I just picked up The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I by Jeane Westin, and it is sitting atop the “to be read” pile by my bed. I cannot wait to dig in. In looking up the background on how this book was created, I became fascinated with its author. I was delighted that she agreed to be interviewed for Working Writers. Fans of historical fiction, the Tudor court, and Elizabeth I will especially enjoy this interview.
Like you I’m fascinated by Queen Elizabeth I. You mention on your website that writing about her has tested you more than any other. How so? What things were surprised to find out about yourself, your writing, or Elizabeth during the writing process?
I think I was personally tested by her complex, even contradictory, character and trying to understand and apply it to what she did and what we know she said. Early on in my research, I read a “psychiatric history” written from a Freudian viewpoint of Elizabeth’s early years and how those could have impacted her later behavior. We have a contemporary expression: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That could have been said about Elizabeth…in spades. Her father killed her mother when Elizabeth was not quite three years and afterwards she was in favor and out, named a bastard or a princess at his whim. She was in fear of losing her life several times. How did that effect her behavior later? A writer has to constantly ask that question.
When writing about Elizabeth I as a character in a novel, I really had to dig down below the known history to what she must have felt and suffered as a woman of that time. She wasn’t expected to rule. Women were not thought to have the mental or physical capacity. There were rumors that she wasn’t really a full woman, and when she wouldn’t marry, those rumors stuck. To this day the idea that she was more man than woman is still expressed in plays like Elizabeth Rex where her character is costumed as half-man/half-woman.
Could this have compelled her to be the outrageous flirt that surrounded herself with adoring handsome young men who sang of her beauty into her sixties? When writing about Elizabeth I have to try to get beyond the questions.
One thing that surprised me was how very ill she was during her lifetime. The list of illnesses is long and sound a great deal like nervous breakdowns during crisis. Also, she may have been a little anorexic and anemic, eating “smally” as it was reported then, or not at all and becoming very thin as she aged.
Yet, always the contradictory Elizabeth, she was athletic, priding herself that she outrode others, especially men, and outwalked them as well, even into her late years. Who knows what extreme exercise cost her in energy? I think she was probably always trying to thwart her male detractors.
The primary thing I’ve learned about myself is that I can always go deeper than I think. It’s a challenge to try to get inside the heart and mind of any woman, but especially a woman like Elizabeth, who has become an almost unreachable icon. It can’t be done without bringing your own emotions out of the dark.
I just picked up The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I and was delighted to find out you’ve got a new book coming out next August. Can you give us a taste of what will be included in His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester?
In The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I I viewed Elizabeth and her Robin from the viewpoints of others, but I longed to view them from their own minds and emotions. We know very little of what they were like together because when they were young, it was whispered and when they were older their letters were more companionable, like old-marrieds. Elizabeth would never have committed anything so personal to paper and many of her letters to Robin were destroyed in the English Civil War when Kenilworth was bombarded and almost taken down. In His Last Letter, I imagine what they felt and said and did when they were alone. What fun! Although the book is built around the history of their last three eventful years together–Leicester’s Holland adventure, Mary Stuart’s beheading and the Armada–it is personal and almost wholly imagined as it would have to be.
I got the idea for the book when I read Leicester’s last letter to Elizabeth, the one she marked in her own hand His Last Letter and kept in her treasures box beside her bed for the rest of her life. If you read this letter, you’ll see that the queen sent him medicine and that he asks about her health and kisses her foot.
Was that it? Wouldn’t there have been more after nearly a lifetime together, perhaps another page to the letter that Elizabeth couldn’t allow to come to light? And what was in that lost page that history could not see? On such a premise and question, a book is born.
What has drawn you to writing about history?
That is the best thing about writing, the ability it affords for you to lose yourself and your problems, to transport yourself out of whatever you’re facing and into a world that once existed and exists again in your mind and on your pages.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from eleven or twelve. My poor teachers knew it, too, because when I wrote book reports, I’d write on and on about the story that came later in my imagination. Aren’t you glad you weren’t my teachers, wading through twenty page book reports?
Book you’re currently reading.
Currently, I’m reading for research. I listen to audio books on walks and in the car where I can concentrate on story.
It would be impossible for me to name my favorite authors. There are so many that I’m sure to leave some out. If you looked at my shelves you would know who they are because I can never let their books go. That’s why my shelving is always expanding. I’m always finding new authors to love.
Currently, I’m listening to The Devil’s Company: A Novel by David Liss, a wonderful historical writer who’s carving a new place for himself with economic historicals full of fascinating characters. He is a wonderful writer with pitch perfect period language. Everyone should speak and write such English.
Any type of writing ritual you have?
I write in the mornings, take a walk in a nearby park, about two miles, then have lunch and go back to the computer to go over what I’ve done, check my emails and certain websites. The afternoons and some evenings I spend in research. Research is a constant. There is always just the perfect fact or bit of color that can be added to your knowledge or even force a change in a scene.
Find out more about Jeane on her website.