Elizabeth Chadwick - The English One!

(July 5, 2003)

"Regarding the medieval attitude to sex. There was one school of thought that said that a woman needed to be sexuallys satisfied in order to conceive - and it was always quoted in cases of rape when the woman got pregnant as a result - i.e. it couldn't have been rape because she obviously enjoyed it, otherwise she wouldn't have got pregnant! The writings of Avicenna, Albert The Great and Trotula are positive towards encouraging warm sexual relations between couples. Indeed, Trotula advises washing and perfuming 'down there' before a woman has intercourse.

"There was another school of thought that said that women craved sperm because it strengthened them. However ejaculation was thought to weaken men and frequent sexual intercourse was cautioned against and frowned upon by the church. Fellatio was viewed as a perversion. In his penitential of 1012, German bishop Burchard of Worms lists various sexual deviations and the penances to be undertaken if men or women have performed them. Sex on Sunday? Four days on bread and water. Doggy style? 10 days bread and water. Kissing (Burchard says 'Have you kissed some woman due to foul desire and thus polluted yourself?' - three days bread and water. Women who swallow their husband's semen should do penance for 7 years on legitimate holy days. So umm...whatever the other ins and outs of the matter - fellatio appears to have been a no-no!"

--Elizabeth Chadwick on the ATBF MB

 

Featured in a recent ATBF column was a segment entitled "Virgin Sex," and among the many posters who commented on our ATBF Message Board was Elizabeth Chadwick - always mentioned online as "the British Elizabeth Chadwick." Known for her historically accurate medieval fiction, I read her comments enthusiastically and asked if she'd do a Q&A with me. She graciously agreed, and over a period of emails we talked about the medieval period, her writing and influences, and the love we share for medieval swords. Chadwick's books aren't always easy to find in the U.S., but lovers of historical fiction will find them well worth the effort.

--Laurie Likes Books

What's it like sharing the name of another author? Every time I hear your name, it's always qualified by "the English Elizabeth Chadwick, not the American Chadwick."

It is somewhat bizarre, since for both of us it's a pen name. My pen name is a combination of my middle and maiden names, so it's still me so to speak - I didn't pluck 'Elizabeth Chadwick' out of the air. I don't know how the other author came by hers. I have since heard from another American Elizabeth Chadwick who's a journalist, so there are three of us around. I must admit it was rather strange to come across my novels in a UK bookshop and find the 'other' Elizabeth Chadwick's novels ranged alongside them. It confused me the first time around and I'm sure it confuses readers too.

What is most misunderstood in the medieval period?

I think sometimes that people today see people in the past as less intelligent but that just isn't true. Our brains haven't evolved any more in the 1000 or so years since the Middle Ages. It's us as we were then. Many of our morals, values and belief systems are now different but human nature remains the same. When you see some of the wonderful artifacts crafted by our medieval ancestors you realise just how talented and skilled they were. Often a lot of small details are misunderstood about the earlier Middle Ages. In themselves they're probably insignificant except to a detail nut like myself, but they build up, layer upon layer until rather than a clear window, the viewer is looking through a misty, distorted glass. For example, there's the myth that the war sword of the period was a whacking great object that a knight would need Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles to wield. However the average sword actually weighed about 3-4 pounds and was a superbly crafted piece of kit. Another myth is that war horses were hulking great beasts, but the average size of a destrier of my period was 15.2 hands at the largest and probably resembled a small American Quarter Horse.

I know that you are involved in re-enactments. How does your participation affect the medieval world you create in your books, and how did you become involved in these re-enactments? What are the pros and cons?

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Re-enactment/living history consists of modern people attempting to recreate some aspect of past life. It can only ever be an approximation. There are certain things that are 're-enactorisms' such as rawhide rims round the edge of shields (having made mention of them in a novel, I then found it that it wasn't necessarily so!) The group I belong to are strongly into experimental archaeology and the ground of what is known/believed is constantly shifting. Participation though, even if it's an approximation really does help with my research and in texturising the novel. I've learned to spin wool on a drop spindle for example. Now, I'm not that good at it, but I know a woman who is and who is able to answer my every question on dyeing and weaving too. I can get the guys to choreograph fight scenes for me using authentic replica weapons of the day. I have access via e-mail to an absolute wealth of specialist information that I couldn't get anywhere else. I can write a spinning scene with confidence, ditto a fight scene or a cooking scene. Re-enactment helps me create a visual image for myself and the reader. We had our group meeting last night and matters under discussion included hair, wimples, the cut of Norman dresses, the role of a line commander in a medieval battle, and armour - was it painted or not? Fabric samples were passed around and the colours of the dyes commented upon for authenticity by our resident expert who does dye demonstrations for West Stowe Anglo Saxon Village. All nuggets of information are carefully squirreled away in case I can use them in a scene.

Oh, I adore medieval battle accoutrements! Thank goodness we get both the History Channel and History International; I'm forever watching six hour documentaries on what goes into training for battle. Watching the TV show Highlander got me "into" swords, and when my husband and I went to England and Wales a couple of years ago, it was awesome to visit the castles I'd profiled in our Castle of the Week. What do you think is the medieval allure and what was your introduction into the whole re-enactment "thing?"

You're in good company... Swords and castles are two of my favourite subjects too! In fact I've got a replica sword, made for me by a craftsman who does work for The British Museum and various museums around Europe. Recently he made a replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet for the new National Trust museum at Sutton Hoo, at a cost of 10,000. Not that my sword cost that much, but I know it has been crafted by a dedicated expert.

What drew me to re-enactment? I often go to historical places to soak up atmosphere, 'listen to the stones' buy the guidebooks etc. I went to a medieval pageant at Nottingham Castle, Nottingham being my home town. There was a Norman knight standing guard duty on the gate and I went to talk to him and have a good look at his equipment (!!!). His mail shirt was real link mail, not knitted silver string and his sword was real too. I asked him where he'd got his kit as I was very keen to acquire some of my own for research purposes. He told me he belonged to an early medieval re-enactment Society called Regia Anglorum and that their equipment was either made by themselves if they had the aptitude, or specialists if they hadn't, and that they were very hot on the authenticity. Each piece of kit had to have at least three provenances before it was passed and an authenticity officer was always on hand to make sure that members' equipment was up to standard. As well as recreating battles, they performed living archaeology experiments - such as building charcoal clamps, bread ovens, brewing, dyeing, making replica artifacts the way they would have been made. I immediately recognised that this was a wonderful source for a novelist such as myself and applied to join straightaway! I think people are attracted to the Middle Ages for different reasons.

My original interest was sparked by a gorgeous knight on a UK TV programme titled Desert Crusader. He was the catalyst that finally made me put pen to paper (at the tender age of 15!). Since I wanted to make my story feel 'real' I began researching and the more I researched, the more drawn in to the medieval world I became. I think some people are drawn to the Middle Ages by the notion of chivalry and the strong tug of the myth of the knight in shining armour. The pageant, the costumes, the films and fairy tales all have their impact. Perhaps there's a yen to return to a more pastoral time when time itself was tuned to the turn of the seasons rather than a hand on the face of a wristwatch...when the next village was as 'global' as you got and everyone knew everyone else. The latter are just suggestions.

As a writer of medieval fiction, what writers/historians have been your greatest influences? What do you read for your own enjoyment?

Writers who have inspired and influenced me:

  • Roberta Gellis, who lit the road with her wonderful Roselynde Chronicles. I love romantic historicals with authenticity of detail and plenty going on alongside the h/h romance.
  • Dorothy Dunnett, whose use of language is astounding and whose knowledge of her period is truly awesome. I always envisage her painting her novels on an enormous Renaissance canvas and myself colouring away in a small corner. She truly inspires me.
  • Grace Ingram. I've read Red Adam's Lady several times and it beautifully captures the flavour of 12th century life. It's such a pity that she only wrote two novels in her life and they're both now out of print.
  • Cecelia Holland. I love her grittiness and the way she makes heroes out of the most unlikely men - the Mongol warrior Psin in Until The Sun Falls, Fulke in The Earl (titled Hammer For Princes in the UK). I've also read Great Maria several times and loved it, especially a very unlikely love scene in a collapsing stable!
  • Kathleen Woodiwiss. I adored her novels in my teens, although I don't know how well they'd stand up to a revisit. Shanna was my favourite. I wallowed in that.
On the historian side, I would have to cite Sir Stephen Runciman who helped me write my first ever novel at the age of 15 (unpublished) with his books detailing the history of the crusades. Also Ewart Oakeshott, whose works on medieval weaponry gave me a grounding in the warrior skills with which I needed to endow my heroes.

For my own enjoyment I read right across the board, from romance to literary fiction, from crime to fantasy to thriller. I keep a reading diary and score what I've read. Top of what I got around to reading last year were George R.R. Martin's Ice And Fire fantasy series, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, A Place of Execution by Val McDermid, and Eden Close by Anita Shreve. I also think Janet Evanovich is great and have recently discovered Jennifer Crusie.

I'm fascinated that you list Kathleen Woodiwiss as an inspiration and influence. Can you go into more detail on that? What was it about her writing that captured your interest?

This is a difficult one because it's a long time since I've read her. Hmmm... I think it's that her writing is very visual, the colours bold and overstated. She writes in a florid, over the top operatic style that in its own way is so way out that it's glorious...and was probably very suited to the 'Seventies and 'Eighties - I imagine it, looking back, as Glam Rock portrayed as historical romance - if that makes sense. I do have occasionally have a yen for operatic Over the top works - probably why I'm such a fan of Meatloaf and adored the film Moulin Rouge. I'd put Woodiwiss in the same category. I think Woodiwiss wrote some great lines of repartee between her heroes and heroines and she was adept at building the sexual tension between them. Her pace was always great too. For me she had that elusive 'Page turning quality' that you can't describe, but know it when you see it. As a teenager I found her novels enthralling. I have to admit that I haven't read her since my late twenties and I'm not sure that her appeal will have stood the test of time for me. There are some authors who belong to a certain era in your life and then you move on. While Gellis and Dunnett have stayed the course, I may well have bid a fond farewell to Woodiwiss. However, I did learn a lot about banter, pace and dangerous men from her novels!

What else can you say about Dunnett and Gellis? And what do you make of the difficulty the latter has had in being published in recent years?

It took me three attempts to get into Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, but something must have kept me going back. There were no Internet reading groups to hold my hand back then, I was on my own! On the 3rd attempt it was as if someone had suddenly turned a key in a lock and opened a door on a world of magnificent treasure. Her research and grasp of her periods are stunning and her settings are so very different from the norm. Her characters have depths within depths and there's always something to surprise you. Also her use of language is wonderful. The way she plays with verbs and adjectives to create the most powerful word pictures leaves me awestruck. Again there's that slight hint of the operatic to her novels. Her heroes are so complex that you could spend a lifetime studying them.

I love Gellis' characters. They are so real that you can almost imagine walking off the page to stand in the room with you. I am especially fond of Ian de Vipont from the Roselynde Chronicles as a hero. He is so gorgeous to look upon that in the hands of a less skilled author he could have wound up a 2 dimensional cardboard cut out. But Gellis gives him personality and fleshes him out so thoroughly that he lives and breathes, I swear! I love her female characters too. They are strong, determined, witty, bold women, but totally of their time. The way they love their men but run rings around them at the same time is hugely entertaining.

I simply cannot understand why Roberta Gellis is having such trouble finding a publisher in recent years. She's an auto-buy for me. But then while I may know American readers, I'm not that familiar with the structures and policies of American publishing houses. I can empathise with Roberta's difficulties. I have a hardcover publisher in the USA but finding a mainstream paperback publisher has been nigh on impossible

Have you read Morgan Llywelyn by any chance?

Yes, I have. I read The Wind From Hastings and Lion of Ireland when I was in my twenties. I enjoy Morgan Llywelyn. She doesn't belong in my inner ring of top favourite authors, but in the next outer circle. Checking on my reading diary for those two novels I gave WFH 8 out of 10 and LOI 9 out of 10.

My grade for WFH is a B+. LOI was a straight B and its sequel about Brian Boru's son, Pride of Lions, was also a B. My absolute favorite Llywelyn was a very short story entitled Galway Bay; it's a wonderful selkie story.

What drew you to Crusie and Evanovich? What have you read so far by these authors and what did you most enjoy?

What drew me were recommendations from friends on several reading lists where I hang out. I was originally tempted when they started discussing Morelli versus Ranger. Who versus who? I had to find out! I've not read any of Evanovich's romances but I am now a dedicated follower of Stephanie Plum and a confirmed Morelli girl. However my favourite character is Grandma Mazur and my favourite episode of all time, the penis in the post! I love the zany humour and I love the sizzle of sexual tension between Stephanie and her two beaux. Evanovich reads are perfect for fitting in between weightier more studious tomes to clean the mental palate. Ditto Crusie who I've only just discovered, so I can't say a lot about her fiction. I read her when I want a novel in a similar mood to Evanovich.

Your books have become more complex and in-depth over time. How do you see your development as a writer? What do you consider your greatest strength as an author? What do you find most rewarding about writing historical fiction?

When I started out, I wanted to write romantic medieval fiction similar to films such as The Black Shield of Falworth, The Warlord, El Cid and The Vikings, but I wanted to put the stories into as accurate a setting as possible. I still want to do this, but I agree that I've developed more as a writer as I've got older and had more practise Part of it is just plain maturity. It's taken me a while to get to mine <g> I am tending to stray more down the straight historical path these days, but still with a strong romantic leaning. I have a yen to adapt medieval romance stories and family chronicles into tales for a modern audience. That was how Lords of the White Castle came about - a novel about medieval outlaw Fulke FitzWarin, who actually lived and is thought by many historians to be the original Robin Hood.

Strengths? Oh dear. Nothing like blowing your own trumpet. Ummm... achieving a balancing between keeping the characters of their time while still making them accessible and fun to modern readers. Putting over a male viewpoint... I like writing in male viewpoint, always have. Love scenes - I enjoy writing them although they're not 'hot' or extensive compared to some I've seen...and not half as inventive! Roberta Gellis writes some of the best historical love scenes going and for me they're the gold standard.

I enjoy writing historical fiction because it's a door to another world. I can have my h/h doing and saying all sorts of things that wouldn't be possible in a contemporary. I've loved history and big romance stories since childhood and it's a way of combining the two into a career.

What's the place of history in the public education system?

I think it's important to give a sense of belonging and roots - to know what's gone before because it's where we've been that makes us what we are today. I think it can be a very enriching subject, depending how it's taught and it can give you a passion for life. I can still recall as an 8 year old in Scotland (where I grew up) acting out pieces of medieval Scots history in front of the classroom, wearing a cloak from the dressing up box. We were given the history lesson in the usual write it down from the blackboard fashion, and then the teacher would spend half the lesson getting us to dress up and act it out - great way of reinforcing the history and making it enjoyable!

What's your favorite period in medieval history? I've noticed as far as historical romance is concerned, most of the focus is post-Norman invasion, but the focus in historical fiction is more spread out. Why do you think that is?

My favourite period is the one I write about - 1066-1250. My first novels were written in this period and it's the one I have researched in most depth. I rather like my heroes all in mail rather than plate armour. It's more sinuous and sexy somehow. Women also had that touch more freedom than they did in the high Middle Ages.

As to why historical romance should focus on the Post Norman Invasion Period, I have no idea. It's not the case in the UK, which only has a minute historical romance industry compared to the USA, and I'm not familiar enough with the USA market to comment on that score.

The complaint of many readers who switched from historical fiction to historical romance is that the former is simply too "depressing" where medievals are concerned. How do you respond to that? I know that for me, personally, when I want the nitty-gritty, I'd rather read medieval fiction than medieval romance, but I think it may not actually be the depressing aspect for these readers, but the emphasis on war, battles, brutality, and therefore death.

I can see your point here and I would agree with it in basic principal. What I particularly enjoy reading myself are those novels which I consider straddle the line between being a romance and a historical. I would call them 'romantic historicals.' I would say that Roberta Gellis is a line straddler as is Judith Merkle Riley, and it's what I consider I mostly write myself. Obviously if you're following the plot as written by 'real' history you are going to have to kill off characters here and there and stage battles. To be honest reading and writing about such aspects of life has never disturbed me, as they are all part of 'life's rich tapestry' so to speak and there's usually more gore in a Kathy Reichs novel. I think it is probably no coincidence that I have a significant minority of male readers. Sometimes they apologise to me and assure me that they don't normally read romance, but they love my novels, and I think it has something to do with the way I portray the vicissitudes of daily life for both sexes. Obviously if you write a novel where everybody dies, it can be very depressing. I've never gone back to Sharon Kay Penman's The Reckoning because of all the sadness, but I think she's a superb writer and I loved the more upbeat tone of Here Be Dragons which is one of my all time favourite medievals. There is sadness and death in that novel, but tempered by upbeat moments and a wonderful love story.

Are there any other periods in history of interest to you as a reader and/or author?

As a reader I enjoy all periods of history and not just British. As long as the stories are well written and entertaining, I'll read anything! Last year I discovered Sarah Donati's Wilderness books - loved them. I enjoy Victorian Gothic novels, Roman, Arthurian, Ricardian, American Civil War, Regency. You name it, I'll read it!

If I ever had to change historical period as an author, I'd probably go Viking, Anglo Saxon or Arthurian. I used to hug the dream of writing a grand Native American novel, but having read Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebee Hill, I let that one go. Hanta Yo would have to be my favourite novel of all time, all genres.

How can those who are new to your writing find copies of your older work? Will any of the older books be reprinted any time soon?

Not at the moment I'm afraid unless I wind up going the POD (print on demand) route, but that would all be down to my agent. I do realise how frustrating it is for readers as I frequently receive enquries about my earlier work. Way too long a story to relate here, but concerned with the death of publishing mogul Robert Maxwell and the subsequent split of his empire.

Similarly, your books aren't released in paperback in the U.S. - hardcover only. Has anything changed in that regard? And, if not, has the Internet and venues like Amazon.co.uk helped bring you more American readers?

I wish I could say things have changed, but they haven't. I find myself in a similar position to Roberta Gellis in that finding a mainstream publisher - of paperbacks anyway, is nigh on impossible, and that's despite having a brilliant agent. St Martins Press, however, continue to publish in hardcover and although the advances may not be the largest in the world, they always earn out very well indeed.

I'm not going to say too much about it here, but negotiations are ongoing with a small press publisher to bring out The Champion in paperback at some point for the USA market. This novel was shortlisted for Romantic Times Best Historical Novel of 1999. In the UK it was shortlisted for the Parker Award which is administered by The Romantic Novelists Association and is a 10,000 prize for the best mainstream romantic novel of the year, all genres. Both Lords of the White Castle and The Winter Mantle have been nominated in their respective years for this award too.

The keenest US fans who don't want to wait for St Martins Press to publish (as they're generally a year behind) will buy from Amazon.co.uk or head to Canadian stores for the latest novel - ditto those who would rather buy in paperback. Buying from Amazon uk might not be as cheap to the reader as being able to buy a USA paperback due to the postage, but the Internet has at least made my novels and backlist available to a wider readership. Sales and reader awareness have been steadily rising.

When preparing this interview, I asked readers what they would ask you if they had the chance. One asked about the ending of The Leopard Unleashed, which left Jordan's future ambiguous. Will there be a sequel or is that series finished?

It was originally planned, but then various things happened to upset the apple cart - as they do in the publishing world. Goes back to aforementioned problems with the Maxwell Empire. I had written the first few chapters of book 4 and if you look carefully, you'll find them reworked and used as the opening for The Love Knot. For Jordan read Richard. For Olwen read Amice. William became Oliver and Catrin was originally going to be William's bride. Waste not want not.

What are you working on now?

Shadows and Strongholds, which is the sequel to Lords of the White Castle. And The Falcons of Montbard just went on sale this spring in the U.K

 




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