Setting: A Big Deal in Historical Fiction

One question I’ve been asked about FINDING KATE is why set the book in 1485 in England? Why the Wars of the Roses and the late middle ages? Why England at all? Shakespeare set “The Taming of the Shrew” in Italy, which was trendy at the time he was writing in the late 1500s. Why not set my retelling in the same time and place that he did? Or, to choose the next most obvious setting, why not in Renaissance England when Shakespeare lived and wrote?

These are good questions.

As to the first question, I know next to nothing about Renaissance Italy. Independent city states, right? Borgias? Popes? Poison rings — they sell those at Renaissance faires. That’s about the extent of my knowledge. To set my novel in Renaissance Italy, I would have had to educate myself. Lots of research, lots of work.

The other alternative would have made more sense. I know a great deal about Tudor England. I’ve read extensively about the Tudor kings and queens. I’m fascinated by how personal the political (and the religious) was in the time of the Tudors. And I know a thing or two about that Shakespeare guy.

But the Wars of the Roses have been my passion since I was about twelve years old. I know the history of this time period backwards and forwards. I know the people, the politics, the families and their tangled connections… I even know a lot of the dates, and numbers do not stick easily in my memory. In college, I did an independent study in history on the Wars of the Roses (and another in English on Shakespeare). I still read thick books on this historical period for fun. With highlighters!

It made sense to set my book in a time period I am completely comfortable in and familiar with.

Once I started working on the novel, though, there was one final element that gave me the idea to place Kate and Will’s story precisely where I did:  in the summer months right before Henry Tudor invaded and toppled Richard III from his throne. That element was Kate’s speech at the end of the play, which — depending on how you read it — is either the capitulation of a defeated woman to her role as an obedient wife, or the tongue-in-cheek mocking of the people Kate has finally escaped by a woman who has figured out how to express herself freely. You can probably tell which way I read it.

Anyway, in this speech, Kate has several lines in which she compares marriage to the political relationship between king and subject. First, she says:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign… [Act V, sc. 2, ll. 162-163]

In these lines, she makes clear the superiority of the husband over the wife. Such a relationship was well-established by the law and by the Catholic church and the Church of England. However, as any couple will tell you, what is “supposed” to happen in a relationship and what actually happens are two different things, and people are people whether in 2017 or 1599 (the probable authorship date of the “Shrew”). No doubt these lines had many in the audience laughing and groaning at the idea of a man as the “sovereign” over his wife. I’m no comedian, but doesn’t the humor lie in the exaggeration?

A little later, Kate criticizes women who cause trouble for their husbands. She says:

And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord? [Act V, sc. 2, ll. 173-176]

Setting aside for the moment the critically important qualifier (“honest”) which seems to allow disobedience if her husband is wrongheaded or dishonest, Kate’s simile comparing a disobedient wife to a “foul contending rebel” or a “graceless traitor” leaped off the page at me. The Wars of the Roses put many noble families in the position of deciding which of the contending royal families was the “right” one:  the Lancastrians (Henry IV, V, and VI, and their heir apparent, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond), or the Yorkists (Edward IV and V, and Richard III). Each of these kings had a colorable claim through birth or conquest, and each of them gained followers who either truly believed in the validity of the king’s claim or cynically sought to rise to power with him. In each case, and for each king, there were few of noble blood who were able to remain neutral. Everyone had to choose one side or the other. One house or the other. One family or the other. And those choices had devastating consequences if you chose poorly: traitors died, killed in battle or beheaded after, their lands forfeit to the crown and given to supporters of the victorious king. (Fun medieval fact:  the severed heads of traitors were often put on pikes atop castle walls or city gates to warn other would-be rebels.) In addition, a lord’s actions impacted everyone in the feudal chain beneath them, as the wars raged through the countryside, disrupting normal life: homes were burned, women raped and children killed, crops and goods were destroyed or confiscated, men were killed or maimed in their lord’s service.

As the wars dragged on, families increasingly switched alliances in the hope of gaining power, settling old scores, or ending the carnage. I thought my hero, Sir William, might be reconsidering his family’s ancient allegiances at the time of the novel. What if Sir William had recently received his title and lands from King Richard? But what if he thought he could do better by taking a chance on the newcomer, Henry Tudor? What if he shared his thoughts and fears with his wife? What if those doubts were part of their fragile new bond?

What if, within weeks of their marriage, he got the summons from King Richard to fight for him against Henry Tudor? Should he fight for Richard or turn his cloak and fight for Henry? Or even opt out of the fight altogether? What would they decide that Will should do? Because by then, I knew, Will and Kate would be true partners.

And whatever he did, would they, Will and Kate, consider him a traitor? To which king?

A historical fact I know that my characters do not is that King Henry VII dated his reign from the day before the Battle of Bosworth at which he killed King Richard III and won his throne, and in a wonderfully twisted bit of revisionist history, he declared everyone who fought for Richard a traitor. To him, Henry. On a day when he hadn’t actually been king yet. If you’re confused, imagine how the men who fought for Richard must have felt.

Henry Tudor is considered the first of England’s “modern” monarchs (in the same sense that Shakespeare’s English is “modern” English). This cynical move is one of the many reasons.

When I was writing my novel, I knew that “traitor” would have this very bizarre meaning once Henry Tudor became king. I also allowed my characters to talk about switching sides — or not fighting at all — based on the possible benefit to themselves because I believe that many families during the Wars of the Roses did have that conversation. And therefore, when Kate says a troublesome wife is a rebel and a traitor, her husband understands her meaning in light of that conversation.

Who is a traitor, if everyone is a traitor? Who is a traitor, if no one knows who the rightful king is?

I wonder if Shakespeare considered these complicated layers to Kate’s words, considering that Elizabeth I had to deal with “foul contending rebels” during her reign as well.

I wanted to have those layers in my story. I wanted my characters to live in dangerous times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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