The RONA shortlists: Joanna Hickson on The Agincourt Bride

Richard Lee

Joanna Hickson is shortlisted for the Romantic Historical Novel Prize. See the other shortlisted historical titles for the Romantic Novel of The Year. The winner will be announced on Monday 17th March 2014.

Unknown-7What was the initial inspiration for this story?

Like so often in a writer’s life, Shakespeare got there first. The scenes in Henry V which feature Princess Katherine (he uses a K but I use a C – she’s French) are lively and romantic and caught my attention as a schoolgirl when I saw the Laurence Olivier film version of the play. But over time I came to realize that there must have been much more to the rather ditzy young lady Shakespeare’s King Henry wooed – and there certainly was! Decades of research have revealed a remarkable character whose life was dramatic, romantic and ultimately tragic. But the character I am most proud of is Catherine’s childhood nurse and later ‘damsel of the bedchamber’ Mette, who narrates her life story and who came to me when I found a reference to a woman called ‘Guilliemot’ in the king’s household accounts and wondered why a woman was named after a rather ugly black seabird. In a midnight flash of inspiration (some wine may have been taken!) I realised that Guilliemot was a medieval clerk’s ‘typo’ and really referred to someone called Guillaumette (the French female version of William). From that name a whole life story emerged which started in the back streets of fifteenth century Paris and ended … well actually I haven’t written that yet. Mette gave me a chance to take the reader out of royal palaces and into the street-life of the time. After all romance (like life) doesn’t only happen in castles.

History and romance, or romance and history?

I’m a bit of a medieval history nut so the history always comes first and is as ‘true’ as I can make it. But then there’s always a story involved in history and in my opinion a story wouldn’t work without an element of romance. It’s a sad and sorry tale that doesn’t have any! I LOVE the research stage of a novel because that’s where the jigsaw pieces emerge which eventually comprise the tale I want to tell. Of course the lives of medieval women were very different to ours today and I think it’s important to show that difference and not to make my female characters act in ‘modern’ ways. Besides it is those differences that add so much to the reader’s enjoyment of a historical novel. There aren’t many brides today who are swept away to a siege camp on their honeymoon as Catherine de Valois was. I don’t think there are any areas of romance that cannot be explored in a historical context but I don’t stray into erotica from personal preference.

Which writers have most influenced your work?

As a teenager I read Anya Seton’s novel Katherine at least half a dozen times and subsequently I aspired to write novel as good as that – one that transported the reader to another place and another time and made you see life from a different perspective. So Anya is probably the writer who most influenced the course of my fiction writing. Jane Austen did not write historical novels but as we read them now they have that perspective for us and the way she tackled dialogue and character greatly influenced me and mine, as did Charles Dickens and George Elliott. For romance it was Georgette Heyer, the mistress of Regency romps and for the elements of intrigue and adventure every story should have, I think I absorbed it from the master – Ian Fleming. Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen I must have read all his James Bond novels twice.

I think perhaps I might increase the thriller element in my next novel and to do so I’m thinking of using a male narrator – a new venture for me.

I believe writers of historical fiction today develop their characters in a more lively and sympathetic way that hitherto, when the history took the forefront – I read Jean Plaidy avidly as a younger person but now I find her too didactic. She probably taught me a lot of history though, for which I’m grateful, and of course she adjusted the balance in her Victoria Holt books. It’s just an opinion. Today I am learning from Hilary Mantel and for Philippa Gregory – respect!

Quick questions

Cathie Earnshaw or Elizabeth Bennett? Elizabeth Bennett, if you push me but I LOVED them both for very different reasons so the question isn’t fair IMHO!

Shabby chic or National Trust? National Trust.

Jamie Fraser or the Scarlet Pimpernel? The Scarlet Pimpernel. Who is Jamie Fraser? No – I know the answer and he’s very romantic but I don’t like history being turned into fantasy.

Call the Midwife or Downton Abbey? Downton Abbey – again if you push me but again I LOVE them both.

Glastonbury Abbey or Wells Cathedral? Wells Cathedral – for the West Front alone.

Dinner with… Tony Robinson or Dan Snow? Dan Snow (or Michael Wood)

Share a panel with… Lucy Worsley or Bettany Hughes? Lucy Worsley (or Kate Williams or Mary Beard) I won’t be tied down!! They all do an excellent job.

Movie or theatre? Theatre

Wolf Hall or The Other Boleyn Girl? Wolf Hall

15 Folgate Street, or the Duke Humphrey Library? Duke Humphrey Library

Rococco or Greek Revival? Greek Revival (Gothic for preference)

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Posted by Richard Lee

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