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Big interview: Anne O’Brien on giving voice to history’s women

Anne O'Brien.
Anne O'Brien.
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They were silenced by history, but author Anne O’Brien tells Sarah Freeman why she is on a mission to give medieval women their voice back.

By her own admission, Anne O’Brien is an accidental author. A history teacher by profession, it was only when she moved from her native Yorkshire to Herefordshire that she decided to have a go at writing a book and even then she assumed it would be nothing more than a pleasant way to fill her new-found spare time. Thirteen years on and O’Brien has written nine novels, can add Sunday Times bestselling author to her CV and, having shifted 250,000 copies to date, can rightly claim to be one of the leading lights of British historical fiction.

“No one is more surprised than I am,” she says. “When I stopped teaching I never lost my love of history and when I moved here I was surrounded by it. We live in an 18th-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches. It’s a wild, beautiful place on the borders between England and Wales, renowned for its ruined castles and priories and magnificent churches.

“The places is steeped in history, bloody deeds as well as ghosts and folklore. I found myself wondering about the people who had lived here centuries before. I’m also a lover and great reader of historical fiction so when I suddenly found I had time on my hands I thought I would give writing a go.”

Obeying that old adage that you should write about what you know, when O’Brien sat in front of her computer for the first time she decided it would make sense to look to the past. As a teacher, her specialist period had been the Stuarts, but in her new career as a novelist, the medieval period has proved a richer resource of stories.

“The first ever book I wrote was a completely fictional historical romance. It was quite different to everything I have written since because all my later novels have focused on real people.

“What changed was discovering the story of Anne Neville, the daughter of the incredibly powerful Earl of Warwick. She grew up during the War of the Roses and, from quite an early age, she fell in love with the ambitious and incredibly proud Richard of Gloucester, third son of the House of York.

“However, when her father was branded a traitor, her family had to flee to France. But even as the years passed and Anne matured into this beautiful, poised woman she never forgot her childhood love and I thought it was a really interesting dynamic to explore how one woman was pulled between her loyalty to her family and her heart.

“Once I had got under the skin of Anne, I realised that there were all these great women from the past whose voices had been silenced by the centuries. We all know that history is written by men about men and I like to see my books as redressing that balance a little.”

O’Brien’s previous novels have focused on the likes of Lady Katherine Swynford, mistress to the merciless royal prince John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Joanna of Navarre, widow of the Duke of Brittany, and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Her latest, Queen of the North, continues the theme, opening in 1399 and focusing on Elizabeth Mortimer.

“During the final days of the 14th century Richard II was holding onto power by an ever-weakening thread and the exiled Henry of Lancaster was on his way back to reclaim his place on the throne,” says O’Brien. “In the background of this warring empire was Elizabeth, a woman determined that her own nephew Edmund is actually the rightful king.

“Because of the way history is written there is a temptation to believe that women were merely bit players. Don’t believe that. Every so often you’ll find a little snippet of information which shows that the women at court actually wielded significant influence.

“Elizabeth must have been involved in the behind the scenes negotiations. She knew what she wanted and she also knew that despite what anyone outside might think she also had the ear of her husband. It was a much more subtle approach, but no less effective.”

Each novel takes a year to complete and while her editor is looking at a final draft, O’Brien begins the next one. The research is time-consuming and, while the thoughts, feelings and dialogue of her characters spring from her own imagination, she always sticks to the historical facts.

“Writing about real people is liberating in the sense you have a story to follow, but that also brings certain constraints,” she says. “Because records aren’t complete, filling in the gaps is down to academic guesswork, but that’s one of the joys of writing these kind of novels.

“Whenever I am starting on a new book I draw up a timeline of events and my first draft is a very rough and ready approximation of the story I want to tell.

“It’s important to have a structure to work with, but I am writing fiction, so while I know where the main events will fall in terms of the plot, I do allow some flexibility when I write.

“I think that’s important because it’s funny how often the course of events will turn someone I assumed would be a minor character into a major one.

“The danger with writing historical fiction based on real events is that it becomes too pedestrian. Yes, the plot is the beating heart of the novel, but readers want to know what they ate, what clothes they wore, what the atmosphere was really like at court. It’s those details which make a page turner and that’s what I want every one of my books to be. The real art is putting flesh on the bare skeleton.”

O’Brien hasn’t yet exhausted the medieval period and with historical fiction second only to crime when it comes to attracting a loyal readership she also believes there is a market for strong women in literature.

“The subject matter gives me a huge head start. Everyone of the stories I have focused on not only has a dynamic woman at its centre, but they also have a bit of blood, gore and a large helping of scandal and that’s a pretty irresistible combination.

“I think people always enjoy stories from the past and that’s nothing new. Period dramas always tend to be big ratings winners and you only have to look at the success of a television series like Game of Thrones to see that there is an appetite for drama which delves into the lives of those who hold power.

“Fifteen years ago I would never have thought I would find myself becoming a novelist at this stage in my life, but I’m loving it and as long as there are still great stories to tell then I plan to keep writing.”

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien is published by HQ, priced £14.99.