Launch: Isabelle Chevallot’s The Song and the Sword
INTERVIEW BY LESLIE S. LOWE
For the past twelve years, Isabelle Chevallot has worked as a historical researcher and librarian at Guildhall Library in the City of London where she runs discussion groups and school and university workshops, using storytelling and events to engage readers with history. She previously worked as a researcher and librarian at The Guardian and Observer newspapers for eight years. Her debut historical fiction novel, The Song and the Sword, has just been launched.
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
Set in 12th-century England, Normandy, and Sicily during the Third Crusade, The Song and the Sword is the story of young lovers Eleanor and Hugh, who are thwarted by their fathers. Eleanor is sent to England to marry Baron Rolf, a man who simmers with menace and will stop at nothing in his bid for power, while Hugh trains to become a knight and works to escape an arranged marriage to a woman he despises. Eleanor and Hugh must each brave a lonely and perilous journey of love and loss, grief and endurance with only their own wits to rely on.
What inspired and attracted you to writing historical fiction?
As a child, I was an avid reader of historical fiction and loved to write. After university, I settled on a career as a researcher. In my work as a librarian at a major historical reference library, I am lucky enough to be able to dip my toe into a vast range and depth of British history and find myself endlessly fascinated and inspired by what I learn. In my role, I am keen to engage people with our rich historical heritage through workshops, discussion groups, and experiential events, such as Regency Balls, and I suppose writing historical fiction was a natural progression.
This is the first book of a series. Do you have a tentative release date for the next book in the series?
I am halfway through writing the second book in the series which follows the fortune of other characters in Eleanor and Hugh’s world and I plan to release it in a year’s time.
Does any part of your own life experiences connect with any character or events in the story? What difficulty did you have in writing this one?
My own life experiences connect with both characters in obvious ways, for example, I lost my mother to cancer as a sixteen-year-old and brought up a child on my own. More subtle connections were not immediately evident to me. I found it cathartic to draw upon my own experience not least because I wrote a major part of the novel during Covid, shortly after I was diagnosed with blood cancer and my aunt, who was like a mother to me, died.
Is there a key historical event you found in researching that inspired you to write this story to portray a key message prevalent now?
I suppose the key historical event would be the Third Crusade, but what inspired me to write this story was my fascination with the medieval ideals of chivalry, the honourable and courteous conduct expected of a knight, and courtly love–a love on a spectrum between erotic desire and spiritual attainment, at once forbidden and ethically enriching, passionate and restrained, humbling and elevating, human and sublime. An aspiration for such ideals still resonates today in a world where couples endure unhappy relationships, women continue to be exploited and demeaned, and humans continue to perpetrate all manner of underhand acts in order to accumulate wealth and power.
What kind of research did you do for this story?
During the course of my research, I came across some intriguing 19th-century books about medieval women mystics and life in nunneries. C.S Lewis’s book The Allegory of Love proved an inspirational read. The library where I work has an extensive collection of food writing so I was able to derive information about what people would have eaten. I drew insight from medieval tournaments in Smithfield and a 19th-century account of medieval pageants and mystery plays in Coventry, and historical detail from the itinerary of Richard I to track the progression of the Third Crusade.
How do you think the reader will connect with your main characters? Is there one that you feel connected to and why?
As the story is narrated from the point of view of Eleanor and Hugh, readers walk in the main characters’ shoes experiencing both their fleeting emotional reactions to events as well as tracking their overall emotional development. Their stories lead to their ultimate transformation where an oppressed Eleanor finds her voice and Hugh becomes the honourable man he always aspired to be. I feel connected to them both but I suppose it is Eleanor I feel most connected to because of the innate creativity and vulnerability that goes hand in hand with being a woman.
Every author has their own publishing journey. Tell me about yours.
I wanted the freedom to create my own novel from start to finish. I have been fortunate enough to work with talented freelance editors who have helped me hone my story and writing. For the cover of my novel, I commissioned an illustrator to create a modern take on Jean Colombe’s medieval paintings. As I regard being read to as one of life’s great pleasures, I wanted to create an audiobook. I was fortunate to collaborate with award-winning narrator Andrew Kingston who has related my story with moving tenderness and has brought all the characters to life in just the way I had envisaged.
What advice would you give to other aspiring historical writers?
Spend as much time as possible in a library immersing yourself in researching and reading original documents.
What is the last great book you read? Why?
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doer because it opens the door to the power of the book, libraries and the human heart.
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