The following interview with Elizabeth Chadwick, author of For the King's Favor, appeared in the November issue of Historical Novels Review, the offical publication of the Historical Novel Society.
Littered with Fascinating People
An interview with Elizabeth Chadwick by Suzanne McGee
Here is one certainty in Elizabeth Chadwick's professional life: she will never run out of characters around whom to construct her historical novels. "The period from 1066 to 1250 is just littered with fascinating people I'd like to write about," she exclaims, running through a list that starts with one of the best known, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and includes some very little-known personalities such as the women who lived through and were affected by the Norman Conquest of 1066.
One of the least-known figures of Chadwick's chosen period features as a key character in her latest novel to be released in the United States by Sourcebooks. Originally dubbed A Time of Singing when it was first published in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, it's now titled For the King's Favor and recounts the life of Ida de Tosney, first ward and then mistress of Henry II. Aware that she is no longer the very young girl who first appealed to the king, when Ida realizes the young Roger Bigod wishes to marry her, she finds not only the man himself attractive but also the idea of escaping an increasingly difficult role as royal mistress. The young couple marry only to find that they still must exert themselves to maintain the royal favor - especially since Ida's infant son by Henry remains in the king's custody.
"I wanted to bring Ida to life as a three-dimensional persona; who she was as a person, how she reacted to being placed in these impossible situations of being seduced by the king while still very young and then being forced to leave her child behind when she married, when he still would only have been two or three years old," Chadwick explains. There's a lot of raw material for narrative tension in the historic story - between Ida and Henry; Roger and Henry; between Ida's son, William, and his mother and the latter's new family, to name only a few. "It's all about control and power, for Henry," Chadwick says. Royal mistresses, she argues, have a tough deal all around. "They certainly weren't all good-time girls on the make," she adds, and one purpose of the book is to debunk that notion.
Chadwick's first published book, The Wild Hunt, hit British bookstores in 1989; it wasn't until 2009 that Sourcebooks began releasing some of the most popular. Readers who have already devoured the story of William Marshal in The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion will find an overlap in the time period in which those novels are set and the era of For the King's Favor; Marshal himself makes an appearance throughout the latter; they have similar "career paths". "But the two men emerged as quite different personalities," Chadwick says. "For instance, William Marshal was an accomplished military leader while Roger Bigod fought when he had to but was a more natural lawyer, an administrator and diplomat." William is also a womanizer, not marrying until relatively late in life. In contrast, Chadwick says she deliberately chose to portray Roger Bigod as still a virgin on his marriage to Ida. "Some scholars recently have said that our modern century doesn't give people of the medieval era enough credit for being voluntarily celibate," Chadwick notes.
Before her fourth birthday, Chadwick was spinning stories; by the time she was in elementary school in Scotland and a teacher provided her class with a dressing-up box to help them act out vignettes from the period they were studying, she had become fascinated with historical stories. In her teens, she fell in love with the television show "Desert Crusader", whose hero has all kinds of adventures in the Holy Land, and is set in the period Chadwick has made her own as a novelist. Indeed, her first attempts to commit the stories in her mind to writing were a kind of "fan fiction" featuring the show's hero. "The problem was that I realized I didn't know all that much about the Holy Land in the Middle Ages..." Chadwick says, chuckling. So she set out to study the period and hone her writing simultaneously, leading up to the publication of her first book. "I still have several manuscripts tucked away somewhere from that time, most of which are probably dreadful and unpublishable!"
Not that researching the 12th century is now simple, even though Chadwick has devoted decades of her life to it. William Marshal, she says, was the exception that proves the rule. "He had had a chronicle written about his life that served as a fairly comprehensive starting point." In contrast, almost nothing is known about Ida de Tosney. For centuries, the connection between her and William Longspée was obscure. "We knew that his mother was called Ida, because of charters and gifts that have him mentioning ‘my mother, countess Ida', but there was no reference that would have made it possible to decide which Ida she was!" Finally, Chadwick stumbled over a reference to a Ralph Bigod on a list of prisoners, in which Ralph was mentioned as a brother of William Longspée. Following that clue, she was able to establish that Roger Bigod, the future hero of the book, was indeed Ralph's father. In all probability, his wife Ida was probably the same Ida who had been Henry II's mistress and given birth to William, a royal bastard.
Still, nailing down the genealogical details isn't enough to bring a 750-year-old love story and family saga to life for contemporary readers. "As a writer, I have to find a way to experience all the senses and the emotions through the eyes of my characters," Chadwick says. "I want to see what they see; eat what they eat. I get to the point where I can almost taste the food in their mouths in my imagination, and hear them say ‘Oh God, not eels for dinner again!'"
To get those details right, Chadwick is an avid historical reenactor. She has cooked "pottage", a medieval dish, over a fire and scrutinized a historical battlefield through the narrow eye-slits of a medieval helm, allowing her to share - vicariously - what it must have been like for her heroes on the verge of riding into battle. After devouring both primary and secondary sources, many historical novelists might call a halt to their research at that stage and let their imaginations take over. Instead, Chadwick turns to the "Akashic Record", defined as the impact left on the world around us by events and personalities who have long since vanished. She asks longtime friend and alternative therapies practitioner Alison King to help her nail down how a particular character reacted at a certain time in their life to particularly dramatic or stressful events. While admitting that this is "slightly unorthodox"", Chadwick says that some of the specifics produced in the sessions open up new research avenues and that it's in tune with the historical record and the medieval mindset. "That's where I got the detail in For the King's Favor about Roger having a bit of a thing for hats, being a bit of a dandy," Chadwick says, laughing. That kind of detail, she adds, makes a character come alive to readers as an individual in a way that no other research can do.
Next spring, Sourcebooks will publish a sequel to the lives of both William Marshal and Roger Bigod entitled To Defy a King. It's a story that revolves around the marriage of Roger Bigod to the eldest daughter of William Marshal, Mahelt, and it's told through Mahelt's eyes. "A very different view of Roger emerges; he's more stern, more aware that any member of his family who puts a foot wrong could imperil the whole family," Chadwick says of the evolution of her historical hero. "Readers who loved Roger in For the King's Favor may be disappointed by
his grumpiness in the next book, but then people aren't the same at 65 as they were at 25."
Spending years researching the lives and loves of the characters who served the Angevin monarchs such as Henry II has ended up whetting Chadwick's curiosity about those rulers as people. She has just finished the first draft of Lady of the English, a novel that features the Empress Matilda (mother to Henry II) and King Stephen's queen, Adeliza. She also admits she'd love to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine, although she believes it would take two books to do justice to Eleanor's long and eventful life.
"Henry II is still quite a peripheral character in the books that I have written, but I'd like to know more about him," she muses aloud. "My perspective on him keeps changing as I see him through the eyes of my different characters. Maybe one day..."