I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, reading about people’s lives in the past and gaining an understanding of what made them tick. In the main, I think, most historical novelists do try to stick to the known facts, that is the documented evidence, unless it gets in the way of the story and there’s usually a note at the back of the book to say where the author has gone ‘off piste’.
In carrying out research for my novel, The Perfect Pure Virgin, I have endeavoured to include as much information from extant documentary evidence as is possible. In the case of my story, there are many factual gaps owing to the secret nature of my protagonist’s lifestyle – which is a actually bit of a godsend for a work of fiction.
I have researched in many places: the National Archives at Kew, the British Library, county record offices and grand country houses. I’ve read diaries, chap books, State Papers, judicial reports and autobiographies – the list is endless. I have also been lucky enough to meet some incredibly helpful people along the way.
On a visit to the Tower of London, I was asking one of the yeoman warders if he knew the whereabouts of the dungeon where many of my characters were tortured. I understood this dungeon to be in the White Tower probably in the sub-crypt, just below where the lower gift shop is today. The yeoman warder I was talking to became extremely interested in the premise of my novel and asked me to follow him. He led me to a small opening in the wall, “This” he said “is Little Ease” – an infamous tiny holding cell measuring just 1.2m square (4 sq ft), its cramped conditions preventing the prisoner from ever finding a comfortable position. This was where Guy Fawkes was held before he was put to the rack. After his interrogation poor old Guido was never the same again – a man broken in mind and body. Nowadays Little Ease it is just an archway leading into a public gallery. In my photograph the cell is the small section in the foreground of the picture which has had its back wall knocked out to make a passageway. Visitors to the Tower today walk through without even noticing it!
The warder then produced a large bunch of keys and led me through a series of locked doors, down a couple of staircases and into a messy storeroom. This was where many of the most famous interrogations took place. I was surprised that a location of such infamy should today be relegated to a dumping ground for old exhibits and discarded packing materials. The warder allowed me to take photographs and the picture here shows one of the blocked-off tunnels. It is believed that in the sixteenth century, the tunnel led from underneath the Lieutenant of the Tower’s quarters in what is known today as The Queen’s House, directly to the torture chamber. The chamber would have contained a variety of ghastly instruments and although most people have heard of the Rack, many Catholic priests were subjected to the Manacles or Strappado. This latter was a device where the unfortunate prisoner was suspended by their wrists until the full weight of their body was only supported by the extended and internally rotated shoulder sockets. The technique typically caused brachial plexus injury, leading to paralysis or loss of sensation in the arms.
Now as far as I can discover, there is no documentary evidence giving details of this tunnel, nor are there any maps that show its course from the Lieutenant’s quarters to the sub-crypt. As with much of history, various pieces of the jigsaw have been put together in a certain way – which, let’s face it, may not be entirely correct. For the purposes of a good story though, I think making assumptions based on what has been handed down is probably as close as we will ever get.
At the end of the day, although fans of historical fiction like to know what they are reading is based on fact, they are also aware of the inevitability of poetic licence.
Another of my research outings was to Baddesley Clinton house in Warwickshire. This house was allegedly rented by my protagonist Anne Vaux and her sister Eleanor, to shelter the leader of the Jesuit church in England at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and Catholic priests were hunted down and arrested on a charge of treason. The house certainly contains a few priest holes (Warwickshire boasts many Catholic gentry houses where the owners were related and much intermarried). There is no documentary evidence of such a lease on Baddesley Clinton but then since everything was done in the utmost secrecy, you wouldn’t expect to find any! The owner must have been sympathetic enough to allow the priest holes to be built even though he was living elsewhere at the time.
I have visited this house on many occasions and seen the priest holes that are on show to the general public. On one recent visit I got talking to a volunteer guide about the house and he became interested in my research. He introduced me to the House Manager who was incredibly helpful and generous with her time. When I explained to her that I would like to see the priest hole that wasn’t on show to the public, she led me into her stationery cupboard and
pointed to a ladder inside – at the top of the ladder was a secret hide. Later on that day she very kindly sent me a photograph of the priest hole which is only accessible once you get past the paper clips and ink toner!
History is constantly being revised and although we shall never know exactly how certain events came to pass, historical novels can contextualise and attempt to explain events of momentous importance to the past and also the future. No matter how much research is done, the author will inevitably sometimes get things wrong but perhaps we can make some allowances for those poor historical novelists who do their very best to get it right.