Today I’m honoured to welcome Jane Caro to my virtual writers’ couch.
Like many Australians, I first noticed Jane as a clear voice of reason on television; a passionate, logical analyst of contemporary media and politics arguing for a saner world. I became a fan. Sometime later I discovered that Jane is also an historical novelist—through her Elizabeth I trilogy, Jane seeks to give voice to the revered monarch.
I was drawn to Jane’s Elizabeth from the first page. Although Elizabeth is a much-storied figure, Jane has managed to find new facets of Elizabeth’s account to explore whilst working within the bounds of known history. The series focusses on three key moments in Elizabeth’s life, starting with the night before her coronation in Just a Girl, jumping forward to the hours before the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in the sequel, Just a Queen.
Somewhat cheekily, I asked Jane if she would not only make a cameo appearance in my latest novel, Egyptian Enigma, but also consent to an interview for my fledgling blog. To my delight she said yes to both. I spoke to Jane about her emotional journey as the author of the Elizabeth I series as she was putting the finishing touches to the trilogy’s final instalment, Just Flesh and Blood.
1) My first question is, of all the women in history, why Elizabeth I? What drew you to her more than any other past female figure?
I think it goes right back to my childhood. I was looking around for female heroes, somebody to admire, to look up to. There's a few more of them now, but back then—and we're talking about '63 on—there were very few and they all came to sticky ends. Like Joan of Arc. Who'd want to be Joan of Arc? Burnt at the stake. Or they got shot. Edith Cavell got shot...horrible. The only way we liked heroic women was when they were killed, and the gorier the better.
I was looking for somebody who was admired, was seen as having an impact and I came across Elizabeth I. My bedroom when I was a kid had a wardrobe of my grandfather's, a kind of gentleman’s wardrobe. He'd worked for a publisher at one point and had encyclopedias in there that he used to sell, which were from the 1920s. I used to read them when I was supposed to be sleeping. I skipped the science and all that stuff, but I read all the myths and legends, and all about the kings and queens.
I think even at that early age I sensed how male-centred everything was. When I came across Elizabeth I, it was like a beacon of light. Here was a woman who was universally admired, who was a great ruler (even if she wasn't called Elizabeth the Great), and her brain was admired, and she did it alone. She didn't do it with the help of a man. She refused to marry, she wanted to be her own person. She died in her own bed, she died in her own way. She lived a long life and didn't have her head chopped off, wasn’t burnt at the stake or anything like that.
And so I looked to her as someone who I could admire, and as a kind of proof that women could do it. You know, they could do what men did and do it as well as men, if not better than men, if any of them were given the opportunity. She's always been someone I was completely obsessed with and I’ve read everything about her.
I thought about wanting to write a novel, perhaps historical fiction, and I suddenly thought—Elizabeth. I felt that she had always been seen from the outside in, and very rarely looked upon as a person. She was sort of a brand, like an icon and not a real person at all. And I thought: what must it have been like to be her? She was a real person, and she lived an extraordinary life… What would that have been like?
And in the process of writing I've come up with all sorts of thoughts and ideas about her as a symbolic figure for other people, and other girls in particular. But also perhaps about some of her own motivations and why she was who she was.
2) When writing Just a Girl, how did you find stepping into the point of view of a young teenager?
I don't think I'm an intellectual kind of writer. I just start, you know? I think I approach writing characters a bit the way actors approach playing a part. I imagine myself as that person and so they respond the way I would respond. I describe what I would see. They smell what I might smell. It's an act of imagination, and I think it's an act of empathy, of empathetically imagining what it might be like [to be that person] and then writing from that perspective. I never set out to write her as a teenager or an old woman. I don't think about that. In the same way as in life, you don't think, 'Oh, I'm a teenager… Oh, now I'm an old woman'. You are just you, and so you just write as you.
3) One aspect of Elizabeth’s story that I haven’t previously seen addressed is the relationship between Elizabeth and the memory of her mother, Anne Boleyn. What brought that aspect of Elizabeth’s inner world to the fore for you?
There is real evidence that her mother was very important to her. And from what I know—from being a woman and being a human being—your mother is incredibly important to you. And to have lost your mother before you were three, to have your father cut her head off, it's got to be the formative experience of your life.
One [piece of evidence] is the image on Elizabeth’s coronation ring. Nobody knew until after she’d died that it was a picture of her mother. She’d worn it the whole time, a picture of Anne Boleyn.
And in that big famous portrait of Henry VIII—the domestic portrait that he had painted of himself, his son Edward and his queen Jane Seymour—we have Mary Tudor off to the side, on his left-hand side, and Elizabeth further out. And what she's wearing around her neck is actually her mother's necklace with the initial A on it. I have no idea how that actually happened, I don't know how she got away with it. I think it was her moment of rebellion, her moment of keeping true to her mother’s memory.
So I think it's psychologically and emotionally completely believable that her mother was an incredibly powerful influence. It's also a major theme of the third novel, where—spoiler alert, she dies at the end—as she's dying, she returns to even more memories of her mother and even more longing for her, more yearning for her, and fear and hope and excitement about meeting her mother in heaven or maybe in hell.
4) While creating a rich and complex emotional life for Elizabeth you worked within the parameters of known history?
I've been fairly strict. I don't like reading historical novels about Elizabeth or Anne Boleyn when they muck around with the history of it; I think it's spectacular enough, you don't have to play with the facts.
A lot of people can't bear to believe that Elizabeth I was really a virgin. And I think she most likely was, because—I often say this on panels when people ask me about it—well, you know, if your father cut your mother's head off, that would put you off the whole idea [of men], wouldn’t you think? It seems blindingly obvious to me. So I imply that she formed pretty early on the idea that men are not trustworthy and sexual relationships with them are really dangerous and better to be avoided.
She also didn't want to die at childbirth, and she didn't want to give up her power to a man. There were all sorts of good, logical and rational reasons not to do it. I’m clear in the novels that one of the reasons why she didn't want to get married and have children was because she worried that if she had a son, they would get rid of her because of the profound misogyny of the time—that they would always prefer a male heir—and that any sons she might bear would be a direct threat to her. She uses the example of Mary, Queen of Scots who was booted out of her kingdom when her baby son was only about 11-12 months old. They didn't need her anymore, they had the male heir, so they didn't want her.
5) Did you learn anything surprising while researching for the trilogy?
It’s been an adventure finding out so much more, because you can read everything that's ever been written about someone, you can watch every film, every T.V. series, every documentary. But until you actually have to sit down and write about her conversations and her feelings, events that actually happened to her, and you have to think to yourself, ‘Well, hang on, where would she have been when that happened?’ When you have to research the minutia of where was she, that's when you start to become very, very, well-versed in her life story.
One of the things I learned as I researched and wrote these books is that there is nothing new about feminism and about women bonding together and supporting one another and feeling a bit kind of snowed in, almost hemmed in by men. When I first started this, I thought that to be modern sensibility. But while I was writing Just a Queen—when Elizabeth was told, finally, about Mary, Queen of Scots' execution—I wanted for her to be looking at something. I didn't want her to be looking at Francis Walsingham as he was giving her the news.
And I thought, ‘What would she have that she could be looking at?’ Well, tapestries. So I Googled—god, I love Google—I Googled ‘tapestries owned by Elizabeth I,’ and out came the most fascinating story. It revealed to me that women seeking the support of one another and feeling thwarted and belittled and learning that they're capable of much more is nothing new. Because what came up was the story of a novel called The Book of the City of Ladies by a 14th-century writer called Christine de Pizan. It's full of illuminated illustrations of women who built a city which is only for women—regal-looking ladies in their cone hats and veils—plying wood and putting mortar and bricks together to build a wall, and pouring over blueprints of how they were going to build this city.
Now they know that these illustrations were made into tapestries, and Elizabeth I owned some of those tapestries, so did Mary, Queen of Scots, so did Catherine de Medici. We no longer have the tapestries but we have the book and the illuminated pictures in it, so we know what they looked like. I thought that was really fascinating: that there was a book that was written about an imaginary city that was only for women—built by women, designed by women, and for women—and it was designed to keep men out so that women would have their own space. And all these major queens owned tapestries showing these illustrations.
And that's a form of sisterhood that is never passed down to us by male writers—but it actually existed 600 years ago. So it's been really interesting getting under the skin of the women from that period and recognizing that, far from being completely and utterly different from us, they were much, much more like us than I could have ever imagined.
6) Now that the trilogy is complete, what aspect of it has brought you the most joy?
Being able to do it. When I first had the idea and started to write, I remember a friend said to me ‘So that's a great, big, hairy, audacious goal’. The fact that I’ve managed to pull it off is something that I'm really delighted about.
But it's also been the response of readers. I'm sure every writer says this, but it's just so wonderful. I had a really lovely experience—and I never expect to have an experience again like this in my whole life—it was so delightful. I went up to my local suburban chemist a month after Just A Girl had come out. I put a script in to get filled and I came to pay for it, and there was a young woman at the cash register, she was probably 19 or 20. She looked at my name in the prescription and she said, ‘Oh, I've just read a book by a woman of the same name as yours’. And I said, ‘Well, actually, it could be mine, it could be my book’. And she said, ‘Oh, you didn't write Just A Girl’?’ And I said, ‘Er, yeah I did’. She was, ‘Oh, I love that book’.
…as did I.
My deep thanks to Jane for telling Elizabeth I's story and for giving her time for this interview.
The third and final instalment in Jane’s Elizabeth I trilogy, Just Flesh and Blood, is set to be released in August this year (UQP).
Jane has also published memoir and non-fiction works, including The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism, was the editor of Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience and Hope.
Jane is often to be found on Twitter: @JaneCaro