The borders of historical fiction and non-fiction: a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

The ChaliceUKcoverLast year I reviewed Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent début Tudor thriller, The Crown which is set during the dissolution of the monasteries. Its sequel, The Chalice, is being published in the UK by Orion on February 28; and in North America by Simon & Schuster on March 5.

Nancy has kindly agreed to take part in an online discussion with me comparing the processes of writing historical fiction and non-fiction, trying both to identify common ground and to explore the different ways in which we approach problems such as narrative and character. There is a tendency to look down on historical fiction, but at its best it is trying to tell a kind of truth – more usually an emotional truth – about life in a particular period; and at its best, again, it can do that in a way that it is very hard for straight “history” to achieve.

Mathew: Hi Nancy. Many thanks for joining me here! I’m really looking forward to talking to you! I thought we might start by talking about research.

For me, the research process is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a work of non-fiction because – particularly when you start out – you don’t have to make too many decisions and you can read as widely as you like, following both sense and intuition to find possible sources. It’s a very open process because one of the things I am trying to find is the shape of the book, and that only emerges once you have absorbed a certain amount of information and started to map out a universe – which is the parameters of your area – and a rough sense of where your narrative will begin and end.

When I first set out to research The Favourite – then untitled, of course – I was initially interested primarily in unpicking the myth of Ralegh, which to my mind has dominated our understanding of him for 400 years. It was only slowly that I came to realise that what I was really interested in was Ralegh before the myth was formed: the young man – dissolute, contrarian, and plagued with self-doubt – who seemed to burst onto the national scene from nowhere in the early 1580s. Then once I had made that decision, Elizabeth I became a much stronger influence on the shape of the narrative and I had to work hard to stop her taking over entirely!

So in a sense the specific shape of The Favourite – as opposed to the general idea – came from immersing myself in contemporary sources. Is the same true for you as a writer of historical fiction, or do you go to sources with a clear idea of what you want from them? How did the idea for The Crown take shape in your mind?

Nancy: I did not begin writing my novel with too clear an idea of my objectives. I made a series of decisions, and they led my research, step by step. First, I wanted to write a book set in the 16th century. Second, I settled on the 1530s in the reign of Henry VIII, a tumultuous time. With my third choice, to create a protagonist who was a Dominican novice at a priory at the point of dissolution, I really was then set on a certain path. I had to learn everything I could to shape a compelling character. What would her daily life have been? What was the structure of the priory? What would it be like to have your vocation ripped away from you, to be expelled from your home? I wanted my book to be a mystery, to be suspenseful, but it was always very important that it be completely grounded in research.

Mathew: What do you think are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the fictional and non-fictional approaches to the same historical material?

Nancy: I love research. For me, during the writing of The Chalice , when I would take a “research day”, that was giving myself a reward. I don’t know if other historical novelists feel that way. If performing the research were nothing but a necessary evil, then I am not sure I would want to write a book set in a long-ago time. Frankly, this is a lot of work. But it’s magical to lose myself in the 16th century. Sometimes I wish that I wrote non-fiction books and could analyze sources and dig for new facts, make my observations, and not have to labor so much on creating the characters and the plot lines. But for the most part I enjoy the fictional approach. I like to come up with my own twists and turns!

Nancy Bilyeau photo

Nancy Bilyeau

What I tried to do in The Crown and The Chalice was to take a time in history – the dissolution of the monasteries – and create a young woman going through it. We don’t know much about the monastics beyond some of the most well known ones: Sister Elizabeth Barton, who prophesied against the marriage to Anne Boleyn (and lost her life as a result); the Observant Friars who stood up to Henry VIII, facing exile or imprisonment or death; the Carthusian monks, who also suffered a ghastly fate for refusing to acknowledge the king as the head of their church.

At the same time, there were many prioresses and priors who literally surrendered, who went along with the dissolution, no matter how they felt about it, and had to make new lives after being expelled. Or not. In some cases, the cathedrals were transformed and many of the religious men living there changed how they worshipped and functioned but were not tossed out. But what about the more “ordinary” men and women, who received small pensions and more or less hit the road? How did they feel? Where did they go? There simply aren’t many answers in the historical record. The advantage of fiction is that I can, using deduction and imagination, create these lives.

Mathew: As a historian, you’re very much a slave to the detail. The more you research, the more complex and diverse your set of information becomes, and the harder it is to impose the disciplines of narrative on it. You can’t pretend that inconvenient facts don’t exist – your aim is to preserve all the phenomena and present it in a coherent, psychologically and politically plausible shape. So you are always making choices, emphasising one set of facts over another, placing pieces of information together so that they reinforce each other, and so on. It’s like picking out a constellation from a sky full of stars.

But sometimes, of course, you come across information that means you have to revise your views of your subject at quite a fundamental level. It was certainly like that for me when I came to read about Ralegh’s involvement in the circle around the Earl of Oxford in the late 1580s, a group who can mostly be characterised by a sour, reactionary, elitist and sometimes seditious kind of catholicism. What the hell was Ralegh the protestant hero doing hanging around with them?! I had to rethink a lot of my assumptions, and it helped pull the book even more towards Ralegh’s early pre-fame years; but it also made for what I think is some of the most compelling material in The Favourite.

To what extent do you allow your research to affect or change your narrative? Likewise, how does it affect your understanding and exploration of your characters?

Nancy: When I researched the Dissolution, I became troubled about the fate of the nuns and monks and friars. When I made the decision that a Catholic novice would be my protagonist I read as much as I could about the dissolution of the monasteries. The more I learned, the more troubled I felt about the fate of the nuns and the monks and the friars. For one thing, you can hardly say it was a mission of reform when every single institution was closed, sometimes without real proof of any misdeeds and especially when it came to the nuns.

What did all of the houses of nuns do “wrong”? Sometimes the smaller religious houses were so poor that they weren’t doing things strictly by the book. They had to break enclosure to get food so they wouldn’t starve. The answer to that is to expel the women with minimal pensions and destroy their homes? And then the buildings themselves were stripped of value and given to courtiers loyal to the king—or he kept them himself. Henry VIII kept Dartford Priory, he ordered it demolished and then a very grand manor house was built on the rubble. Its gatehouse stands today—they hold wedding receptions there. Which cracks me up. But to return to your point, the more I learned about what happened to the nuns and monks, the more sympathy I felt and it affected the writing.

Mathew: Your main character, Joanna Stafford is a young noblewoman who chooses a monastic life in the 1530s, just before Henry VIII and Cromwell suppressed the religious houses of England and Wales. She is fictional, but you give her a plausible web of relationships to real people. Did you have any specific real-life counterparts in mind on which you based her?

Nancy: No, she is completely fictional. There were young aristocratic women taking vows at priories in this time—Henry VIII’s aunt, the youngest daughter of Edward IV, Bridget of York, entered Dartford Priory as a child. However, most women choosing the religious life were from the lower levels of the gentry. There is not enough known about these women to base a fictional character on, except for the barest minimum of facts. After I’d written The Crown, I learned some interesting details about Dartford nuns who returned to the priory when Mary I restored it during her reign. Mary tried to give some of the nuns and monks back their homes. In the case of Dartford, a half dozen or so had never given up their spiritual lives in those intervening 16 years.

One of the first things Elizabeth did when she succeeded to the throne was shut down the monasteries yet again and expel the nuns and monks. Mary’s widower, Philip, quietly paid for the Dartford nuns to leave England and find a new Dominican priory in the Netherlands. It’s interesting, isn’t it? In reality, people didn’t live out their stereotypical roles: Elizabeth was supposed to be the enlightened ruler who cared about the people, Mary the fanatical and cruel bigot, and Philip the unwanted foreigner with no interest in ordinary lives of the English. The more details you learn, the more nuanced things become.

Mathew: A long time ago I remember reading the Marxist historian Christopher Hill say that the point of writing history was to do justice to the dead. That’s always stayed with me, and I try hard while I’m both researching and writing to think as generously as I can about people and their motivations. And even when blanket generosity is no longer sustainable I still work hard to see things as far as possible from their point of view, so that they exist in my writing as human actors in their own right, and not merely incidental players in the story of Ralegh and Elizabeth.

I actually tend to think that by representing as diverse a range of contemporary characters and stories as possible, my principal subjects become more explicable and human too.

In your work, of course, you mix fictional and real characters. With the latter, to what extent are you concerned to represent them as accurately as possible? Do you think about, say, the Stephen Gardiner in The Crown as your “own” character – or as the man himself?

Nancy: I tried as much as possible to give him characteristics and behavior based on factual record. His rumored descent from a Tudor through illegitimacy, his flashes of temper, his quick legal brain, even his large hands—these are based on contemporary descriptions. Bishop Gardiner fascinates me. He was the lawyer who helped Henry VIII with the arguments for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. But things went much further than he possibly foresaw and he spent the rest of his life trying to hold back the tide, to stop the Protestant Reformation. I imagined the guilt and frustration he felt were intense, and I used that in building my fictional character.

It’s funny, when I look at paintings of Gardiner, he’s not my Gardiner. I feel the same way about Mary Tudor and the Duke of Norfolk. I have created my own people in my own fictional world. They are carefully based on the real thing but in the end they’re mine.

Mathew: I’m painfully aware that imposing any kind of narrative structure – a beginning and an end – on the flood of history is already and always a kind of falsification, implying closures that are never wholly true, even when you choose births and deaths or the arc of a reign. There is always a tension, then, between the shape you give to your material – even at a chapter and paragraph level – and the material itself: your frame has to fit, but it also has to be strong and flexible enough to maintain its shape against the pressure of information that lies beyond the limits of your particular work.

But I imagine that is much harder for you in historical fiction where your narrative isn’t constructed out of actual events but has to weave delicately among them. How difficult is it to stop your story being overwhelmed – not just by history itself, but by the intellectual and emotional baggage that readers bring to that history? How did you draw the line in The Crown between telling your story, set against the dissolution but not directly about it, and explaining the dissolution itself? Is the gravitational pull of big events like that difficult to resist?

Nancy: That’s when the editors come in, bless them. I am so besotted with the 16th century and want to share my research and things I’ve learned as much as I can, but I am also very intent on keeping the story moving. The Crown and The Chalice are thrillers, and while I humbly hope that they could be considered literary thrillers, at the end of the day they are supposed to be enthralling if not exciting. The stories have to move. You can’t stop and describe the half-timber architecture. But still, because I am a research lover, I occasionally leaped into passages that were perhaps not advancing the story as well as they could, and my editors gave me notes on that. I almost always took the notes. I have worked as a magazine editor for years—I can’t turn around and refuse to be edited. Well I guess I could, but there’d be no living with myself.

Mathew: Obviously I am only dealing with real people, so in trying to understand them I look at their own words, their actions, and the words and actions of those around them – together of course with contemporary literature in its broadest sense. You try to sift what is typical behaviour from what is idiosyncratic; where someone is conforming to type and where someone’s behaviour is, in contemporary terms, distinctive and unsettling. In a sense, I am working from the outside in, taking phenomena and building a psychology out of them.

You, it seems to me, are working from the inside out. You can invent dialogue and action; but while on paper that might seem the simpler task, I’m not sure it isn’t the harder of the two. After all, you have to know your subjects – real and fictional – inside out to know how they speak and behave. I merely have to interpret. How do you go about getting to know your characters, how they think and speak? Does that come out of reading and thinking about contemporaries, or does it come from the characters themselves as they react to the circumstances of your narrative?

Nancy: It comes from the characters. Once I’ve created my fictional group – Sister Joanna Stafford, Geoffrey Scovill, Brother Edmund, Brother Richard and the rest – then when I set loose a set of circumstances that is based in reality, I know how they would react. Not from studying how real people would have reacted – although perhaps I have acquired a base of knowledge of the time. But it’s more that I know pretty immediately how they would behave or react. I’m not sure if it’s instinctual knowledge. Perhaps just a series of hunches?

Once in a while I come up against something that is hard to convey sympathetically to a modern reader. For example, the Bible. In the mid 16th century, when pamphlets and then books containing Protestant writing began making their way into England, it was a crisis. Henry VIII ordered his ministers to stop the flow of heresy. Remember, he was named “Defender of the Faith” by a pope—Henry VIII was a loyal son of the church until the church wouldn’t give him a divorce. It came down to interpretation.

The traditional view—the Catholic view, if you want to call it that, for simplicity’s sake—was that only priests and learned men of the church possessed the scholarship and training to interpret religious texts. Their job was to disseminate the knowledge. The Reformers wanted ordinary people to read the Bible in English and form their own relationship to God. Catholics feared that a mistake in interpretation would mean people could believe the wrong thing and burn in Hell. That’s not a modern view, though. It’s hard to make that go down in a story. Particularly since I personally feel the Tyndale Bible is beautifully written when I put on my editorial hat. But my “job” is to represent how Sister Joanna Stafford would feel about the Bible and all other things of that time, without any anachronistic asides. No cheating!

Mathew: One final question. Although our specific subject matter is separated by a several decades, we both write about Tudor England. It is a perennially popular era in English history and there is no shortage of either fiction or non-fiction covering the Henrician and Elizabethan periods.

It can be a rather daunting prospect. Does the world really need another book of Tudor history – or fiction for that matter?

For my part, I felt quite strongly when I came to research Ralegh in detail that, while there have been numerous books on him since the great Victorian biographies of Edward Edwards and William Stebbing, our view of him was still essentially that of the nineteenth century. Which in turn was still very much the kind of image which he himself had shaped through the course of his career.

Nevertheless, ensuring there was something new to be said – that I wasn’t, to borrow an image from Dryden, merely following other men’s tracks in the snow – was a major worry. The same was of course true when I came to consider Elizabeth I. But having “found” a different Ralegh, so to speak, the principal question that then arose – why on earth did she favour this difficult, unpopular man – already seemed to place her in a compellingly different light. Suddenly I saw a human dimension to their relationship – and specifically to her – that I think hadn’t really been appreciated.

They began to live and breathe. And that – for me – was an intoxicating moment.

But how did you approach the challenge of crafting a new narrative in well-trodden territory? Did that challenge itself excite you – or did you find the volume of other Tudor fictions intimidating?

Nancy: When I started writing the book in 2005, there was no Tudors miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, there was no The Other Boleyn Girl or Wolf Hall. The Tudor period has always been popular, yes—and provided strong meat for fiction and film. After all, I became excited about the 16th century when I saw Elizabeth R as a child. But it wasn’t this sort of wild and wide-ranging Tudorverse we have now. As I was plugging away at the novel that became The Crown over five years’ time, all these things start popping up, and while I was intrigued I also felt unnerved. It’s a bit like how a child feels when he’s staked out a nice, quiet part of the sandbox and then all these other kids thunder over and grab his shovel and play loudly and even make bigger sand mountains.

But that is one of the reasons I decided to write the story of a Catholic novice in 1537. It’s the expected position to take, that the monastic life was dying and corrupt, and Cromwell and Cranmer were brilliant reformers of a terrible, decaying system. Occasionally you hear quite the different viewpoint from people like Eamon Duffy in his brilliant books of non-fiction. But fictionally no one had taken the side of the opposition, or, as an English friend of mine once put it, “the losers.” I don’t have a religious agenda. I was raised by agnostic parents, actually. But I found in my research a strong argument to be made that a nun in Tudor England, particularly at the Dartford priory, lived a meaningful, honest, spiritual, intellectual, even feminist existence. I’m proud that through my novels, a light is shown on this shadowy corner of Tudor England.

Mathew: Nancy, thank you so much for your time. I’ve found what you have had to say fascinating, and I very much look forward to reading The Chalice!

For more information on The Chalice and The Crown, please click here.

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5 thoughts on “The borders of historical fiction and non-fiction: a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

  1. Really enjoyed your conversation, well done both. I love historical fiction. I know it’s stating the obvious, but you do get educated in an entertaining way. Pure history on the other hand can sometimes be hard going. Not, I very much hasten to add, The Favourite which I found both educational and entertaining. Your reference to the Earl of Oxford and his circle of friends brought back vivid memories of The Favourite. Good luck with The Chalice and The Crown, Nancy. Thank you both for sharing your wonderful insights into history and writing.

  2. Really enjoyed your conversation, well done both. I love historical fiction. I know it’s stating the obvious, but you do get educated in an entertaining way. Pure history on the other hand can sometimes be hard going. Not, I very much hasten to add, The Favourite which I found both educational and entertaining. Your reference to the Earl of Oxford and his circle of friends brought back vivid memories of reading The Favourite. Good luck with The Chalice and The Crown, Nancy. Thank you both for sharing your wonderful insights into history and writing.

  3. Very interesting blog, thanks. As a writer of historical fiction, I could relate to so much of what is said. I love the research – online, in libraries, visiting locations. The best bit is where your start of with one idea and then get led somewhere completely different – like the time I was researching Victorian corsets….. The hardest bit is knowing what to discard – info that seems so interesting to me might not take the story forward and so has to be discarded. Sad – but there is always cake as compensation!

  4. These comments and views really resonate with me. I too adore historical research but write mainly historical fiction since, just as you rightly point out, it does allow me to provide an emotional truth, to expand on a true story and to expostulate, in a way that a historian may not. Bald historical facts can be very dry. I like to see the flesh on the old bones! I don’t rightly know what the subject of my latest novel [Running with Crows – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan] ate for breakfast when he was in India, but I do know what I ate when I was there, and the sauce for the goose is fine for the gander! Let’s hope our type of treament of history catches on.

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