27 August 2017

Special Guest Post by Sarah Gristwood, Author of The Queen's Mary: In the Shadows of Power...

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Mary Seton is lady-in-waiting to the legendary Mary Queen of Scots. Torn between her own desires and her duty to serve her mistress, she is ultimately drawn into her Queen's web of passion and royal treachery - and must play her part in the game of thrones between Mary and Elizabeth I. Mary Seton is lady-in-waiting to the legendary Mary Queen of Scots.Must she choose between survival, and sharing the same fate as the woman she has served, 
loyally and lovingly, since a child?

        Believing your own stories

There’s been a lot of talk recently about historical fact and historical fiction, with writers from Hilary Mantel downwards getting in on the act. But I like to think I’ve taken the issue a step further - writing fact and fiction about the same person, at virtually the same time, with all the risk entailed of believing your own stories.

I wrote about Mary, Queen of Scots in Game of Queens, a non-fiction book about the women who made sixteenth-century Europe. But I had already some time before begun, and have since completed, a novel, The Queen’s Mary, about one of the four attendants famously known as the Four Marys. Question is - and Simon Sebag Montefiore said that he felt got closer to Stalin in his recent novel than in the non-fiction books he wrote about Stalin some years before - which would allow me to see her more clearly?
I’ve never been a fan of Mary Stuart’s. As a historically-minded, novel-reading teenager growing up in this country you’re either with Mary, or with her kinswoman and nemesis Elizabeth, and I’m an Elizabeth Tudor girl all the way. In Game of Queens, with its parade of competent, powerful women, Mary was in some ways an anomaly. The one who frankly made a mess of trying to rule her country - the one who got away.

In The Queen’s Mary I had perhaps to see her more sympathetically. The novel was, after all, being written from the viewpoint of one of the  girls who had grown up with her, loved her . . . even if love and hate can be closely allied, maybe. And yes, I think the experience of viewing her that way did help me better to appreciate the difficulties of a young woman (a girl!) who did at least make a determined stab at the impossible job of trying to rule her turbulent country.  A number of novelists (well-trained historians, many of them) have described how they write fiction to find another way of exploring the truth - not to spin a total fantasy.

What is legitimate in historical fiction? The short answer ‘anything!’ may be too easy. (Remember the fuss surrounding Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, anybody?) Every writer makes there own deals, and I’ve certainly taken some liberties.  But the public affairs, the politics - like the everyday details -  had to be as accurate as I could make them. In my first novel, The Girl in the Mirror, I wrote about the relationship of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, and again, it was vital for me to feel that if I had been writing it up in non-fiction, I would not have understood that relationship any differently.

I once heard Philippa Gregory declare that fiction was in some ways more rigorous than factual writing. There are no footnotes in fiction (or in film) and you can’t even say ‘on the one hand . . . on the other’, and present the contradictory evidence. If you’re writing about the death of the Princes in the Tower, you have at least to believe you know the truth about that mystery. (Actually, that said, the first person Gregory so often uses does allow a measure of ambiguity.) Heaven knows fiction does have its own rigours. As the biographer Carole Angier put it: ‘Because fiction has to seem true, it often can’t be true - there are improbabilities, coincidences, inconsistencies in life you couldn’t put into a novel because no-one would believe them.’

 Hilary Mantel is one of those who says that: ‘You become a novelist so you can tell the truth.’ She adds: ‘I start to practice my trade at the point where the satisfactions of the original story break down.’ The reactions of the sixteenth-century Four Marys may have been very different from those I have imagined here. But they must have had reactions to the traumatic events going on around them - feelings which, because of the lack of records, cannot easily be explored in non-fiction history.

Simon Sebag Montefiore rightly says that public history has to be presented in terms of known fact, or the characters who inhabit that world will fail to live.   ‘The pillars of the cathedral must stand’. But opinions are divided as to what, if anything, you can change if it doesn’t suit your story. 

‘Story’, after all, is the second syllable of ‘history’. And anyone who has studied, for example, the Wars of the Roses knows there is no single version of that history. The Queens Elizabeth and Mary have been seen very differently down the centuries  Perhaps that’s what made me feel that of the two books I’d written, the one was as valid a way as the other of exploring the tumultuous events of Scotland’s 1560s.

Sarah Gristwood
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 About the Author

Sarah Gristwood  is a best-selling Tudor biographer, former film journalist, and commentator on royal affairs. After leaving Oxford, Sarah began work as a journalist, writing at first about the theatre as well as general features on everything from gun control to Giorgio Armani. But increasingly she found herself specialising in film interviews – Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro; Martin Scorsese and Paul McCartney. She has appeared in most of the UK’s leading newspapers – The Times, the Guardian, The Telegraph (Daily and Sunday) – and magazines from Cosmopolitan to Country Living and Sight and Sound to The New Statesman. Turning to history she wrote two bestselling Tudor biographies, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen and Elizabeth and Leicester. Sarah was one of the team providing Radio 4’s live coverage of the royal wedding; and has since spoken on the Queen’s Jubilee, the royal baby, and other royal stories for Sky News, Woman’s Hour, Radio 5 Live, and CBC. Shortlisted for both the Marsh Biography Award and the Ben Pimlott Prize for Political Writing, she is a Fellow of the RSA, and an Honororary Patron of Historic Royal Palaces. She and her husband, the film critic Derek Malcolm, live in London and Kent. Find out more at Sarah's webiste 

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