I'm extremely glad to welcome best selling author Jenny Barden at FLY HIGH to discuss her latest release, Mistress of the Sea. Read the interview, leave your comment + e-mail address to enter the giveaway contest for a signed first edition copy of her book. The giveaway is open internationally and ends on November 2nd.
Jenny Barden has had a love of history and adventure ever since an encounter in infancy with a suit of armour at Tamworth Castle. Training as an artist, followed by a career as a city solicitor, did little to help displace her early dream of becoming a knight. A fascination with the Age of Discovery led to travels in South and Central America, and much of the inspiration for Mistress of the Sea came from retracing the footsteps of Francis Drake in Panama. She is currently working on a sequel centred on the first Elizabethan 'lost colony' of early Virginia. Jenny has four children and lives in Hertfordshire with her long suffering husband, a loving Labrador and a deadly Bengal cat.
Welcome to FLY HIGH, Jenny, and many thanks for accepting my invitation. Now, my first question for you is: Mistress of the Sea is set in the Elizabethan Age, the first part of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. What is it that you find most fascinating in those years?
Mistress of the Sea covers the years 1570-3; it begins twelve years into Elizabeth I's long 44 year reign. At that time England was on the point of emerging as a power to be reckoned with on the world stage, free from the Church of Rome and domination by any other state. Her seafarers, Francis Drake among them, were voyaging far and opening up new opportunities for trade, colonisation and piracy. They were developing the skills in navigation, sailing and ship-design that would lay the foundations from which the British Navy and the British Empire would later emerge. In 1570 England was about to enter her Golden Age, Shakespeare and Marlowe were only boys but they would epitomise the flowering of the English Renaissance; Edward de Vere was already writing beautiful poetry and Nicholas Hilliard was starting to produce the exquisite paintings that would help create the iconography supporting the image of Elizabeth as 'Gloriana'; the sublime music of Thomas Tallis graced the chapels of the royal household and nobility. There was a new confidence and optimism. The country was free, relatively liberal and growing economically. England was looking outward and toward a 'brave new world'. What I particularly like about the true adventure which forms the backdrop toMistress of the Sea is that it encompasses so much of what was pivotal in England's development at this exciting time.
You decided to make your heroine part of a typically male adventure. How could your Ellyn become the extraordinary protagonist of Sir Francis Drake’s early exploits in years when women where almost invisible in society?
Women appear almost invisible in Elizabethan society as we look back on it now through the records of men, educated by men, working for men and for an audience of men. Philippa Gregory made this point very well in her address to the Historical Novel Society Conference recently (watch the video HERE) . Small wonder that women seem not to feature; yet of course they were there. Women made up half the population then as now; they had influence and they were involved in the major events of the age indirectly if not directly. They are sometimes difficult to find in the male-oriented records, but dig deep and they can be glimpsed. Women formed part of the first attempt at establishing a permanent English settlement in what is now the United States; that's a documented fact, and I'm writing about that particular adventure now. A 'ship of the women', la urca de lasmujeres, formed part of the Spanish Armada (it was called the Santiago and carried the wives of a number of married officers). There is even a report of a stowaway - the wife of a German who was smuggled aboard the San Salvador.* Who knows whether an English woman might have managed to get aboard an English ship in similar fashion and take part in that great encounter. I believe it's possible, just as it's possible that a woman could have formed part of one of Drake's early voyages to the Caribbean. We know that merchants were involved; there is evidence that a 'merchant of Exeter called Richard Dennys' sailed on Drake's 1571 expedition**, (it's from this premise that Mistress of the Sea begins). If a merchant, then why not a merchant's daughter? Note that I am not suggesting that this is most likely to have happened, only that it could have happened. I'm not of the view that just because instances do not appear in the historical records they did not occur, nor do I believe that historical fiction should only be concerned with what was probable. To my mind, good stories grounded in a past age lie at the beating heart of historical fiction, and that includes stories based on incidents that were possible as well as incidents that were well documented. In Mistress of the Sea, I've taken a strong woman into the thick of a rip-roaring male adventure and I have no doubt that while this may not actually have happened, it could have done, and that gutsy women did get embroiled in the key action events of the age both at home and away.
* The Confident Hope of a Miracle by Neil Hanson, Ch 5, p168 (Corgi edition, 2004)
** Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate by Harry Kelsey, Ch 3, pp 45-6 (Yale University Press, 1998)
What is Ellyn like?
Ellyn is strong-willed, loyal, resolute, courageous, selfless when put to the test, and very bright. She is perhaps a little over-sure of herself at the beginning of the story, rather self-centred, pampered and naive, but as she is subjected to the trials involved in being cast away in an alien environment and forced to fend for herself as well as care for her ailing father, she grows in self-reliance, common sense and perception. Ultimately it is her intelligence, in both senses of the word, that reunites her lover, Will, with his lost brother, and gives Drake the information he needs to launch his successful raid on the Spanish 'silver train'. Ellyn knows her role will never be acknowledged, but she is a true heroine.
Can you tell us something about the hero in your story?
Will is determined, strong (both psychologically and physically), brave, ambitious and a bit of a chancer. He runs away to sea after falling out with his father, and is intent on vengeance after his brother is captured and possibly killed by the Spaniards (a motivation he shares with Drake), but his objectives change after he meets Ellyn and gradually he becomes enthralled by her; his eagerness to exact revenge gives way to a desire to protect her at all costs which eventually brings him into conflict with Drake. Will also grows in understanding as he comes to realise that he cannot win Ellyn with riches but only by respecting her and proving his love.
Is “Mistress of the Sea” more romance or adventure?
That's a good question, and I'd say the answer is that it's both. There is a core love story, so the book is definitely romantic, but the basic backbone to the action is a true adventure. In terms of genre placement I'd say it was much more a 'romantic adventure' than an 'adventure romance' - but I like to think that, over and above any labelling, it's a cracking good story!
Is Queen Elizabeth I a character in your novel?
Queen Elizabeth does not appear in person in Mistress of the Sea though she is referred to often. She is a presence off-stage rather than integral to the story. But in the book I am writing now she features large at both the beginning and end; it will be interesting to see how readers react to that.
Queen Elizabeth was fascinated by skillful seamen like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh and was smart enough to make them her allies. What are the reasons for your fascination, instead?
|Francis Drake - National Portrait Gallery|
Drake and Raleigh were men of vision: brave, bold and prepared to risk their lives for their queen and country (as well as the chance of making a fortune!). Although they're often grouped together, they were actually very different. Drake was an opportunist, a man from relatively humble origins who spent much of his early career engaged in piracy, and had a chip on his shoulder about gentlemen of noble birth who expected to command by right and didn't like to get their hands dirty (unlike Drake who was always prepared to muck in when needed!). (This is just my own assessment, but I offer as evidence his confrontations with Thomas Doughty and Francis Knollys.) Drake was eventually knighted and given the trappings of distinguished lineage, but he was always first and foremost a man of action. I find him fascinating for what he achieved, often in the face of overwhelming adversity. His tenacity, courage, and the wit that shines though in the accounts of the time, all make Drake a hugely appealing character for me. It must have taken one helluva man to be the first to lead a complete circumnavigation of the globe and survive. Conversely, Raleigh was the archetypal courtier: refined, well-educated and adept in the art of penning compliments to the Queen in verse. He was the driving force behind England's first efforts at colonising North America, but his career as an explorer was limited. He took part in few long voyages, and his last expedition searching for El Dorado in South America ended disastrously. Elizabeth kept him on land, in Ireland, the south west, or close to court most of the time. So, put very simply, while I see Drake as the bravado supporting England's role in the Age of Discovery, I see Raleigh as the brains. Raleigh laid the plans and financed them, and he ensured that the likes of Thomas Harriot and Richard Hakluyt wrote in depth about the promise of the New World, as well as writing his own History of the World. Raleigh was also extraordinarily handsome to judge from his portraits as a young man, and he had a scintillating intellect that Elizabeth treasured. Some of his poetry is outstandingly beautiful, and his lastletter to his wife, written just before his execution in the reign of James I, moves me to tears every time I read it. Raleigh is fascinating for his immense ability in so many fields and for envisioning England's importance in history. He saw our little country as great before ever it really was, and seeing it that way helped make it so.
Researching about Sir Francis Drake and his achievements, what was the most interesting/surprising fact you discovered?
Drake's affection for the African blacks he encountered in later life is something that surprised me. It was both unusual for his time and is particularly intriguing given that his career as a sea captain of note began on a slaving expedition led by John Hawkins. Drake must have started life viewing African slaves as a commodity, as did most Elizabethans, and later come to value their worth and friendship. It was an alliance with the Cimaroons - the escaped African slaves Drake encountered in Panama - that gave Drake the manpower he needed to launch his successful attack on the Spanish bullion supply (the attack which features in Mistress of the Sea). One of these slaves, Diego, formed such a close bond with Drake that they remained together until Diego's death on Drake's voyage of circumnavigation. Even more surprising, Drake's empathy with black Africans which, of course, we see as admirable now, led to one of his darkest deeds when he hung two innocent friars from the monastery of Santo Domingo in retaliation for the mortal wounding of a black messenger boy after the fall of that city. Drake could be ruthless, as this incident shows, but he could also be unconventionally generous to those who gave him their trust.
What is the most appealing aspect in writing historical fiction?
The ability to revisit the world on another plane is what makes writing historical fiction so appealing to me. It's not simply a matter of retelling the history - the historians do that very well. For me, HF is about being in the world in another age through the power of the imagination - being there when the future was unknown and conjuring up the excitement of living in it with that uncertainty. It's about finding and filling the lacuna, as Hilary Mantel put it - projecting myself, and hopefully my readers too, into the unrecorded gaps between the known facts of history, and having the freedom and joy of creating convincing all-absorbing stories which provide an energising and fulfilling escape and maybe a means to put the here and now into better perspective.
And what is the hardest task while writing it?
The hardest part is finding the time to write creatively as much as I'd like to when the demands on my daily life could easily fill every waking moment. Balancing commitments satisfactorily is the most difficult thing to accomplish, especially as a new writer when building a platform and profile is so important, and promotion has the potential to be infinitely time-consuming.
How would you present your Mistress of the Sea in a very short add? Let’s say you have about 50 words.
I think my publisher's blurb sums up the novel very well: 'Mistress of the Sea is an epic, swashbuckling romantic adventure set at the time of Drake, pirates and privateers.' Then I'd quote CW Gortner: 'Beautifully written and researched, this tale of desire, revenge, piracy, war and valour is so evocative we can taste the salt on our skin and hear the swoop of sails overhead as we're swept up into a high-stakes adventure unlike any we've read before.'
What are you up to now? Any plan for a sequel?
After the excitement and hard work involved in co-ordinating the London Conference of the Historical Novel Society just over a week ago, I'm now looking forward to getting back to writing my next book: a loose sequel based on the story of the Lost Colony of Roanaoke and Raleigh's attempt to found the first English settlement in what was then Virginia. The novel will be called The Lost Duchess, and one of the central characters will be Emme Fifield, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth who gets caught up in this enduring mystery and classic adventure. (The other main character will be Kit Doonan, Will's brother in Mistress of the Sea.) I should have the book ready for my editor in May next year.
That's all Jenny! It's bee a great pleasure to talk with you. Good luck with everything in your life and your writing.
Thank you so much for this interview, Maria, it's been a privilege to answer your questions.
For more about Jenny Barden and her work http://www.jennybarden.co.uk
|Plymouth - Jenny Barden signing at Waterstones|
She also blogs on the English Historical Fiction Authors site as well as provides occasional features for the Historical Novel Society and others
Examples are here:
org/in-the-mans-world-of-the- past-jenny-barden-in- conversation-with-c-w-gortner/
Plymouth 1570; Ellyn Cooksley fears for her elderly father's health when he declares his intention to sail with Drake on an expedition he has been backing. Already yearning for escape from the loveless marriage planned for her, Ellyn boards the expedition ship as a stowaway. Also aboard the Swan is Will Doonan, Ellyn's charming but socially inferior neighbour. Will has courted Ellyn playfully without any real hope of winning her, but when she is discovered aboard ship, dressed in the garb of a cabin boy, he is furious. To Will's mind, Drake's secret plot to attack the Spanish bullion supply in the New World is a means to the kind of wealth with which he might win a girl like Ellyn, but first and foremost it is an opportunity to avenge his brother Kit, taken hostage and likely tortured to death by the Spanish. For the sake of the mission he supports Drake's plan to abandon Ellyn and her father on an island in the Caribbean until their mission is completed. But will love prove more important than revenge or gold?...