I know, I know, it’s a long-standing, well-known fact that I loathe, hate and despise the Tudors. (And all the et ceteras that includes–I won’t bore you with my grumbletonian litany…)
Still, the truth is Nancy Bilyeau is rather smashing. And what’s more, she writes about this period of history from an angle which few of us have honestly ever considered before, I think. And in her book, The Crown, out now here in the UK, she does something quite unique–she puts a human face, a real face, on all those unpalatable facts of these most turbulent Tudor times.
So here she is, talking a bit of Tudor for you. (Hearty cheers all round!):
‘At my very first bookstore reading came the question from a reader: “Did you know many nuns before you wrote this book?”
‘I answered her at once, with the truth: “No, none.”
‘I’ve written a historical thriller about a young Dominican novice in the reign of King Henry VIII. The entire story of The Crown is told in the first person, through the perspective of Sister Joanna Stafford. She is someone who very much wants to be a novice and serve God as a sister in an enclosed priory.
‘And yet before I wrote this book, I had no familiarity with monastic orders. I am not a practicing Catholic; my parents were agnostic and occasionally attended the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
‘So what drew me to Sister Joanna and the Dissolution of the Monasteries?
‘When I set out to write my first novel, I wasn’t sure what kind of story I wanted to tell except for one thing: It must be set in the 16th century.
‘I saw the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R as a child and fell in love with the 16th century. I read everything I could. I remember when I was 12 years old, at the public library in suburban Michigan, trying to check out a book about the divorce of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, and the librarian wouldn’t let me have it because it had the word “divorce” in the title and I was too young!
‘Luckily that didn’t stop me from building my own library over the years. Every time I entered a bookstore, I’d swing by “European History—England” and “Biography.” If something tempted me, I’d walk up to the cash register with the book under my arm–say a biography about Anne Boleyn–and my husband would exclaim, “How can you buy another one? What more can you learn?” And I’d just put it down on the counter, saying, “There are always new interpretations.”
‘So I had my time period, but what sort of book would it be?
‘I’ve always adored mysteries and thrillers. I decided to fuse my two passions, and write a historical thriller set in the 1500s.
‘I wanted to tell a woman’s story. It seemed the shelves were bursting with books written about medieval and Renaissance queens and princesses. I thought a nun would be interesting, and what could yield richer drama than a nun in the midst of the Dissolution of the Monasteries?
‘I spent the next five years researching and writing. I didn’t work on my book every day—I have two children and held fulltime editing positions at various magazines, most recently, InStyle. To finish my manuscript, I began to get up at 5 a.m. and write my book until it was time to wake up the children at 7 a.m. We did not travel anywhere for most vacations. I took those precious days and spent them on research.
‘The more I learned about a nun’s life in Tudor England, the more it fascinated me.
‘It is not easy in our secular age to enter the mind and heart of a 16th century nun—or to appreciate the vital importance of faith in the lives of everyone.
As Eamon Duffy says in his great book, The Stripping of the Altars, “Late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and loyalty of people up to the very moment of Reformation.” After immersing myself in this very different world for so long, I feel a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the nuns and monks and friars who struggled to cope with the Dissolution. And I very much hope that this is what readers will come away with after finishing The Crown.’
[They’ll also, says Bennetts, have had the pleasure of a ripping great read…Go on, what are you waiting for? Go check the thing out. Make those slackers at Waterstone’s and Hatchards do some work for once…]
The Crown is also available from The Book Depository now. On sale!