Vulpes Libris

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Richard III Week: Writing wrongs to make A Secret Alchemy

I’ve ordered my flak jacket, and braced myself for trouble. My second novel, A Secret Alchemy, will be published on 13th November. It’s bad enough that I’ve had the cheek to take real people from the past and put them in my novel, but I’ve chosen the enemies of the king who to this day has more passionate supporters and opponents than any other: Richard III. I’ve entered a battleground.

A Secret Alchemy

It all started in the Young Vic Theatre, where all three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI were being played out in front of me. Here was a tall, beautiful widow, a commoner with two sons, who became England’s first English-born queen, and the mother of the Princes in the Tower. In an age where political power was rooted in family allegiance, in sons and land and sex and death, such a woman was both powerful and impotent. Who was she, what did she feel, why did she act as she did, in ways that to this day we find hard to understand? All I knew was that everything we know about her was recorded by her enemies, and that as a teenager I’d loved Josephine Tey’s detective novel, The Daughter of Time, which leads the reader so cleverly into detecting Richard’s innocence.

The thing about fiction is that is starts from the facts of real life, but then it goes somewhere else. Reading a novel, what we want is for the ‘untrue’ to seem true. Even as we know that Emma Bovary or Mole never existed, we laugh, we cry, we try to understand them by the same mental circuits as if they once did exist: the same circuits by which we try to understand life. Indeed, by the power of print, they can be alive to us for ever, as the real equivalents can’t. And, for the writer, the ‘somewhere else’ is the more important, more exciting part of the process: the place where the real writing happens. The facts are like doing the supermarket shop: purely necessary. The cooking – the fun, the creativity – only starts when you get back to the kitchen.

But it seems different when you want to use real historical characters in a novel, and not just in walk-on parts, but as your protagonists. It’s presumptuous, somehow, while for anyone with a drop of academic blood in their veins presenting fiction as fact is the great scholarly crime. Everything I read told how pushy, arriviste, and grabby Elizabeth and her family were, but when you actually looked at the facts (often told in the same book), it’s not possible to support that argument. When I respectfully refused to stray from the scanty record, the result was deeply boring. And yet how dare I invent a scene which might not have happened? How dare I assume what they might have loved – hated – thought – felt, perhaps in opposition to the historians? How could I honestly take them somewhere else?

So I tried writing Elizabeth Woodville through the eyes of a fictional maid. Still it didn’t work, not least because, as a woman, Elizabeth wasn’t present at so many of the great events. And, too late to give him the part in the book which I longed to, I fell in love with Elizabeth’s brother, Anthony Woodville, a man described as ‘an Elizabethan courtier a hundred years before his time’. I put that novel aside, and wrote what became The Mathematics of Love.

I love historical fiction: from childhood, all the novels that have changed and challenged my reading and writing life have been historical. And I hate historical fiction too: I hate the kind which uses frocks and carriages as so much set-dressing for modern emotions, preoccupations and gender politics; I hate the kind which copies its own predecessors (witness the drivel in the average ‘Regency’ compared to the peerless Heyer) instead of returning to the living writing of the period; I hate the kind which refuses to find a language for these other worlds that convinces us as ‘other’; I hate the kind which gets its manners and morals wrong; but equally I hate the kind which does nothing but animate the historical record, like a woodenly acted drama documentary. How could I write what I wanted to, without writing one or other of the kinds of book I hate?

I got a lot further once I’d decided to write in their own voices: Elizabeth is practical, a realist in an age when realism meant you might survive, a mother when children were purely political capital; Anthony is more contemplative, visionary, a pilgrim when pilgrimage meant killing Moors in Portugal, a surrogate father who failed to save his surrogate son. But still I couldn’t see how to free myself from the historical record: my two characters could speak, but how could I make them fight and hate and make love?

One way of dealing with a problem in your writing which refuses to be beaten is to join it in. Could I join in my own excitement, my own qualms, about writing the emotional truth in historical facts into this novel? I’ve always been fascinated by the family business as an entity: what novelist could resist the extra tension and importance of relationships when economic as well as emotional survival is at stake? I’m also fascinated by storytelling as a process, and by the way the great stories – King Arthur, Jason and the Argonauts – still underpin our habits of thought. Then I realised that in the era of personal monarchy, ruling the country is a family business. What if someone, now, who understands all too well how secret love and rivalry can wreck a family, began to explore the story of Elizabeth and Anthony? Anthony was Caxton’s first patron: what if this person, Una Pryor, was a bibliographer – that dryest of all historianly trades – from a family of fine printers? She’s studying the Woodville’s books as the key to their lives, but it’s not enough, she thinks:

For Shakespeare the War of the Cousins was a not-so-distant past that he was refashioning; old men could tell the tales, as Grandpapa told us of his father’s Crimea… How can I bring them alive?… How can I make Elizabeth and Anthony breathe? Did the stubble scratch her ankles after the Grafton harvest? How did he live through the months as a prisoner-of-war in Calais?

Slowly, by finally bringing her own past to light, Una realises how she can bring them to life. How I brought them all alive is how I wrote the novel. And if some readers are outraged by the ‘somewhere else’ that A Secret Alchemy reaches, then I take that (defiantly, if necessary) as a compliment. Because it means that in reading they couldn’t help but follow me, that my storytelling convinces, is believable: that my fiction, my ‘somewhere else’, is more true, in its own way, than mere fact. I hope it is, anyway.

About Emma

Writing, reading, teaching. This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, also writes fiction; blogs @ This Itch of Writing. p.s. he's my great-great-grandfather

23 comments on “Richard III Week: Writing wrongs to make A Secret Alchemy

  1. Col
    August 20, 2008

    Certainly Elizabeth Woodville had to be a manipulative tough cookie to manage Edward as she did; and promote her family as much as she did – shameless John! And I think there are interesting questions to be asked about why she was willing to release the younger prince into Richard of Gloucester’s care, and then to emerge from “sanctuary” back into court life once he was king the man who had killed her brother and one of her older sons, and to whom was imputed the death of her youngest sons?

    But nabbing off with the Great Seal! A step too far.
    And after Tudor’s claim to the throne she was retired from public life and barely saw the daughter she had helped to become Queen. Hmmm…

  2. Jackie
    August 20, 2008

    This was absolutely fascinating as insight as to how an author plans their book. I really liked seeing how the germ of an idea was expanded and molded into a novel. And to be honest about the several false starts and the difficulty of finding just the right voices, proves that writing a story is far harder than people think it is. I greatly enjoyed “The Mathematics of Love”(you can tell from my VL review a few months ago) and am really looking forward to the new book described here. Thanks for a great piece, Ms Darwin.

  3. Susan Higginbotham
    August 20, 2008

    Sounds like a fascinating novel and a refreshing change from those that paint the Woodvilles as stage villains. Looking forward to reading it.

  4. marygm
    August 20, 2008

    I really enjoyed this piece and it was great to be given an inkling of how a novel coming into being. Thanks for this, Emma.

  5. Emma
    August 20, 2008

    No, she didn’t nab the Great Seal – it was brought to her, and she sent it back. I don’t suppose John had much choice about that marriage. The problems arose because there were no precedents for what you did about the Queen’s family, because up till then, queens had always been foreign, and left their family behind. I don’t think there are any questions about why she gave up her son – but that’s in the book.

    Once you actually understand how the realpolitik and the sensibility of the time operates it’s very hard to paint the Woodvilles as villains. Historians refuse to acknowledge the human necessity to make stories of what they handle, but they do, and until you go back to the original sources – not the accounts of their enemies – Woodvilles make good baddies against whoever you’re casting as the goodies. In that, they follow the lead of the Woodvilles’ political oponents, who got to write the stories first. Which makes historians is less honest than novelists, who are the only ones to admit that they’re writing stories.

  6. Col
    August 20, 2008

    I do agree the realpolitik means that they were probably in a position where to do otherwise would have put their family at risk, or severe disadvantage. I think your book sounds fascinating and will add it to my list.

  7. Pingback: Coming Attractions: Richard III Week. « Vulpes Libris

  8. fuzzyhistory
    August 20, 2008

    I’m really looking forward to your new book. Thanks for the candid look into the fictional writing process.

  9. Pingback: Do You Love/Hate Richard III? « Fuzzy History: Learning History through Fiction

  10. Sam
    August 20, 2008

    Very interesting, Emma.


  11. Hilary
    August 21, 2008

    Thank you for this fascinating piece. I’m really looking forward to reading your novel. I’ve been interested in Elizabeth Woodville for years, as I’ve always had the feeling that the truth is rarely pure and never simple – it seems to me that a factor often missing from the analysis of a woman’s life in the 15th (or any) century is to examine the choices she had – if any – before demonising her. How pleased I am to see that the spotlight will be on her and how she navigated the risks and dangers of her life.

  12. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)
    August 21, 2008

    Already on order, Emma

  13. adele geras
    August 21, 2008

    I’ve just read this in proof and while I’ll write more on my own website later on in September, I can assure readers that it’s a smashing book and fascinating in the way that the modern story and the historical intertwine…

  14. Emma
    August 21, 2008

    Adele, I’m so thrilled that you like it.

    Hilary, I agree. One of the reasons I decided to write from Elizabeth and Anthony’s own point of view and in their voices was that when ANY character is demonised, it’s always because the demonisers aren’t seeing it from their point of view. If I’d written the same story from Warwick’s PoV, say, it would look as if E & A were complete baddies, no doubt.

    What I’m really saying I think is that what I, as a human judging them, think of Elizabeth and Anthony and their enemies and the events isn’t the point of the novel. You want historical judgements, you go and read a history book. I’m not saying what I think, I’m imagining what they think and how they saw it, which is a much, much more interesting process, befitting writers and readers of fiction as heavy-duty historical analysis doesn’t. Only, of course, comprendre tous c’est pardoner tous…

    BTW, I’m passionately against putting bibliographies or revealing acknowledgements in fiction, but if anyone’s interested, my website has a list of a few books which I found interesting when I was working on A Secret Alchemy:

  15. Emma
    August 21, 2008

    Oops! Clicked Post before I could thank everyone else for their kind comments, not to mention their pre-orders…

  16. Moira
    August 21, 2008

    Not necessarily in that order, Emma? :mrgreen:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this – and I can see why you feel you might need a flak jacket!

    So A Secret Alchemy actually pre-dates TMOL? I never knew that.

    I’m very much looking forward to reading it … and it was lovely to get a peek inside your head!

  17. Emma
    August 21, 2008

    No, A Secret Alchemy was written after TMOL: I started Chapter One just as TMOL went into production.

    It’s true that my interest in Elizabeth W. pre-dates TMOL, and it did mean I already had useful books on my shelves, but that was a completely separate novel. I haven’t even looked at that one since I moved on from it, let alone cannibalised it – I never do that.

    If I want to have another go at an idea or theme or character, I start from zero. Even the larger kind of re-writing within a novel – of one strand of a three-strand structure, say – I’ll do without looking at the previous version. I find it’s the only way to make sure the new thing has its own internal pace and coherence. I admire writers who can patchwork things together from all over the place into a seamless whole, but I can’t do it and end up with anything other than a rag-rug to be trampled on.

  18. Moira
    August 21, 2008

    Ah. Right. I misconstrued what you said. I can see that trying to rework a story completely could easily end up as a pig’s breakfast …

  19. Clorinda
    August 25, 2008

    Those historicals you say you dislike, I actually like. There is no accounting for taste, it seems.

    As for Heyer, well I’ve read a lot of her books and whilst most are pure genuis, others are not very good at all…people’s views on her work are subjective, as I’m sure it will be on your work.

    I would like to know how you think your book would stand against, say, Anya Seton’s “Katherine”…

    The question is justified because you judge todays regencies against Heyer…

  20. Emma
    August 25, 2008

    Yes, even Homer nods, and Heyer certainly does. Her short fiction’s very weak too – ‘not quite enough room’ for her in the form, according to Jane Aiken Hodge (and I don’t care for her detective fiction, despite a general taste for Allingham/Sayers/Marsh). But, as you say, the best are pure genius.

    I haven’t read ‘Katherine’, so I can’t comment. Apart from Heyer, my hist fic tastes run more to relatively contemporary writers like Peter Ackroyd, Rose Tremain, Barry Unsworth, Sarah Waters, Angela Carter, Allan Massie.

  21. Pingback: Emma Darwin – A Secret Alchemy « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

  22. ORMUS: The philospher´s stone
    February 12, 2012

    Secret Alchemy is an ancient practice that continues today with the study of White Powder Gold. Ancient cultures known to practice alchemy include the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans to name a few. This indeed raises the question of whether or not these cultures experimented with ormus. Secret Alchemy in egypt was considered a master science, believed to be revealed to them by The God Thoth, who in turn was referred To As Hermes Trismegistus by the Greek nation. Therefore, alchemy is considered to be a Hermetic Art of Ancient Practice.

  23. Pingback: Vulpes Randoms – Richard III’s Day 4th February 2013 « Vulpes Libris

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