Interview with Author: Barbara Gaskell Denvil
By: Wendy J. Dunn
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WJD: Firstly, thank you, Barbara for agreeing to discuss your Tudor novels with me for Tudors Weekly. I must begin by congratulating you on your Tudor novels Sumerford’s Autumn and Blessop’s Wife and Satin Cinnabar, which is set at the dawning of the Tudor era. These works are such wonderful examples of great storytelling. They are not only well researched, but also are expertly pitched through the depiction of well drawn characters who take the reader on a lively journey into another time and place. Were these novels difficult to write? If so, in what ways? For example, did you find researching a challenge?
Thanks you for those gorgeous words, Wendy – I’m touched and flattered.
I suppose writing a novel always has its difficulties. For me, it involves long, long months all alone with a stringent daily discipline, concentrating on the imagination instead of the present reality – and that can bring many problems. However, there is also considerable joy. I loved most aspects of writing these books. I invariably fall in love with my own characters, and I fall for many of the real historical characters as well. I even love my villains. It is probably the dark and shadowed medieval alleys that draw me in even more than the characters, and it was this period in history that first inspired me. The narrow cobbled lanes, the luscious clothes, and the struggles of life back then are all virtually hypnotic to me. I feel I’m walking those dark and threatening London streets along with my characters. They haunt my dreams.
I adored the research and although that has become extremely difficult due to my fading eyesight, it is still absolute historical accuracy that I consider essential. I own a massive library of non-fiction books on history, especially medieval and Tudor times, and these are my pride and joy. My research has never been purely for my books – but principally for my own enthusiastic interest.
However, although working on computer is far more practical than the old typewriter – I admit I am a technological dunce, and often want to throw my computer out of the window. The cats cover their ears as I yell at the screen and keyboard.
WJD: Can you name any important historical non fiction books that really helped to unlock the door for you to the world of the Tudors?
There have been so many. I have often come at the central characters of the Tudor era by default – shuffling sideways you might say – researching one personality and then becoming fascinated by another along the way. For instance, my passion was Shakespeare, not only his amazing work, but the puzzles of his life and the glorious colour of his times. Studying all of that brought me to an interest in Elizabeth I. And an interest in her brought me to a great interest in Walsingham. Walsingham brought me to Mary, Queen of Scots – and from her to Bothwell. My greatest research concerned the life and times of Richard III, and in that respect I would strongly recommend the books by Annette Carson, especially The Maligned King, and also the biography by Kendall. Leading from 1485, I was fascinated and impressed by Anne Wroe’s Perkin. I moved to The Winter King by Penn, and quickly discovered that I was not the only one to find the original Henry Tudor a man of dubious motives and even more dubious character. But I then found that it is his son, Henry VIII. I began with Great Henry by Carolly Erickson. I’d recommend Walsingham by Alan Haynes. There are a hundred more since I also like to read opposing views in order to make up my own mind.
WJD: When I was reading your works I found myself reminded of Shakespeare’s liking to tell a story of tragedy with the use of comic characters and dialogue, not forgetting the use of the ‘spirit world’ – am I right – were you influenced by the works of Shakespeare?
I suppose we all are in some way – great or small. I am intensely flattered to be associated with his name in any tiny respect – and yes indeed, Shakespeare is my great passion. His characterisation, both comic and serious, is beyond compare – it inspired me – and now characterisation is my great love. I do not believe any book fulfils its potential without depth and variety of character. But my greatest admiration within Shakespeare’s works is his immense understanding especially regarding the emotions which we often consider modern, and pride ourselves on our new use of psychology. Yet Shakespeare knew it all back then, even without being able to give a name to the virtues and problems as we do today. This also taught me how the Elizabethans understood and acknowledged far, far more than they are given credit for – and that brought me deeper into my fascination for the medieval and Tudor era. Shakespeare was not too bothered by historical accuracy, but his brilliance and understanding have inspired and influenced me. So have many authors, but Shakespeare must be top of my list.
WJD: What other authors have influenced you?
A hundred or perhaps thousands. I think I have been influenced in some way or another by every book I have ever read – even those I have not enjoyed. A badly written book may teach you more than a beautifully written one sometimes. I hugely admire Dorothy Dunnett, and – although it’s another genre entirely – J.R.R. Tolkien. Fantasy is a love of mine and although one might think it is such a wildly different taste to historical fiction, actually there are considerable similarities. Both involve complete escape into a different world divorced from our own dull modern standards and comforts, and writing both necessitates taking the reader with you into that other world, and making it both believable and absorbing. Escapism is, in the end, what we all crave in some part from film and literature.
WJD: Who are your favourite ‘real’ Tudor people and why?
Shakespeare, and the reason is obvious of course. His depth, plot tricks, stunning characterisation and philosophical understanding is an inspiration beyond others. Walsingham is somewhat less easy to explain, but he was exceedingly intelligent, innovative and intensely loyal, even when that loyalty bankrupted him. However, it is probably his mixed morals that fascinate me the most. A man of considerable intellect and virtue, he was also capable of cruelty when he thought it served a purpose, and was very much a man of his times. Just beyond the Tudor age, I am a huge admirer of the Earl of Rochester who served Charles II, again a flawed personality of immense talent, wit and intelligence, morality and loving kindness – who could be arrogant, careless, libidinous and unjust. Maybe it’s those mixed up characters which fascinate me most. The deeply divided puzzle concerning Richard III, for instance. I was first attracted to Shakespeare’s monster, but after years of intense and serious research, I am now quite positive that this king was a well-meaning man of earnest intelligence, since much maligned. There are actually more than a dozen characters throughout history who I have researched with great interest – not all of them Tudorites.
WJD: Do you have a favourite wife of Henry VIII?
They are all so interesting, so different and so sad. Anne Boleyn was probably the most intelligent if not the most wise. The wisest was certainly Anne of Cleeves. I’m not sure I like the sound of Katherine of Aragon. Jane does not show much character, and I doubt she was intelligent but it’s hard to judge. Poor little Catherine Howard was just a lost child, and I also pity Catherine Parr who had to put up with the sick, irascible, aged and dangerous king for such a long time. Who I actually like the best is hard to say. Probably Anne of Cleeves, followed by Anne Boleyn. Had I lived then, I would have admired both for different reasons. Anne Boleyn’s appalling treatment by her wretched husband might have made me step boldly out in support, although I would probably have remained a quiet coward.
WJD: Why do you think Anne Boleyn captured the heart of Henry VIII?
I believe that Anne was exceedingly charismatic. Henry was no great lover (documented) and yet women undoubtedly fell at his feet willingly, offering themselves as the royal mistress. His existing wife was somewhat older, extremely religious (which meant that sex was forbidden more often than not) and I cannot imagine poor Katherine being teasingly sexy or captivating in any manner whatsoever. Anne was surely all of this, and Henry (certainly not the misogynous he has sometimes been called) was yearning to love and be loved. Then suddenly, for the first time in his life, along comes a woman who utterly captivates him, and yet refuses to be bedded. It is his very first experience of the game of chase, and he is reeled in. Anne was not beautiful, but then, nor were any others of Henry’s wives. Charisma, personality and the joyous chase were certainly the hooks.
WJD: I know you don’t really like Henry VIII – can you please tell us why?
I think it is always a little dubious to imagine you can understand someone who lived so long ago in a totally different society with very different beliefs and standards. I am aware that history does not always tell us the truth and it is hard enough to judge members of your own family wisely, without attempting to understand a powerful king who lived 500 years ago. However, accepting those limitations, I still loathe the sound of Henry VIII.
He was the younger brother and never brought up to rule. Instead he was a pampered mummy’s boy, given a less vigorous education and largely ignored by his father. Then suddenly he was expected to take the entire weight of the country onto his spoiled young shoulders, and those who had once patted his golden curls were now bowing and scraping to him. I think it went to his head. However, I also think he secretly felt always inferior to his brother – who should have been king – hence his early desire to accept his brother’s wife as his own.
Arrogance and conceit seem to have been present on the surface, but I think his upbringing and the extreme unpopularity and coldness of his father gave young Henry considerable self-doubt and an inferiority complex which he was determined to hide. He was determined to be ‘great Henry’ and prove to his people that he was not inferior in any manner. Most bullies and those incapable of empathy are usually lacking in self-belief underneath. This would be coupled with his callous disregard for others, and his lack of competence in the bedroom.
He may have been cruel by nature, but his spleen was largely directed to those he feared made him look small, or had the courage to stand up to him and make him feel stupid. Also, invariably, it was those who he had initially admired and trusted, who then fell to the axe once Henry believed they had undermined him in some manner. Immature hopeful trust – once faced with the treason of trust turned sour – became vengeance.
No lady had been beheaded before Henry VIII’s time. Women of title were always either forgiven, deprived of their lands, or at the very worst, imprisoned in some convent or home. Henry VIII changed that, even with the very women he had loved and who had shared his most private moments.
I believe that, for whatever reason, he was a spoiled brat with a huge complex and highly unpleasant ideas. He was dangerous. I imagine his court became a place of shadowed fear. His example to his lords was also vile and there were more ambitious louts exercising their worst qualities during his reign than previously.
I believe Henry VIII became a creature of dread, bloody hatreds and bitter revenge. I could be wrong. But that is the Henry who will appear in the background of my new book.
WJD: As a fellow historical writer, I found myself really admiring how you used completely fictional main characters to bring alive the Tudor period. Do you think you will ever use a real person from history as your main protagonist?
Why – or why not?
Never say never – but I don’t think I will. I have two compelling reasons.
Firstly – it may sound a little antiquated – but I have enormous respect for the true sufferings and motives of historical characters. All of them, both good and bad, had horrendous lives of struggle and difficulty. But we do not know them and never truly will. I admire some and dislike others, but I’m well aware I could be wrong. Contemporary documentation is rare and always biased, Even private letters have their bias and ignorance. References to kings are either sycophantic and praise where none is due – or the later propaganda of the conqueror paints the previous king as a villain in order to justify their own aims. The same is true in a smaller vein regarding other characters. I do not wish to write a fictitious representation of a real person – I do not wish to do the same injustice to someone I never knew, when I complain about that being done to another. I do not wish to diminish their suffering because I fail to understand – and I do not wish to undermine their tragedies. I will refer to genuine historical figures and bring them as minor characters into my plots – but no more. Then – if my depiction is wrong (and I try very hard to be accurate) I have done less damage to the real person.
I have another more self-serving reason as well. I adore my invented fictitious characters, and that constitutes half the pleasure of my writing. They can do whatever I tell them to without the challenge of accuracy, and so they drive forward my own plot. All those glorious personalities live with me, talk to me, and complain if ignored. (Yes – I’m totally mad.)
One small additional point. I have strong opinions regarding some historical figures and often dislike other people’s representations of the same person. For instance, I admire the sound of Richard III – but much historical fiction – even that written by other admirers – tend to make him completely different to my inner picture. One well known book had him cavorting around like a modern teenage schoolboy. Frankly I do not want my own image of a historical figure to spoil someone else’s cheerful vision as some have spoiled mine.
WJD: Can you share with us the subject of your next major novel?
Well, actually it’s a fantasy. I know –that’s treachery. Not Tudor at all. It’s set principally beyond the Arctic Circle in the 9th century. Not a Tudor in sight.
But once this is finished, I am returning to Tudor days with THE DECEPTION OF CONSEQUENCES, a crime-murder-mystery-romance, set in England during Henry VIII’s reign. I haven’t fixed all the details in my mind yet, but I think Anne Boleyn will have to be queen. That is such a rich and fascinating period. But she will play a small (although probably integral) part – and once again my principal characters will all be fictional.
WJD: Do you think that history fiction is deliberately made more palpable for today’s “Celebrity news hungry” reader? That is, publishers believe readers are not really interested in the truth, as documented by history, but rather a distorted reality that shocks and titillates?
I have an absolute passion for truth. And I’m not keen on either ignoring or denying the cruelty, fear, suffering and difficulties of life in the past. I think that would be utterly wrong, and would diminish what those before us have experienced. Why should we undermine their courage and strength because we’re too squeamish to face the truth? To me it seems dreadfully unfair to whitewash the torture, disease and pain those people accepted and suffered. Nor is it fair to present a character of undoubted wickedness as a glamourous charmer. I’m fairly unshockable and have no problem writing about the evils of any era. I cry for my characters but I will not deny the truths of the past. We are supposed to learn from those who lived before, their failures and the terrible problems and ignorance of their times. How can we do that if we cannot face what was once common?
WJD: What’s more important – story or history accuracy?
Both are intertwined. No story can truly be flooded with intimacy, atmosphere and character unless it tries very hard to echo the truth. I cannot understand why anyone would wish to write about a certain period in history – and then casually set out to alter that historical period to suit themselves.
WJD: Thank you so much, Barbara!
It’s been a pleasure talking to someone as knowledgeable about the Tudor era as you are, Wendy – a brilliant author and an expert with a belief in accuracy like my own. Thank you very much for your interest.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil
Born in England, Barbara grew up amongst artists and authors and started writing at a young age. She published numerous short stories and articles, and worked as an editor, book critic and reader for publishers and television companies. Her first marriage produced three lovely daughters but ended with the death of her husband.
Many adventures later, Barbara met an Italian, fell in love, and spent 16 glorious years with him exploring Europe and sailing the Mediterranean. When he died she needed a place of solace, came to live in rural Australia, and began writing full-length novels for the first time. Barbara’s solace has now become her passion.
With a delight in medieval history dating back to her youth, Barbara began to research the wicked King Richard III, but quickly discovered the fascination of looking past Tudor propaganda to discover the real man. Barbara now writes principally on this era, setting her fiction in 15th century England.
BLOG: – http://www.bgdenvil.com/
Wendy J. Dunn
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel.
While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder (Tom told the story of Anne Boleyn in Dear Heart, How Like You This?), serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.
After successfully completing her MA (Writing) at Swinburne University Wendy became a tutor for the same course. She gained her PhD (Human Society) in 2014.