Tatton Park Flower Show

We had a lovely day at Tatton Park Flower Show. As I've been away all week at Writers Holiday (I'll post about that next) this is my first opportunity to upload my photos. Here are a few of the best to inspire you with your own gardens. I love the Votes for Women one, and the ones done by the schools. Here's Thomas the Tank Engine. Since it's Olympics year we'll start with the pole vaulter, worked in wicker.



Inspiration and Research

Writers are always on the look out for ideas. I find inspiration from many sources: family memories, history of the places I’ve lived in such as the beautiful English Lake District and Cornwall. I pick up ideas from day time TV, snippets in newspapers and magazines, dinner parties, and even ear-wigging the next table in a restaurant, as all writers do. I’ve dipped into the more interesting parts of my own life, such as when we had a smallholding and tried the ‘good life’. And having fully exploited those, moved on to interviewing people for more fascinating stories.

However, with the current historicals I’m writing, there are no people alive to interview as they take place in sixteenth century France. For these I’ve needed to delve into the archives. I’m one of those oddballs who find such research fascinating, and have hundreds of books and magazines, memoirs and documents of all kinds that I squirrel away in case they come in handy one day.

It was finding an old book on my shelf that set me on the quest of writing about Marguerite de Valois in the first place. It was a biography of her called ‘The Queen of Hearts’. I’d bought it second hand years ago in Hay-on-Wye at the book festival. I was looking for an interesting subject and happened to spot it on my shelves so picked it up to read one night on my way to bed.

I discovered Margot, as she was known, was the daughter of Catherine de Medici and was instantly intrigued by the fascinating life she led, the scandal and intrigue that surrounded her, and the dangers she faced. All grist to the mill for a romantic novelist.

It set me on the trail of finding out more about her, about Catherine, and the French court at that time, collecting or downloading many books. I started reading and researching for what turned out to be a trilogy, starting with ‘Hostage Queen’, then ‘Reluctant Queen’, and finally ‘The Queen and the Courtesan’.

Researching Gabrielle (seen left) was equally fascinating.

It was easy to feel overwhelmed at times by all the information I found, so I learned to constantly ask myself if it was relevant to my heroine. It was how her actions affected history that mattered most, I decided. More, perhaps, than how history affected her. But as we all know history is written by the victors, I needed to read widely to gain other viewpoints too, and to decide what was true and what political propaganda.

In this last of the trilogy, the story is that of Henriette d’Entragues, who wasn’t satisfied with simply being the mistress of Henry IV of France, she wanted a crown too. Before agreeing to surrender her maidenhead, which she artfully claimed was still intact, she insisted upon a written promise. Ever weak where women were concerned, Henry agreed that if she provided him with a son, he would make her his queen. His advisers and ministers, not surprisingly, were very much against the idea, as they had an Italian princess, Marie de Medici, in mind, so consequently began their own plotting to seal the match. France was in sore need of the money she could bring to the marriage. Henriette rather unkindly called her the ‘fat banker’.

Henriette was a fascinating character to write as her greed and ambition didn’t make her particularly likeable, so she was in a way an anti-heroine, if there is such a thing. I wanted the reader to disapprove of her, but not so badly that they switched off and closed the book. She also had to be true to her time and yet appeal to the modern reader. Quite a challenge.

Marie de Medici, was not an easy women either, but then she did have a mistress and an ex-wife to deal with. In this kind of historical you can’t just make your characters or the story up, but I found it fascinating searching for details on what these people were like, how they related to each other, and discovering how Henriette set about her quest for a crown.

The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June, can be found as a paperback or ebook here:

Most of my back titles are now available as ebooks on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords etc. Links to them can be found on my website: http://www.fredalightfoot.co.uk


The Oppression of Women in Historical Fiction.

Women’s oppression across history has been written about constantly, even during the 60s, in an age of strong feminism. The desire for power, male domination, violence and control, and captive women, have been recurring themes from Jane Eyre to the present day. Drabble, Byatt, and Jean Rhys in her retelling of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargossa Sea have all used this theme. As have countless gothic and romantic suspense novels. Is this because women fear reliving the fates of their mothers?

‘Happy women, like happy countries, they say, have no histories,’ says Harriet in Victoria Holt’s Menfreya in the Morning.

Eleanor Hibbert, in her different incarnations, as Jean Plaidy, Holt, and Philippa Carr used this theme constantly. Her Plaidy novels were written in the 3rd person, which gave them a rounder, more objective viewpoint, if slightly distanced. Her others were in 1st and therefore more personal and emotional.

Gregory too writes about the lot of women. About primogeniture and how women are ignored. Even her biographical fiction is about exploited women, forced to marry for political reasons, or used by their political ambitious fathers. Her early novels also deal with the theme of exploitation in other ways, such as the agricultural peasant after the enclosures. Writing these novels in the 1980s, during the time of the miners’ strikes, this would strike a chord with readers, as it tuned in with the radical political consciousness of the time.

As with Gregory, so with Susan Howatch, who wrote about wealth and inheritance, stating that women were considered a possession as was a house or land. But she plunders history for her stories: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine for Penmarrick, and Edward I, II and III for Cashelmara. She is saying that nothing changes. She used history itself as her inspiration, disguised and relocated while echoing the universal truth of her theme of exploitation of women in dysfunctional families. Both Howatch and Gregory teach us that history does not exist in a vacuum, that nothing really changes about human nature, despite progress in other fields.

Perhaps it is easier for us to view these problems through the prism of nostalgia. Class/sexual inequalities/social differences/violent abuse/illegitimacy and other strong themes, are often best viewed at a distance. They work because they don’t have to be defended, criticised or judged. People like to think - ah yes, that’s how it was back then. They are aware the issue still has a resonance today, yet it is easier to think of it with the benefit of hindsight. Its awfulness is often stressed quite strongly, yet as it is safely in the past, this allows a slight air of unreality or fantasy in the way the subject is depicted.

In the 1970s the theme of exploited women was turned on its head and the liberation of women became a popular theme in racy historicals. Known as bodice rippers these started with Kathleen Woodiwise: The Flame and the Flower. Rosemary Rogers: Sweet Savage Love. They depicted accurate sex in inaccurate history. History was pure fantasy, a mere backdrop. Women were still incarcerated, degraded, violated, and yet they maintained their sense of adventure and spirit of defiance and independence. The strength of the abused woman resonated throughout, giving women the right to enjoy sex, and to exploit men just as they had exploited women throughout history. Ultimately they tamed the hero. They conquered evil with love, a theme which was picked up by Mills & Boon at the time, and has featured strongly in romantic fiction ever since.

Marguerite de Valois in ‘Hostage Queen’ was most certainly an oppressed woman, bullied by her mother, Catherine de Medici, and imprisoned by her husband, Henry of Navarre, but never defeated. She remained a strong woman, a feminist before her time demanding equal rights, and far more intelligent than her mad brothers. She was the Queen that France needed but never got.

Gabrielle d’EstrĂ©es who takes the lead in Reluctant Queen, was sold by her mother, twice, to different men, so quite a different sort of oppression. Fortunately she was adored by Henry IV, whose mistress she became, so things improved, at least for a time.

In ‘The Queen and the Courtesan’, I set out giving Henriette d’Entragues the benefit of the doubt, that she was used by her father and brother. But while they were certainly complicit in all the intrigue in which they were engaged, I soon decided that she was no innocent victim. She was the very opposite of an oppressed woman, one who manipulated events to win herself the crown she craved. But did she succeed?

The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June, can be found as a paperback or ebook here: