Staying Alive in the Elizabethan Age: A.D. Swanston’s New Series

Gordon O'Sullivan

Andrew Swanston (A.D. Swanston) has forsaken the leading character of his previous three novels, Thomas Hill, and started an affair with a new hero, this time in Elizabethan England. The character at the centre of his new novel, Incendium (Bantam, 2017), is ex-academic and ex-lawyer Dr Christopher Radcliff. An intelligencer in the employ of the queen’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, Radcliff is tasked with halting a plot to bring down Queen Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Following where the trails lead in both France and England, dodging assassins and trying desperately to avoid the febrile religious upheaval in both countries, Radcliff must uncover the plot’s conspirators or lose Leicester’s favour for good. For Swanston, this new setting is actually returning to his first love. He had considered writing a Tudor novel before, as he explains, “Thomas Hill came along and took over.” The genesis of Incendium was the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Swanson says, “an event of huge significance not only in France but also in England.” That political and religious tension was a great backdrop for a story; the author says he was inspired by “how frightening it must have been for the people of London to know that the bloodshed was happening just over the narrow sea and might easily cross it.”

Radcliffe is a man who lives on the very edge of propriety, with a secret mistress and an alarming inclination to consort with the more dubious elements of the street. With such an engaging but complex character at the heart of Incendium, was Swanston influenced by any particular historical detectives or intelligencers? “Christopher Radcliff is not based on anyone in particular,” Swanston admits, or at least, “not so much intelligencers, but certainly courtiers such as Thomas Heneage and Christopher Hatton…and, of course, Walsingham.”

Balancing contemporary language with modern expectations is always a tricky challenge for historical fiction writers; how did Swanston deal with that challenge? In Incendium, Swanston explains, “the dialogue is mostly quite modern, but with some contemporary words and expressions to create a sense of time and atmosphere.” A light touch is the way to go then since, Swanston feels, “to do more would, I think, make the story very difficult to read (and write!).” He is keen to point out though that a writer can’t make character attitudes and language overly uniform in a novel. To be interesting, characters, Swanston explains, “especially the main protagonist, have to be individuals, have to have something worth saying, have to think for themselves and live apart from the flock.” As he rightly points out, “then as now, if every man and woman believed the same things, there would be fewer good stories to tell!”

The realistic settings created for London and Paris are one of the real strengths of Incendium. Swanston confesses that for Paris he had access to good maps, however, he “did walk the streets of Tudor London” to find that elusive authentic detail. He feels that a novel’s setting comes alive from that detail, so it’s vital to ask questions such as “how many days did it take for the news to travel from Paris to London?” and “how did the news sheets report the massacre?” Creating an authentic setting is simply a process, Swanston says, “research, research, read, read, find an expert and ask them.” Thankfully, “experts, bless them, like to help.”

In Incendium, as the summer heat rises, the political temperature in England ascends just as quickly with paranoid fears of plots and revolution at every turn. However, when Swanston lists the contemporary fears of the populace, “plague, papists, sorcery, poverty, the French, the Spanish,” you can see both why paranoia reigned in the Elizabethan age and what fertile ground the author has for the future adventures of Christopher Radcliff as his intelligencer attempts to stay alive.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Gordon O’Sullivan is a content writer and historical researcher.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 81, August 2017

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