Surrey.
“I do a hectic schedule of events, so when I`m at home, I adhere to a strict writing schedule, working from 2pm to 6pm, and then from 6.30pm to 9pm. Fortunately, my husband is a brilliant chef, so I don`t have to plan menus, shop or cook. We entertain quite a lot, and I`m often at the theatre, but whatever time I take out from my writing schedule, I have to make up, and I have a rule that I write for a minimum of two hours each day – at that point, emails and other commitments have to be set aside. Once I`m ensconced in my writing, I`m in another world – I love it!
“I`m a friend of Shakespeare`s Globe, and am transported when I attend performances there. I also go to the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, one of my favourite places.
“I love films and television. I tend to watch a whole series on DVD rather than hope to catch each episode as they are aired. I love good drama. Classics like Upstairs, Downstairs, The Darling Buds Of May, Bramwell and, of course, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (below, left) favourites.
“When it comes to films, I like classics such as Richard III with Sir Laurence Olivier (above, right), Stanley Kubrick`s Barry Lyndon, and anything directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I enjoy watching historical films, but generally not those made in recent years, as they are often wildly inaccurate.
“I do listen to a wide range of music from different eras. I love medieval and Tudor music, as well as classic rock music - the Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music, the Mission and the Sisters of Mercy, and also more modern bands such as Arcade Fire, the Killers, R.E.M. and the Manic Street Preachers. My favourite band of all time has to be the Walker Brothers.
“I'm nervous on planes and need something to take my mind off it, so I scribble ghost stories in an exercise book. I had lots of ideas buzzing in my head, and so I write during the flight and it really helps me to relax. I have written about ten stories now, although not for publication, just for fun. I try them out on friends and family members!
“I am interested in the supernatural – I think most people are. I love going on ghost walks with a guide. I used to terrify myself with ghost stories as a child, but I don`t get so frightened by an eerie tale these days.
“I`m fortunate to have travelled a great deal in America on book tours, so I have seen some fabulous places. I only got back into flying a few years ago because I used to be terrified of it, and once vowed never to step on a plane again. However, I wanted to see Venice, and that`s what got me back on a plane. After that, I started doing book tours in America, and holidaying in various places, and in the past three years I have made 32 flights. I`m still nervous but I`m getting used to it!
“America is always very welcoming to me. The people are so enthusiastic about British history. It’s a fabulous place. I thought the West Coast was fantastic and Los Angeles and San Francisco were wonderful. I also enjoyed Boston, Atlanta, Washington and Philadelphia. In Atlanta, I was given a private tour of Margaret Mitchell`s house and the Gone With The Wind museum, which made me feel very privileged. I have a thing about that film – I love it.
“I enjoy travelling nearer to home and have been to many European countries too. I love the food, history and countryside of France, and I adore Italy. I have recently returned from Berlin, and will shortly return to the Dordogne for the seventh time. The beautiful chateaux and medieval hill-top villages draw me back again and again.
“In October, I will be cruising in the Mediterranean with my mother. I love cruising, and waking up each morning in a new country. My first cruise was in the Caribbean two years ago. We woke up each day to blue seas and tropical islands. It was amazing.
“I love sampling the food in different countries. I don't understand people who go abroad and then want to eat British food. Trying new flavours and cuisines is part of the fun. There aren`t many foods I don’t like. I adore Italian and French cuisine, and seafood is a favourite.
“I enjoy nothing more than a nice glass of ice-cold white wine. Pinot Grigio is my favourite, although I like many other wines. Sitting out in the evening in the French countryside with friends and a good bottle of wine is one of life`s great pleasures!”
From the Daily Mail, July 2008
What book are you reading now?
The Time of Our Lives by Imogen Parker (Corgi, 2007). Seduced by the compelling jacket quotes, I bought this to take on holiday to the Dordogne. Great period detail – the story is set in the Fifties and Sixties – but I`m on page 138 and still waiting for the `sweeping narrative` to gather momentum, and for the characters to come into focus. Nevertheless, the bygone world of an English seaside town is beautifully evoked.
What book would you take to a desert island?
I would choose Anya Seton`s novel Katherine, which I first read back in the Sixties, and which inspired me to write my biography of Katherine Swynford. It`s a haunting, tenderly drawn love story set against the rich tapestry of England in the age of chivalry, and every sentence is a joy to read.
What book first gave you the reading bug?
A book called Pantomime Stories published by Ward Lock in the early 1950s. As a young child, I was crazy about fairy tales, and used to borrow this illustrated collection again and again from the library. I feel so nostalgic about it that I recently bought a rare copy on eBay. I was surprised at how small the book was compared to my memories of it.
What book left you cold?
Quite a few! The Da Vinci Code was one – it just stretches credibility too far, right from the beginning. It disturbs me that people believe it is based on fact.
From the Daily Mail, March 2003
What book are you reading now?
Katherine by Anya Seton (1954), which is a fine novel about Katherine Swynford, the mistress and later the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; through their children, the Beauforts, she became the ancestress of the Tudors. It's an old favourite that I first read in the Sixties, when it inspired me to research the fourteenth century, and I've re-read it many times since. What is so impressive is the amount of research that Seton did; I've even seen this book in bibliographies in historical works. No one writes historical novels like this now, which I think is very sad.
What book would you take to a desert island?
I would be very greedy and take Norah Lofts' trilogy, The Town House (1959), The House at Old Vine (1961) and The House at Sunset (1963). I return to this again and again, and each time I get something new from it. The prolific Norah Lofts wrote evocatively and skilfully, and drew her characters so very well that we feel we know them as real people in a real world, which is portrayed with convincing period detail. In this trilogy, one character from each of the generations that owned a house in the imaginary Suffolk town of Baildon from 1381 to 1956 tells his or her tale, a device that makes for compelling reading. Lofts was also adept at implying sinister undercurrents throughout her narrative, and there are also intriguing hints of the supernatural. These have to be my favourite books of all time.
What book would you give to Tony Blair?
The Book of Isaiah: 'Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.' Enough said.
What book left you cold?
Virgina Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which I was forced to study for A-Level and found unutterably tedious. Most works by the Bloomsbury Group leave me cold, although I admire their ethos.
HOW HISTORICAL SHOULD DRAMATISED HISTORY BE?
by Alison Weir, 2004
When Shakespeare researched his history plays, he turned to the great popular history book of his day, the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, a massive work that drew on a variety of original sources. Yet when the great Bard came to write his plays, he did not adhere slavishly to the facts but employed a degree of dramatic licence, telescoping events and bending the truth to enhance his plots. He also harked back to an earlier tradition that used history as a means of emphasising a moral or philosophical message. Above all, he used the most powerful and beautiful language to create characters who, if they were not entirely authentic, were - and remain - credible in their own right.
Four centuries later, dramatists and directors still resort to Shakespeare's stratagems when tackling historical subjects on stage or on film, and with a resurgence of interest in history having fuelled new costume dramas on stage, film and television, it is perhaps time to ask if there is there any point in dramatised history being historically accurate?
This is a subject on which, as an historian whose life is spent verifying every last detail, I have strong views. And as an historian, I probably have an unfair advantage, for many lay people would neither notice nor care if a character in an historical drama wore costume that was thirty years out of period or spoke in anachronisms. I'm the first to admit that one can be too pedantic. But I also admit to foaming at the mouth when I recently read of a television director who believed it to be "demeaning" to have to follow the facts when making a period drama - a breathtakingly arrogant view, in my opinion.
So how much dramatic licence should be permissable? My view is, that if the production is staged with integrity and has a commanding script delivered by fine actors - as is the case with a new production of Jean Anouilh's ‘Becket’ that is shortly to open in the West End – then a few errors or deliberate changes can be forgiven, and may even lend to the plot. But when little attempt is made at authenticity, there is deliberate distortion of the facts, and the result is not redeemed by a good script, so that even the best actors are defeated - that sells everyone short. Sadly, there have been too many such dramas in recent years.
That's all very well, people say to me, but a while back there was very little history on television or film, and any history is better than no history, isn't it?
No, it isn't. The kind of people who like to watch historical dramas are those who are interested in history, and if people are interested in history, they have usually read books and know something about it – in many cases, a great deal. I can vouch for this, because during the course of numerous events, I have met thousands of people, and many are extremely knowledgeable. Sadly - and I can vouch for this too - they are the very ones who feel sold short by what passes for historical drama these days. Unfortunately, because they have tuned in or paid for their tickets, in the expectation that they are about to see something of great interest to them, these films or series get good returns or ratings, even though the figures do not reflect the opinions of the viewers.
As an historian who believes that school children are not taught enough history, I see another danger in twisting the facts or in trying to make historical drama ‘relevant’. Film and television are powerful media, and if people don't get their information from books, they often accept as gospel what they see in a film. If I am not hearing complaints about how woefully inaccurate a certain production was, I often get questions and arguments culled from some historical travesty of a film, which wastes everyone’s time.
Why do film-makers alter the facts, when history is already packed with colourful, dramatic stories? There's no point. Henry VIII had six wives, for goodness sake, and beheaded two of them - isn't that drama enough, without inventing further scenes of gratuitous sex and violence? And no, he wasn't a Tudor version of a lager lout: he was a cultivated man who spoke several languages, read St Thomas Aquinas for pleasure, got excited about theology and had exquisite courtly manners. Historians - and a lot of other people - have known this for a long time. So why are we still seeing variations on the caricature invented by Charles Laughton?
Why are we being so patronised? Why are modern audiences being so cynically sold short? The answer, I suspect, lies in the inverted elitism that has so insidiously pervaded our culture in recent years. Let's make an historical drama, but let's make it relevant to today, and let's not get too intelligent or profound about it, because we mustn't be seen to be too elitist. And because violence and sex sell, we can make the executions more bloody and add the odd rape scene. Even if it never happened. If the set is four hundred years out of period, who cares? It looks good. And let's not bother with headgear, ruffs or formal court dress - tousled hair and open necks look so now.
I could go on, because the list of deliberate howlers is endless. In fact, my family refuse to watch historical dramas with me because I usually end up muttering grimly all the way through. Yet, strangely enough, these are my favourite form of entertainment. Well, some of them. A quick perusal of my extensive video collection reveals that the best ones were made more than thirty years ago. I could cite the films 'Becket", ‘The Lion in Winter’ (one modern scriptwriter told me dismissively, to my horror, that they'd never make it like that today) and ‘A Man for all Seasons'; and the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (the six episodes of which were actually plays rather than films) with Keith Michell, ‘Elizabeth R’ with Glenda Jackson, ‘Edward and Mrs Simpson’ and the long-forgotten ‘The Shadow of the Tower’, about Henry VII. More recent successes in achieving historical authenticity are ‘The Madness of King George’ and ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. There are also many costume dramas that are not historically accurate but have an authentic setting, good acting and a credible plot, and are hugely enjoyable.
And in that lies the answer to the question of how historically accurate a drama should be: if the setting is authentic, the acting is top rate and the plot is gripping and engaging, any inaccuracy, deliberate or otherwise, can be forgiven. After all, the chief purpose of a drama is to entertain. The same goes for stage productions as well as those on film or television. We can enjoy Shakespeare's 'Richard III’, even though we know he was not quite the monster that the Bard portrays, because we are mesmerised by the innate evilness of his character. Even though Anouilh's Becket is incorrectly called a Saxon, and enjoys a mistress despite his real-life counterpart's vow of chastity, nothing can detract from the powerfully drawn conflict between him and his King, in which honour and ego are paramount issues. We might know that Sir Thomas More was savage towards heretics and delighted in using scatalogical terms against his enemies, but we can still delight in Paul Schofield's portrayal of him as a scholarly man of integrity drawn unwillingly into a conflict of principles in 'A Man for all Seasons’.
Having recently ventured into the field of historical fiction writing, I have discovered that, although an authentic setting has to be established, and the facts incorporated painlessly into the narrative, an author can give rein to flights of fancy wherever the facts are not known. For example, original sources rarely reveal much about people's inner feelings or their sex lives - plenty of room for invention here! As an historian, I am guite comfortable with that. But I am loath to alter the facts themselves, and in an ideal world, I would prefer it if the makers of historical dramas felt the same way. As a realist, however, I don't expect that to happen. I should be happy therefore - and I know there are many who agree with me - if the only licence that was taken with history was dramatic, and if in every other respect a genuine effort was made to establish authenticity. It can be done, and there is no good reason why it should not be. There are a lot of talented people out there, and it should surely not be too much of a challenge for them to combine historical accuracy with dramatic excellence. What a contribution that would be, not only to our culture, but to our understanding of history.
The images show Robert Shaw as Henry VIII and Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn in 'A Man For All Seasons' (1966). In my view, Redgrave's was the best-ever Anne Boleyn on screen.
INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR
USA, July 2009
You write both historical novels and history books. Which would you say that you prefer writing? Is the process similar?
'The process is very different for each. History can be viewed as a series of narratives with amazing stories and characters but you are constrained by the sources. All facts must be checked and verified. With a historical novel you make use of the facts where they exist but where they don’t creativity can be used credibly to fill in the missing information. Feedback from my readers at events and from e-mails shows that they care that historical novels are accurate in terms of events and other details.'
An accomplished and popular historical author, what made you turn your hand to writing fiction?
'In the late 1990s, I was researching and writing a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and felt frustrated because, where women in history are concerned, there are very few recorded facts, and these must be carefully pieced together by the historian. There is sometimes no way of filling the gaps, which prompted me to try my hand at writing a novel about a real historical figure, the fascinating Lady Jane Grey. A few years, and some rewrites, later, what had started out as a diversion for me alone became my first published novel, Innocent Traitor.'
Do you like to relax when you have finished writing a book or are you itching to get on with the next one?
'I write my novels and history books back to back. I have just been commissioned to write three more non-fiction historical works, and have already begun work on the first of these, a biography of Mary Boleyn. There are also three new novels in the pipeline, one of which will be a sequel to The Lady Elizabeth. This year, 2009, I will have been working on no fewer than seven books. However I do take regular family holidays where I switch off completely from the research and writing!'
How do you balance the research, writing and promotional aspects of your job?
'In the last ten to twelve years, my work has become more well known, and the subsequent demands upon my time have escalated accordingly. This began with the amazing success in Britain and the USA of my biography, Elizabeth the Queen, published coincidentally at the same time as the release of the two films Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth. However, such success has proved to be a double-edged sword, with more and more events, emails, interviews and book tours eating into my writing time. I research as I write. When writing historical novels, I draw upon my vast bank of published and unpublished works to inform the story and background details.'
Can you tell us about your writing routines?
'Mornings are left free for admin, emails and telephone calls. I start working at 2pm and write until 6pm, then I take a short break for dinner – fortunately my husband is a brilliant chef - before resuming writing at 6.30pm. Unless I am doing an event, I work through until 9pm, then spend a couple of hours watching DVDs with my husband, before working on other projects from 11pm onwards, often going to bed after 2am. I have has just finished editing my forthcoming book, The Lady in The Tower: The fall of Anne Boleyn (out October 2009), and am about to complete my third novel, on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.'
INTERVIEW WITH ALISON WEIR, Glow, 2012
(Alison with actress Natalie Dormer - Anne Boleyn in 'The Tudors' - and Sarah Morris at the launch of Sarah's novel, Le Temps Viendra)
Before becoming a published author, Alison Weir was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother. She is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. She was born in London and now lives in Surrey.
Which literary character do you think is most like you?
Mrs Ellen in my novel Innocent Traitor. She is a mother figure to Lady Jane Grey, whose own mother treats her unkindly. I projected my own maternal feelings onto Mrs Ellen – she is me! I cannot think of anyone else in fiction who is so apt!
How has the experience of being a writer most benefited you? Do you feel you have sacrificed anything?
It has made me more confident in some ways. It has benefited me financially, of course, and enabled me to enrich the lives of others, but most important of all, it has made me feel fulfilled in a creative sense. Yes, there have been sacrifices: time I would have spent with other people; the ability to relax, as I work so hard; worst of all, missing my son’s graduation ceremony – we got the invitation after an event that clashed was sold out.
What is the best surprise you have had from the experience? Is there anything you’ve learnt about yourself?
That I actually got published at all! I had given up long since, and I’m still pinching myself. I’ve learnt that there are aspects to my character I never thought existed. I’ve become far more outgoing and confident – and have a far shorter fuse than I used to have.
Was there anything you were afraid of when you were considering a career in writing? What did you do to overcome to do this?
I had no fears about it. It was something I dreamed of doing for years.
Have you ever wanted to stop writing?
Very occasionally, when the pressures got too much. But no, it’s in my blood. I want to go on doing it for as long as I can.
What does ‘success’ mean to you?
Being able to facilitate things for other people. Being able to communicate my passion for history to others and share my findings. Finding that doors open to me. Meeting so many wonderful people. Feeling at the centre of a world to which I always wanted to belong. Enjoying a nice lifestyle.
What was your favourite toy as a child?
A doll called Deborah. I got her for my eighth birthday. She was one of the first vinyl dolls and she had fair hair in a pony-tail. We were inseparable for four years – and then I discovered the Beatles!
The people we look up to reflect on who we are. Who do you most admire and why?
That’s a hard question to answer, as there many people I admire. My wonderful husband, because he has the most loving, caring and self-effacing nature, and has put up with me for forty years. My mother, because she is a genuinely good person with heaps of integrity, strength of character, humour and wisdom, and has overcome life’s trials with commendable fortitude. There isn’t space to list all the people I admire for various reasons.
If you were asked, what one piece of life advice would you give others?
Never give up, never give in.
We all have things that motivate us, that make everything worthwhile. What gets you out of bed each day?
Wanting to get back to work on the latest project.
You speak quite openly about how history should be accessible to everyone and ‘not the sole preserve of academics’ – do you feel that authors writing historical works have an added pressure if they’re not considered to be ‘qualified’ in the subject?
I don’t see how a ‘popular’ historian who had studied and evaluated the sources in the same way as an academic one could be considered to be unqualified. It’s in the presentation that the approaches differ. I think there’s a certain jealousy at play – historians can be very competitive. You see that in reviews: it’s more about the reviewer and their agenda than about the book under review. I try to ignore any of that kind of pressure. I never read anything written about my books online, and I heed only constructive criticism from people qualified to have an opinion in printed reviews.
How easy do you find the transition between your fiction and non-fiction? Do you ever find yourself wanting to include too much historical fact in your novels in a way that obstructs the narrative?
I found the transition easy, but I had a lot to learn. Every book is a learning curve, and you have to keep an open mind. I am sometimes asked to cut back on the historical facts in my novels, and there have been friendly disagreements over whether they obstruct the narrative, but I do hold out for the history whenever I can.
Do you ever have trouble creating a story around historical figures for your fiction, when you have already studied and researched their real worlds so intricately?
None at all. My head is bursting with storylines! If I’m writing a biography, or thinking of a possible subject for a book, I can immediately see how the subject can be fictionalised. And I’ve studied most of the characters I write about for so long, and the worlds they inhabited, so it’s second nature to me to recreate their stories in fiction.
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
I’m working on a biography of Elizabeth of York, queen of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. Then I will be writing a novel about Elizabeth I, followed by a book on the medieval queens of England. In my spare time, I’m writing a novel about Anne Boleyn.
If you could go back to any ten-year span in history, what would it be and why?
I’d like to go back to the period 1526 to 1536, and be a courtier (not too prominent!), not just to experience early Tudor England, but to feel what it was like to be at the centre of events about which I have written - Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ and Anne Boleyn’s fall.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Elizabeth I – what a survivor! To stay on a threatened throne for 45 years, a woman in a male-dominated society, and preside over the age of the Armada and Shakespeare – she was incredible.
What is the most memorable book event you have done and why?
There have been many. But I think that speaking in the Great Hall at Hampton Court represented for me the pinnacle of success. It was a case of, ‘What can I do now? It doesn’t get much better than this.’
Breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Dinner every time. I love nothing better than getting friends and family together for great conversation over good food in congenial surroundings.
Who would attend your dream dinner party?
Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn (not seated next to each other), Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Should be an explosive mix!
What question would you most like to be asked at dinner?
“What book are you working on now?” It’s always the current passion with me, and as a writer’s life can be a solitary one when it comes to work, it’s great to be able to share one’s findings – but only if the other person is genuinely interested. Given that my friends are mostly historians, they usually are!
ALISON WEIR'S TOP FIVE HISTORICAL NOVELS
USA, August 2010
Your top choice is Norah Lofts’ House trilogy (The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset), which dates back to the late 1950s/early 1960s.
It’s a bit cheeky [to choose a trilogy], I know. But if you read them all as one book – and you can – it is the most outstanding historical novel that I have ever read. It is effectively the history of England, seen through the eyes of each generation of the owners of a medieval house, from 1380 through to the 1950s.
So you learn the history of England without having to read a dull history?
Yes, but it’s not just that. There are wonderful vivid characters, sinister undercurrents, and so many different story lines and themes. Sometimes there is a little gap between the stories where the reader is wondering what’s happened in between, and there are dark hints… The whole thing is a joy. I’ve been instrumental in getting it republished, and all three books are now available once more.
What about Katherine by Anya Seton, which is based on the life of Katherine Swynford?
This is one of my all-time favourite historical novels; it’s absolutely inspirational. Every sentence is a joy. It was written in 1954, and is of course of its time – bodice rippers came later. But it’s written with such integrity, and I see it as a benchmark for historical novels. Anya Seton was an American author and she spent four years in Britain researching it. Given the sources available to her at the time, it’s brilliant. It has inspired so many people. In 2003 the BBC did a poll, The Big Read, of viewers' all-time favourite books, and Katherine came in the top 100. It’s never been out of print.
And by ‘sets a benchmark’, you mean she really did the research, so it’s accurate as well as gripping?
It’s not accurate by modern standards, but it’s so well done that it convinces. The second half of it is largely fiction. The earlier part is closely based on historical sources, but where there are gaps in Katherine Swynford’s life, Seton fills them credibly. To me, it evokes the medieval period, which I have long studied as a historian.
When you say ‘by modern standards’, what do you mean? Has the bar been set higher in terms of historical accuracy?
I mean it is not accurate compared to what we know about Katherine Swynford today. There has been a lot of research done on her life since 1954. No, today, I’m afraid, the bar has gone way down. That’s why you have so many dumbed-down historical novels. There are several honourable exceptions, of course, but not many.
Was it because of Anya Seton’s book that people were inspired to do research about Katherine Swynford, so that, as a result, we know a lot more about her?
Possibly, but not only that. It’s a book that people love to go back to. I do a lot of events, and when my biography was in preparation, my audiences would ask me, ‘What are you doing next?’ And I would say, ‘I am writing a book about Katherine Swynford,’ and you’d hear a frisson in the audience, and afterwards people would come up, and they’d all say, ‘I read Katherine.’
Your next choice is A Mortal Malice by Hilda Lewis.
This book is now out of print. It dates from the early 1960s. Hilda Lewis is my third favourite novelist of all time (you’ve got the other two in the list). She wrote a wonderful series of historical novels. This one is based on the famous poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London, in the early 17th century. It has a rich cast of rogues and royal characters at the Jacobean court. It’s a tour de force, and you could actually rely on it as history. They just don’t write them like that now. It’s a page turner that has everything – witchcraft, sex, scandal, and murder.
And still very accurate?
So that’s what you favour, when you read historical fiction, that it’s true to the history?
I do feel quite strongly about that. I think that historical novels should be written with integrity. Even if the author is taking dramatic license, it’s got to be credible in the context of what is known about the subject. As a historian, I quickly abandon historical novels if I realise that whoever wrote them hasn’t done very much homework.
Who was Hilda Lewis?
She was a great British novelist. She didn’t just write historical fiction, she wrote modern novels, including a book based on the Dr Crippen case, from the 1940s until her death in the 1970s. One or two of them were filmed. The film Mandy was based on her book, The Day is Ours, about a deaf and dumb child growing up in London in the early 1950s. It’s searing. All three of these novelists, Lofts, Seton and Lewis, have an incredible grasp of character and I know that Norah Lofts has recently been the subject of a recent university thesis, because there is a growing body of opinion that her work has been underrated.
It’s a wonderful idea, to take a house and look at history through its inhabitants
It’s an epic tale. And it wasn’t the only one of its kind. Lofts wrote another called Bless This House, in a single volume, which was about an Elizabethan house through the centuries, and that was later followed by A Wayside Tavern, about the history of an inn, from Roman times to the present day. I have all 63 of her books, and nearly all of Hilda Lewis’s. I am still trying to track them down, as some are pretty rare.
What about your last two books, both by Anya Seton? Tell me about Green Darkness first.
Green Darkness was written in 1968 by Anya Seton. It’s a time-slip novel with reincarnation as its central theme. A group of people gather in an old farmhouse near historic Midhurst in Sussex for a weekend in the country, but there are chilling undercurrents beneath the social interaction. As the plot unfolds, the reader realizes that all these people are reincarnated from characters who lived in the area at the time of Wyatt’s Rebellion in the 16th century. The story is based around the actual discovery of a skeleton walled up in a fourteenth-century house called Ightham Mote in Kent. This book is about how the skeleton came to be there. As the story progresses, the conflicts of the Tudor period are resolved in one way or another in the modern age.
So it begins in the present, or at least in 1968?
Yes, but the greater part of the book is set in the mid-16th century, and it’s the most vivid account that I’ve read of Wyatt’s Rebellion, which was a revolt against Mary Tudor. It’s utterly gripping.
And your last book, Avalon, is set in Viking times?
Yes, it’s set in Saxon and Viking times, in the 10th century, at the corrupt court of King Edgar of England, long before the Norman Conquest. It’s based on the obscure legend of a saint, Rumon, about whom very little is known. He is the central character. It is also about the lady he loves, Merewyn – and what happens to her. The story takes us along to Greenland – which the Vikings colonised, and where Merewyn was forced to make a new life. It’s just a beautiful love story. I read it first as a teenager, and found it quite striking and moving, and I still think it holds up very well now.
So in Avalon, there’s a bit more poetic licence, because not that much can be known about how people lived that long ago?
Again, it’s credible. Some of the characters are historic and it’s very, very well done. Seton has focused on people about whom hardly anything is known – which is a gift to any historical novelist, because they are a blank canvas and one can use one’s imagination creatively. And she’s done it well.
UPDATE: Since this interview was published, I have read Valerie Anand's Bridges Through Time novels, and that they would certainly have featured on this list.
BOOK OF A LIFETIME
My top choice would have to be Norah Lofts’ Suffolk trilogy: The Town House (1959); The House at Old Vine (1961) and The House at Sunset (1963): they are essentially one continuous book. It is, simply, the most outstanding historical novel that I have ever read, and my favourite book of all time, to which I return again and again. It encapsulates six hundred years of England’s history, from 1380 to 1956, told through the stories of those who lived in a medieval house in Baildon, Suffolk. Baildon – where Norah Lofts set many of her books - is actually Bury St Edmunds, where she herself lived in a beautiful old house. She deserves to be accounted one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
In the Suffolk trilogy she creates a world in which vividly-drawn characters wrestle with fortune or commit dark deeds, and tragedy leaves its imprint. There are many different story lines and themes, and one gains a powerful sense of real lives - and sinister undercurrents. There are interludes between the stories, leaving the reader avid to find out what has happened in the gap, with tantalising dark hints… The whole trilogy is a joy, the writing accomplished and impeccable.
I have been instrumental in getting these books republished, and recently I was delighted to learn that Norah Lofts has recently been the subject of a university thesis. It’s clear that there is a growing body of opinion that her work has been underrated, especially this epic tale.
It wasn’t the only one of its kind. Lofts wrote another, Bless This House, in a single volume, about an Elizabethan mansion through the centuries, and A Wayside Tavern, which recounts the history of an inn from Roman times to the present day.
Lofts herself perfectly summed up the essence of historical fiction in The Brittle Glass (1942): 'And so out of the bits and pieces I could gather, out of my own imaginings and speculations, I built up a picture and a story... After all, how much nearer, even with much documentary evidence, can we come to understanding any one of the myriad dead who have gone to their graves, carrying their real secrets, of motive and essence and personality, into the silence with them?"
The jackets and titles of my books can differ because they are issued by different publishers, who know what works best for their own markets. My publishers also reissue books with new jackets every few years, in order to give them a fresh look and bring in new readers. I am consulted at every stage, and contribute my own ideas and opinions, but I do not make the final decisions.
My books are aimed at adults. I always warn parents bringing children to events that the content may not be suitable, and I would not recommend any of my novels for young people under fourteen. Most of my history books deal of necessity with adult themes, and while they are not as explicit as the novels, they are frank.
The reason why there are simplified family trees in my books is lack of space. Full genealogies are vast - I used to draw them on rolls of wallpaper. In fact, the working genealogy for The Princes in the Tower, showing heirs male and heirs general, extends to nine joined pages of computer spreadsheets!
My advice to aspiring writers is never give up! Get The Writers` Yearbook from the library and look up agents who will take on this kind of book and an unpublished author. Send off your submission to five agents at a time, with a covering letter selling yourself and the book - because publishers commission authors as much as they do books. If you have no success, send the book to five more agents. In the case of rejections, take on board what they are saying. If they all reject the book for similar reasons, they`ll have a point.
I am an academic historian in my approach to my work, but my research is presented in a more accessible way for a wider readership, because I passionately believe that history is for everyone. I also have to have regard to the requirements of commercial publishing, but that does not mean compromising my integrity. What people tend to forget is that academic historians and 'popular' historians use (or should use) the same sources. I see history as a series of dramatic narratives about human beings, who are endlessly fascinating, and lost worlds, and I do not see anything wrong with presenting it that way. I have nothing but admiration for academic historians but wish that a minority of people would realise that there is room for a broader and more accessible view of history. I want people to enjoy history as much as I do.
Those who denigrate the study of monarchs should remember that it was actually the monarchs who shaped history for many centuries. One needs to know about that, because without it, you will never understand the life and circumstances of a medieval peasant, for example. I write about queens because she is fascinated by women's histories, which have been largely ignored until comparatively recently.
My books are used in GCSE and A-Level syllabuses.
All my U.S. editions have the same text as those issued in the U.K., apart from minor changes relating only to spelling and grammar. The page numbers and indexes do differ.
Actress Sammy Winward on 'My Favourite Things', People magazine, August 2009: "I love history books and am really into ancient history, so anything by Alison Weir - she's a great historian."