Giving a voice to women of the past

Anne O'Brien
Anne O'Brien
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Anne O’Brien’s historical novels give a voice to the ‘silent’ women of history. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston about her latest book.

Author Hilary Mantel’s double victory in the Booker prize with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has boosted the image – and sales – of historical fiction, which is good news for fans of the genre as well as writers of it.

“I remember when it really wasn’t that popular,” says Yorkshire-born historical novelist Anne O’Brien whose latest book The Scandalous Duchess was published last month. “And to have historical fiction even shortlisted for a prize was rare.” Mantel’s success has set the bar high but O’Brien’s books have also received great critical acclaim and enjoy a loyal readership.

For many years a History teacher at Beverley Girls High School in East Yorkshire, it was winning a short story competition run by the Yorkshire Post that first encouraged O’Brien to become a writer. After relocating to Herefordshire she decided to focus on her writing and has devoted herself to it full-time for the past ten years. She began, she says, by taking note of the age-old advice ‘write about something you know’. “So I thought I would try something historical. I started with a Regency romance and sent it out to various publishers. I received a fair number of rejections but eventually it was published, and I wrote romantic fiction for a number of years.” More recently O’Brien has turned her attention to the stories of women in history who fascinate her most. “I set out to put together, initially three novels, about wives and mistresses in the 14th and 15th centuries,” she says. “I write about medieval women in particular because these are the silent women of our past. They lived in a period that was very much a history of men, written by men. Women were an add-on. My books allow these women to have a voice.”

The Scandalous Duchess is set in the 1300s and tells the story of Katherine Swynford who, following the death of her husband on the battlefields of Aquitaine, is overwhelmed by the pressures of managing her Lincolnshire estate. She takes a position in the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster as ‘damsel’ to his new wife Constanza of Castile. However, when the Plantagenet prince proposes that she become his mistress, she eventually agrees which risks taking her life on a path to scandal and shame.

It was this apparently reckless decision that attracted O’Brien to Swynford as a character. “She was probably a very devout and respectable woman,” she says. “What made her take that step to become John of Gaunt’s mistress? She must have realised that it would come out eventually because they couldn’t be discreet all the time. They broke all the rules and yet you can still feel empathy with them in this terrible three-cornered relationship – and it must have been a really strong love because it endured for thirty years. I admired both of them – it’s not a black and white story, there are lots of shades of grey, but that is human.”

As a historian, O’Brien’s books are meticulously researched and she is clearly aware that the facts cannot be altered. Where there is room for creativity is in the depiction of relationships, but she says that she is always careful to remain authentic to the people and the period in which they lived.

“We have the skeleton of Katherine’s story and it is easier to write about her reacting to the man who became her lover,” she says.

“People who pick up a novel are looking for something different to history books. They expect to be engaged with the emotion of the events. It has to have a page-turning quality. You need to have some means of getting readers involved because, with historical fiction, the reader knows the outcome, so the writer has lost the element of surprise.”

The Scandalous Duchess, £7.99,