How far does family loyalty extend? If the relative to whom you owed your social position asked you a favor that required you to give up your innocence and a possible chance at love, would you do it?
In Anne Clinard Barnhill's first novel, Lady Margaret (Madge) Shelton, a young lady-in-waiting, is presented with this wrenching dilemma. Although she's in love with Arthur Brandon, a handsome courtier, Madge acquiesces when her cousin and queen, Anne Boleyn, asks her to catch the eye of Henry VIII. If King Henry is determined to take a mistress, Queen Anne thinks, best that it be someone loyal to her.
At the Mercy of the Queen follows Madge's transformation from a quiet and pretty country girl to a young woman who is considerably wiser in the ways of the world. Lady Margaret Shelton is a historical character, one of the three acknowledged mistresses of Henry VIII, and Anne Barnhill's perspective on her originated in an unexpected place: her own family tree. In a genre filled with novels about the scandalous Tudor court, Barnhill's novel stands out for its fresh viewpoint, its sumptuous descriptions of food and fashion, and a portrayal of the Anne Boleyn-Henry VIII relationship that felt especially realistic to this historical fiction reader.
I'd like to thank Anne for her willingness to do this interview and hope you'll enjoy it as well. As one of the more fun parts of her research, she's in the process of having a Tudor gown made. Pictures below!
Madge first makes an appearance as a young, sheltered girl from the country who isn't thrilled to leave her home and become lady-in-waiting to her cousin Anne. How did you sort through the few known facts about Madge's life to come up with her character?
I've been reading about Madge for about 30 years, since I first discovered my connection to her. She is mentioned in most books about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I also checked online and in a family history book I have (from my grandmother) which has about a paragraph about her. I found her family was involved in raising sheep for the wool industry and were somewhat prominent in Norfolk. Her father was sheriff and her ancestors built Shelton Hall. I began to imagine what things might have been like for her. As for her birth date, there is none I have been able to find. She was probably not quite as young as I have made her in the book, but she was younger than Anne Boleyn. I think the whole thing began when I started to consider what it would be like to have an affair with your cousin's husband. And, even more interesting, what if your cousin set the whole thing up? Why might she have done that and why might you agree?
In the novel, you portray Anne Boleyn sympathetically; she's ambitious and occasionally bad-tempered, but also gracious, dignified, and of a religious bent. She loves her husband and desperately wants her marriage to succeed. You mention that when you were 15, Anne Boleyn first captured your attention via Norah Lofts' The Concubine. What other sources, fiction or nonfiction, most influenced your portrayal of Queen Anne? Did The Concubine lead you to any other historical fiction discoveries?
I read mostly nonfiction for the first 20 years or so of my secret obsession. Eric Ives' work is wonderful. David Starkey, Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser, Warnicke, Dunn, just lots really. Then, I read all of Jean Plaidy, who I love. Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl helped me out of the closet as I realized lots of people share my Tudor fascination. Online sources have been invaluable, though more for the second book than the first: the Anne Boleyn Files and On the Tudor Trail are great sources. I have not read as much historical fiction as I would like — I've discovered it rather late in my reading life. But I intend to change that and devour as much as I can find!
I especially loved your descriptions of the diversions and delicacies at the Tudor court: the dances, card games, sumptuous feasts, and so forth. Did you personally try out any of these things during the writing process? Which were the most enjoyable to write about?
Were there any scenes in the novel you found more challenging to write than others?
Well, I had pulled the curtain on most of the sex scenes and my agent wanted me to be more graphic. I loved writing them but they make me nervous when I think of people reading them. Really, I had fun writing the whole book — I started it to entertain myself... I really hadn't thought of trying to get it published. So I was very free to have fun!
Madge's nurse and friend, Cate, describes London as having the "scent of life." How do you get into the mindset for tuning out your current surroundings and writing about the bustle and intrigue of 16th-century London?
I go away so I can have solitude and then I read constantly from nonfiction books about the time and the people. I do have to dive in deep to get there and, once I get in, I really do not want to come out. That's why I go away — I'm not fit company for man nor beast. And I hope by surrounding myself with the books (I actually sleep with them piled across the bed, hoping to learn by osmosis I guess) I will get as real as possible.
You mention in the preface that you've wanted to tell this story for thirty years. How did the idea of your novel change over time? Were there any new tidbits you discovered that took your story in a new direction from the way you initially imagined it?
I have always had the shape of the novel in my mind, pretty much as it is now. Madge turned out to be a little younger than I expected early on. I remember being a young teen and admiring older women, copying their mannerisms, their style — all of this as I was developing my own style. Young girls can almost worship an older woman they admire — I see this in my 9-year-old granddaughter as she encounters teens and young women in their 20's. I thought that would make the whole plot work better — having the relationship between Anne and Madge the primary relationship, thought there is a love interest for Madge, Arthur Brandon. He was a surprise--just turned up on the page cocky as you please. He definitely took the story in a different direction.
Your family connection to the Sheltons intrigues me, as it gives you a unique tie to your subject. Are you a descendant of Madge herself, or of one of her siblings? How did the Shelton Family History you mention as a source aid in your research?
I'm a descendant of Ralph Shelton, Madge's brother. The book is helpful in that it gives little paragraphs about those family members who have interesting stories or roles in history. For example, there are some Sheltons who married the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and that was interesting. Another relative led the Patriots at the Battle of King's Mountain — I just love all that stuff!
How have your experiences in evaluating other authors' work, as a writing tutor and book reviewer, influenced your own fiction writing?
Hmmm. I have slowly come to the idea that I want the writing to be as smooth as possible, so that the 'writer' never gets in the way of the story. I have not mastered that yet, and probably never will, but I want the story to flow, the dream to continue uninterrupted, as John Gardner puts it. It's easy to see mistakes in someone else's work, but incredibly hard to see it in your own. I think I've become a pretty good critic over the years but it's still hard to find my own stories--to get to the heart of the story. So, it definitely helps to look at what other folks are doing--and often, I am inspired by other writers. It's easy to stay in your own head until someone comes along and shakes you up. Then, you say, oh yeah! I could try that. Reading and writing go hand in hand.
At the Mercy of the Queen was published by St. Martin's Griffin in January ($14.99/Can $16.99, trade paperback, 432pp + special reading group guide). This interview forms part of the Virtual Book Tour for At the Mercy of the Queen. For more information, see Anne Clinard Barnhill's website.