by Margaret Skea
Rosemary Goring talks with Margaret Skea about her latest novel.
A major anniversary of a significant event often spawns a plethora of new books. Anniversaries are, after all, a publicist’s dream. Hardly surprising then that 2013 – the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden – heralds the publication of books connected to that event. What is surprising, to me at least, is how few there are. Aside from several classic reprints, including Walter Scott’s Marmion, a trawl on Amazon produces only five new books – two self-published novels (by the same author), two mainstream nonfiction titles, and After Flodden (Polygon, 2013) – Rosemary Goring’s debut novel.
What is also surprising is that it has taken so long for Goring to make her debut onto the fiction stage, for she wrote her first novel – an historical novel for children, shortly after leaving university with a degree in Economic and Social History. She still has the rejection letter from Hodder and Stoughton, who suggested that she “put some sex into it and re-submit it as an adult novel.”
Instead she pursued a career first in publishing, and then as a Literary Editor, working for Scotland on Sunday, The Herald and Sunday Herald. Her first full-length publication, Scotland: The Autobiography: 2000 Years of Scottish History by those Who Saw it Happen, published in 2007, established her reputation for quality nonfiction. After Flodden demonstrates her skill in fiction writing also.
Though “arguably the worst event in Scottish history,” Goring suggests a reason for the paucity of Flodden-based fiction: “maybe it’s almost too tragic. It need never have happened, but because of one bad decision, Scotland was changed forever, politically and psychologically. In Scotland, even now, some people would rather not think about it. In England, most people have never heard of it.”
She confesses to having been “haunted by the thought of Flodden after visiting the battle site as a child,” but the idea of writing a novel came much later, “while reading a biography of James IV which said the only thing he ever did wrong was to switch hills before the battle.”
This was an error of judgment that resulted in the loss of a generation of Scotland’s nobility, though that larger tragedy is only obliquely indicated through the more private consequences for key characters. Both English and Scots feature in the extensive cast list, without clarification as to whether they are fictional or historical. This isn’t an issue for Goring: “even the real characters are to a large extent fictional, as I take great liberties with their personalities and their lives.” However, I was initially distracted from the story, and the pace of my reading slowed, by wanting to know who was real and who was not.
Of the key characters, the most important are Patrick Paniter, secretary to James IV, who is wracked with an unexplained guilt, and the fictional heroine, Louise Brenier, searching for a brother who has been missing since Flodden. It isn’t until near the end of the novel that we fully understand the links between them.
Although much of the story focuses on Louise’s quest, Goring reveals it was Patrick Paniter who first caught her attention. He book-ends the novel, a structuring that I found somewhat unsatisfactory, but which illustrates her “particular fascination” for “the men who hold and abuse positions of great power.”
This is a good read, but not always an easy one – for example, careful note has to be taken of the dates that provide the chapter headings, particularly in the early stages. The plot is cleverly worked, the characters, whether admirable or not, well-realized, and the descriptive detail succinct yet rich, and often unusual. Not surprising then that Goring is “most comfortable writing about landscape and the countryside,” revealing that Thomas Hardy was often in her mind as she wrote. With Hardy as her muse, I’m sure that whatever comes ‘after Flodden’ will be worth waiting for.
About the contributor: MARGARET SKEA is currently writing the sequel to Turn of the Tide – the Historical Fiction winner in the Harper Collins People’s Novelist Competition. For more, visit margaretskea.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 65, August 2013