A Masterclass in Character: Theresa Breslin’s Spy for the Queen of Scots
Author of numerous award-winning books for children and young adults, including the historical novels The Nostradamus Prophecy, Remembrance, The Medici Seal, and Prisoner of the Inquisition, Theresa Breslin appeared at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about her latest publication, Spy for the Queen of Scots (Doubleday Children’s, 2012). Breslin is ideally placed to write about this iconic figure in Scottish history, since she grew up surrounded by the dramatic landscape, castles, burial grounds and the Roman Wall close to her hometown in central Scotland. Her descriptions of some of the places where Mary clashed with the rebel lords – Langside for one – are rooted in historical fact but also draw on the author’s own personal knowledge.
For many historians, not least the Scottish ones, Mary Queen of Scots is a highly controversial figure, her reign once provocatively summarised as “a study in failure”. Breslin admits that in the end she had to put aside works by other historians in order to make up her own mind. She clearly found much in Mary to admire. “I tried to give a balanced view of Mary,” she writes, “bearing in mind her youth and upbringing whereas some historians seem to judge her very harshly and overlook her more tolerant views towards religion.” Breslin also added that, “With research comes insight. With similar insight I hope that historians might judge her less harshly.”
Research for Spy for the Queen of Scots prompted Breslin to explore some unusual avenues. Poison is a key element of one of the plot lines, a subject that Breslin found fascinating. “I became interested in poisons when writing The Nostradamus Prophecy and got a copy of the famous Elixirs of Nostradamus. It’s amazing that more of our ancestors didn’t poison themselves with what they thought were remedies for common ailments.” Breslin realised that the spies working for Mary’s former mother-in-law, Catherine de’Medici, would have had access to the most sophisticated poisons, meaning that nowhere, even in Scotland, was safe.
When writing about real historical figures, Breslin confirms how important it is to get the facts right. You get inside the head of someone with a different mindset, living in a different world, and “you stub your toes on real events”. However, the challenge in writing for young readers is to ensure that they can identify with the protagonist. This was Breslin’s main reason for choosing to write from the viewpoint of Mary’s close companion, Jenny, a fictional character. Breslin is a superb storyteller, and the narrative is vivid and driven by a profound interest in human nature. As well as visiting the sites of key events in Mary’s lifetime – including Borthwick Castle, the scene of Mary’s most daring escape – Breslin found a unique lead to explore her character: a Book of Hours, annotated by Mary, that had once belonged to her aunt, Renée de Guise.
I asked Breslin which of her Renaissance historical novels had been the most compelling to write? She said that she had discussed with her editor the idea of writing a book about Leonardo da Vinci long before Dan Brown’s book was around. The result was The Medici Seal. “It was a time when people were saying that no one was interested in historical novels, especially not young adults. I loved doing the research for it and my editor’s faith in me was borne out because it’s sold very well and has been translated into many languages.”
Looking forward, Breslin says that “often when writing a book, a minor character who plays a key role lodges in my mind. I was wondering about Rhanza. I made up her name but I really like it and I liked her. Mary’s servants were intensely loyal to her – a sign of a positive aspect of her character. I was thinking perhaps Rhanza would join her in exile in England.” It certainly sounds an intriguing idea for a sequel.
About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is HNR‘s Features Coordinator, when not teaching history and translating from Italian. www.lucindabyatt.com
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 62, November 2012