Finding Inspiration in Norfolk: The Secrets of Saffron Hall by Clare Marchant
Clare Marchant says that she came late to writing. It was only after a career in IT, raising a family and moving to the countryside that she finally decided to turn her writing dreams into reality.
‘I’ve always written in my spare time, but in 2016 I got the chance to join the Romantic Novelist Association New Writers Scheme and that was the push I needed! It took me a couple of years to write The Secrets of Saffron Hall and I was so pleased to get my agent and publishing deal at the end of 2019.’
It was the evocative landscape of Marchant’s adoptive home of Norfolk that provided the inspiration for her first novel The Secrets of Saffron Hall (Avon, August 2020). ‘I live in Norfolk and I absolutely love it. The wide-open skies are magical, the history is so evocative and inspiring, as if the ghosts of centuries past are walking beside us, hence why I spend a lot of my spare time drifting around ruins, soaking up the atmosphere.’
Marchant explains where this story came from. “I first had the idea of The Secrets of Saffron Hall when I was visiting the ruins of a monastery here in Norfolk. There are plenty of castle and monastic remains locally and the atmosphere is so evocative of a disturbing past. I wanted to write a book that encapsulated the trauma and volatility of that era. I also discovered that saffron is still grown in Norfolk and I love that connection with the past… It’s very important to me that the historical details are correct. Saffron was grown throughout East Anglia (most famously in Saffron Walden), including a large plot at Walsingham Abbey in North Norfolk. Sir Francis Dereham was of course a secretary to Catherine Howard, executed for a relationship he had with her before she married Henry VIII, and he came from Crimplesham in Norfolk.’
The story in this novel details life at a Norfolk manor house for a young bride tasked with the running of the estate while her husband writes home to her of the intrigues and politics of the Tudor court. ‘I have an MA in Women’s Studies; I’ve always been interested in a woman’s place in history,” says Marchant. “In a historical context women were always considered the weaker sex, inferior to men so I like to write about women being strong, running homes and business whilst raising large families. These things were happening and yet these women were not credited for what they achieved. Although I enjoy reading about the strong women we know a lot about [such as] Elizabeth I and Bess of Hardwick, I also like to read about the women who lived in the shadows, often pawns in a game played by men. There were plenty of women who had Tudor blood in their veins and could have so easily become Queen. All through history women have repeatedly spent their lives waiting for a break which never came. I find their lives, so different from today, incredibly interesting.’
Although Eleanor, the heroine of the novel, does not get to experience the excitement of court life herself, she is nonetheless impacted by it when the local monastery is destroyed and her husband is caught up in scandal.
‘I love this period, being at court must have been exciting and frightening in equal measures, so much opulence but if you put a foot wrong you could find your head separated from your neck!’ Marchant points out. ‘Everything was so volatile and precarious, the country’s religion changing with each successive monarch – it’s a fascinating period to write about.’
The Tudor period continues to inspire Marchant as her next novel is set in Norfolk and the court of Elizabeth I. ‘There is a great deal of intrigue and conspiracy, and therefore plenty of danger for my characters. It also involves a protagonist who was just a child in The Secrets of Saffron Hall.’
About the contributor: Lisa Redmond is a writer and blogger. She is currently working on a novel based on the 17th century Scottish Witch trials.