Friday, July 12, 2013

An interview with Gillian Bagwell, author of Venus in Winter - plus giveaway

Today I have the pleasure of hosting historical novelist Gillian Bagwell for a Q&A.  Venus in Winter, her third novel, spans over three decades in the life of Bess of Hardwick, who rose to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Elizabethan England via her successive marriages to four men of progressively higher status.  In Gillian's lively interpretation, Bess is an immensely likeable young woman who gradually becomes accustomed to the customs and dangerous political realities of life at the court of Henry VIII and his successors. 

Please read to the end, as we have a giveaway opportunity.  Two copies are up for grabs; the publisher will send out a copy to a US reader, while I'll send a 2nd copy out to a randomly selected international reader.


Do you remember where you first came across Bess of Hardwick’s story? What made her such an irresistible subject?

I don't remember when I first heard of Bess of Hardwick. I had come across references to her here and there in my reading about 16th-century England, and she sounded interesting but I didn't know much about her.

My second novel, The September Queen, was the first fictional account of the story of Jane Lane, who helped the young Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester, and when I began thinking about what to write next, I hoped to find another subject who hadn't been written about over and over. Queens and mistresses tend to be the historical women that people know about, but finding Jane's story made me sure there must be more fascinating women out there.

Bess of Hardwick, ca. 1550s
I recalled Bess's name, and a very little research made me excited about telling her story. She knew just about everyone of any importance in England in the second half of the 16th century and was involved in or an observer of many historic events.

Venus in Winter follows Bess over three marriages, stopping right before her fourth, and spans about 40 years. Were there segments of her life that weren’t as well documented, and which were more challenging to research or write about?

As was the case with my first two heroines, Nell Gwynn and Jane Lane, not much specific is known about Bess's early years. David Durant's biography begins with Bess's second marriage, when she was nineteen. Maud Stepney Rawlins's Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle dispenses with her first two marriages and the first thirty years of her life in ten pages, and another twelve pages takes Bess to the age of thirty-seven and the death of her third husband. Even Bess's most recent biography, Mary Lovell's Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, takes only two hundred out of almost five hundred pages to bring Bess to the age of forty in 1567, when my book ends.

I used what facts were known about Bess's early life: the names and approximate ages of her parents and siblings; the fact that she spent her childhood at what was then Hardwick Manor; her father's death when she was a baby and the subsequent taking over of the property by the Court of Wards; her stepfather's imprisonment for debt; her becoming a lady in waiting to Lady Zouche around the age of twelve; her marriage to young Robert Barlow, who was also in the Zouche household; and her joining the household of Frances Grey after her she was widowed at the age of sixteen.

Based on those bits of information, I had to conjecture quite a lot about what she might have experienced. Coincidentally, Henry VIII signed the contract to marry Anne of Cleves on October 4, 1539, which was likely Bess's twelfth birthday, according to Mary Lovell. Bess probably entered Lady Zouche's service around that time, and as both Lady Zouche and her husband had served Anne Boleyn and were known at court, and Sir George became a gentleman pensioner to Henry VIII in about 1540, it didn't seem unreasonable to send Bess to London with them so she could observe Henry VIII's marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard.

Possibly Anne Gainsford,
Lady Zouche
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
Bess's friend Elisabeth Brooke, who later married William Parr and became the Marchioness of Northampton, was first noted at court as a maid of honor to Catherine Howard. I don't know when they met, but to avoid inventing a fictional character who then disappears, I put Elisabeth Brooke into Lady Zouche's household, creating a plausible bridge for Bess's acquaintance with Catherine Howard, who arrived at court as a maid of honor to Anne of Cleves and was probably only a couple of years older than Bess.

Much more is known about Bess after the time of her second marriage, to Sir William Cavendish, who was about twenty years older than she was and already quite prominent when he married her.

The dialogue in Venus in Winter is clear and understandable to the modern ear, yet the word choices and syntax also give a good sense of the period. Does your experience in the theatre influence how you craft your characters’ speech?

Yes, I've found that my years in theatre as an actress and director are very helpful in writing historical dialogue. I've read so much material from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that the language sounds natural to me. And while I don't necessarily read dialogue aloud while writing, I do kind of hear it my head and have an instinctive sense of whether I could say the lines and make them believeble. This helps me avoid language that's too contemporary or faux-period, I hope!

I think that judicious use of period words and expressions and syntax can give a good flavor of the period without being distracting. When I was writing The Darling Strumpet, I had a great time using period slang, and contrasting Nell's speech with that of more upper class people. I would have liked to do another draft of Venus just to incorporate a little more flavor of the period in the dialogue, but I ran out of time.

Bess divides her time between life at court and her homes in the countryside (I particularly liked the descriptions of the natural beauty around Chatsworth in Derbyshire). Did any locales stand out as more memorable or enjoyable to write about – or to visit in person?

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make a trip to England for this book. I've spent a lot of time in London and some time traveling around other parts of the country, and had to rely on those experiences and long-distance research. Fortunately, there's so much information, including historical images and maps and Google Maps and Google Earth, that it's possible to learn a lot without leaving home.

Of course, very little of 16th-century London remains except the layout of the streets. One of Bess's houses was in Newgate Street, which I actually know quite well, as I regularly walked from the Bank underground station along Cheapside and Newgate Street to near Smithfield when my mother was in St. Bartholomew's Hospital. (The hospital existed in Bess's time, but of course in a much different form than now.) Fellow historical fiction author J.D. Davies was kind enough to take loads of pictures when he visited Hardwick Hall and send them to me, and that helped with writing the prologue and epilogue.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Bess and her family spend a fair bit of time occupied by money problems, from her childhood woes with her stepfather in debtor’s prison to disputes over her dower rights from her first marriage, and more. You don’t often see issues related to finance and legal proceedings in Tudor-era fiction, even though it’s important for understanding day-to-day life at the time. Everything was very clearly explained, but how complex were these issues to research and untangle?

I'm so glad you found the events clear, because they were kind of a bear to understand and put in the story without lots of explanation! Mary Lovell's biography of Bess explains these issues pretty well, especially the situation with the Court of Wards and its control of estates inherited by minor children. I did have to do some digging to figure out where Bess's early suit would have been held and who would have presided over it, and then make some conjecture about what the specifics of her experience would have been like. Bess was so astute about money and so businesslike, that I thought it was important to get into some specifics that showed her developing those abilities.

She went to court several times in her life, which was very unusual for a woman. I think her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, who was a very able administrator and very well connected, probably taught her a lot. Someone must have helped her with that first suit about her dower rights when she was only sixteen or seventeen, and in the novel, I have Sir William be that person, as it's in keeping with what I know about him and a good opportunity for them to get to know each other.

Frances Grey, Lady Dorset, is one of the more intriguing secondary characters. She proves herself a good and generous friend to Bess, but she doesn’t show the same kindness to her oldest daughter, Jane. How did you develop Frances’ character and her relationship with Jane?

Frances Grey (nee Brandon)
I relied on biographies of Bess and Jane as well as other books about the period and the important players of the time in writing Frances's character. Bess's second marriage took place at Bradgate Park, the Grey family home, and Frances gave Bess jewelry and probably introduced her to her second husband, so it's clear that she must have had some regard and affection for Bess.

There seems to be a fair amount of evidence that Jane Grey's parents were extremely ambitious for Jane, even at the expense of her own desires and happiness, and their ambition ultimately cost her life.

Jane told her schoolmaster Roger Ascham that she couldn't seem to please her parents no matter what she did, and that they "cruelly threatened" her, "sometimes with pinches, nips, and bobs [smacks]" so that she thought herself "in hell" until she could go to her tutor John Aylmer. Some of her biographers seem to doubt that she was really badly treated or that Frances was as bad as she sounds, but those words are pretty convincing to me, and I had her speak them to Bess, who is grateful for Frances's kindness to her but heartbroken that Jane, who she loves, is so little valued and so unhappy.

The heroines of your three historicals have all been strong women who associate closely with royalty (in different ways) although they aren’t royal themselves. Why do you enjoy writing from this viewpoint?

Part of the reason is that I have sought out characters that haven't been written about so much that everyone knows about them and it's hard to make their stories fresh. At the same time, women at or near the top of society are the ones whose lives are best documented. Undoubtedly there were many middle class and working class women who led interesting lives, but didn't leave much of a record.

Women who were associated with royalty were also in a position to participate in or observe compelling and important historical events, and I think readers might relate more to their perspective as relative outsiders than they do to the thoughts of a queen. And of course female lead characters seem to work better than men, or at least that's what my agent says, so that eliminates the kings and princes themselves, and leaves the women around them.

Charles II and Jane Lane, riding to Bristol (Isaac Fuller)

You’ve moved a little further back in time with this book, from the 17th century to the 16th,, and from the Stuarts to the Tudors. Was this a fairly easy shift for you to make?

Yes and no. I learned about Jane Lane in the course of researching The Darling Strumpet, and had Charles II tell Nell Gwynn a little about his escape after the Battle of Worcester, but there was no way to do that story justice. When my agent was getting ready to submit Darling Strumpet, she asked me to come up with some ideas for a second book, and that was one of them.

I thought that since I knew a lot about 17th-century England already and that even some of the same characters would appear in both books, it would be easy to write The September Queen. I was wrong! There's a big difference between knowing a fair amount of the general history, and saying, okay, it's July 30, 1651--what specifically is happening on this day? How does it affect my character and what is she doing?

Also, writing The September Queen involved learning a lot about the English Civil Wars, all the efforts to restore Charles II to the throne before the actual Restoration, and long stretches of time in the courts of Paris and The Hague, with lots of people I knew nothing about. Similarly, I know a fair amount about the 16th century generally, partly as a result of my long interest in Shakespeare and many years performing at Renaissance Faires, but Bess of Hardwick lived through periods of incredible turmoil, and to tell her story I had to learn a lot of very specific information about the reigns of each of the Tudor monarchs, the people around them, and the ins and outs of very complicated events involving politics, changes in religion, and numerous changes of regime.

Can you reveal anything about what you might be working on next?

I don't have a contract yet for what I hope to write next, but I can say it's somewhat of a departure from my first three books, though it involves historical events and real people. And someday I'd like to write a novel about Bess's second forty years!


Gillian Bagwell's novel about Bess of Hardwick, Venus in Winter, was released on July 2 by Berkley ($16.00, pb, 448pp).

To find links to Gillian's other posts related to the book, please follow her on Twitter @gillianbagwell, on Facebook,, or visit her website,

To enter the giveaway for a copy of Venus in Winter, please fill out the following form.  Two copies are up for grabs: one for the US and one international.  Deadline Friday, July 19th.  Best of luck!


  1. Thanks for the chance to win!

  2. I want to read this novel soooo badly! Thanks for the great giveaway and fascinating interview.

  3. Books like this can be so male/romance centered that as a writer I'm always happy to see when a major role is given to the woman's best friend.

  4. I was Tudored-out after spending my teenage years reading about Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and all the wives. This one looks so good - I'm eager to read it!

  5. What a great interview about an historical figure I'd known little about. Can't wait to read the novel!

  6. Thanks for all your comments on the interview! I was Tudored out myself for a while though have been getting back into the era. Lesser-known women are among my favorite types of characters. I especially enjoyed the scenes in this book that were set outside London, but being in Frances Grey's household provided a different perspective on the court than you usually see as well.

  7. Bess of Hardwick is definitely one of those larger-than-life characters the Tudor period specialised in, and her remarkable rags-to-riches tale certainly deserves a modern novel - the only other one I can think of which features her is Jan Westcott's "The Tower and the Dream", published in 1974.

    Four marriages, with one husband the subject of poisoning by his family fearing a loss of inheritance, a scandalous and acrimonious feud with the last, plus being charged with the care of Mary, Queen of Scots in her captivity are just a few of the notable events during her long life. And Bess is related to pretty much most British aristocratic families today.

    I'd possibly be more interested in Bess' relationship with that other charismatic, astute and indefatigable redheaded survivor, Elizabeth I. The two had a cordial connection, though Bess, in a rare error of judgement, put it at
    serious risk when she colluded with Margaret Douglas, Lady Lennox, in playing "kingmaker" with their respective children. Her Maj was less than impressed by the resulting potential claimant to the throne, Arbella Stuart, and Bess of H had a turn in the Tower before she was forgiven!

  8. I read The Tower and the Dream a long time ago and don't remember it all that well - but I believe it covered her entire life, rather than the first half. So the history was more compressed. I also believe Westcott's version of Bess was more ambitious, more politically motivated than she is here. Arbella's mentioned in this one, in the frame at the beginning in which Bess is elderly and thinking about her accomplishments and disappointments (Arbella was one of the latter).

    1. You have to feel sorry for Arbella. She was educated as a Renaissance princess with Great Expectations, but was always going to present too much of a threat to the succession to be allowed free rein or to marry. No wonder she was unhappy (or according to Bess, ungrateful).

    2. Arbella's story reminds me in some ways of that of her grandmother-in-law, Katherine Grey. Not so much in their upbringing, but in their position, secret marriages, and imprisonment and separation from their husbands because of it.

  9. And of course Chatsworth House has also become famous in its own right as the inspiration for Jane Austen's Pemberley!

    1. Thanks for the info! I'm really not au courant with all things Austen. It's a beautiful estate.

  10. Olivia Eastwood3:14 PM

    Although I am not a huge fan of historical fiction after reading this interview I may have to change my opinion. Historical fiction is often gender bias and focuses on the popular people in history. It is refreshing to learn of a story that focuses on a background character of history that has had just as much influence.

    1. Hi Olivia, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Historical fiction is full of stories about lesser-known people from history, as well as fictional characters - it's not all about the famous names, although it may seem that way because some books about popular people have gotten a lot of attention.

      Feel free to look around here some more and you may find some other examples!

  11. Writing a history novel seems like it would take vast amounts of research. How long would you say it takes you to write one? From starting your research to printing the last page.

    1. It really depends on the author. For some, a year or less, and for others, it could be a decade-long process. It can help if authors stay within the same time period for more than one novel, since they don't have to begin again with the research.

  12. it is a really great interview of an historical era.I am happy by knowing that there were more importance given to the women.

  13. it is better to stay within the same time period for more than one novel if author is writing about past.But what if author has to write something for future?what kind of research they need to do?

    1. Anonymous3:42 PM

      It's exciting to observe writings novels about events that already took place in the past; it will be exciting to see books being written for the future before the event takes place.

  14. I never really thought much about historical fiction but this is making me want to look more into it. I have always been fond of history so I'm sure these novels will be a great experience.

  15. Anonymous8:38 PM

    This was a great interview of historical figures. I would love to read more. Thanks for the giveaway!

  16. Anonymous3:35 PM

    I really enjoyed reading the interview, I am fascinated by the questions and answers everything went so smoothly. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Very interesting read!