Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
Last Saturday I released my second novel, The Bridled Tongue. This is a story that, once again, takes place in the 1580s with fictional characters set against what I hope is a reasonably accurate historical background. While the developing relationship of the two main characters, Alyce Bradley and Thomas Granville, partners in an arranged marriage, is at the heart of the story, it also is a tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy and revenge. My interest has been to portray the lives of more ordinary people rather than the big names of the age and most particularly the lives of women, the ways the more fortunate were able to create meaningful lives for themselves despite their legal invisibility, and the dangers they faced in a world where they were expected to be obedient and dutiful.
‘You would do well to learn humility—good women are led by their parents.’
Gossip and the way people use rumour and innuendo in their attempt to belittle and have petty revenge on others is central to the story. My own experiences of gossip was the germ from which, ultimately, the story grew. I touched on gossip in a poem, the coven, which won the Joan Johnson Poetry Award (Tuggerah FAW) for free verse in 2005 but the idea of just how dangerous gossip could be, especially in past centuries stayed with me. While for us gossip can be uncomfortable and distressing, it is rarely fatal. In other times though, if enough people said a thing was true it could become fact, particularly if said of an unpopular member of the community, and in cases of crimen exceptum such as witchcraft which ‘differed from other offences so that normal evidential rules and requirements could be relaxed’, there the most dubious evidence could be enough to bring a person to the gallows.
‘It is so easy, piece by piece, to embellish stories and alter supposition to decided fact.’
In many ways, this novel feels like a bigger achievement than my first. I faced many more research and creative challenges than I had with my first novel. For example, Elizabethan courtroom procedure, while recognizable to us, was in many ways markedly different. I have attempted to present it in such a way that those with knowledge of the modern system do not reject my recreation as ridiculously implausible and give up reading before they get to the Historical Note where all is revealed. In the Elizabethan courtroom, cases were tried in batches and usually involved disputation between the accused and the accuser and witnesses. Judges were interventionist, asking questions and involving themselves to a degree that would be considered improper today. Rules of evidence were not yet fully developed and hearsay was freely accepted. The accused was unrepresented and a prosecutor was rare. Then there was the tortuous process of trying to discover the arrangements for prisoners held in Norwich Castle in the late sixteenth century, something which appears barely to be documented at all. And in the absence of concrete evidence, does the fact that I have prisoners free to move about in their cells when, most probably, they were chained turn what I hoped was solid historical fiction into a mere bodice ripper? (Note: No bodices were ripped in the making of this book!)
A novel is the result of the efforts of many more people than the author alone. For my last novel I had a brilliant critique partner Jeanne Greene, another writer from the Historical Novel Society. This time I knew I needed professional help (in more ways than one!) and I am indebted to Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial who edited the novel. The Bridled Tongue is so much better for Jenny’s insights and advice which were critical in adding depth to the story. Jenny is also responsible for the beautiful cover of the book.
The support of other readers and writers kept me going through the long process of writing this novel (I do not intend to admit to anyone just how long this one has taken). Juliette Godot, Sarah Ormerod, and Linda Hardy read and commented on earlier versions and encouraged me to think that this was a story worth telling. I am particularly grateful to Samantha Edwards, another member of the Historical Novel Society, for her extremely helpful critique of the novel and to Janine Smith for not only reading it but, as a work colleague, for showing both forbearance and good humour in dealing with my random and out of the blue questions at times when I should have been concentrating on the task at hand. And then there is my family – my sister Gabrielle who has been an unfailing support on this journey almost from the beginning, and my husband and children who kept me in touch with reality—without them I would, most likely, have disappear completely into the sixteenth-century (interesting place to visit – I wouldn’t want to live there).
And now it is finished and out in the world and I have my first review – the sort of review that every writer dreams of. After the celebrations are over, I will be taking a break from the sixteenth century and exploring Tasmania around 1880 but I definitely will return to the Elizabethans.