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Authenticity key in quest to bring history to life

By Lincolnshire Echo  |  Posted: March 13, 2014

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Ahead of a visit to Lincoln to discuss her latest book with a Lincolnshire heroine, best-selling author Anne O'Brien chats with Dawn Hinsley about turning the story of Katherine Swynford into another historical novel giving a voice to women in history...

It's 1372 and newly widowed Katherine Swynford, left to manage her Lincolnshire estate following the death of her husband on the battlefields of Aquitaine, is desperate.

She requests a position in the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. But when the beautiful Katherine catches his eye, and he demands she become his mistress, the die is cast. Katherine, a woman of piety and dignity, initially refuses which leads the Duke to pursue her ruthlessly. Eventually she succumbs and falls passionately in love, bearing him children.

In her latest release, The Scandalous Duchess, Yorkshire-born Anne O'Brien tells the story of Katherine's love and its consequences. O'Brien is also the author of acclaimed titles such as Virgin Widow, Devil's Consort, The King's Concubine, and The Forbidden Queen, and will visit Lincoln on Wednesday, March 19 for an author talk about the latest release...

Q: When did you first learn of Katherine Swynford and why did you feel she'd make a great character for a book? A: My first experience of Katherine Swynford was exactly the same as for many other readers of historical fiction – reading Anya Seton's Katherine, written in 1954. I read it in my teenage years when the romance of it moved me to tears of delight.

And then, when I lived in Beverley in East Yorkshire, I became a frequent visitor to Lincoln – a splendid day out – where I made my own pilgrimage to Katherine's tomb and that of her daughter Joan Beaufort. With these two experiences, Katherine was always in my mind as a medieval woman with a remarkable history.

Q: Hers is something of a shocking story for the period, why do you think she was willing to risk so much for one man? A: This is by far the most difficult question to answer about Katherine, and perhaps the reason why I wished to write about her and discover, from the evidence we have, what made her tick. She was a devout woman, and a highly respectable one, for there is no evidence of her being Lancaster's mistress while still married to Sir Hugh Swynford. Raised in the royal household, she was considered suitable material to be governess to the Lancaster children.

So what made her willing to live in a ménage a trois, in the wronged wife's household, to risk being called whore and witch, and, far more important, put her immortal soul in danger?

The answer had to be love, but not of the hearts and flowers variety. It had to be a far stronger, more compelling, emotion that kept Katherine and the Duke together through scandal and heartbreak and the Duke's frequent absences for more than 25 years. There is no logic in it. Frivolous love would have faded and died; this was a grand passion that would not allow them to be apart in spirit even when they were physically estranged. It remained a solid bond until death.

Why did she risk so much for a man who could not wed her for so long? I am not sure that even now I know the full answer.

Q: I'm fascinated by authors who write stories about historical figures, how closely do you stick to the facts? A: I have very firm opinions on this. Research is all-important. When the facts are known, when the evidence unquestionably exists, then my novel must be true to those known facts. I am not free to change the evidence to suit my plot or the character of my protagonists. This presents its own problems when the heroine, such as Katherine, is a very shadowy figure. So little is known about the way she lived, even where she lived for much of the time. It would be so good to have a diary or a stack of letters, or even a contemporary portrait, to work from.

So then there has to be a degree of historic speculation, because, after all, I am writing a novel. I could write the facts about Katherine on one side of A4, but a novel must bring her to life for the reader. This is a matter of 'joining the dots' with what we can surmise about her thoughts and actions, what we know about the events that coloured her life, what we know about the Duke of Lancaster, for his life is documented in much more detail. But my heroine has to remain true to her character as far as we know it, and true to the age in which she lived. Katherine must emerge with historical integrity and authenticity. I think that is the most important aspect of my role as a writer of historical fiction.

Q: What is the one thing about this story that will keep readers turning pages late into the night? A: Many readers will already know the final outcome of the tale of Katherine and John. That is one of the difficulties of writing about historical characters – the reader actually does know what happens next, so the writer loses the ultimate element of surprise. In my writing, the surprise element must be replaced by a personal contact between reader and hero/heroine.

I hope my readers will find The Scandalous Duchess to be compulsive reading because of the tension running through the whole relationship, and the emotion that it creates between Katherine and the Duke in the path they take to reach their goal. The reader must be drawn into their relationship, the highs and lows of it. It must be an emotional experience as well as a mentally satisfying one.

Q: After everything you've researched, how did you ultimately feel about Katherine – would you like her if she was alive now? A: Yes, I think I would admire her. She took a very courageous step that would have been condemned from all sides, and I am sure she did not fully appreciate the consequences in her taking it, either for herself or for the Duke. It must have been a very steep learning curve for Katherine when the knives – or pens in this case – were sharpened to be used against her, but although she and the Duke were estranged for a period of time, she was still strong enough to remain loyal to the one love of her life. A wonderfully strong-willed woman.

I also admire her remaining true to her maternal instincts. Despite the conflict in her life, she loved and nurtured both her Swynford and Beaufort children. No mean feat.

Altogether an admirable woman.

The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O'Brien. Publisher: Mira Books, £7.99 (paperback). Author talk and signing at The Collection, Danes Terrace, on Wednesday, March 19 (7pm). Tickets: £4 or £3 for Waterstones Card Holders, available from The Collection reception and Waterstones, High Street.

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