After several weeks posting about either Unravelled or the historical fiction survey, I’m delighted to celebrate the return to ‘regular programming’ by interviewing Jenny Barden, author of Mistress of the Sea and her latest novel, The Lost Duchess. I first met Jenny during the run up to the 2012 Historical Novel Society conference in London and a few months ago I had the delightful privilege of reading Mistress of the Sea. If that dramatic, plot-twisting story is anything to go by, readers are in for a treat with Jenny’s second novel.
Can you tell us why the 16th century and tales involving ocean voyages are so intriguing to you as a writer?
The sixteenth century is such a wonderfully rich and fascinating period in English history. It was our Golden Age, the Age of Discovery, an era that saw a flowering in the arts and visionary thinking. This was the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Bacon and Raleigh, and countless other great men and women, led by our ‘Gloriana’, Queen Elizabeth, who saw no end to what England and her people could achieve. As for the voyages, these are key episodes in England’s growth as a nation. The backdrop to Mistress of the Sea was Drake’s first successful raid against the Spanish in Panama which set him on the path to fame and fortune. Drake’s subsequent exploits in asserting English dominance at sea were to culminate in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and prepare the way for the foundation of the British Navy. My book soon to be released, The Lost Duchess, is about the first attempt to found a permanent English colony in America, another historically significant enterprise that involved the rigours of a long ocean voyage. As a novelist, I find there’s an irresistible allure to writing about these ventures that involved journeys into the unknown and risking all to go further and do more than had ever been attempted before. With ocean crossings there’s also a romance that goes very deep and that’s tied up with the beauty and fascination of the sea, its unpredictability and promise, the endless possibilities it presents, and that fact that, ultimately, we’re always at the sea’s mercy.
The Lost Duchess takes Kit Doonan, one of your characters from Mistress of the Sea, and tells his story along with that of Emme Fifield, who could have become the Duchess of Somerset. Why did you choose this as your second novel?
When I met my editor to discuss the next book I already had several outlines for a second novel which had been commissioned simply as ‘historical novel 2’. She asked me what, in my heart, did I really want to write about, and I answered: ‘Traces on a Timeless Shore’ which was the working title I’d given to a novel I’d planned to write about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Initially I’d envisaged that Ellyn and Will from Mistress of the Sea would take the lead in this book, but my editor was keen that I should centre the tale on different characters to allow scope for the development of another new love story (rather than one revived within an existing marriage). She was particularly drawn to Kit, Will’s brother, the handsome mariner with a troubled past: ex-hostage, Spanish prisoner, and leader of an outlaw band of escaped slaves, the Cimaroons; a man with a son by his Cimaroon lover, and a burning desire to avenge her murder at the hands of the Spaniards. It was a joy to develop Kit as a protagonist, and introduce Emme Fifield, fictional lady-in-waiting (‘Maid of Honour’) to Queen Elizabeth, who is violated by the Earl of Hertford, son of the usurped Duke of Somerset. Through Emme, I was able to work affairs at court into the story, as well as the politics that supported Sir Walter Raleigh’s New World venture and some of the problems that plagued it. I also had material for a soaring high tension romance, and an action-packed thriller. The background was a wonderful subject, one with deep resonance on many levels: a terrific tale of vision, endurance and bravery, steeped in tantalising historical mystery of the kind that arouses perennial fascination.
How much fact did you find concerning the lost colony of Roanoke? And what sources did you use?
For the early scenes, Sir Walter Raleigh’s influence and the court of Queen Elizabeth, there was almost too much information. I consulted no end of reference material in order to build up a picture of what led to the attempt to establish the first permanent English colony in the ‘new found land’ of Virginia – and that included women and children as well as men willing to risk their lives for the promise of a fresh start in ‘this paradise of the worlde’ as Richard Hakluyt called it. But as for what actually happened to the colony, there is only one principal source: Governor John White’s report that he submitted to Raleigh following his return to England in 1587 after spending less than six weeks on Roanoke, and this is inevitably biased towards presenting his own actions in a favourable light. That account and almost all other key primary documents are to be found in: The First Colonists – Documents on the Planting of the First Settlements in North America 1584-1590 edited by David B Quinn and Alison M Quinn. Other books always on my desk were Roanoke – The Abandoned Colony by Karen Ordahl Kupperman and Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton, along with two catalogues by Kim Sloan produced as companions to exhibitions of the paintings of John White at the British Museum; they are: A New World – England’s first view of America and European Visions: American Voices. White’s maps and limnings (watercolours) were a huge help too, as were the photographs that I took on my trip to North Carolina to visit Roanoke and locations around the Pamlico Sound. I drew on these and my memories, trips to the British Museum, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and other places, even my recordings of early Native American songs. I tapped into all kinds of sources in order to project myself into the heart of the story, but of course I could never find out what finally became of the colonists; about that, we’ll probably never know the truth.
What surprised you the most as you wrote this second novel?
As regards the research, what surprised me most was how much of the known story ends in mystery. Time and again, the accounts lead to questions that have never been satisfactorily answered: Why were the colonists set down at Roanoke rather than in the Chesapeake Bay area which was their original destination? Why did the expedition pilot behave so strangely? Was he really a Spanish agent, or could he have been on a secret mission for Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster’, Sir Francis Walsingham? What happened to the fifteen men left at Roanoke by Sir Richard Grenville the previous year? What exactly did the governor of the first garrison do to incur the hostility of the Roanoke tribe and their leader Wanchese? How did White’s men come to attack the friendly Croatan tribe when they had asked for tokens of identification to ensure they were not mistaken for enemies? There are many other questions of this sort that are suggested by a reading of the accounts, but the overarching question that remains fixed in our consciousness is: What became of the Lost Colonists? – Where did they go? Were they all wiped out, or did they become assimilated with neighbouring native American Indian tribes? – Through their descendants do they still live on?
As regards writing the novel, I was most surprised by how the answers that I came up with in order to develop the fictional story seemed to fit together to form a coherent narrative consistent with the known history. But for any writer to make a story work, he or she has to believe it. I hope readers will be able to lose themselves in this great adventure too – at least for a while!
Many thanks for answering my questions, Jenny. What a fascinating time and place you’ve written about.