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