By Wendy J. Dunn
Wendy J. Dunn: I read you are, like me, a “notorious Anne Boleyn fan.” Well – I know why I am one of her devotees, but how about you? What attracted you to Queen Anne?
Brian Wainwright: I think the interest in Anne Boleyn probably started with the famous Keith Michell series back in the 70s. I was still at school and (hard though it is to believe now) it was the subject of a great deal of discussion between classes. The girls tended to like Jane Seymour best of the wives and (typically of me) I liked to be awkward. I suppose all six stories were interesting in their own way, but Anne was simply the one I found most interesting of the lot. Maybe it was partly that she was the first woman of rank to be executed in England since Lord knows when – I suppose it’s a question of whether Maude de Braose counts as being “executed”. Moreover, it seemed to me then, and it does still to this day, that she was executed on no evidence whatever, just because Henry wanted shut of her, and that, I thought, was a shocking injustice. Whatever Anne’s faults (and I should be the last to suppose her a saint) she did not deserve to be murdered. I also liked and admired her spirit and courage – she was an amazing woman in that sense, she was willing to stand up to anyone for what she wanted. She might have been wiser to hold her tongue a bit more, in terms of survival, but then that wouldn’t have been Anne, would it?
(As for Jane Seymour, I used to say that considering she was such a perfect creature it was odd that she was willing to marry a man just a matter of days after he had publicly murdered his previous wife!)
One of my first dates, I took a girl to see Anne of the Thousand Days, which was a new film then, and although it was a different “take” on things, it still intrigued me and made me want to read the factual books about the reign. So I did. You know, if fiction does nothing else it must persuade at least some people to look into serious history.
Henry VIII is my least favourite Henry – I even prefer his father, which from a Ricardian is saying a lot. H8 seems to me to combine all Edward IV’s worst faults with many of Henry 7’s. Edward IV was sometimes a bully – and actually I had a scene in my abortive GYH which made me realise how much of one he was – but at least no one could ever have called him a coward. I remember that bit when Anne was really, really ill, with some sort of fever and Henry didn’t have the courage to visit her because he was afraid of catching it. Some love!
I don’t think I will ever “do” anything about Anne Boleyn, because I am “uncomfortable” in the era – I really should have hated to live in the Tudor period, and especially during the reign of H8. Learning more about the reign I realised that the injustice done to Anne was part of a pattern – it was one long tyranny of injustice, starting with Dudley and Empson and ending with Surrey.
W.J.D.: Oh yes. You and I are in total agreement about Henry VIII and – of course – Anne Boleyn. I see her death (and that of the five ‘AB party’ men also losing their lives in May, 1536) as plain and simple murder. Eric Ives says Cromwell set the wheels in motion because he feared for own his survival and places very little weight upon her last abortive pregnancy. But it is clear that Henry needed very little convincing to get rid of her. It’s a very tragic story…
I’ve read in a great interview with Wendy Zollo how much you hated school. You know, I detested school too. That and an unhappy childhood turned me into an escapee – either by reading books or making up imaginary worlds. Also was the reason I became a teacher – thought if I went it to it knowing reasons why it made some children very unhappy, I might make some difference. I hope I did.
You mention The Woolpack by Cynthia Harnett as one book you remember as a child. Are there any other authors from your early years you found inspiring?
B.W.: I can’t recall all the authors but I was a very “wide” reader, in fact I would read anything if it was the only book available. Arthur Ransome’s books about children having adventures in the Lake District are one lot I remember. The “William” books of Richmal Crompton (who came from Bury!). The “Bunter” books of Frank Richards. Things like “Black Arrow” and “Treasure Island” by Stevenson. “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell. “Ivanhoe” by Scott. These are a few. I was blessed to be possessed of a reading age far ahead of chronology – while still at primary school I read (for example) George Dow’s massive three-volume history of the Great Central Railway, and Dow was a lover of many big and unusual words. In those days you figured them out or looked them up. There was none of this “accessible” nonsense. I read a lot of adult railway books because that was my absolute passion. “Tales of the Glasgow and South Western Railway” by D L Smith was another, a wonderful set of anecdotes that most people would enjoy if they could get hold of it – it’s a rare book.
I don’t think I got into medieval “adult” fiction till I was about 13, and I have an idea the first one I read was Anya Seton’s Katherine. At about the same time I discovered that you could also read adult factual books on the middle ages. The rest is history…
W.J.D.: Your answer here does lead to another question. When did Constance, your wonderful princess and main character of “Within the Fetterlock” begin to tug at your interest?
B.W.: I was very interested in this era, and one day I was reading a book “The Political History of England” I think, and it mentioned Constance’s escape from Windsor with the boys. It was a very brief reference, but up to that time I had not even known that Edmund of Langley had a daughter. She is often left out of family trees – just check out any books on the wars of the roses! This escape was such an amazing event that I had to know more and I spent literally years, on and off, trying to discover as much as I could about Constance. There is no one text book about her, and to an extent I had to delve into things like the Calender of Patent Rolls, Complete Peerage and one or two of the various Chronicles. Some information printed on her is quite wrong, it claims she was Edmund Holland’s mistress before she was Thomas Despenser’s wife, which is manifestly absurd in terms of chronology; indeed she was almost certainly married to Thomas before Edmund was even born. “Married” in name, you understand. What emerged from this scratching around was a quite amazing life story and I am a bit surprised that no modern novelist has written about her before me, though she does appear as a bit character in some novels. (Actually there is a Victorian Novel about her, White Rose of Langley by Emily S Holt, but you are very unlikely to be able to get hold of a copy.) The thing is, the more I found out, the more I seemed to be “hooked”.
To be honest I am not quite sure exactly when I started writing about her but it was a long time ago; there were several versions before Fetterlock and very little of the original remains. I don’t want to give you the idea that I did nothing else – I had various other hobbies as well as a full time job, and sometimes literally years went by before I did anything more on Constance. One problem was that I could not keep up with either my own style developments or the new research findings I discovered, so I would typically “complete” it and then start again! I also wrote Alianore Audley, in remarkably quick time by my standards, during a rest break! The research findings continued almost to the end. For example Nigel Saul’s superb book on Richard II was published and demonstrated that Richard had visited the Despensers at Hanley Castle in 1398, something I would not have dared invent:-)
In a way, my approach was “how not to be a professional novelist”! No professional could or would have spent so much time on it, or hared off down so many side alleys, as I did. I shall certainly never do the like again; I haven’t the time in this incarnation. In that sense it is literally the work of a lifetime. It was also a great practical learning experience, though, and in a way I am very glad that the earlier versions did not see the light of day, as I should not have been happy with them. Sometimes I would get five or six pages into a chapter and then realise “that’s not what happened”. It may sound odd, but at times it was as if Constance was helping me to write it! Certainly she became very real to me, and in an odd way I “know” her. Some parts of the book were very harrowing to write – readers will probably be able to guess which ones. Perhaps in a way it was that that made me go on – I felt I could not fail her.
W.J.D.: You know – my character also became real to me (still is! He’s already preparing to take voice in my trilogy about Katherine of Aragon. But I’m still working on the first draft of book one. Tom’s got a bit of waiting to do for his minor role…)
I also came out of Dear Heart not wanting to fail Tom in finding a publisher. He so wanted his story told, gaining this opportunity to defend Anne Boleyn. I’ve pondered on this lot. Sometimes, it seems to me that writers really tap into something. Whether it because we just tap so well into our imaginary worlds or there is something beyond our understanding happening here. BUT I had so many things fall into place – I felt guided…do you think it’s possible we were? Did any intriguing things happen to you at just right time and place for your Constance novel? You know – what I love so much about writing and the reason I just can’t give it up, is that it is all a magical, spiritual adventure…
B.W.: This is a really difficult one. As my grandfather used to say, I am sure there’s something there but I have no idea what it is. An additional complication is that writers almost by definition have imagination and imagination takes one to very strange places. Finally, I don’t really feel happy with a character anyway until that character takes on a sort of independent life. It’s hard to describe but it’s the difference between a “cardboard” character and one who lives for the reader. I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at.
Having said all that, Constance was a remarkably vivid character, and she certainly seemed a very real person to me. Now I have stopped writing about her, I really miss her, it’s like an old, dear friend has emigrated or something. I can say that she (and also Edmund Mortimer) insisted on doing some things in that book that I definitely did not plan out even in my mind – they just seemed to happen as I wrote it. Does that make any kind of sense? Probably not! I would love to know how far the real Constance co-coincided with “my” Constance. To a point I think they did, but there is no way of knowing for sure, not this side of death anyway. Do you know Maria from the lists? Maria who knows so much about Spain produced an historic description of Katherine of Lancaster, Constance’s double cousin, and the physical description of Katherine was remarkably close to my imagination of Constance.
One thing that was odd was that in an early draft I had Edmund Kent left behind in Ireland by Richard II, but then found (from what few references there were) some indications that this was not so. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found a letter from Kent to his uncle, which made it clear that I was right first time! He and his sister in law had been left behind, and were arrested landing in England in early 1400, not (as some historians mistakenly believed) trying to flee!
I think I told you about my visit to Elsing and my subsequent discovery (thanks to Rania) of the marriage between Margaret Hastings of Elsing and John Russell. On my travels I would quite frequently see a signpost and think – ooh, that was one of Constance’s manors! (Sometimes I would divert to see it, but rarely to any great profit except satisfying curiosity.)
I certainly don’t rule out the possibility we are guided in some way. I always think that most people who are interested in history have a particular affinity with certain periods. Why is that? I must admit I am more “at home” in Constance’s era than in the Yorkist period, and although I am interested in the latter I am ultimately not as life-and-death passionate about it. It’s very odd. Why do we take sides? What made me write about one particular person out of all the interesting characters who thronged Richard II’s court? Don’t know. Just did. She’s not even particularly famous – in fact she’s rather obscure – but I just had to tell the story, and I had to get it right, however long it took. She and her family were so real to me; it was almost like a vision. How do you explain all this? I really don’t know – it just “is.” ________________________________________________________________
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History. She now has a new passion: Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novel Dear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is currently working on a trilogy based on the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.