My love affair with medieval England began some years ago when I started writing my timeslip novel for teenagers, the Shalott trilogy. I’d been asking myself the ‘what if’ questions that writers so often ask: ‘What if it’s possible to go back to the time of King Arthur, to save the life of ‘the lady of Shalott’ and change the fate of Camelot? What if, instead of rewriting a legend, the characters actually rewrite their own lives?’
This was my thesis, but I then had to work out when to set my story: at the time when the ‘real’ Arthur, the dark age dux bellorum is thought to have existed, or in medieval time, when ‘his story’ of Arthur the warrior was first written down by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, followed later by stories from French writers including Chretien de Troyes. As the French embellishments of Lancelot du Lac and the love triangle between him, Guinevere and King Arthur, and the naming of Mordred as the king’s bastard rather than his nephew, were integral to my plot, I opted for a medieval setting as opposed to the dark age setting chosen by Marion Zimmer Bradley and other contemporary writers.
I am not a historian, I have no formal training, so writing the trilogy was a huge learning curve for me, especially when, in the 3rd novel, Shalott: The Final Journey, I brought my central character from the parallel reality of Camelot into ‘real’ medieval time. I introduced her to Geoffrey of Monmouth, his patron Robert of Gloucester, and the Empress Matilda, Robert’s half-sister. I could no longer excuse any mistakes with an airy, ‘Well, this is based on fantasy and legend, it’s not set in real time.’ Suddenly I found myself having to come to grips with the society and mores of the middle ages, and the history of a specific period. And I was hooked!
Once the Shalott trilogy was over, I cast about for something Australian to write, perhaps something based on history like my previous novel Ghost Boy, which has a flashback to a smallpox outbreak and the dreadful conditions of Sydney’s Quarantine Station in 1881. I also enjoy reading and writing crime, and have had some success with my short stories, including winning the inaugural Queen of Crime Award in 1999, so embarking on a new crime series was a tempting idea. Yet, try as I would, I couldn’t get my imagination away from medieval England. History or crime? I decided to combine them.
I freely acknowledge that this new series was partly inspired by Ellis Peters’ wonderful Brother Cadfael novels. My central character, Janna, lives as an outcast with her mother, who is a wortwyf (herbwife). The series tells of her quest to find her unknown father in order to avenge the murder of her mother. I needed to give Janna a skill that would transcend social boundaries, and I found it in her gift for healing. This knowledge, her curiosity and courage, her powers of observation and deduction, and her willingness to learn new skills and educate herself, empower Janna and help her to succeed not only in her quest, but also in solving the crimes and mysteries she encounters along the way. In addition, as she travels from forest to farm to abbey and on to the royal seat of power at Winchester, she learns much about society and about herself and her family, as well as coming to understand the secrets of her own heart.
While researching the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth for the Shalott trilogy, I became intrigued by stories of the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Matilda which lasted from 1139-1152. Here was a feisty woman who did not take kindly to having her throne snatched by her cousin, and she went to war to reclaim it. The result was a series of battles and great devastation of the countryside, along with shifting allegiances and daring escapes, all of which fitted my scenario perfectly. This period in history is something else Janna shares with Cadfael, although their loyalties fall on different sides!
I had plot and characters; I then had to find a setting. I knew the sorts of places I wanted Janna to travel to, and I knew they couldn’t be too far from Winchester. I bought a detailed map of Britain and, with the aid of a copy of the Domesday Book, I set about finding a royal hunting forest, the site of Janna’s home and the starting point for her journey.
In the meantime, I began to add to my library of reference books: fictional accounts of the civil war as well as English political and social histories; writers’ guides, clothing guides, and illustrated books for young students about life in the middle ages, which are particularly good as they have lots of pictures and plans of eg castles, manor houses and farms, water mills, farming implements, etc. As well as Cadfael’s Herb Garden, I also stocked up on the herbals of Gerard and Culpepper, books on Anglo Saxon food, drink and leechcraft, and also the Writers Guide to Deadly Doses – great for details about what to use, how long the poison takes to work, the symptoms and manner of death, etc. The internet was also a wonderful resource, but I soon became aware that I couldn’t write about the English countryside and the places I’d chosen unless I actually went over there to see them for myself.
I made plans to travel to the UK, hoping that my imaginary landscape would fit the real thing – and it did! I found a wonderful B & B to stay in, on a manor farm at Burcombe. The owner can date his family back to William the Conqueror. Instead of managing the farm for Wilton Abbey, as his family once did, he now manages it for the Earl of Pembroke, whose family inherited the land after the sacking of the abbeys in Henry VIII’s time. Plus ca change and all that! I was given introductions to all sorts of useful people, including the warden of Grovely Wood, which is the only royal hunting forest in Wiltshire to be mentioned in the Domesday Book. Everyone I spoke to was enormously kind and helpful, which made my task a whole lot easier.
I suspect I gained something of a reputation as I spent many days walking in the footsteps of my character, taking photographs, muttering into my tape recorder, and stuffing my pockets full of flowers and leaves for later identification. I discovered that I couldn’t do without wildflower, bird and tree guides, although the last was difficult as I was there in early spring before trees had come into leaf. But the daffodils were out, followed by primroses, violets and bluebells, all growing wild. The English countryside in spring is breathtakingly beautiful.
When I wasn’t walking the landscape, I visited museums and buildings dating back to the 1100s, mostly Saxon churches, cathedrals and the ruins of castles at Sarum and Winchester, plus what’s left of the abbeys at Wilton, Shaftesbury and Laycock (where parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed.) Having visited those sites will help when I come to describe them, as will all the brochures and maps I collected, while the places themselves gave rise to lots of plot possibilities. I also holed up in libraries and government offices, reading and photocopying, and had to post two enormous parcels home before I left England.
My last week was spent in Winchester. What a thrill to stand in the oldest part of the Norman cathedral, listening to the famous choir and imagining Bishop Henry of Blois, Stephen’s brother, conducting a mass there. Jane Austen is buried in the cathedral, and while her tombstone and a memorial window pay tribute to her piety and sweetness of nature, and commemorate her ‘foul’ to God, both neglect to mention that she was also one of England’s greatest novelists!
I explored the ruins of Bishop Henry’s Wolvesey Castle, and walked across the water meadows to claim the ‘wayfarer’s dole’ (a beaker of ale and a hunk of bread) at the Hospital of St Cross. It was established by Henry in 1136 to house thirteen poor men and feed another hundred every day, and it is still occupied. The water meadows are the same ones Keats walked in while composing his Ode to Autumn. There is history and tradition wherever you turn in England, and it was an amazing experience to be part of it all.
Now that I’m writing The Janna Mysteries, it is particularly helpful to be able to visualise where Janna lives and what she’ll encounter along her journey to finding her true identity and avenging her mother’s death. But I need to go back, to see the English countryside in the full glory of its summer green … and then there’ll be golden autumn … and icy winter …
My research trip this year will also encompass Oxford Castle, from which Matilda made a daring escape in 1142. The trail of Inspector Morse beckons while I’m there, as does Shrewsbury Abbey and Cadfael’s shed and herb garden. I’m excited already!
The advice for new writers is to ‘write what you know’. It’s good advice, but perhaps even better advice is to ‘write what you feel passionate about, tell the story you have to tell.’ Rosemary for Remembrance is the start of my journey. I’m currently working on Rue for Repentance, and I’m hoping that the series will run to at least six novels. By then I hope to be such an expert I’ll be able to keep on writing medieval England from the comfort of home!
© Felicity Pulman, 2005