A Conversation with Sharon Kay Penman
Q: Like the rest of your fiction, this novel is set in medieval Europe.
What drew you to this particular time and place? And what
keeps you there?
Sharon Kay Penman: Well, I spent twelve years working on my
first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, and by the time it was done, I
was hopelessly hooked on the Middle Ages. It is very familiar terrain
to me now, after setting nine books in that era, so each time
I begin a new book, it is like coming home. That doesn’t mean I’d
have wanted to live back then, though; I am much too fond of our
century’s creature comforts!
Q: Who or what inspired the character of Justin?
SKP: Justin is not based upon any particular person; I never do
that for purely fictional characters. He just “came” to me during
some long walks in the woods with my dogs.
Q: Justin is such a lonely character. Does much of his loneliness
stem from the fact that he is trapped between two worlds—that of
the highborn and the lowborn?
SKP: Yes, I wanted a character who would have the perspective of
an “outsider,” someone who did not quite belong in either of his
Q: What does Justin gain and lose because of his class “mobility”?
SKP: You might say that Justin is a social chameleon, that he is
able to take on the coloration of his surroundings. He can maneuver
in the shark-filled waters of the royal court, yet he is also
capable of blending in at the corner tavern or alehouse, a very
useful attribute for a spy. But he lives in a world in which people
are defined by birth, a concept utterly alien to Americans. He
is very drawn to Molly; there is a strong connection between
them, one that is emotional as well as sexual. Yet it would be difficult,
if not impossible, for them to have a future together. The
flip side of this coin is that marriage to the Lady Claudine is also
beyond his grasp.
Q: Justin does not let himself think too hard or long about
whether or not Richard is worth the money, effort, and lives that
his ransom costs. Is the price too high?
SKP: Knowing what I know about Richard’s kingship, I’d say the
price was much too high. But I am looking at it from a modern
perspective. In Justin’s world, few would even raise that question.
One of the cornerstones of a class system is that all people are not
created equal, and a consecrated, crowned king was at the very pinnacle
of the social pyramid.
Q: Have we heard the last of Molly and Bennet?
SKP: Not at all! Molly and Bennet appear in the next mystery, and
I expect them to be complicating Justin’s life for some time to come.
Q: Is Justin’s understanding of his father going to continue to
SKP: Of course. Theirs is an ongoing, evolving relationship, and
there will be advances and retreats, backsliding and detours. It is
not an easy road, but they are traveling it together, if not always
Q: Will we learn more about the identity of Justin’s mother?
SKP: Yes, eventually Justin and the readers will learn more about
his mother. I don’t mean to sound cryptic or mysterious—well, I
guess I do—but his father has good reason for wanting to keep her
identity secret. And that is as much as I can say!
Q: Since Claudine is unwilling to consider marriage to Justin,
what is going to happen to their child?
SKP: You’ll have to keep reading the books to find out, won’t you?
I will tell you that more about the baby will be revealed in the
next mystery, Prince of Darkness.
Q: Notable among the many important and thought-provoking
themes in this novel (which also appear in your other work) is your
focus on the conflicts and differences between medieval English and
Welsh culture and society. Would you talk about this tension and
what you find so compelling about it?
SKP: This was a clash of cultures, a war of attrition between a
predatory feudal society and a tribal Celtic one. When I moved to
Wales more than twenty years ago and began to research Here Be
Dragons, I was fascinated from the first by the Welsh medieval laws,
by the discovery that women enjoyed a greater status in Wales than
elsewhere in Europe. By our standards, Welshwomen were not that
emancipated, but in comparison to their French and English sisters,
they enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom. A Welsh girl became
her own mistress when she reached the age of puberty and could
not be forced into marriage against her will. She was not automatically
denied custody of her children if her husband died or the marriage
ended, as was the case on the other side of the border. She
could even end the marriage herself. And a woman who bore an infant
out of wedlock had one great advantage over all of her sisters
in Christendom: An illegitimate child acknowledged by the father
had full rights of inheritance and was on equal footing with his or
her siblings born in wedlock. Medieval Welsh law did not punish
the child for the sins of the parents, an enlightened position that
can be truly appreciated only when we consider how many centuries
it would take to gain widespread acceptance elsewhere.
Q: You make clear the very real limitations women of all backgrounds
faced in medieval Europe. How challenging is it to create
plausible opportunities and interesting experiences for your female
SKP: It is very challenging, truthfully. Women did not have as
many options as men, and I need to reflect that reality in my mysteries.
So whether I am writing of a woman of Claudine’s class or
one of Molly’s, I try to stay true to the boundaries and constraints
that each would have encountered. A woman of high birth was
blessed with certain freedoms that Molly would never enjoy, among
them the freedom from hunger or want. But Molly had freedoms
that were denied to Claudine, such as the right to chart her own
course and make a marriage of her choosing.
Q: Would you agree that Eleanor and Emma have a great deal in
SKP: Superficially, yes. They were strong-willed women, fortunate
from birth, for both were said to be beautiful and both were born
into families of privilege and power. Eleanor was the daughter and
heiress of the Duke of Aquitaine, married at fifteen to the young
King of France. She acquired that high rank through no actions of
her own. But when she later became Queen of England, that was
very much her own doing. One of the reasons why Eleanor continues
to fascinate us so is because she did not always play by the
rules of her world, rules that made it virtually impossible for a
woman to exert much control over her own destiny. Eleanor dared
to break these rules, and although she paid a high price for her
willingness to rebel, I like to think that, on her deathbed at the advanced
age of eighty-two, she had few regrets. Emma, of course,
was never a great heiress like Eleanor; she was the illegitimate
daughter of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and thus sister to England’s
King Henry. Hers was the more traditional fate for women of
the nobility, a political pawn wed to a Welsh prince because her
brother the king decreed it. We know little of Emma’s external
life, nothing whatsoever of her interior one. I suspect, though, that
she had more regrets than Eleanor.
Q: Justin leaves Angharad mourning a man who never existed.
Was this the kindest or wisest choice Justin could have made?
SKP: Under these particular circumstances, I think it was both a
wise and a kind decision. But if Justin were forced to choose between
the two, he would always err on the side of kindness.
Q: Which would upset John more: learning of Durand’s role as
Eleanor’s spy or as his own protector?
SKP: Very interesting question. I think John would be most offended
by the notion that Eleanor saw him as being in need of
Durand’s protection. John’s jealousy of his brother Richard was a
destructive force in his life. Putting it in modern terms, Richard
was the Golden Son, the best beloved, and John was the afterthought,
John Lackland, forever measuring himself against the Lionheart
and forever coming up short.
Q: I would like to ask you a question you raise in your author’s
note: What is the responsibility of the historical novelist?
SKP: I cannot answer for other historical novelists; I can only offer
my own guidelines. In writing my historical novels, I have to rely
upon my imagination to a great extent. I think of it as “filling in
the blanks.” Medieval chroniclers could be callously indifferent to
the needs of future novelists. But I think there is a great difference
between filling in the blanks and distorting known facts. Whenever
I’ve had to tamper with history for plot purposes, I make sure
to mention that in my author’s note, and I try to keep such tampering
to a bare minimum. I also attempt to keep my characters
true to their historical counterparts. This is not always possible, of
course. Sometimes all we know of a medieval man or woman are
the stark, skeletal outlines of their lives, rather like the chalk drawing
of the body at a crime scene. And some historical figures are
so controversial—Richard III is a good example—that I feel comfortable
drawing my own conclusions. But if I were to deviate dramatically
from the traditional portrayal of a person who actually
lived, I would feel honor-bound to explain to my readers in my author’s
note why I chose this particular approach.
Q: Do you need to work from a detailed outline to ensure historical
SKP: I use a detailed outline for the mysteries, but that is more to
avoid any plot holes than to ensure historical accuracy. I use an
outline for chapters in both the mysteries and my historical novels,
in order to have a road map when I am beginning a book.
Q: Sharon, you were writing your first novel in your “spare” time
while in law school when the only copy of your manuscript was
stolen. What happened next?
SKP: The first manuscript for The Sunne in Splendour disappeared
from my car when I was moving to an apartment during my years
in law school. The car was crammed with the usual college student’s
possessions, including a small television, but the only thing
taken was a notebook containing my novel. At that point I’d been
working on it for more than four years, and its loss was very traumatic
for me. For the next six months, I would periodically ransack
my apartment, deluding myself that I had somehow “missed”
it during those other, futile searches, and I was unable to write
again for the next five and a half years. I never learned what had
happened to the manuscript. The most logical explanation is that
one of the children playing in front of the apartment complex had
wandered over to the car and snatched the notebook on impulse.
It was either that or vengeful Tudor ghosts, and I find it hard
to believe any of them were hovering over Lindenwold, New Jersey.
Q: What is the most notable book you have read recently?
SKP: I am currently reading a fascinating novel called Star of the
Sea by Joseph O’Connor; it takes place in 1847, aboard a ship of
Irish refugees who are fleeing the Great Hunger and seeking to
start life anew in America. I haven’t finished it yet, but I can say for
a certainty that the first two-thirds of the novel are utterly compelling
Q: If you could create your own reading group composed of notable
historical figures, whom would you include, and what would
the group read?
SKP: My own reading group? I think I would want Eleanor of
Aquitaine and Henry II in my group; they’d definitely liven up
meetings. And Elizabeth Tudor and Cleopatra and Napoleon and
Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. I would also invite the Welsh
poet-prince Hywel ab Owain, who did a star turn in my novel
Time and Chance, and the tragic nine-day queen, Jane Grey. Now
what would they read? I wouldn’t dare suggest my own books to
such a high-powered group. I think we’d read one of Shakespeare’s
plays, possibly Richard II or King Lear or, if they were in the mood
for lighter fare, Much Ado About Nothing.
Q: If you could spend a day living the life of one of your characters
in Dragon’s Lair, whose life would you choose?
SKP: I think I would like to follow in Llewelyn’s footsteps, for he
was blessed with that rare combination of confidence, humor, and
optimism tempered by reality, so I’d probably have the most fun
living his life—although I’d rather not step into his shoes on a day
when he was fighting a battle.
Q: Can you tell us anything about Justin’s next adventure?
SKP: Justin’s next adventure will be Prince of Darkness, which we
hope to publish in early 2005. I am working on it now and am
giving poor Justin a rough time. Due to circumstances beyond his
control, he finds himself on the “pilgrimage to Hell and back,” as
John wryly describes it, a journey made in the company of the
three people he’d least like to be traveling with: his hostile ally,
Durand de Curzon; his sometime love, the Lady Claudine; and his
unforgiving adversary from Dragon’s Lair, the Lady Emma. It’s a
journey that takes him from the streets of Paris to castles in Brittany
and then to one of the most celebrated of medieval shrines,
the island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.