Author Interview with Historical Fiction Writer Catherine Meyrick
JMR- Hi Catherine welcome to the Book's Delight, tell us who you are, where do you live? What do you do for fun? What is the perfect day?
CM- Hi Jean, I work as a customer service librarian at my local library – I am the person you come to when you want your questions answered, such as where you can find that book you borrowed two years ago but can’t remember the name of (that’s an easy one to answer). I spend most of my time away from work writing historical fiction with romantic elements, so the relationships between characters are an important part of my stories.
I grew up on the outskirts of Ballarat, a large regional city about 70 miles from Melbourne, Australia, one of the first places where gold was discovered in the early 1850s. I moved down to Melbourne when I was eighteen and have lived here since. I enjoy gardening, the cinema, music of all sorts from early music and classical to folk and country and western. I am a bit of an obsessive genealogist too.
The perfect working day would start with getting up early enough to see the sunrise from my desk and writing uninterrupted for at least four hours before a walk around the local lake and letting the sound of rushing water and birdcalls drown out the traffic noise. It would be good if I could then fit in a bit of housework, not too much, and the social media and business side of writing without it taking over the whole day. I’d also like time left to sit in the sunshine in the garden and read, or actually do some gardening. The evening would be spent reading, or watching a decent movie on TV or a bit of genealogy and discovering something that helps me break down a brick wall.
A perfect non-working day would involve a swim at the local pool with few other people there so I had a lap lane to myself, a trip into the city to the cinema with my husband followed by a meal in a restaurant overlooking the Yarra River.
Of course, another sort of perfect day is the one where I am completely inspired and do nothing but write all day barely stopping for meals. Or a new character I hadn’t planned on arrives and makes him or herself critical to the story. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it is absolutely brilliant.
JMR- Oooh! All of that sounds lovely!
JMR- You have a degree in history and work as a librarian, this seems like the perfect segue into writing historical fiction. Was it as simple as that?
CM-Around the time I started writing in earnest, I was working as a government department librarian and that was all politics and economics, nothing historical at all. But history has always been important in our family – my father read a lot of historical fiction and my mother biographies of historical figures. She also was a meticulous family researcher and her stories about her forbears made these long dead people real, not just names attached to dates. My grandfather, especially, was a storyteller; he often told tales about his childhood and his family so the past was very alive to me. I wrote bits and pieces as a child and used to make up stories to scare my sister but usually ended up scaring myself more. My early short stories were contemporary but when I started on my first novel, I never considered writing about the present. I feel that, perhaps, I understand the past better than the present.
JMR- Both of your published books are set in Elizabethan England. Is this your favorite historical era? Why do you think we continue to be so fascinated by the Tudors?
CM- I feel that it is the area I know most about. I came to the Tudors at university. I went intending to study psychology but needed an extra subject so took Early Modern English history. Lectures were such a delight - informative, witty and the period totally captured my imagination, so much so I threw away any idea of psychology and did a double major in history. The period was one of great change and advance – the Renaissance. The modern fascination with the Tudors is probably due to a number of factors. There are the stories coming out of great upheavals of the time – Henry VIII’s marriage problems, the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, uprisings and protests, religious changes and persecution, plots to unseat the monarch. The main figures are almost larger than life – Henry, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth. And of course, there are the amazing fashions.
My interest is less in the big names than in the lives of more ordinary people and we are fortunate to have writings from the period that give us a more intimate view of less highly place women such as diarists Margaret, Lady Hoby and Grace, Lady Mildmay as well as Sabine Johnson whose letters are included with the business papers of her husband, wool stapler and merchant, John Johnson.
JMR- What historical female do you most admire? Why?
CM- It is hard to single out a single person but one woman I have the greatest admiration for is a 20th century woman, Vivienne Bullwinkel (1915-2000) and her wartime experiences fit within the span of what is considered historic. She was a nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service (from 1951, the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps – my mother was in the first intake of the renamed RAANC) stationed in Singapore in 1942. With the advance of Japanese troops, sixty-five nurses were to be evacuated from Singapore on SS Vyner Brook but once they were at sea the ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft. A group of men, women and children and twenty-one of the nurses manage to make it ashore on Banka Island (Indonesia). The men were massacred by Japanese troops and the nurses were marched into the sea and machine gunned after having been raped. Irene Drummond, the Matron of the group, said as they waded into the surf, ‘Chin up, girls! I’m proud of you and I love you all.’ – a measure of the character of these women. Vivienne was shot but the bullet missed her vital organs. She survived by pretending to be dead. Once the soldiers had gone, she came ashore and over the next twelve days, despite her own wounds, nursed a British soldier she had found hiding. She was then taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent three and a half years in a Prisoner of War camp. She gave evidence at the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal in 1946 but was gagged by the Australian government from saying anything about the rapes, a policy in part shaped by a desire to lessen the suffering of the families of the nurses. Vivienne retired from the army in 1947. She became Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in Melbourne and devoted herself to the nursing profession and improving the welfare and conditions of nurses. She was President of the Australian College of Nursing in the 1970s. She also raised funds for a memorial honouring those killed on Banka Island as well as to provide nurse training and scholarships for Malaysian nurses. And this is what I admire most, far more than the great names, ordinary women who have suffered through the most appalling events but have risen above them and gone on to live lives of service to others.
JMR- Wow, what an inspiring woman. Nurses rock, always, but that story is one for the ages. I was an Air Force nurse myself for many years, so I admire her spirit and bravery all the more.
JMR- You point out that the inhabitants of the past were just like us, with hopes, dreams, worries and challenges. I think this is an important point to convey in historical writing. How do you ensure that your characters come off as real humans and not imagined caricatures of a particular era?
CM- After making sure that the attitudes and actions of the characters are in keeping with the period, particularly during the revision process, scene by scene I try to imagine myself right into the shoes of the characters I am writing – how would I feel if this, what would I see. I sometimes move around the room stepping through what is happening. Also, fortunately not often, when I am out on my morning walks mulling over a problem with a particular character, I find I am walking differently, striding along, rapier at my side or winding my way at a more leisurely pace through an imagined marketplace. Sometimes, if you can get yourself into the posture of a character, you can get a sense of how they are feeling at that point. And then, of course, there is observation of those around us, seeing how they behave and treat others, their strengths and failings, and stealing that to use in your characters.
JMR- Tell us about your books, The Bridled Tongue and Forsaking All Other.
CM- Both books basically deal with women’s struggles to make a life that has some meaning for them at a time when limited options were available. Bess Stoughton in Forsaking All Other is trying to avoid a forced marriage to a man she despises and wins her father’s grudging concession of a year to find ‘a husband who will bring with him the hope of happiness for me and the prospect of advancement’ for her father. Families did hope to gain connections and status from their children’s marriages. The prospects for a woman without property were not good and even when Bess does find someone who could make her happy she faces obstacles and dangers from controlling prospective mothers-in-law and the tumults of the times, Catholic plots at home and the war in the Netherlands.
The Bridled Tongue follows Alyce Bradley as she enters an arranged marriage, not because she particularly wishes for it but because she has no other options. It shows the way she grows into her role of manor wife and faces dangers not only from her husband’s enemies but her own past when jealousies stir up old slanders concerning her relationship with her grandmother who was thought by some to be a witch.
A lot of people are quite dismissive of romance and romantic elements. For most women in the past, marriage was their only option and it was important that they were married to someone who was able to provide for and protect them and their children and treat them well.
JMR- Both books have female main characters who are struggling to conform with paternal / societal expectations. From a historical viewpoint, do you believe this was more or less common than we see in today’s historical fiction. How do you think the Elizabethans would define a happy marriage?
CM- Elizabethan women did not expect anything like the freedom we have but I believe most wanted some say in their lives. They knew what they could and couldn’t do and I doubt there was a girl in England who grew up dreaming she could be lawyer. But when circumstances forced them, they did what they must, as women always have to ensure their children fed and clothed – widows worked as brew wives, laundresses, some took over their husband’s farms or businesses and carried on with the help of trusted workmen. Modern historical fiction for the sake of a good story is more likely to show the exceptions but that does not mean that there were not exceptions. Not all were dutiful and silent. Sabine Johnson ignored the men of her family when she heard that her husband was ill with the ague in Calais in 1546 and rode from Northamptonshire to London accompanied by a single groom. She refused the advice of her brother-in-law and sailed to Calais to nurse John Johnson and when he was well enough brought him home. Just over a century earlier, in 1449, Elizabeth Paston had refused the marriage her mother had arranged for her. Elizabeth was beaten, practically kept under lock and key, unable to see anyone outside the household and forbidden even to speak with the servants. Her mother’s campaign succeeded and finally Elizabeth agreed; however, the marriage did not go ahead as there were concerns about the groom’s finances and land.
In matters of marriage, material considerations were of primary importance, but it was generally believed that the couple should be around the same age, and that the bride and groom should be of similar rank although a woman was more likely to marry up if her family was wealthy. Personal character was important but affection was the lowest in the list of elements to be considered. Most thought that a marriage should begin with a degree of liking, and that if the parties were well matched in other aspects affection would grow later. There were marriages that were clearly based on affection though, Sabine Johnson’s one such example.
There were many advice manuals through the period that offered all sorts of thoughts on choosing a spouse such as that a man should marry while he was young enough to expect to live until his children were grown to adulthood. Virtue and godliness were to be considered before beauty in choice of a bride. Some suggested that it was better to marry a young wife so she could be trained by a husband to his ways, even suggesting that widows were best avoided because they expected their opinions to be heard and worse they were ‘before acquainted with love matters’. This perhaps suggests that it was not unusual for women to expect to be heard within the family setting. Sir Walter Raleigh’s advice to his son echoed the concerns of the age in relation to marriage for love – ‘Remember that though these affections do not last, yet the bond of marriage dureth to the end of thy life’. The best marriages were seen to be those where the partners were well matched in age, status and disposition with the wife seen as a ‘helpmeet’. Sir Thomas Smith, the 16th century scholar and diplomat, perhaps sums up best the way most marriages worked, then as now, husband and wife worked together with ‘not one always: but sometime and in something one, and sometime and something another doth bear the rule.’
JMR- Your next book, Unspoken Promises, is set in a very different time and place, 1878 Hobart, Australia. Tell us about this book. How was researching this book different from your others?
CM- ‘Unspoken Promises’ is based on a period in the life of my great-great grandparents, Harry Woods and Ellen Thompson, and is the result of my own genealogical research. Their story was basically unknown until I uncovered it through my family history digging about ten years ago. It is set in Hobart, Tasmania, the southernmost state of Australia which began as a penal settlement in 1804. Tasmania is a stunning part of the world. Over the past ten years I have travelled to Hobart quite a number of times to use the Archives and for holidays as well. I have been able to walk the streets that Ellen and Harry walked, visit some of the places they lived such as the Springs on Mount Wellington, the imposing backdrop to the city. I have discovered things that I would never have learnt from imagination alone, that if you walk down one side of certain streets you get a clear view of Mount Wellington but cannot see it if you are on the other. Just that experience alone inspired a scene in the novel. The Tasmanian Archives is brilliant too, it has an amazing collection of digitized photographs from the period that are freely available to view. When I came to write the first draft, I had the chronology and setting firmly in my mind. The harder part is in the revision process, deciding what to keep in and what to leave out and turning that accumulation of facts into an engaging work of fiction that makes the reader wants to keep turning the pages.
JMR- Catherine how can readers find and follow you on the web and on social media?
I am across most of the main forms of social media though, at present, I am most diligent with my blog and Twitter.
Website/Blog – www.catherinemeyrick.com
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/CatherineMeyrickAuthor/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/cameyrick1
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/catherinemeyrickhistorical/
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.com.au/catherinemeyrick15/boards/
JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask, but didn’t?
Actually, I was expecting a question about witchcraft accusations and trials. As a result of movies, especially, intent on telling a gripping story by taking facts from across a range of countries and centuries and rolling them together, the popular imagination, has gained the impression that the period known as the ‘witch craze’ was ruled by the unreasoned mob. It should be remembered too that while we find the notion ridiculous, many of those accused believed they were witches.
The spread of witchcraft cases was not uniform across Europe. There were far fewer trials in countries such as Italy and Spain compared to France and central and southern Germany where the level of accusation and execution was horrific. Within the British Isles, England had around 500 executions over the period covered by the Witchcraft Acts, 1547 to 1736, compared to Scotland, where from 1563 to 1727 over 1,500 people were executed. Wales and Ireland had few cases of witchcraft as personal setbacks were more often ascribed to fairies or the little people rather than to witches. I think caution must be used when attempting to make generalizations and it is better to take a more nuanced approach and examine each principality separately.
In England, where The Bridled Tongue is set, there was a defined legal process to be followed. An accusation of witchcraft did not automatically result in conviction and execution. There were a range of tests to determine if the accused was a witch including the accused witch’s confession or identification by another known witch as well as the inability to say the Lord’s Prayer without mistake, and the presence of a mark or growth anywhere upon the body could be considered to be an extra teat used to suckle the accused’s familiar spirits. Witch pricking and swimming were not used in 16th-century England although pricking was common in Scotland. Pricking appears not to have been used in England until the reign of James I. The first reported incidence of swimming occurred in Northamptonshire in 1612. The law concentrated on the damage done through malificium – the act of witchcraft intended to cause damage or injury. Records indicate that witchcraft accusations resulted in execution at a similar rate to other crimes (around 24%). Only 44% of those accused of witchcraft are recorded as having suffered punishment of any sort. (Ch.4 of Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England by James Sharpe (1996). The exception to this was the result of the activities of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, and John Stearne, freelanced in Essex and the surrounding counties during the upheaval of the Civil Wars.
Even those who were found guilty of causing death by witchcraft were sometime granted a special royal pardon. During her reign, Elizabeth I granted thirty-six such pardons to people so convicted. And one thing I cannot say loudly enough or often enough is that in England those found guilty of bringing about death by witchcraft were not burnt at the stake. In England the punishment received by those found guilty of causing death by witchcraft was hanging, the usual penalty for murder. Burning was reserved for the crimes of heresy and, for women, for both high and petty treason (the murder of either a husband, or a master or mistress). A woman who was found guilty of using witchcraft to murder her husband would be burnt but she was being burnt for the crime of husband murder not for having used witchcraft.
All that said, it would still have been horrific to be accused and thrown in to a dank Tudor prison no matter that a woman managed to survive and be found not guilty.
A fuller discussion of witchcraft accusation and the trial process can be found at my website.
JMR- Wow, thank you Catherine for an amazing interview. You've been a real treat! Readers, if you are interested in seeing Catherine's books click the amazon button.