I recently met Gillian Bagwell through the Historical Novel Society. Gillian is the author of The Darling Strumpet and The King’s Mistress. Whenever I meet another historical fiction author (or any writer for that matter) I’m always curious about their writing life. So, it’s no surprise that I’ve invited Gillian to visit Ascroft, eh? and answer a few questions for me. Welcome Gillian. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel
GB: The King’s Mistress is the first fictional account of the story of Jane Lane, an ordinary English girl who risked her life to help the young King Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651. His defeat by Cromwell’s forces set off one of the most astonishing episodes in British history—his desperate six-week odyssey to reach safety in France, which came to be known as the Royal Miracle because he narrowly eluded discovery and capture so many times.
Jane became involved because she had a pass allowing her and a manservant to travel the hundred miles to visit a friend near Bristol—a major port where the king might board a ship. In a story that sounds like something out of fiction, the 21-year-old king disguised himself as her servant, and she rode pillion (sitting side-saddle behind him while he rode astride) along roads traveled by cavalry patrols searching for him, through villages where the proclamation describing him and offering a reward for his capture was posted, and among hundreds of people who, if they had recognized him, had every reason to turn him in and none—but loyalty to the outlawed monarchy—to help him.
It was an improbable scheme. Charles was six feet two inches tall and very dark complexioned, not at all common looking for an Englishman of that time. But time after time he rode right under the noses of Roundhead soldiers without being recognized.
If he had been caught, he would certainly have been executed, and it is an open question whether the monarchy would have been restored as it eventually was after the death of Oliver Cromwell. What Jane did took great bravery, and she risked not only her life but the lives and lands of her family, as the fugitive king had been proclaimed a traitor, and anyone who helped him would be executed for treason.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
GB: While researching The Darling Strumpet, my novel about Nell Gwynn, I read Derek Wilson’s book All the King’s Women, about the numerous women important to Charles II. As all of us who know anything about Charles II are aware, he liked women! His mistresses were many and famous, whether loved by the people like Nell Gwynn or hated like the French Louis De Keroualle. So I was intrigued to read his account of Jane Lane, and convinced by the evidence he set forth for his belief that she and the king became lovers during their travels.
Although Jane was quite famous after the Restoration, she eventually faded into the shadows of history. When my agent was submitting Darling Strumpet to publishers, she asked me who I’d like to write about next. I remembered Jane Lane, and was surprised and pleased to discover that no one had written a novel about her adventures with Charles.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
GB: As with my other books, when the facts were known, I used them. After Charles was restored to the throne in 1660, he told the story of his escape over and over. Others who were involved in rescuing him also recorded their parts in it, so for much of the six weeks Charles was on the run there is almost an hourly account of what he did, said, wore, and ate. The route he traveled is known, and the Monarch’s Way footpath can still be followed.
Jane left Charles and returned home when it appeared that he would shortly be able to find passage on a boat from the southern coast of England, and the details of her story aren’t as well known. When her part in helping Charles escape was discovered, she fled with her brother and walked to Yarmouth, hoping to reunite with Charles in France, and eventually ended up at the court of Charles’s sister, Mary of Orange. From these bare facts I had to write the rest of her story, piecing together what seemed likely or possibly with some pure imagination.
What research did you do for this book?
GB: A lot of reading, as I always do. I used the many accounts of Charles’s flight, including his own words, which he dictated to Samuel Pepys years later.
I also set out with a friend to retrace the path that Charles had taken from Worcester to Jane’s neighborhood in Staffordshire, and their travels after that. Some of the sites associated with Charles’s adventures are well preserved. It was thrilling to visit Boscobel House and Moseley Hall and to see the actual priest holes into which the fugitive king curled his six-foot-two-inch frame when hiding from Cromwell’s cavalry patrols. Whiteladies, where Charles arrived at about three a.m. on the morning after the battle, is now a ruin, a short walk from Boscobel.
Contemporary accounts provided the general route that Jane and Charles took, through Bromsgrove, where Charles’s horse threw a shoe; to Stratford-Upon-Avon, where they had to ride among enemy soldiers crowding the street; and down to Long Marston, where they stayed at the home of Jane’s cousins John and Amy Tomes. They spent the next night in Cirencester, and reached Abbots Leigh near Bristol the following evening.
Finding that no ship would leave Bristol for France or Spain in less than a month, they then made their
way southward to Castle Cary and then to Trent, in Dorset, where they stayed at the home of the Royalist Wyndham family.
We received much-appreciated help from many people on our journeys. The current owner of Trent Manor welcomed us into her home and showed us the chamber where Charles had stayed, now her own bedroom. The Earl and Countess of Aylesbury graciously allowed us to visit the beautiful grounds of Packington, where Jane lived after she returned to England and married. When we weren’t sure about the location of a place we were trying to find we had very good success by popping into pubs to ask the locals, and in this way we were helped by the staff and patrons of the Red Lion in Bromsgrove, the Crown in Cirencester, and the George in Castle Cary.
I also had to recreate Jane’s walk to Yarmouth without being able to actually follow in her footsteps, and wrote about that process in a post on the Penguin Author Blog
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
GB: I much prefer to be able to tell a story using the people who really lived it. In this case, the real people and actual events are better than anything I could invent, and almost all of the characters are based on historical people.
For the six weeks that Charles was on the run, he was sheltered and aided by dozens of people—mostly simple country folks and minor gentry—who not only could have earned the enormous reward of £1000 offered for his capture, but risked their lives to help him.
When Jane Lane was in Paris and then at the court of Mary of Orange, she came to know all the royal family and Charles’s exiled friends and supporters. She certainly knew Anne Hyde, who was a lady in waiting to Mary of Orange and eventually married the Duke of York (later James II) and became the mother of Queen Mary and Queen Anne, and I chose to have Jane intimately involved in the drama surrounding Anne’s romance with and marriage to the duke. She likely knew Lucy Walters, who was Charles’s lover when he was young, and who he was rumored to have married, and I chose to have her involved in that story as well.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
GB: Visiting the sites involved in a story helps me re-create the world the people in the novel inhabited. I’m pretty steeped in everyday life in seventeenth century England and am always learning more. To me the details of a character’s life—what she would have worn and eaten, how she washed her clothes, how she took care of herself and what she did about illnesses—help me really get into her skin and mind and really put myself in her place as I’m writing.
Fortunately there is a lot written about Charles II and especially about his flight after Worcester, with a lot of interesting details. When I had Charles tell Jane about the parts of his adventures when she wasn’t with him, I was able to use his own words some of the time, as he told the story to Samuel Pepys, who took it down in shorthand.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
GB: Men have of course historically had more freedom to go off on adventures, but there are plenty of real women from the past who led very interesting lives, and so far my protagonists have all been women. I love being able to tell the story of a woman who did something exceptional, especially when her story isn’t as well-known as it deserves to be, like Jane Lane’s.
Most readers of historical fiction are women, and it’s certainly the belief of my agents and editors that books with female leads appeal more to female readers. But Charles II plays a very big part in this book, as he does in The Darling Strumpet, as seen through the women’s eyes.
Thanks for answering my questions, Gillian. I haven’t read The King’s Mistress yet but I’m looking forward to getting into it.
Gillian Bagwell’s novel The King’s Mistress, the first fictional accounting of Jane Lane’s adventures with the young King Charles, was released in the U.K. on July 19. (It was published in the U.S. in 2011 as The September Queen). Her first novel, The Darling Strumpet, based on the life of Nell Gwynn, is a finalist for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award for Best First Book. Her third novel, Venus in Winter, about the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast Bess of Hardwick, will be published in the U.S. in July 2013. Visit Gillian’s website to read more about her books and her blog Jane Lane and the Royal Miracle to learn about her adventures researching the book and the daily episodes in Charles’s escape after Worcester.