Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tudor History: Author Interview with Lady Penelope scribe Sally Varlow

Kelly Hewitt: Your grandfather, E.L. Mann, was a historian who wrote Unknown Warriors, The Battle of Lewes, The Battle of Hastings and The Chislehurst Mystery and other books about important historical events. How much of an influence on your writing are your grandfather and his historical writings?

Sally Varlow: I was tremendously influenced by him, because he made the past so interesting. He was a born story-teller and I would listen spell-bound to his tales of Francis Drake, Boadicea, Napoleon, Mary Queen of Scots, King Arthur, Admiral Nelson, and of course Queen Elizabeth. I still remember his description of Elizabeth giving her Tilbury speech to her troops before the Spanish Armada arrived; so it was wonderful to be able to bring that episode in to The Lady Penelope. My writing style is very different from his, but l think we both aim to keep our readers turning to the next page.

Kelly: The Tudors are a very popular subject at the moment. Your work is really great because you have worked to uncover a very important historical figure. Mary Boleyn, Arabella Stuart, and now Penelope have all been rediscovered by modern writers. Do you think there are more figures out there for discovery?

Sally: Yes, I’m sure there are more figures to be “discovered”, or at least re-examined. On-line catalogues and mss have revolutionised the way we can now search thousands of documents and collections, and some – especially the Folger Library - are superbly user-friendly. Every generation needs to look again at how people from the past are evaluated, and test assumptions made about them. And sometimes, as with Lady Penelope, you find their critics are not using sound evidence. So there’s a need to challenge whether or not their reputation is deserved.

Kelly: You have written about falling in love with history as a child. Did you continue to study history through the remainder of your education? Where did you attend university?

Sally: At school I could never decide if I liked history or literature best, so I did a BA joint honours degree in English and History at the University of North Wales. We had really first-rate professors: John Danby was brilliant on Wordsworth and the Romantics; Helen Miller, famous for her work on the Tudors; and R.A Lewis, who was inspirational on the early Victorians. Doing joint-honours meant I had to skip the early dramatists, so I went on to the University of East Anglia and did an MA in English social comedy, from morality plays to Restoration drama. But I’d had enough of academic life after that, and instead of doing a PhD I went into journalism.

Kelly: Many authors have careers before being published. Did you have any interesting jobs on your way to publication?

Sally: I was lucky enough to get straight on to magazines in London, starting with a couple of financial journals. To be honest I didn’t enjoy the subject, but it was a foot on the ladder, and within a few years I moved on to “Nova” magazine, as chief sub and production editor. It was just before the UK edition of “Cosmopolitan” was launched, and “Nova” was the most exciting and ground-breaking journal in the country. I guess “Nova” strengthened my habit of challenging what other people write, or say, and it certainly stood me in good stead with “The Lady Penelope”. Most historians write her off as a libertine, the “scandal of her age”, and it’s not true.

Kelly: You recently went to a book signing and talk about Penelope Devereux, Mary Boleyn, and your new book at Hatfield House. How did it feel to be in such a historic location presenting your book and research? The historian in me certainly feels jealous.

Sally: I enjoy talking about her wherever I go, and I’ve had lovely audiences at libraries and village halls from Ludlow to Henley and Warwick. But historic houses linked to Penelope and Mary Boleyn certainly add an extra “buzz”, and I’ve had great fun speaking at Kenilworth Castle, Penshurst Place, Petworth House and Lydiard Park, as well as Hatfield – which is so important in Queen Elizabeth’s story. It’s slightly daunting, though, because there are always excellent questions from people who are very clued up on local history. But that means I’ve a chance to learn more, too, so it’s very rewarding.

Kelly: It is clear that you have a great passion for the history of Mary Boleyn and her children by Henry VIII. Is there another area of history that appeals to you?

Sally: At the moment my head is so full of Tudor and early Stuart life that it’s hard to remember other periods exist! But I do find the later 18th C. interesting: the way Romanticism and independence swept through France and North America as well as Britain.

Kelly: The Lady Penelope is an exciting book to read because so many of the most important and influential historical figures play major roles: Francis Walsingham, Walter Raleigh and Robert Cecil not to mention Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Are there particular figures that you find more intriguing than others?

Sally: You’re quite right: one reason Lady Penelope’s life is fascinating is that all the famous figures and great events of her day are involved in it. The other reason is: why did someone so beautiful and celebrated virtually disappear from history? And that, to me, makes Penelope more intriguing than the other figures about whom we already know a lot. Or do we? I suspect there’s room for more research on Robert Cecil.

Kelly: What happens next for you Sally? Do you have another historical book that you are working on?

Sally: I have started work on another Elizabethan lady, who was well known to Penelope, though I’d better not name her yet. But I’m not making much progress because my husband, Peter, and I recently acquired the other end of our 15th-century house (formerly owned by an elderly lady artist); and though it’s not very big we’ve masses to do restoring it, and the garden.


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