[Interview, Part 1 of 3] Brian Wainwright, author of ‘The Adventures of Alianore Audley’
Novelist Brian Wainwright made his debut as an author with the publication of The Adventures of Alianore Audley (Jacobyte Books of Australia, 2002), a humorous story about an intelligence agent in Yorkist England.
Alianore Audley was followed by Within the Fetterlock (Trivium Publishing, 2004), which tells the story of Constance of York, an English princess who lived in the reigns of her cousins, Richard II and Henry IV.
In the first of three interviews, Wainwright speaks about his writing.
How would you describe your work?
Historical fiction. Within that there are two strands, the serious HF and the comedy projects. My two published novels demonstrate these two sides to my writing.
My main focus so far has been England and Wales in the 14th and 15th centuries. I think this will always be my main area of interest, if only because I know the period so well and so don’t have to run around doing masses of new research every time I write a paragraph.
However, one of my current projects is set in 11th century Spain, and I don’t rule out the possibility of doing some contemporary writing in the future, especially if there’s demand for it.
Who is your target audience?
To be honest, anyone who’ll buy the books! Probably they will be people with quite a serious interest in history who don’t need everything spoon-fed to them.
From feed-back, I gather that the majority of my readers are women, so I do have to bear that in mind. Women tend to like strong heroines — fortunately so do I. I try to make my leading medieval women strong (as they often were!) but without any anachronistic feminism.
How do you define feminism?
I would define feminism as a philosophy that believes in the complete equality of women in all spheres — political, personal, economic, employment, education, whatever. This movement can be traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote a seminal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in the late 18th century.
In the middle ages, why would feminism have been anachronistic?
Medieval women did not have access to this philosophy, or indeed any other aspect of Enlightenment thinking, and lived in a society which, I think, it is fair to characterise as deeply conservative. I sometimes read historical novels where the characters seem to be much like modern people, with modern attitudes, in fancy clothes, and for me, at least, that does not work.
There was however an early ‘feminist’ writer, Christine de Pisan, who came from Italy but lived most of her life at the court of France. She was pretty much a contemporary of Constance of York, and the first woman, certainly in the West, to make a living from writing.
Christine’s works emphasise how women can do more within their particular sphere (she mentions various levels in society) to fulfil themselves and add more to the world. However what she never does is question the social hierarchy — if anything she emphasises a woman’s duty to defer to and obey her husband. Had she done otherwise I suspect she might have been accused of heresy, since the whole social structure of the middle ages, including family relationships, was underpinned by the teaching of the Church.
However, this does not mean that medieval women were china dolls. Far from it. Depending on their position in society they influenced politics, managed great estates, ran convents, operated businesses — sometimes on their own account — or laboured endlessly, like many Third World women do today, to feed their families.
They nearly all ran a household of some type or other, a much more complex business than it is today. You couldn’t nip out to Tesco if you needed (for example) some extra salted fish to get you through Lent. You had to order it at the right time and in the necessary quantity.
Constance of York’s daughter, Isabelle Despenser, Countess of Warwick, ran her husband’s estates for years on end while he was away fighting in France. This would be the equivalent today of a woman in her twenties acting as Chief Executive of a major farming and property conglomerate. (And she wouldn’t have had the advantage of an MBA course before taking it on!)
What motivated you to start writing historical fiction?
A deep interest in the middle ages. Novels seemed the way to go, as I’m not qualified to write academic history. In addition, the beauty of novels is that they can ‘answer’ the unsolved questions that serious historians can’t.
An example, of one such question is: the fate of the Princes in the Tower. All the novels about Richard III have to answer that, one way or another. Sometimes Richard kills them, sometimes he puts them somewhere safe, sometimes they die naturally, and so on. No historian can tell you absolutely what happened to those boys, it’s just a matter of opinion. A novelist can ‘solve’ the mystery. Of course the reader may or may not be satisfied with the solution, but that’s another matter.
My spur to write about Constance of York was that she did something that was — to say the least — exceptional for a medieval princess. Basically she busted two noble boys out of royal captivity and tried to take them where the king couldn’t get them. I had to explore her motives for that, what led her to do it, to solve that riddle if only to my own satisfaction. That’s what lay beneath Within the Fetterlock.
I’m passionately interested in history, and I suppose one of the things I am trying to do is encourage similar interest in others. A lot of people come to history via fiction — it’s a more accessible route than to dive straight into heavy textbooks, many of which are really aimed at post-graduates. I try to show the human side in my serious work; how events hit people, and impacted on their lives.
What drew you to the middle ages and to fiction about the middle ages?
You must remember that I grew up in an age when the children’s TV channels were dominated by things like William Tell, Richard the Lionheart, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Knights of the Round Table, while cinema output included El Cid, The Vikings, Cleopatra, and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
History was also taken seriously at school, and along with English, was one of my favourite subjects.
When we went on holiday we often visited Wales, where I was fascinated by the castles. I started reading about history for pleasure, because I wanted to know more than school taught me. I think the very first historical novel I came across was The Wool-pack by Cynthia Hartnett, read to us at primary school by the best teacher I ever had, Miss Margaret Mackie. When I got a little older and found there were such things as adult historical fiction novels, I think I pretty much devoured the entire library offering!
The more I’ve learned about the middle ages there more fascinated I’ve become; and to be honest, there’s always more to learn. Some people think of me as an expert on the subject, but frankly I never cease to be amazed by my own ignorance of particular topics.
This interview has also been featured on Conversations with Writers.