A Conversation Between Sharon Kay Penman and Margaret George
Sharon Kay Penman: Not long after my first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, was published, my British editor asked me to read a novel they were publishing by a new novelist, Margaret George. When I learned that it was about my least favorite English king, Henry VIII, and told from Henry’s viewpoint, I confess that I was dubious. But I was drawn in from the first page of The Autobiography of Henry VIII, and what I expected to be a favor to my editor turned into a memorable reading experience. I had not changed my mind about Henry by the time I finished the book, but that was never Margaret’s intent. She wanted to create a flesh-and-blood man, to strip away the myths, to make him live again, and at that, she succeeded admirably. I came away from her book with a greater understanding of Henry, and because I’d just attempted to do as much for my own controversial king, Richard III, I knew how difficult a task this was. I could appreciate what she’d been able to do, and I was very grateful to my editor for introducing me to the writing of such a gifted novelist. Since then, Margaret and I have gone on to write other novels about bygone times and men and women long dead. Now whenever I hear a new Margaret George novel is on the way, it is a cause for celebration—for me and for all those who enjoy well-written and well-researched historical fiction. So I am delighted to be able to discuss Lionheart with Margaret for the Random House Reader’s Circle.
Margaret George: It is a pleasure for me, too, Sharon. I thought we could begin with the basics. Could you tell us about your background and how you came to write historical fiction?
SKP: I was born in New York City and grew up in Atlantic City in its pre--gambling days. I have a B.A. in history from the University of Texas at Austin, and in my misspent youth, I earned a J.D. degree from Rutgers School of Law. For several years I practiced tax and corporate law, which I considered penance for my sins. But my life took a dramatic turn for the better with the publication of The Sunne in Splendour, for after that I was fortunate enough to be able to write full time. Lionheart is my eighth historical novel. I have also written four medieval mysteries about the queen’s man, the queen in question being Eleanor of Aquitaine, then in what I think of as her Katharine Hepburn mode; I always assume everyone has seen The Lion in Winter! To me, writing historical fiction is the next best thing to time travel. Now it is your turn, Margaret.
MG: How did I get to be an historical novelist? My father was in the foreign service and my earliest years were spent abroad, where I lived what I call a -nineteenth-century existence: no TV, no radio, and only the books we brought with us. So no wonder I started writing for my own entertainment, and continued to do so all through high school and college. Later, like you, Sharon, I earned my living doing something more prosaic: I was a science writer for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. But I had always loved history, and the places I had grown up in, especially Israel, made me feel that history was very accessible and close, and that I could almost touch it if I tried.
When I first got the idea of writing about Henry VIII I did not envision a career exclusively as an historical novelist. My goal then was to write a “psycho-biography” of the king. Everyone knew what he did, but what were his motivations? That was what fascinated me. However, since he didn’t live in a vacuum, the finished product was indeed a historical novel. And the rest, as they say . . .
SKP: I hadn’t known how you came to write your novel about Henry. I am so glad I asked!
MG: What motivated you to write Lionheart?
SKP: I fully expected that the third book in my trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine would be my final novel about the Angevins. But they had other ideas, and were not ready to go quietly into that good night. In the course of writing Devil’s Brood, I began to realize that there was so much of their story still to be told. For years I’d had a rather negative view of Richard I, and I would have been astonished had I been told I’d eventually be writing not one but two books about him. But once I began doing serious research for Devil’s Brood, I found a very different Richard than the one I’d been expecting. The more I thought about the eventful and dramatic years of Richard’s reign, the more I realized that I wanted to write about him. And of course that would give me another opportunity to write about his extraordinary mother, Eleanor, and what writer could resist a temptation like that?
MG: I know that your research for Lionheart differed in some ways from the research you’ve done in the past. Can you tell us about that?
SKP: I worry that Lionheart has spoiled me for future books, as I never had such a treasure trove of contemporary sources to draw upon, and will likely never find such research riches to plunder again. My favorite resources were the chronicles. They are not always totally accurate, for they sometimes report rumors as fact. And they often have their own bias: Lancastrians versus Yorkists, English versus Welsh, English versus French, etc. Because the chronicles were written by monks, they tend to cast a jaundiced eye upon women, reflecting the teachings of the Church that they were “daughters of Eve” and therefore suspect. But the chronicles are also invaluable, for they open a window to a far-distant time and offer us personal glimpses of people dead for centuries. The Richard of legend smolders like a torch: glowering, dour, and dangerous. Yet the chroniclers who accompanied Richard to the Holy Land, and the Saracen chroniclers he encountered there, give us a very different man—sardonic, playful, unpredictable. I had eyewitness accounts of the events I dramatize in Lionheart, battles described by men who actually fought in them. Saladin’s chronicler Baha al-Din watched as Richard stormed ashore at Jaffa, vividly describing his red galley, red tunic, red hair, and red banner. If not for the Saracen chroniclers, we would never have known about Richard’s imaginative proposal to make peace by wedding his sister Joanna to Saladin’s brother, for Richard somehow managed to keep this secret from his own men. Both sides recorded the names of the Mamluks and knights struck down in battle, conferring a bit of immortality upon men who’d otherwise have been long forgotten.
So Margaret, several of your novels have been set in very remote times—even remoter than medieval times! Were they more challenging to research than your novels about the Tudors?
MG: Each book seems to bring forth its own research mandates. For me, English history has fairly straightforward paths to unearthing facts. But the ancient world is not so cooperative. So, among the more unusual research routes I have taken, I embarked on a seven-year Bible study course in preparation for writing about Mary Magdalene. I realized I would be scrutinized by very knowledgeable biblical readers and did not want to disappoint or offend them by ignorance of the subject. The journey was a very rewarding one for me.
For Helen of Troy, I donned a tunic and raced in an ancient stadium in a reenactment of the Nemean Games in Greece in 2004. That was the closest I could come to being back in Helen’s time, where there was a special women’s race, dedicated to Hera, at the Olympics. The fact that the modern Olympics were being held in Athens at about the same time, with that excitement in the air, made it all the more real.
For Nero, I found a gladiator training school in Rome and attended a session, although there’s no evidence that Nero himself ever fought! As we know, he preferred playing his lyre.
SKP: A gladiator training school? Wow!
MG: You mentioned that your research revealed a very different Richard than you anticipated. Were there misconceptions about Richard you hoped to dispel in Lionheart?
SKP: I did not really expect to change the public perception of Richard. But I would be happy if readers come away from Lionheart thinking that the real man was far more complex than the Richard of legend, and therefore more interesting. The legend is not entirely wrong; he was a brilliant battle commander and almost invincible in hand-to-hand combat, quick-tempered, prideful, insanely reckless with his own safety, and ruthless when need be. But he was also intelligent, very well educated, imaginative, pragmatic, eloquent, and capable of magnanimity. Because he’d been one of the first princes to take the cross, I’d assumed he was a religious zealot. He was not; his attitude was that of a soldier, not a crusader. He sought a negotiated settlement with Saladin, and formed surprising friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs. He even knighted several of them—in the midst of a holy war!
Another misconception about Richard is one enshrined in a marvelous film, The Lion in Winter. When I did an interview recently for Lionheart, someone asked why I’d never addressed the rumors about Richard’s sexuality during his lifetime. The answer is simple: There were no such rumors. People are always surprised to learn that the first time it was suggested Richard preferred men to women as bedmates was in J. H. Harvey’s The Plantagenets, published in 1948. Contemporary chroniclers certainly seemed to have assumed that his sexuality was, in the words of his primary biographer, Dr. John Gillingham, “conventional.” But the suggestion of J. H. Harvey took root with startling speed, and by the time I wrote Here Be Dragons in 1985, I did my own small part to contribute to this new legend. Richard appeared in only two scenes in Here Be Dragons and so I did not bother to do serious research about him, simply accepting the belief then in vogue. I learned a lesson from this and would become much more obsessive about my research, even for minor characters! I discussed this in some depth in the Author’s Note to Devil’s Brood, so will not repeat it here. I see the question as irrelevant to any historical evaluation of Richard’s kingship, for it has never been alleged that he was influenced in any way by favorites, and why else would it matter?
But as a novelist, sexuality is always in play! I’d become a skeptic about this claim once I began to do research about Richard, and that skepticism was -strengthened by what I learned while researching and writing Lionheart. I had not realized the full extent of the embittered enmity between the English and French kings. The French chroniclers accused Richard of arranging the murder of Conrad of Montferrat, of poisoning the Duke of Burgundy, of sending -Saracen assassins to Paris to kill King Philippe, and even of betraying Christendom to the infidels by making peace with Saladin. If they could have accused Richard of sodomy, a mortal sin in the twelfth century, surely they’d have done so with great glee. To me, the fact that they did not speaks volumes in itself. Can I say with absolute certainty that I am correct? Of course not. The only man who could tell us that has been dead for eight hundred years. All I can do, all any novelist can do, is draw conclusions based upon what a friend of mine called “reasoned speculation.”
Like me, most of the people you’ve written about, Margaret, have a “public persona” like the Lionheart. What misconceptions did you have to contend with?
MG: One of my goals in choosing my characters is to clear their names of popular misconceptions about them. For Henry VIII, of course, it was that he was a combination of Old King Cole and Bluebeard; for Cleopatra, that she was the “serpent of the Nile” who lived only to seduce Roman generals and lead them to their ruin (never mind that her home, Alexandria, isn’t on the Nile at all); for Elizabeth Tudor, that she was a lovelorn loon over Robert Dudley, and/or an embittered virgin; and for Mary Magdalene, that she was a prostitute. For the first three people, the historical facts are there and I could rely on them to support my case because it is often a matter of interpretation of motivation, why someone did something rather than what they did, that is in question. But for Mary Magdalene, it was more difficult, because she belongs as much to legend as to history. If the search for the historical Jesus has proved him elusive, how much more so for the search for his followers.
Luckily for you, Richard was not so elusive, but I wondered, Sharon, what you most admire about Richard now that you see him as a more complex figure? What were his less admirable traits in your opinion?
SKP: I think I was most impressed by the responsibility he clearly felt for the welfare of his soldiers. He was a fascinating paradox: a man shockingly careless with his own life, but careful with the lives of the men under his command. As I already mentioned, I was very surprised by the cordial relations he forged with some of his Saracen foes, and I admire him for refusing to waste lives in a bloody, futile assault upon Jerusalem, even though he knew the French would turn that refusal into a weapon to use against him
Among his less admirable traits was the fiery temper he’d inherited from his father, so white-hot that it gave rise to the legend that the Angevins traced their descent from the Demon Countess of Anjou, a legend that greatly amused Richard and his brothers. He was capable of being quite arrogant at times, and he could also be very ruthless, at least by our standards. Ruthlessness seems to have been an occupational hazard of medieval kings, and as a woman of the twenty-first century, I admit that I find it hard to appreciate the undeniable fact that Richard gloried in war. I understand that war was the vocation of kings in the Middle Ages, and a king who did not excel at it was harshly judged by his contemporaries. We need only consider the different epithets bestowed upon Richard and John: Lionheart and Soft-sword. But as an instinctive pacifist, I confess that it was not always easy for me to wade through so much blood in Lionheart.
MG: Even though you have shown all these traits, good and bad, Richard still has that star quality that makes everyone else on the page dim when he walks in. Scenes with him crackle. The Richard of legend you quote—smolders like a torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous—is still partly there, although he doesn’t seem dour or glowering in this version, more Olympian and detached. He’s still dangerous, though—but not to people he loves. And in him, the smoldering is heroic and attractive. No doubt that was part of what drew Richard’s queen, Berengaria of Navarre, to him. Yet so little is known about her. Did you find this lack of knowledge more of a challenge in creating her character? Or was it actually easier to work with a blank slate?
SKP: Initially, it was somewhat daunting, but it soon became liberating. It is surprising how little we know of this young woman who became the queen-consort of the most celebrated king in Christendom. We cannot be sure of her birth date or what she looked like, and we know even less about her inner life. Berengaria was not even her real name; it was Berenguela, which was then translated into French as Berengere and eventually into English as Berengaria. She is the only English queen who never set foot on English soil, the only one to be married and crowned in Cyprus, and the only royal bride to spend her honeymoon in a war zone. But she has glided through history like a sad ghost, leaving few footprints behind.
We do know that she was very pious, founding an abbey during her long widowhood. We know that she came from a close-knit family. And we know she had courage, enduring real dangers and hardships on the crusade. She would later show her mettle again by fighting her brother-in-law John for her dower rights. Her courage was the quiet kind, though. She made no scenes, certainly not in public and probably not in private either. She was not a royal rebel like her formidable mother-in-law, Eleanor, and I think she has been penalized for that.
With one exception, the chroniclers described her in glowing terms. William of Newburgh called her “a virgin of famous beauty and prudence.” Ambroise, who accompanied Richard on crusade, described her as “beautiful, with a bright countenance, a wise maiden.” Only Richard of Devizes cast aspersions on her appearance, saying she was “a maid more accomplished than beautiful,” but he never laid eyes upon her. Yet his snarky description is the one that historians usually quote, ignoring the verdict of Ambroise, who did see her.
Because I knew that her marriage to Richard ended badly, I’d assumed that they’d been incompatible from the beginning. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that their marriage seemed to have gotten off to a promising start. In fact, both of the chroniclers who were present for the wedding believed that Richard was smitten with his bride. Ambroise called her Richard’s “beloved” and contended that “the king loved her greatly. Since the time when he was count of Poitiers, she had been his heart’s desire.” The author of the Itinerarium echoed this: “Attracted by her graceful manner and high birth, he had desired her very much for a long time—since he was first count of Poitou.” I tend to be somewhat skeptical about that, for royal marriages were matters of state, not love matches; moreover, I doubt that Richard had a romantic bone in his body. Yet their comments do show us what Richard’s contemporaries believed about his marriage at its outset. And Richard’s own actions prove that he was content with his new wife; he went to some trouble to have her with him in the Holy Land when possible, bringing her from Acre to join him in Jaffa even though she was surely more comfortable and safer in a royal palace than in an army encampment, and then doing it again at Latrun. So based upon what little evidence there is, I concluded that the problems in their marriage did not surface until after his return from his German captivity, which I shall address in the sequel to Lionheart, A King’s Ransom.
We can say, therefore, that Richard wanted Berengaria with him in the Holy Land, but that changed in the last years of their marriage. What of Berengaria’s feelings? We do not know how she felt about marrying Richard, although by medieval standards, she’d hit the marital jackpot. She was very devout, so she would have been proud of Richard’s exploits in the Holy Land. Their later estrangement must have been difficult for her. By then, she’d have been aware of the gossip, the whispers that she was “barren,” a devastating indictment for any queen. Since Richard’s adulteries were flagrant enough to warrant a lecture from the bishop of Lincoln, she probably knew about the gossip, and at the very least, his infidelities must have wounded her pride. Only once is the veil lifted, giving us a glimpse of the woman, not the queen. According to St. Hugh of Lincoln, he’d gone to Berengaria upon learning of Richard’s unexpected death at Chalus, where he “calmed the grief” of the “sorrowing and almost broken-hearted widow.” Was she grieving for Richard? For what might have been? For the precarious future she may have envisioned for herself without Richard’s protection? We have no way of knowing. She was a wife for only eight years, a widow for thirty-three, as she never remarried, unusual in itself, and when she was buried in the beautiful abbey she’d founded near Le Mans, she took her heart’s secrets to her grave. For myself, I see Berengaria as a young woman who was dealt a bad hand and played it as best and bravely as she could.
Were any of your characters as shadowy as Berengaria, Margaret?
MG: My most challenging “unknown” character was unfortunately the main character in one of my novels—Mary Magdalene. It did not help that the only thing most people thought that they knew about her was that she was a prostitute. I had very little material to go on, and what there is has been examined and debated by experts for decades. She is mentioned in all four canonical Gospels, but the material is tantalizingly short. Scholars have had to tease conclusions out of hints: She is always mentioned first in a list of women, signifying that she was either the most important, the oldest, or the wealthiest; she is identified only by a locale (“of Magdala”) rather than a relationship with a person (“mother of,” “wife of”), indicating that she must have been independent, possibly a widowed matron. Only the Gospel of John has her encounter with Jesus on Easter morning as she becomes the first person to see the risen Christ. There are other sources, such as the mentions of her in the gnostic Gospels (the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Pistis Sophia). These give us hints that she was spiritually very important and was a cause of rivalry and jealousy within the disciples’ circle (was that because she had been the first to see Jesus on Easter morning?), but they are not narratives and do not give us a chronological storyline.
The part of her life before she met Jesus is a complete blank, except that she was beset by seven demons, who were driven out by Jesus when he cured her. I had to construct what I thought was a typical life for a woman of her time and locale—a Jewish family in Galilee in the early first century c.e. After she was cured by Jesus, she joined him, along with other women, who “supported him out of their means”—a very tantalizing sentence which has been analyzed and debated for a long time among scholars. This is mentioned only in one Gospel, Luke (Luke 8:3). But from this, people conjecture she had means enough that she and the others could “sponsor” Jesus and his work. Traveling with him, however, must have been scandalous, and probably helped fuel the idea that these women were immoral. Pope Gregory I sealed her fate when he preached a sermon in the late 500s saying she was the same woman as the one “taken in adultery” in the Gospel of John (John 8:1–11). It was not until 1969 that the Vatican reversed this and cleared her of that charge. The public, however, has been slow to change its mind.
SKP: I think yours was the more daunting task, Margaret. My readers knew very little about Berengaria, but many of your readers already had preconceived notions about Mary Magdalene, which you had to dispel.
MG: That was part of the challenge; but you faced another in the course of writing Lionheart when you discovered that Richard’s story was going to overflow the boundaries of one book. Can you tell us about the sequel, A King’s Ransom?
SKP: I confess I was beginning to panic, having realized I had not a prayer in hell of making the deadline for Lionheart—until a friend suggested I consider doing two novels about Richard. This made perfect sense, for the Third Crusade was the natural breaking point. In a way, Lionheart was Richard’s Iliad and A King’s Ransom will be his Odyssey. Lionheart ends with Richard about to sail for home after negotiating a truce with Saladin. Fortunately for him, he does not know the ordeal that lies ahead of him—two shipwrecks; an encounter with pirates; a wild dash through enemy territory with only a handful of men before falling into the hands of the Duke of Austria, who bore him a bitter grudge; and then being turned over to the mercies of a man who had none, the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich. A King’s Ransom will deal with that epic journey; his captivity in Germany; his return to his own domains, where he will fight fiercely to recover the lands he’d lost to the French king while he was a prisoner; his estrangement from Berengaria; his death at Chalus; and then the first year of the reign of his brother John. I will also be giving more time on center stage to the amazing Angevin women, the legendary Eleanor and the daughter most like her, Joanna.
MG: We’ve discussed this next question ourselves. What do you consider the responsibility of a historical novelist? What do we owe our readers? Those we write about?
SKP: I confess that I am obsessive-compulsive about historical accuracy, which is one reason why my friends will no longer go with me to see historical films; they got tired of listening to me muttering into my popcorn when screenwriters rewrote history in Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven.
MG: I have to live with The Tudors and Charles Laughton’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, and the Liz and Burton Cleopatra.
SKP: You have my deepest sympathies for The Tudors! I have always seen historical fiction as a bridge to the past. Readers who might not pick up a biography may be tempted to read a novel. I feel a responsibility not to mislead my readers. I want them to feel they can take me on faith, to be sure that while there may be mistakes in my books, there will be no deliberate distortions. Nor will I create medieval characters with modern sensibilities, a phenomenon I call The -Plantagenets in Pasadena.
MG: My favorite anachronistic character is the “feisty heroine,” a tiresome stock figure in bad historical novels, who is athletic, vastly learned (usually secretly taught by her father “even though” she is a girl), and a champion of the marginalized. If my characters really did do any of these things (although they wouldn’t likely have done all three), I must put it in, but I try not to stress their prowess.
SKP: I also feel that a debt is owed to the dead. I remember an interesting letter I received from a reader not long after Princess Diana died. In the wake of the fierce criticism heaped on the tabloids and paparazzi, she found herself wondering if historical novelists could be guilty of exploiting the lives of the people they write about. I thought her query raised some intriguing issues. How much license can we take in our depiction of people who actually lived?
MG: I always write with the idea that the characters themselves are watching me and I want to tell their stories as they themselves would approve. Therefore, I don’t go against a known fact. But as you say, Sharon, sometimes there are gaping spaces between those facts and to get from one to the other we have to construct stepping stones—doing it with the utmost respect. The thing most often a mystery is the motivation—why someone did something. The novelist has to supply that, unlike the biographer, who can just leave it blank or say “we don’t know why he did that, or what he was thinking.” We have to build that bridge.
SKP: Obviously, imagination is what shapes any novel, but I think it is essential to construct a historical novel based upon a strong factual foundation. Since the medieval period is not always as well documented as I’d like, I sometimes have to do what I call filling in the blanks. For example, historians do not know the exact date of the wedding of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and King John’s daughter Joanna. As a novelist writing about their wedding, obviously I had to choose a date for it. In the same way, I often have to decide how to dispatch one of my characters; unless he died on the battlefield or she died in childbirth, chroniclers rarely noted or even knew the cause of death.
But there is a great difference between filling in the blanks and misrepresenting or ignoring known facts. On those few occasions when I’ve had to tamper with history, I clear my conscience by mentioning my tampering in an Author’s Note. And if I am writing of men and women who actually lived and were not figments of my imagination, I do not think it is fair—to the reader or to them—to depict them in a way that violates all we know of them. Our fellow historical novelist Laurel Corona expressed it best when she said succinctly, “Do not defame the dead.” To me—and to you, Margaret—that is the first commandment for historical novelists. I also try to keep in mind the words of Samuel Butler: “Though God cannot alter the past, historians can.” Historical novelists can do even more damage, almost as much as Hollywood screenwriters, or in the case of another king named Richard, a sixteenth-century English playwright.
MG: Thank you, Sharon, for an interesting and insightful interview. I am looking forward to reading A King’s Ransom.
SKP: And thank you, Margaret, for agreeing to participate in the Random House Reader’s Circle. I loved your novel about Elizabeth I, and I am eager to see what you will do with Nero and Boudica in your next book.
MG: I appreciate that. Thank you as well.