An Interview with Deborah Swift

By Stephanie Renee dos Santos

litfest 3It is my pleasure to introduce historical novelist Deborah Swift and her latest release, A Divided InheritanceSwift is the author of two other novels set in seventeenth-century England. She is a proponent and storyteller of common folks’ struggles, bringing to life the time period with well-written prose and characters.

SRDS: A Divided Inheritance is your third novel delving into the lives and strife of the world’s common folk. Will you share with us your passion for writing about everyday people of bygone days? 

divided_Inheritance_fc_DS: I’ve always been interested in the bystanders of history – the people who have very rarely been given a biographical voice but have lived through momentous times. I enjoy reading those sort of books too, books such as Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, or The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Women in particular have often been cast as bystanders, although from archival material and diaries I have found many strong women of the seventeenth century who haven’t been bystanders at all. I love it that I can redress the balance by giving women a more vital role to play through my fiction.

I enjoy researching the industries that sustained society – the manufacturers and producers, the guilds and craftsmen whose life-stories were often not considered vital enough to record, and these crafts often make an appearance in my books. Drama can be found in small events as well as in the sensational lives of kings and queens, it all depends on what’s at stake for the character. The loss of a shoe to a poor man can be as powerful to the reader as the loss of a kingdom to a queen.

My earlier novels, The Lady’s Slipper, about a botanical artist, and The Gilded Lily, about two serving maids on the run, explored the period just after the English Civil War. Whilst researching those novels and asking why the civil conflict occurred, I was continually thrown back to the earlier part of the century, to the time of the Gunpowder Plot, for answers. A Divided Inheritance is set in 1610 at this time which was also the height of the Catholic repression in England.

SRDS: Where did your inspiration for this novel stem from?  Likewise for the main characters, Zachary and Elspet?

DS: I wanted to create a strong female protagonist, but also to find a way to explore the capabilities of a seventeenth century woman who had led a quite sheltered life and was suddenly thrown into a quite different and opposite society.

I started by researching the Catholic way of life in a home where simply to celebrate Mass meant risking arrest. In Seville at the same period, not to be a Catholic was punishable by death. So the settings of England and Spain seemed good contrasts of climate (in every sense of the word!).

At the same time I became interested in the lace trade, which was a major employer of women at this period. Lace traders did sail back and forth through European ports and Seville was a major trading port. I thought it might be interesting if Elspet Leviston was considered by her father to be unfit to inherit his lace trade. Even though women were the main purchasers of fabrics and lace, they were not so welcome at the helm, in business. In the novel Elspet is passed over in favour of her cousin Zachary Deane.

Zachary is an enigma to Elspet. It was important to the plot that he should come from nowhere, and be someone for whom she initially has no understanding. She does not know his history, as the reader does, so she has no sympathy for his actions. I loved creating Zachary, who is a young man with a shadowy and chequered past. He is obsessed by swordfighting, something he regards as an art form and something Elspet views initially as mere thuggery.

SRDS: What archival resources and objects did you draw from to develop your settings and characters?

DS: I like to have real settings in mind when I write. I could not find a suitable house in London to use as my model for West View House in the book, so I used Bampfylde House in Exeter, which was perfect. The descriptions and geography of Elspet’s house are based on this Elizabethan manor house. It had to feel real to the reader as this home is what Elspet is initially fighting for.

In the book Elspet must travel to Spain in search of Zachary and her inheritance, and I did masses of research for my Morisco characters in the Spanish section of the book. Ruth Pike’s document – Aristocrats and Traders gave me census reports of the sixteenth and seventeenth century population of Seville, including names, which districts different traders lived in, what their income was. I travelled to Seville and went to the Museums and libraries and took photographs. Afterwards I had to get some documents translated. I wrote to several experts in La Destreza, the Art of the Spanish Sword, and they kindly pointed me to various texts and documents. But the main resource for the sword school was Girard Thibault’s original book, Academy of the Sword, from 1630 which is available in facsimile from Chivalry Books. Thibault actually appears as a character in A Divided Inheritance making his sketches for this book about seventeeth century swordsmanship. His engravings are wonderful!

academiepee1SRDS: Sword fighting and the culture around it plays a great role in the novel.  Will you please tell us about Europe’s passion and obsession with this activity during the novel’s time period, and the importance and expulsion of the Moroccans from Spain at this time?

DS: England came late to the passion for swordplay as sporting entertainment, after Italy, Spain and France. English archers were renowned for their skill and so perhaps this is why England was so reluctant to embrace it, but by 1545 Roger Ascham was able to write that ‘of fence in every town there are not only masters to teach it…but it is set out in print that every man shall read it.’ It is clear that swordplay was being taught systematically, not only for self-defence, but as a competitive sport, and young men could not get enough of it. Duelling was all the rage in France where men such as Chevalier d’Andrieux had killed seventy-one men before he reached the age of thirty, and this craze had spread to England. In A Divided Inheritance, Zachary Deane is no exception and when he is sent on a Grand Tour, he seeks out ‘La Destreza’ (The True Skill) – and a fencing school in Seville which provided an esoteric as well as a physical training, aiming to produce a kind of ‘Renaissance’ man. Of course it is not long before Elspet is also fascinated by this training, and also by the charismatic fencing master, Seňor Alvarez.

I could not write about this period of Spain’s history without covering the expulsion of four hundred thousand Moriscos (Christians of Moorish descent) from Spain, because of their suspected sympathies for Islam. This was some of the most moving testimony I read during my research and convinced me I should include a Morisco family in the book.

SRDS: What fascinating information did you uncover in your research but couldn’t work into the published story?

DS: At this time Spain was gripped by the Inquisition. I visited the InquisitionMuseum in the Castillo San Jorge, Seville, and found much of the material there fascinating but horrifying. I could have written several books based on characters featured there, but would have needed a much stronger stomach!

SDS: What do you hope your readers take away from this novel?

DS: I hope they will travel with Elspet from the safe confines of what they know into a vastly different world, that they will learn to wield a sword with her, and that they will savour the differences between damp Jacobean London and the heart and dust of Golden Age Seville. And of course I hope they will open their hearts as she did and be moved by the plight of the Moriscos, an act of ethnic cleansing about which so little is known.

SRDS:  At any point while writing the novel did you run into difficulties? And if so, how did you overcome them?

DS: At every point! It is a book that covers a lot of ground, and I didn’t know if I could make the transition from one culture to another as seamless as I would like. Travel from a to b, and how much of it to include, is always a problem for a historical novelist, where every journey took so long.

Creating the characters was a challenge. Elspet and Zachary are quite closed-off at the beginning, to themselves, and each other, but I hope that like getting to know real people, their characters grow on you. I wanted to create the effect that as the narrative unfolds you feel you are getting to know real people, and to know them better because of this slower, more realistic process. I didn’t want to have just another insipid, goody-goody heroine, but someone with layers and hidden resources, and this was hard to manage. Writing is always a challenge; another writer (I’ve forgotten who) said it’s hard to pin the butterfly of the idea down without making it into a dead thing. But I’ve learnt just to push through. I just hope that the story is in there somewhere and if I keep working it will find its way out.

SRDS: Will you explain to us your writing process and your daily and weekly writing schedule?

DS: I write every morning, and do research or go to my other job in the afternoons and evenings. I write slowly so a book takes me at least eighteen months to complete.

SRDS: Will you give us a sneak peek of what you are working on next?

DS: I have just completed a teen novel, also set in the seventeenth century, this time in the last years of The English Civil War. It was exciting to write and research, and there is the possibility of two more books in the series. At the same time, I’m researching another adult novel, but that one is just a twinkle in my eye at the moment.

Thanks to Stephanie for these lovely questions.

You can find Deborah at or on twitter @swiftstory .

Thank you, Deborah, for joining us here at the Historical Novel Society. It’s been fascinating learning about the inner workings of your latest release, A Divided Inheritance.

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