Reading the Present through the Past

I’ve been silent for a while but thought I should post something here on a conference I went to recently in Amsterdam, Holland. This conference was entitled “Reading the Present through the Past: Forms and Trajectories of Neo-Historical Fiction” and was based upon the premise of a recent collection of academic essays on historical fiction, edited by Elodie Rousselot and entitled Exoticizing the Past in Contemporary Neo-Historical Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). In this book, Rousselot argues for a type of historical fiction she terms “neo-historical”, derived from the term “Neo-Victorian” (see a useful discussion of Neo-Victorianism here). Neo-historical fiction, she argues, is a type of fiction that engages with a specific historical period and tries to reconstruct it faithfully while also being very conscious of its inability to do this, thus simultaneously attempting and refusing “to render the past accurately” (Exoticizing the Past p. 4). At the same time, neo-historical fiction is “very much aimed at answering the needs and preoccupations of the present” and is persistently fascinated with “visiting – and consuming – past historical periods as a way of dealing with modern-day concerns” (p. 5). Although I’m skeptical that “neo-historical” fiction is different in this respect from what has come before (Sir Walter Scott was engaging with the past as well as writing about present-day concerns in his Waverley), it is an interesting type of classification.

The conference in question was held at the University of Amsterdam on 4 March. Rousselot herself was the first keynote speaker, and the other one was Elizabeth Wesseling, who has published widely on the historical novel, Gothic fiction, and other subjects. Aside from the two keynotes, there were many papers presented in three parallel panels during the day. These were really wide-ranging and dealt with such things as historical novels by various authors (e.g. Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton, Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt), factual narratives, historiographic metafictions in Eastern Europe, American TV series (e.g. Mad Men), mashup monsters (e.g. in Penny Dreadful), murder mysteries, computer games, Brontë rewrites and adaptations, etc. As ever, my list of TBR novels and texts expanded during the day, as did my list of interesting TV series. What I found most interesting was the variety of approaches to this question of “reading the present through the past”, seen for instance in Rebekah Donovan’s argument on how Catton’s The Luminaries engages with modern digital culture through – for instance – narrative technique, and in Ruby de Vos’s analysis of how Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries manages the representation of oppressive power structures and even rejects them from a more contemporary perspective on the level of plot and characterisation. As for myself, I gave a paper entitled “‘What Gifts We Are Given’: The Disruptive and Anti-Environmental Workings of Historical Violence as Presented in Susan Fletcher’s Witch Light“. Essentially, I argue that Fletcher portrays her central character Corrag (unjustly accused as a witch) as a child of nature, a symbol for the natural world, and that the historical event at the heart of Fletcher’s novel (the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe) works to disrupt and violate the sense of natural harmony conveyed through Corrag’s unique narrative perspective. As such, the message of Fletcher’s novel is essentially “green”; the text is a lament for nature and how it has been exploited and destroyed by mankind, how the connection between man and nature has been severed and our life on this planet endangered as a result. These arguments on Witch Light do have to be developed further and theorized properly, and I’ll continue working on it these coming months and possibly talk about it at other conferences this year.

It was overall a very rewarding conference and I’m glad I went, despite suffering from a sore and inflamed knee (which meant I couldn’t very well walk much around lovely Amsterdam). On the day after the conference, I visited the Rijksmuseum with a good friend of mine and saw, for instance, some paintings by Rembrandt. Also, to my delight, I came across Petronella Oortman’s absolutely exquisite cabinet house, which inspired Jessie Burton’s historical novel The Miniaturist, a book I enjoyed very much. Here is a picture of the cabinet house:
Dolls’_house_of_Petronella_Oortman

To finish, something slightly off topic: I found out to my delight this morning that Jackie Kay has been appointed the next Scottish Makar. This is absolutely brilliant news – she is such a good writer, one of my favourites. See news on this here. It is also wonderful because I’m including Kay’s novel Trumpet in the course on Scottish 20th century fiction I’m currently teaching.

Interview with Elizabeth Fremantle

As mentioned in my last post here, I taught a module on the Tudors in historical fiction and film last term. Among the various novels and films/TV series that were covered was the excellent Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle. This text proved to be among the most popular among students, so it was very fitting that the author kindly allowed us to send her some questions, most of which were compiled by my students in ENS505G and ENS022: The Tudor Period as Presented in Contemporary Literature and Film. Fremantle has kindly given me permission to publish this e-mail interview, so here it is.

Interview with Elizabeth Fremantle

What influenced your decision to portray Katherine Grey as bisexual in this novel? Was there any specific historical evidence you relied upon?
It was a combination of factors. My starting point was the close friendship between Jane Seymour (Juno) and Katherine Grey, which is well documented. Passionate relationships between women of the period are invisible in the historical record, though women lived at close quarters with one another, sharing beds as a matter of course. A primary focus of my project as a fiction writer is to try to comprehend and expose some of those hidden narratives.

So though there is no documentation of bisexuality in Katherine Grey she provided me with an opportunity to explore its possibility. When trying to understand her character in the context of the known facts of her tragic life I began to see her as something of what we might nowadays call a narcissist: in love with the idea of love, in particular the idea of people being in love with her and wanting everyone she encountered to be captivated by her. Her documented ownership of numerous pets, I felt, chimed with this idea and I began to build a sense in my mind of her as surrounded by adoring animals and, as she became known as a court beauty, people.

In contrast to her two very much more serious sisters she seems to have been distinctly frivolous and also physically quite different from them. So I allowed my imagination to run with the idea of this narcissistic girl who recognises something of herself in another woman, Juno, and then in her brother Ned, who I describe in the novel as all resembling one another physically. This of course is only skin-deep as they are all very different in character. So in my mind Katherine’s relationship with Juno and Ned is an expression of self-love as much as passion for the other.

Juno, however, I did imagine as wholly lesbian and in love with Katherine. There is nothing, historically speaking, to support this notion, as we know very little about Jane Seymour apart from where her life intersected with Katherine Grey’s (their friendship, her promotion and witnessing of Katherine’s marriage and her early death, probably of consumption). One other fact we do know is that she was an author, having co-written with her sister Margaret 103 Latin distichs for the tomb of Margaret of Valois. This fact alone made me imagine her as intellectually dissimilar from many other women at court, which made me wonder in turn what attracted her to Katherine, a young woman whose biography suggests was altogether different, more capricious, less serious and highly dramatic by nature. It seemed a natural progression to suppose that, for Juno at least, the attraction might be passionate.

Did you write Sisters of Treason in chronological order; if not, how did you go about it?
I did write it chronologically. There is always a risk in doing this that the different voices begin to sound alike but my three narrators became so distinct in my mind that this was unproblematic. I think that approach worked best with characters who undergo great change from start to finish.

How do you mould the personality of the characters you write about? Do you base them on letters and historical accounts, and how much do you have to imagine yourself?
My starting point is always the historical record and if I can get my hands on any original letters or other texts, all the better. Often there is very little, as with the case of Mary Grey and Levina Teerlinc. There comes a point where I set my research aside and allow my characters to come to life in my mind and on the page. In a sense the seed is the known fact and the flower is what grows from it when watered with the imagination.

As a writer of fiction I am primarily interested in creating authentic and original people to inhabit my novels and with historical figures from so long ago, whose stories have been all but erased from history, Imagination is the key.

Why are you interested in the two Grey sisters? Is the fact that they are forgotten and omitted important in this respect?
The fact that they are almost unknown, yet had remarkable lives, was exactly what drew me to them. But also their stories allowed me to explore the reign of Mary Tudor and the succession of her sister Elizabeth, mapping out a period of female history from a new perspective. The Grey girls’ fates provide a conduit to the political climate and paranoia of the period.

Considering how little we know about Levina, Katherine and Mary, which character did you find most challenging to write about, while aiming for historical accuracy?
Katherine seemed to come to me fully formed and Levina grew out of my research into artists of the period but Mary was a challenge, partly because I wanted her to be a very knowing and yet almost invisible entity in the novel. She is very young at the start (a child’s voice is always difficult to get right) and her disability was hard to research, as almost nothing has been written on the subject. Her decision to marry Keyes was a conundrum that I struggled to understand – it simply didn’t make sense to me until the rest of the narrative was written and then unfolded all by itself. I do though think, in spite of all this, she is a powerful presence in the novel and in many ways represents its moral core.

What is your opinion on Queen Elizabeth I’s portrayal in modern media, given your representation of her in Sisters of Treason?
There are so many versions of Elizabeth I, and popular interpretation tends to see her as one of England’s greatest monarchs. This version of her refuses to acknowledge the flaws that make her such an interesting individual and also the difficulties of being a woman on the throne in a time of unquestioned misogyny.

Someone referring to her virginity, asked me not long ago, ‘so what was her problem then?’ I didn’t dignify his question with an answer! This idea that a woman might refuse her sexuality and yet be completely sane continues to challenge, but it is perfectly clear to me that it was the way she held onto her power.

What inspired you to write from Levina Teerlinc’s perspective and whom did you think of first as narrative focus, Levina or the Grey sisters?
In fact I had come across Levina some time ago and, given my preoccupation with early modern women finding ways to express themselves publically had wanted to find a way to write about her as a female painter. I had decided to tell the story of the Greys as an extension of my Katherine Parr novel Queens Gambit, as Jane had been her ward, and needed a mature voice to anchor the narrative so hers seemed an obvious choice. Levina’s links with the Grey family are slight in the record but we know she painted images of Katherine, and perhaps, too, of Jane, and that was enough for my imagination to fire up. There is very little of Levina’s work that has survived so there was a good deal of unclaimed space in her biography for me to work with. Her story in Sisters of Treason is almost wholly invented by me.

What is your opinion of Elizabeth’s treatment of the Grey sisters? Was it necessary to her political survival?
I think she believed it was necessary for her political survival. Her ruthlessness wasn’t tempered, as far as we know, with the guilt that she evidently felt about the demise of Mary Queen of Scots. This made me wonder if she managed to separate herself from the decisions she made as Queen and those she made as a human being. With Mary Queen of Scots these separate selves perhaps intersected as she could identify personally with another anointed queen.

Whether it was necessary for her survival to suppress the Greys so firmly is debateable. It is certainly true that there were always people waiting in the wings to seize power and a legitimate male heir might have made a hole in her ship.

Why is writing about women of the Tudor era important to you?
The early modern period was a time of significant change and the great upheavals of the reformation allowed women to emerge. We have the first female authors (one of whom was Katherine Parr) and painters, like Levina, so offering an authentic female voice on which I have been able to build my ideas around. Arbella Stuart, who I have been writing about recently, was a prolific letter writer and much of her correspondence has survived, giving me the chance to come to a profound understanding of her as an individual. Women’s lives were beginning to change and I wanted to explore that terrain.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring novelist, perhaps one specialising in historical fiction, what would it be?
I think its important not to become too bogged down in historical detail, remember the story is told by characters for whom the environment is entirely familiar, so narrators that record every detail of a scene don’t ring true. Never try and replicate authentic speech patterns – it will just become silly – and always remember a historical novel is contemporary; it needs to say something, or ask questions about life now as well as the past.

This interview is published with grateful acknowledgement of the input and work of the brilliant students of ENS505 and ENS022F in Autumn Term 2015

Some updates

Quite a lot of things have happened since I wrote here last time. The article on the murder of Lord Darnley was published, among other things (see list of publications for details). In the summer I travelled to Wales, but I had been organising a conference there with two colleagues at the University of South Wales, Professor Diana Wallace and Dr Jane Finucane. This conference was Representing the Tudors, see more details here, and in addition to being one of the organisers I also gave a paper there on the reasons why novelists choose to write fiction about the Tudor period, entitled Why Write About the Tudors? The Writers’ Perspective. I think overall that Representing the Tudors was a great success. Conference delegates seemed pleased and the feedback we got after the conference was really positive. I think it was a timely conference, even though our key speaker Jerome de Groot commented that the Tudors seem to be somewhat on the wane in terms of popularity, at least in historical fiction. There were many varying perspectives and illuminating papers presented.

In September I went to another conference, this time “only” to give a paper. This was a one-day symposium on 21st century Scottish women’s fiction. Here I gave a paper on stories from Jackie Kay’s short story collection Reality, Reality (2012), entitled: Reality, Memory and Loss in Jackie Kay’s Reality, Reality. It was a greatly enjoyable conference, and one at which I met some good friends from my years as a Ph.D. student in Glasgow.

In the fall a collection of essays in honour of my former teacher and colleague Pétur Knútsson was published here at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute. I’m proud to say I have an article in this book, on the historical novelist Philippa Gregory.

I taught a module on the Tudors in contemporary fiction and film last term (Autumn 2015), which was extremely enjoyable. One of the novels we read was Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason. The author kindly allowed us to send a list of questions that my students compiled, which proved really interesting for us all. Keep your eyes peeled for this email interview, which I will publish here on this page very shortly, with Fremantle’s kind permission.

The Mysterious Murder of Lord Darnley

Today I am happy to have finally got news of a forthcoming publication which has been long awaited by the contributors, one of whom is myself. This is a book named Crimelights: Scottish Crime Writing – Then and Now, a collection of articles that sprung from a conference on Scottish Crime that was held in Göttingen, Germany, in 2012. It includes articles on Ian Rankin, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louise Welsh, Denise Mina, Josephine Tey and others. My article in this collection focuses on Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, on 10 February 1567, and how this has been represented in fiction and film.
Mary_Stuart_James_Darnley

Above: Mary Queen of Scots with her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (on the left)

I have already published another article on Mary and how she is presented as a feminine and national icon in literature and film. My work on Mary is ongoing and placed alongside further work on representations of the Tudor family in fiction and film, within the greater context of historical fiction. Along with colleagues in Wales, I am co-organizing a conference on “Representing the Tudors”, which takes place at the University of South Wales this summer, 10-11 July. We have a confirmed keynote speaker, Dr Jerome de Groot of Manchester University, and some exciting news regarding other keynote speakers will be released soon. The murder of Lord Darnley is one of history’s great mysteries, as is the question of his wife’s involvement in the crime. Interpretations of the crime and of Mary (and Bothwell’s) guilt vary in fictional representations, and I discuss some of these in my article.
Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming article:

The murder of Lord Darnley is one of the most debated crimes in history, even though it is generally accepted by commentators that Bothwell was one of the chief perpetrators. This is because the events before and on the 10th of February 1567 are still shrouded in mystery, or as Mary’s biographer John Guy puts it: “In a debate lasting over four hundred years, no one has given a wholly satisfactory explanation of what happened on that night, or why” (281). Importantly, also, not all have been in agreement as to whether or not Mary was accessory to Darnley’s murder, while the issue of whether Mary and Bothwell had become lovers before Darnley’s death is also much debated, and is intrinsically linked to the mystery surrounding the assassination. This uncertainty has proved central to a fundamental split in representations of and opinion on Mary through the ages, which to a great extent originates from two very opposing sources, as outlined by Jayne Lewis: the Protestant George Buchanan’s damning Detection of the Douings of Marie (1571), which presented Mary as a “poisoning witch” who killed Darnley and even took pleasure in doing so (qtd. in Lewis, “Reputations”), and the Catholic Bishop John Leslie’s Defence of the Honour of . . . Marie (1569), which showed Mary as a “most careful, tender mother with all” whose “godly and virtuous life past” dispels all suspicion of her guilt (qtd. in Lewis, “Reputations” n. p.). The blatant opposition between these two accounts of Mary’s actions has set the tone for much of the critical debate on her story in the centuries to follow and has, understandably, also made its mark on representations of Mary in literature and the arts. For more than two centuries, these have varied from Mary as “heroine of sensibility to romantic guilty grande dame,” as outlined by Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson (100).

Welcome to my website

This is my official website as faculty member in English (within the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Literature and Linguistics) at the University of Iceland. In this blog I will be writing short entries about my work, research and teaching.

The picture below is of a favourite novel of mine. Much of my teaching and research – though not all – is focused on historical fiction. I will be posting entries here on that subject, among other things.

I hope you’ll enjoy visiting my page.

cover the taste of sorrow