Interview of Elizabeth Fremantle – Marine de Rocca Serra

Interview of Elizabeth Fremantle about Sisters of Treason (2014), on 1st November 2015.

During my studies in Iceland, I had to choose topics related to my master thesis, which focuses on Henry VII, the first Tudor King. Fortunately, I found a topic based on the Tudor dynasty presented in contemporary literature and films.

Around Mid-semester, Mrs Ágústsdóttir suggested us to ask some questions to one of the authors of a book that was on the syllabus. Her name is Elizabeth Fremantle and she is the author of the novel entitled Sisters of Treason.

Elizabeth Fremantle has always wanted to become a writer. She left school when she was fifteen in order to find her own way. After various jobs, she eventually fulfilled her childhood’s dream and started to write novels. She has so far written three novels, all based on the Tudor period and all written from the point of view of both major and minor protagonists of this era. The first novel, entitled Queen Gambit (2013) deals with the life of the last and most fortunate wife of the second Tudor monarch, Henry VIII: Katherine Paar. The last one, Watch the Lady, was published during summer 2015 and deals with one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting named Penelope Devereux. Apparently, Elizabeth Fremantle is interested in obscure and omitted figure to include in the narrations of her novels. The book that we studied in the Tudor class was her second novel entitled Sisters of Treason (2014). Here again, Elizabeth Fremantle uses the point of view of forgotten figure to discover this decisive period of the Tudor era where having a claim to the throne was synonymous with threat and treason for the monarch in power.

            Sisters of Treason was published in 2014, it is a novel separated into three main points of view in which, the action is set between two main period of Tudor England: the reigns of Mary I, nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’, and Elizabeth I, known as, ‘the Virgin Queen’, and also the last female Tudor monarch. The court was not a safe place for the two main characters of the story, Mary and Katherine Grey, the two sisters of the unfortunate Nine Days Queen Jane Grey, whose execution is depicted in the prologue. In the novel, these two young ladies have to go through many dangers due to, on the one hand, their connections with Jane Grey, their older sister, who was beheaded and on the other hand, because of their claim to the English throne. Indeed, Mary and Katherine Grey were the granddaughters of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister and consequently, direct descendants of Henry VII.

            This novel is written from three points of views. On the one hand, it is written in the first-person narrative through Katherine and Mary Grey’s viewpoints, and on the other hand, in the third-person narrative through the eyes of an English painter and friend of the Grey Family, Levina Teerlinc.  Therefore, it is within a treacherous, envious and dangerous atmosphere that Elizabeth Fremantle offers her vision of the last part of the Tudor Dynasty, through the eyes of women who were guilty of nothing but having royal blood. Then, it was decided that we would ask questions to the author about her books and her opinion on the Tudor Era. As a student searching for information about an obscure figure, I was indeed the happiest to have the opportunity to interview a British novelist who shares my interest.

Now, let me share this interview with you:

Class: Why are you interested in the two Grey Sisters? Is it due to the fact both of them are omitted figures in History?

Elizabeth Fremantle: The fact that they are almost unknown yet had remarkable lives, was exactly what drew me to them. But also, their stories allowed me to explore the reign of Mary Tudor and the succession of her sister Elizabeth, mapping out a period of female history from a new perspective. The Grey girls’ fates provide a conduit to the political climate and paranoia of the period.

Class: Why writing about women of the Tudor era is important to you?

Elizabeth Fremantle:  The early modern period was a time of significant change and the great upheavals of the Reformation allowed women to emerge. We have the first female authors (one of whom was Katherine Parr) and painters, like Levina, offering an authentic female voice around which I have been able to build my ide          as Arbella Stuart, whom I have been writing about recently, was a prolific letter writer             and much of her correspondence has survived, giving me the chance to come to a profound understanding of her as an individual. Women’s lives were beginning to change and I wanted to explore that terrain.

Class: What is your opinion of Elizabeth’s treatment of the Grey sisters? Was it necessary to her political survival?

Elizabeth Fremantle: I think she believed it was necessary for her political survival. Her ruthlessness wasn’t tempered, as far as we know, with the guilt she evidently felt about the demise of Mary Queen of Scots. This made me wonder if she managed to separate herself from the decisions she made as Queen and those she made as a human being. With Mary Queen of Scots these separate selves perhaps intersected, as she could identify personally with another anointed Queen.

Whether it was necessary for her survival to suppress the Greys so firmly is debatable. It is certainly true that there were always people waiting to seize power and a legitimate heir might have been a hole in her ship.

Class: Considering how little we know about Levina, Katherine, and Mary, which character did you find most challenging to write about, while aiming for historical accuracy?

Elizabeth Fremantle:  Katherine seemed to come to me fully formed and Levina grew out of my research into artists of the period but Mary was a challenge, partly because I wanted her to be a very knowing  and yet almost invisible entity in the novel. She is very young at the start (a child’s voice is always difficult to get right) and her disability was hard to research, as almost nothing has been written on the subject. Her decision to marry Keyes was a conundrum that I struggled to understand _ it simply didn’t make sense to me until the rest of the narrative was written and then unfolded all by itself. I do think though, in spite of all this, that she is a powerful presence in the novel and in many ways represents its moral core.

Class: How do you mould the personality of the characters you write about? Dou you base them on letters and historical accounts, and how much do you have to imagine yourself?

Elizabeth Fremantle: My starting point is always the historical record and I can get my hands on any original letters or other texts, all the better. Often there is little, as with the case of Mary Grey and Levina Teerlinc. There comes a point where I set my research aside and allow my characters to come to life in my mind and on the page. In a sense the seed is the known fact and the flower is what grows from it when watered with the imagination. As a writer of fiction I am primarily interested in creating authentic and original people to inhabit my novels and with historical figures from so long ago whose stories have been all but erased from history imagination is the key.

To conclude this interview, I would to thank, first, the writer to answer to our questions, Mrs Ágústsdóttir, who organized this interview and the Tudor class for this incredible semester. This interview was really meaningful for me since it opened up the possibility to study the importance of the point of view in historical novel. Thank you for everything.

Marine de Rocca Serra

M2 – Anglais


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