Most writers know the feeling that our fictional characters have lives of their own, but I never thought when I set out to write A Secret Alchemy that one of my characters would turn up on Twitter. The paperback of A Secret Alchemy was published last April, and in the last couple of weeks Elizabeth Woodville has been tweeting. Philippa Gregory has just published a novel based on her, and has been promoting it by this extremely twenty-first century means.
Neither of us is the first, of course. As I've described elsewhere, it was seeing Shakespeare's Henry VI plays which set me thinking about Elizabeth: sitting in the Young Vic I instantly remembered Josephine Tey's 1930s description of her in The Daughter of Time as "the indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair" (hope I've quoted that right - I don't have a copy to hand). But that's the only novel I've read featuring Elizabeth, and in the decade since I first wrote a novel about her, I haven't gone back to Tey. I do know of at least Sharon Penman's The Sun in Splendour, and Rosemary Hawley Jarman's The King's Grey Mare, which focus on Elizabeth, and it's got easier for all of us since then because two modern biographies have been published. No doubt there are more: dozens, if you include novels centred on others of her extended family and have a look on Amazon for "Customers who bought this also bought". But I haven't read any of them.
The thing is, I'm reading very little fiction at all at the moment, which is my usual practice when I'm in first-draft mode. Certainly I've never "studied the market" to tell me how to write something, or read books because they're successful (that way lies the writerly suicide of tangling with the market for ropes), but only because I fancy them. And I've been avoiding all novels set in that sort of era ever since I first decided to write one. And my writing self moved on from Elizabeth a good eighteen months ago. My author self, doing the Hay or Oxford Festivals, and writing things like this post, loves re-visiting Elizabeth and the others because it's always such fun to engage with real readers. Besides, all the narrators have a very special place in my heart. But it is re-visiting, revisiting my old home from the somewhere else where I'm now living: a different century, with different voices, religions, manners, gestures and philosophies.
But it's undeniably an odd feeling to know that another creature - another recreation - of Elizabeth is walking the earth or at least readers' minds; that there is different writing on the same white spaces between the facts, a different creature made from the same bones, a different voice made from the same words. Neither of our creatures is the real Elizabeth; not even the Elizabeth in Arlene Okerlund's admirable biography is the real Elizabeth, although Okerlund's allegiance is to the probable of history-writing, rather than the possible of fiction. So I can claim my creature, as Gregory and Okerlund can claim theirs: each of us has our own project.
Indeed, although Elizabeth was where A Secret Alchemy started, and she has perhaps rather more than a third of the words in the novel, my project was never limited to her. I wanted to write about love unrequited and love fulfilled, sex and marriage and widowhood, about storytelling and pilgrimage, about writing and printing, about restoring houses and restoring - re-creating - the people of the past. And, of course, it's about what's strongest of all in my writer's DNA: the sameness and otherness of 'then' and 'now', of 'there' and here', of history under our feet and above our heads: history as place as well as time.
To do that, I used not one person's story, but three, spanning 'now' as well as 'then': Elizabeth alone couldn't say - embody - know - everything I wanted the novel to be about. Anthony Woodville has his own story to tell, interleaved and interacting with hers, and a creature who really is mine and mine alone - Una Pryor - also speaks and lives. Of all the reviews of A Secret Alchemy, Sally Zigmond's homed unerringly in on what it's all about in detail and Sarah Vine, in The Times, did so in broader terms, so I won't go into it here. Besides, I'm off, back to the 18th century...
Edited 13th September 2012 to add:
Since I wrote this, I've blogged at greater length over on The History Girls blog, about why I steer clear of fiction set in the time (though not written at the time) of my own novel-in-process: CAUTION, NOVELISTS: historians at work.