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Bookmarked Blog
We asked author Lucy Jago about her writing, authors she admires and historical fiction in general. Her latest novel, A Net for Small Fishes, is rich in colour, character, place and time and is based on real-life events. If you like your history spiced with sex, scandal and the sweet sensibilities of female friendship, then this book is for you. 

How and when did you first hear about Francis Howard, Countess of Essex?

LJ: I was sitting in the London Library, a very special place tucked into a corner of St James’s Square just off Piccadilly - it was my second home when I lived in London. I can’t recall the title of the book but I vividly remember reading the two or three lines on Frances Howard and Anne Turner, summing-up their ‘evil deeds’, and I remember feeling cross and being sure their lives and motives were not as simple and reprehensible as the book implied. That moment led to many years of research (I am still finding new information about the period that I wish I could put in the book!) to try to find out who the real women were behind the simplistic and dismissive portrayals of them in most of the history books.
 

Can you tell us a little about Mistress Anne Turner and how her and ‘Frankie’ became friends?

LJ: Mistress Anne Turner, at the start of my book, has just turned 33. She is the mother of six children, three boys and three girls, and the wife of a Court doctor. In accounts of the period she is credited (or accused, in fact) with introducing a new fashion that took the Court by storm - saffron-coloured starch for ruffs and cuffs to replace the ‘goose-turd’ green previously favoured. She is described by eye-witnesses as very attractive, with hair like corkscrews of gold.

There are very few ‘facts’ known about her life although we do know her birthday (there is doubt over Frankie’s),the names of her husband, children and some of her servants, her addresses, siblings and parents names, places of abode and even the employment of some, and so on. Her husband's Will is still extant and provided some very interesting and surprising information about Anne that I use in the book. It is not known exactly how she met Frankie but their parents lived close to each other in the country and so it is likely that there was a family connection. Given Anne’s seeming love of fashion, it is through being asked to dress Frankie that they become friends in my book. As the German poet; Novalis wrote: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history”.

Hilary Mantel says something similar - the hard work begins where the history ends. To imagine, vividly and convincingly, scenes which are not in the historical record (such as when Anne met Frankie) you have to be incredibly familiar with the period, so familiar that you can travel back there not as a tourist, but as a friend and observer. This takes voracious reading of both history books (of different periods) and Jacobean texts and plenty of visiting archives, museums, galleries and surviving houses, so that you become accustomed to the place and notice what Anne and Frankie might have noticed, not only what catches your 21st century eye.

 

Lucy Jago
Lucy Jago. Photo by Johnny Ring.


What was life like in the Jacobean Court? 

LJ: It would seem like a different planet to us as it did to most people at the time. If the average teacher in a country school earned £20 a year and a middle-ranking servant in a noble household around £12 and a bricklayer about £2, and then you think that the lowest courtier needed £1000 a year and a higher noble with a position about £5000 (at least, many must have spent many times that) for housing, hospitality, clothes, gambling, transport and charity (roughly in that order of expense) then you can see that to a £2-a-year washerwoman, the life of a £5000-a-year noblewoman would have been entirely alien.

Add to that the etiquette one needed to know at Court (which rooms you could enter, when, with or without wearing your hat, whom to curtsey to, in which order of precedence, how low and for how long and when could you stand up again? etc. etc.) and the right clothes, without which you would not be considered suitably attired to appear, many of which were cumbersome and restrictive of movement and required several servants to sew, lace and pin you into…it was probably like heli-skiing, only available to those with the means to learn how to do it, an awful palaver and often frightening, dangerous and uncomfortable but a tremendous thrill when everything went well.
 

And have you always wanted to write historical fiction? 

LJ: I don’t think of myself as a ‘historical fiction’ writer, just as a writer. I write things other than novels (poems, texts for museums, articles) because I  enjoy non-fiction writing (like documentary making, it allows me to travel and to meet and work with fascinating people), but my great loves are history and art history and so the past is where my imagination tends to lead me…even so, if I get an idea set in the future, or even in this strange world we are currently inhabiting, then I would write that. I think publishers and bookshop-owners are sophisticated and interested in works and writers that do not fit into a single genre.
 

Which other writers of historical fiction do you admire?

LJ: Tolstoy - War and Peace is a brilliant page-turner and not the slog it is often implied to be. Although Tolstoy is writing about events only 50 years old, it is still ‘historical fiction’ and an incredible role model for anyone seeking emotional and well as historical veracity.

Mantel - I love all Hilary Mantel’s writing, not just her Cromwell trilogy. Her autobiographical books, Giving Up the Ghost and Learning to Talk are, like her historical works, utterly unsentimental and yet emotional, very funny in moments, muscular in their observation of life, self and others, and a total joy to read. My mother’s family are from the north of England and so, perhaps, I catch a tone in her voice that resonates deeply. I am grateful to her prize-winning abilities because she has pulled 'historical fiction’ out of the ‘bodice-ripping’ category and into one that is taken seriously for its literary qualities. Thank you Hilary.

Andrew Miller - Miller also writes historical and contemporary novels. Pure, set in Paris just before the Revolution, is one of my favourite novels, its opening chapter is genius and I used to re-read it at any time I was struggling with my own book because I found it pure inspiration.

Rose Tremain - one of my favourite writers in English, also someone who tackles contemporary as well as historical subjects. Restoration is perhaps her best known historical book but Music and Silence is also exquisite.

Penelope Fitzgerald - she conjures up the past with such spare detail, it is like a magic trick. The Blue Flower and The Beginning of Spring are utterly evocative but never over-written.


A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is available from 16 February 2021 in store and online at Dymocks.

A Net for Small Fishes
Lucy Jago
$29.99
  

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