August 7th, 2010

the red queen.

Guest Post: Cecelia Holland, author of 'The Secret Eleanor'

I knew that I would be posting my reviews of His Last Letter and The Secret Eleanor back to back, since the two books were released on August 3rd, so I thought it would be fun to ask both authors the same set of questions about their writing process.  If you missed Jeane Westin's response, click right here to read it.  Today I'm sharing Cecelia Holland's response.

I asked, I've often wondered what steps an author takes when she write about events from another country, about cultures so foreign from our modern world.  What can she do to transport herself to a proper time and place?  What challenges does she face?  How does her American culture affect her view of the English court?

These are very perceptive questions. American women live with a wholly different set of assumptions and problems than a woman in the twelfth century. This of course is an excellent reason for reading about a twelfth century woman, especially the magnificent Eleanor of Aquitaine, who shines above the second half of the century like a comet foretelling a world to come. But it also gives the writer the task of taking the reader back to a time when men made all the rules and tried to bind women to the narrowest of lives. There was even an argument for a while over whether women had souls. Popular belief was that in making babies the man contributed everything important and the woman just provided a vessel.

Writing about such a time means reading a lot of old texts, chronicles and histories, things like the domesday book and the pipe rolls, and even smaller documents, wills, judgments, letters, many of which are now, blessed be the web, on line. It also means becoming more aware of our own time, of the lives of women now, what matters, what we do, and how the change in circumstances would alter all that. How would it feel to be told all you could do with your life was pray, sew, and have babies? That you would be married to somebody you had never seen before, without the chance of refusing, for the benefit of powerful men? Yet even now, women often choose mates without really knowing them; how much can you know a man until you live with him?

What I find hardest to visualize is the religious aspect of life then. We're used to the idea that people should be free to run their own lives, that the real authority for our lives comes from us; the medieval woman was told from infancy that God had made her inferior, and that to resist this was sin. Yet many women, like Eleanor, wanted lives of their own. What did this cost emotionally? Was the game worth the candle? Eleanor, of course, had the benefits of her rank and her wealth, but other women must have also longed for more out of life.

In my novel I try to explore how this may have worked out, which means for years I lived in a world slowly building in my imagination, as the characters developed and became more vivid.  I'm an inward person anyway and I love this kind of experience. So I hope I've passed it on in my novel in ways that American women will recognize as something of their own, but also see through the lens of time, a different kind of life.


--Cecelia Holland

The Secret Eleanor

Thank you, Cecelia, for taking the time to answer my questions.
I'll be posting my review of The Secret Eleanor very soon - watch for it!