I must admit to the sin of jealousy. Yup: lots and lots of jealousy, because today’s guest has such a wealth of recorded family history from which to be inspired when she sets out to write her historical novels. Having said that, what Elizabeth St. John does with all that family history is something akin to magic, spinning a story firmly grounded in facts but heaving with life.
I have recently read her latest book Written in Their Stars – review to follow further down – but before we get that far, I have invited Liz to stop by and give us some further insight into how she works. And yes, Elizabeth is Liz to me, this after spending a number of hours with her trawling through Oxford sites relevant to those of us utterly enamoured of the 17th century.
So, first of all, welcome to Stolen Moments, Liz!
Always a pleasure to visit with you, Anna. Thanks for having me!
I must admit that I have been looking forward to your latest release for ages – it seems to me it took you a bit longer to get book three out versus your first two novels. Is that correct, and if so, why?
So it was you hanging around behind my hedge! You’re right. It took about an extra six months to create Written in their Stars, for a couple of reasons. I wanted this novel to tell the family story from a different narrative than By Love Divided and The Lady of the Tower, and so it took several false starts to decide the best point of view style and central theme of the book. And, just as I was well underway, Anne St.John, Lady Lee, Countess of Rochester, aka “Nan Wilmot” turned up one day and imperiously demanded that her story be included. When I realised the extent of her involvement in the British Civil War—she was wife to Henry Wilmot, the king’s favourite—as well as her impact on Luce and John, Allen and Frances (the main characters in the previous novels) I couldn’t get her to leave. She is the perfect foil for Frances and Luce, and a fascinating character. Actually, she very rightly has the last word in the novel. So, blame Nan, not me! Ha! I’ll remember that when I miss my deadline: “My character made me do it!”
You base your books on the recorded history of the St John family – recorded as in diaries, letters etc. But I imagine you also do quite a lot of other research. Tell us a bit more about this!
There’s nothing like research in the field, and I’m really fortunate that I’m able to spend time in England (and for Written in their Stars, Paris too, where I roamed around the Louvre Palace and an old Augustin Convent). Exploring the homes and significant places where my characters spent time always inspires me.
The original concept for The Lydiard Chronicles came from Lydiard Park, the ancestral home of the St.John family in Wiltshire. The house, museum and adjacent church of St. Mary’s is full of portraits, memorials and glimpses of the family in their gardens and parkland. Lydiard is always my special place, and earlier this year I was able to spend a week there writing the first draft. Walking the house and park, completely by myself, by the light of a full moon was an experience I will never forget. The veil between past and present was translucent that night. I’ve also been able to visit Ditchley Park, Anne Wilmot’s home, and Cirencester Park, current home of Allen Apsley’s direct descendants, The Earl and Countess of Bathurst. And, of course, time at the Tower of London is always glorious…though I’m sorry to say I had good reason to return there for this book.
Writing about family can be a tad difficult. I have a WIP I have not quite finished in which hubby’s 17th century ancestor has a cameo role, but I dither, seeing as I do not paint this gent in particularly sympathetic light. What are your thoughts on this? Does your extended family express an opinion when you present your common ancestors, warts and all?
Yes, we have a few of those in our family too! I think as a historian, you want to be as accurate as possible, as well as presenting a well-rounded portrait of the character. Sometimes old propaganda can paint them blacker than they were, or a biographer may have not researched different perspectives. That’s why I like to return to the contemporary sources, and read as many diverse opinions as I can. No one’s actually disagreed with my portrayals so far, although I anticipate I may have some dissenters with my portrait of Cromwell from that side of the family. I did get gently admonished by one relative who loved the audio book of The Lady of the Tower but had issue with Sir Allen Apsley having a (very) slight Irish accent. I explained I chose this because he’d spent the majority of his life fighting in Ireland, and that I thought it was rather attractive for my main character. We agreed to differ!
So far, you have been safely moored in the 17th century. Do you see yourself stepping out of this period to follow the St John fortunes forward through time?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. Setting foot into the Stuarts was new territory for me—my interest up until The Lydiard Chronicles had been firmly in the Medieval and Tudor times. So, I’m not sure I’ll fast-forward past the Stuarts, but there’s plenty to keep me occupied during their era. Besides, I’ve made so many Stuart friends over the past five years, I don’t think I could bear to leave them! But, I am fascinated with Lydiard’s more recent history during the 19th and 20th century. Perhaps a dual timeslip, so I could always return to the 17th Century St.Johns whom I love so much. Hmm. **pulls out notebook and stares into space**.
You self-publish your books. What are your thoughts about being an indie? Main challenges? Major benefits?
I think it’s all in the “indie” bit, don’t you? I love that I can create the stories I want, telling them from in my heart and with authenticity that is true to these people’s legacies. I’ve had a couple of agents over the years ask for full manuscripts, and though they’ve been very optimistic about selling my books, requests for some significant changes in word count and plot have deterred me. I’m fortunate that at my age and stage, I’m not aspiring to be a world best-selling author; I just want to write my stories and share them with the readers that enjoy this kind of writing.
As an indie author, I’ve been able to meet so many wonderful people both online and in person, create my own author talks and book signings, and really enjoy the entire process of researching, writing and marketing. And, developing wonderful relationships with my editor and proofers, designers, beta readers, and other authors around the world has been extraordinary. Of course, there have been tough days, full of self-doubt and chronic sleeplessness (I have a “day job” too), but I wouldn’t change this journey and the independence I have to do things ‘my way’ one bit.
Thank you for sharing that with us, Liz!
Now on to my review of Written in Their Stars:
First of all, I really like the title. I also like the cover which gives the reader a clear indication of what period the book is set in. After all, if you’re dying to read a regency romance and grab hold of this beautifully titled book you would know at a glance that neither the ton nor buckskin breeches will figure prominently in this novel.
Instead, Ms St.John gives us a beautifully composed story covering a decade or more of time. From the gruesome beginning when some of our protagonists witness the execution of Charles I to the isolated prison on Sandown where the story more or less ends, this is a narrative told through three female voices, those of the cousins Nan and Luce and of Frances, married to Luce’s brother, Sir Allen Apsley.
Where Nan Wilmot is a commanding soprano—what other voice to give this spymistress extraordinaire who loves her dashing royalist husband so passionately, her sons so fervently, her family so wholly—Luce is a somewhat more strident alto. For those familiar with Ms St.John’s previous books, Luce is no new acquaintance. Intelligent and devout, Luce is first of all a lady of convictions, a woman who believes in the republic, in a bright new world for all now that the corrupted monarchy has been toppled. And then there is Frances, a softer voice that weaves round the other two and somehow brings it all together.
Frances, just like Nan, works for the royalist cause. Luce, on the other hand, has had a hand in the king’s execution, convincing her husband John Hutchinson that there is no choice: for the republic to flourish, the king must die. And so John signs the execution order that leads to the death of a king on an icy January day.
Reasonably, Nan and Frances should see Luce as their enemy, but somehow these women manage to remember that no matter who rules, no matter what turmoil one lives through, family is always family. Always. And so it is Luce and her husband John Hutchinson who save Frances’ husband Allen after the battle of Worcester in 1651. It is Luce and John who give sanctuary to a badly wounded Henry Wilmot in 1655. And it is Nan and Frances who, several years later, do everything they can to save John Hutchinson from the restored king’s vengeance
Ms St. John weaves a gripping story. She drags the reader along to the impoverished exiled court in Paris, she describes the political quagmire that plagues England, the atrocities in Ireland, the excesses of the Parliamentarian government headed by an Oliver Cromwell that in Ms St. John’s depiction has nothing good or decent in him. This is consistent with the personal views of the people involved—not even Luce finds anything likeable in Oliver Cromwell. Famous people of the time such as Sir Edward Hyde, Henry Wilmot, the Duke of Buckingham (ugh!), the exiled Charles Stuart himself, the astoundingly beautiful and astutely manipulative Barbara Villiers, come alive in this excellently wrought story.
Vivid descriptions evoke smells and sounds, starlit skies and endless summer evenings. The historical setting is brought to vibrant life as are the tragedies of the people caught in the sundering of a nation, of a time when brother stood against brother on the battlefield, when one false step could send you hurtling to ruin and painful death. Add to this the beautiful and intimate scenes between man and wife, be it Nan and her beloved Henry on one of his undercover visits to England, Luce and John at their home in Owthorpe or Frances and her Allen standing under the wide, wide skies of the Fens and you have a novel that somehow manages to cover all aspects of the human condition. Most of all though, this is a story about love and loyalty, about the ties of family that cannot be denied—not even in times of bloody civil war.