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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Author Prue Phillipson Chats about the Joys of History

Today is the official release of Prue Phillipson's Hearts Restored from Knox Robinson. The author has stopped by to talk about how her love of history comes out in her writing.

JK: Welcome, Prue Phillipson. Hearts Restored seems unusual to me specifically because it is set during the Restoration. Could we start by talking about why you choose to write about the 1600's?

Prue Phillipson: I am fascinated by all periods of British history but of recent years I have become particularly interested in the seventeenth century. In Vengeance Thwarted, published in June 2011, I showed the effect on ordinary people’s lives of the Scottish invasion of 1640 and then the Civil War. In the sequel, Hearts Restored, just published and reviewed yesterday on this blog, the restoration of Charles II brought a period of hope and expectation of peace and prosperity. Unfortunately this was soon marred by reverses in the naval war with the Dutch and the dreadful plague and fire in London. The amazing resilience of the human spirit shines through it all and I reflect this in the lives of my characters.

JK: I really appreciated the way you humanized history in Hearts Restored. Is Vengeance Thwarted similar?

PP: These two novels, which will later form part of a trilogy, can be read as distinct stories but they follow the lives of the same family, the Hordens of Horden Hallorden  in Northumberland and cover between them the years 1640 -1665, taking the reader also to North Yorkshire and London.

I love to delve into the different mind-set of a past age, and that’s a modern expression – ‘mind-set’. Past ages would have no concept of its meaning, but it is there in patterns of thought, customs, and unquestioned values, many of which are strange to twenty-first century minds, like the attitudes toward women and what’s expected of them!

JK: How do you find out what past mind-sets were like? 

PP: When I research a period I try to read widely from writers of the day to explore their attitudes and the pattern of their day-to-day living, their work, their pleasures, the whole context of their life. What I gain is an understanding of their beliefs and prejudices but also a realisation that in their relations with others they have similar joys and sorrows to our own and human nature is really the same the world over.

Of course there were wider regional difference then because travel was much slower and there were no ubiquitous media like radio, television, the Internet, Facebook, etc, etc. But what is surprising is how much communication there was and how widely people did travel despite the difficulties. Families were always writing letters but no letter could be carried faster than the pace of a horse or a sailing boat. As a writer of historical novels it is important to remember this and not expect people in remote parts of the country to hear the news instantaneously as we can today.

Besides reading the diaries of people like Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn and the letters of families like the Verneys I also study reputable modern historians, like Antonia Fraser, J.P.Kenyon, Jenny Uglow on the Stuart monarchs, and John Bedford for his marvellous account of the Great Fire of London. I feel I can trust the accuracy of those who have spent years accessing all available sources. I do use the Internet too but one must check the origins of articles and sometimes be wary of facts posted there. I have found variations in little details – like the names of ships lost in a particular battle which I described in Hearts Restored. I found the right answer in Pepys’ Diary.

JK: So many disasters! What were the good things that happened during this time? 

PP: Despite so much political turmoil, the seventeenth century saw huge advances in trade all over the world, in science and medicine, agriculture, house-building and eventually in greater tolerance in matters of religion. Meticulous records were kept of contracts, loan transactions, possessions, wills, law suits and a great deal of litigation went on. Merchants had vast ledgers where they traced every commodity they dealt with on land transport and sea voyages to remote destinations. This was particularly important because of the many hazards faced, as the London merchant Clifford Horden finds in Hearts Restored. To escape the plague his wife persuades him to go into the country and leave his deputy to manage the business. Not only does he mismanage it, but Dutch ships sink the merchant’s vessels and we see how easy it was to make and lose fortunes rapidly in that period.

JK: How does the story of the Hordens continue?

PP: The third novel, Rebels Repentant, continues the tale of the Northumberland Hordens up to 1689. That is in the hands of the publisher now and who knows, I may not be able to say goodbye to many of my characters who go through all three books. I can almost see myself taking the Hordens into the eighteenth century which is also a very enthralling period of history.

JK: Have you ever written about the 1700's?

PP: My publisher has another manuscript of mine, Heir Apparent, set in the eighteenth century during the seven years’ war. It tells of a Yorkshire castle and the visiting architect who brings his London-bred daughter with him when he comes to work on a new wing. This leads to romantic turmoil with the young heir! But that is another story, possibly coming out later this year.

JK: Have you always been a historian? Is that what drew you to writing?

PP: Creating characters and seeing how they behave in the situations I put them in is an intensely fascinating process. I have written several novels and a volume of short stories about modern life, available on Amazon, but I find myself more intrigued now with the historical setting for my characters. They can rebel against the mores of their day but not implausibly. There is a limit to how far they can behave outside their time and that is a challenge I enjoy.

I sometimes wonder if it is because I am eighty-three that I am getting more fascinated by history. Perhaps I am more in tune with the English of those days from the Tudors onward than I am with the twenty-first century and its language of new technology. I’ll leave my readers to decide! I do consult an etymological dictionary to be as authentic as possible in dialogue and descriptions of places and people. I wouldn’t claim never to employ a word that was not in general use at the time but I try, and I also avoid ultra-modern turns of phrase which would jar from seventeenth century lips. On the other hand one does not want to sound too archaic. Fortunately English from the King James Bible onwards has not changed so drastically that it is incomprehensible to the modern ear.

My main aim in writing is to tell a fast-moving story involving deep passions and to depict characters who will live in readers’ minds after they have laid down the novel at the end. If I have succeeded with Hearts Restored I am very happy.

JK: As my readers already know, I think you have succeeded in that very well. Congratulations and thank you for being here today. 

Hearts Restored is now available from all the finest book retailers.