4 August 2019

Special Guest Post by Sarah Kennedy: Writing—and Revising—The Altarpiece (The Cross and The Crown Book 1)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

 In the tumultuous years of King Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the religious houses of England are being seized by force. Twenty-year-old Catherine Havens is a foundling and the adopted daughter of the prioress of the Priory of Mount Grace in a small Yorkshire village. 

The Tudor era looms large in the contemporary imagination, from Henry VIII and his six wives, to “Bloody Mary” and Elizabeth I. The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, and Henry VIII’s break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. It was an era not wholly unlike our own. People struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority; the right relationship between religion and politics; the moral authority of the ruler; the moral responsibility of that same ruler.

I’ve been fascinated with the Tudors since, as an undergraduate, I first studied Renaissance Literature. Shakespeare, of course, but also Sir Thomas Wyatt, who supposedly had a close—some would say too close!—relationship with Anne Boleyn. As a PhD student, I studied the ways that Renaissance poets wrote about women, because the “woman question” was central to the changing world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As a professor of English literature and creative writing, I now teach this literature, but my imagination has always wandered to the “blank spaces” in history. My creative life began in poetry, but in researching the history of the church in England, I came across a curious “hole” in the record: what happened to the nuns in England after the dissolution of the convents. The monks could become priests in the new church or find other professions. But what about the women?

When I began my first novel, The Altarpiece, I chose a real place—Mount Grace in northern Yorkshire—and peopled it with fictional characters. I changed the religious house from a monastery to a convent to focus on women. Catherine Havens, my main character, is a young novice, but she is also strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman.

That was in 2012, and the novel was first published in 2013. Since then, I have changed publishers. I’m now with Penmore Press, and their gracious offer to republish the book allowed me to go back through the story. There is more known these days about the nuns of Tudor England, though still not a great deal, and I have read quite a lot more “convent fiction,” an entire subgenre of its own!, in the years since the book first came out. I’ve also thought more about why I decided on a fictional character in a far-flung region of England.

Most writers of historical fiction have to choose between the famous-person route (Hilary Mantel often does this) or the completely-obscure-person route (I call this the “Walter Scott route” and Nancy Bilyeau has made good use of this). Of course, a writer can (as I do) have her character rub shoulders with or bump into the famous folk, but basically the story centers upon either a well-known historical personage or someone fabricated. I enjoy and admire stories about kings and queens and their families, but I chose to create a character because I now realize that I didn’t want to follow a biography to its necessary end. I wanted more latitude with my character, and I could only do that with someone I had created.

So the Catherine of The Altarpiece does have her moments in the presence of royal glory, but most often she toils away in the company of her friends and family—and her own busy mind. I like to imagine that this is how many of the great changes in the Early Modern period happened: through the efforts and will of ordinary people, thrust into difficult decisions by extraordinary times.

Sarah Kennedy

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About the Author

Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England, and Self-Portrait, with Ghost.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  Find out more at Sarah's website:  http://sarahkennedybooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @KennedyNovels

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