Thursday, May 09, 2013

An interview with Anne Easter Smith, author of Royal Mistress

Historical novelist Anne Easter Smith is passionate about her chosen era: the 15th-century Wars of the Roses.  Whether you're reading one of her novels or speaking with her for an interview, as here, it's easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm.  Her newest biographical novel Royal Mistress introduces readers to Elizabeth "Jane" Shore, a beautiful and spirited silk merchant's daughter who becomes Edward IV's last and favorite mistress.

In true epic fashion, Anne interweaves the viewpoints not only of Jane but of many others in the royal circle to give readers a wide-ranging look at these characters and the tumultuous times they lived through.  Jane is a determined survivor whose good-hearted nature captures the heart of several high-ranking men and also makes her a fun and sympathetic heroine to follow on her adventures.  With Royal Mistress just published, I took the opportunity to ask Anne some questions about her characters, the history, and the writing process. 

This is your 5th historical novel set during the Wars of the Roses, and you're obviously very comfortable with the period and its major players. As you were writing Royal Mistress, did you find your characters even ones you've written about before were still able to surprise you?

They always do, thank goodness, or I would be bored writing about them! In Royal Mistress it was Richard of Gloucester "my Richard" I call him who surprised me. I had to see him through Jane’s eyes, and he was not very kind to Jane for his own rational reasons, although others saw it differently. William Hastings also surprised me, because though I knew he was always loyal to Edward, I had always found him rather pompous and certainly lecherous. He ended up being the most genuine in his love for Jane.

On account of his impotence, Jane attempts to secure an annulment from her husband William Shore through the church. While a valid option, this must have been an unusual step for a woman of her era to take. How unusual was it? Are there other examples you can point to?

Jane Shore, late 18th-century portrait
You are right. It was very unusual, and because there is no record that Jane and William were submitted to “the test,” we believe Edward may have smoothed the way for Jane. However, the record shows that Jane did appeal to the church for an annulment and it was granted three months later. Even though it might seem women had no rights back then, their marriage vows did entitle them to an expectation of marital intimacy and the chance of motherhood. The test for impotence I mentioned is detailed in the 12th-century lawbook written by Thomas of Chobham that was still consulted, and requires that a certain number of wise matrons surround a couple’s bed and watch while the wife tries to arouse her husband. If the effort proves futile, then the wife is given the go-ahead to petition the church for the annulment.

Jane takes pride in her status as a freewoman of the City of London. What privileges or rights would this have entitled her to?

I’m borrowing information that I found during a visit to the wonderful Museum of London. If you haven’t discovered it yet, you should!

“Freemen, or women, in London were were a privileged class; it is estimated that only about 1 in 4 of London men was a freeman. You became a freeman either by being born to parents who were one, by completing a trade apprenticeship, through paying a sum of money or, if you were a woman, by marrying a freeman. The rights of freemen and women included setting up a shop or running a business within the City.”

I also found that one of the privileges was they could choose where they were imprisoned.

Jane is good-hearted, loving, sensual, witty, and beautiful, and she doesn't make unreasonable demands on King Edward. She's known throughout London for using her position to help the less fortunate, and she does her best to stay away from politics and the queen! Would you consider her an ideal royal mistress, or is there such a thing?

I would say she was an ideal mistress. She was not “kept” at the palace and so the queen did not have to face her rival every day, as was common with other kings’ mistresses. We are told she was not demanding, and unlike Alice Perrers, who was Edward III’s long-time mistress, she did not get given land or estates. I was confused by a review in the Historical Novels Review that called her “infamous,” which is a word that connotes “despicable, wicked, dishonorable” to me. Jane was none of those. Every single description that has come down to us of her is that she was kindhearted, pleasant, never harmed anyone and showed great humility during her penance. I thought I had conveyed those characteristics in the book, but perhaps I’m wrong!

"The Penance of Jane Shore" by William Blake (c1780)
The period expressions scattered throughout the novel added a lot of color, like the exclamation "By Christ's nails!" or even the word "wagtail" as an uncomplimentary way of describing Jane. What are some of your favorites?

I like using old-fashioned words as well as turning sentences around so they sound more period. I enjoy being transported back into another world myself when I read historicals, and I think dialogue can help effect this. The old use of “aye” and “nay,” which we don’t use today (unless you’re in Scotland!); and words like “heed,” “addle,” “spawn” and “monstrous” come to mind as some we don’t use in our everyday language anymore. A couple of my favorites, which I confess to borrowing from Shakespeare are “bum-bailey” for a jerk, “clack-dish” and clatterer” for a chatterbox or gossip, and your above-mentioned “wagtail.” (I know Shakespeare is 16th century, but as there was very little written down in vernacular English before the famous Elizabethan playwrights, I feel many of those words were already used long before they wrote their plays down.)

Sophie Vandersand is Jane's good friend, and they help each other out on several occasions. How did you go about inventing Sophie's character and background?

Funny you should ask! To support the Newburyport Historical Society, I agreed to donate an auction item to name a character after the high bidder in my next book. My only condition was that the name had to fit in with 15th century London life. In other words, someone named Tiffany Wolinski or Cindy Wu would not do! The woman who won the item asked that instead of using her that I name a character after her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia Van Der Sande. In the 14th and 15th centuries, London had a sizeable community of Flemish weavers, who arrived with their craft to take advantage of the English wool trade. So I researched where many of those weavers would have lived and worked and gave her a more anglicized name, which after a century of living in London, would have been plausible. Et voila, Sophia or Sophie Vandersand was born.

Royal Mistress loops in many viewpoints in addition to Jane's, from her lovers and husbands to Richard III and even George of Clarence, drinking himself into oblivion just before his ignominious death in a wine barrel. Are there any whose scenes you enjoyed writing the most, or which were more difficult to conceptualize than others?

Richard III
Golly, you ask in-depth questions! Yes, the scene in the Tower the day that Richard of Gloucester called Hastings to task for “treachery” was the hardest. I had to see it from Hastings’s point of view, who considered himself innocent, and from Richard’s who was convinced he was guilty. Both were being true to themselves in my opinion, but the outcome was heartbreaking for me to write even though I understood Richard’s motivation. (Enough of spoilers; don’t forget you have already read the book, Sarah!)

Thanks, Anne that should give readers a hint about a scene to anticipate!  Things have been quite busy for you writing-wise, with five novels published since 2006.  I'm curious to learn how your writing process has changed since publication of A Rose for the Crown.

I realize I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote Rose! I have since learned about structure, themes, motifs, etc. etc. and how to sequence big scenes and where the climax should be! Sounds simple, right, but I had never had a formal writing class in my life (other than learning grammar at British boarding school), so I’ve come a long way, baby! Funnily enough, however, I get more letters saying that Rose is still their favorite of my books.

Thanks for hosting me today, Sarah.

Thanks again, Anne, for taking the time to answer my questions!


Royal Mistress was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in May at $16.00, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 489pp, including glossary, author's note, and discussion questions).  Visit Anne Easter Smith's website at , which includes an entertaining blog entry in which the author interviews her main character.


  1. Very good questions! I love how she incorporated the winning bidders name choice.

  2. I love how the interviewer gives the author in depth questions and the author matches those questions with in depth answers. i also enjoy the fact that the author is very witty and releases her resources for information she used.

  3. Anonymous2:42 PM

    This interview taught me that only freemen/women were able to have a business or shop within the city limits. That is crazy to me, as now a days anyone can own a business. I also like that the author answered all parts of the questions being asked.