Bringing history to life

Added about 7 years ago by Barbara Greig

GUEST BLOG: To celebrate the release of her historical novel Secret Lives (part 2), author Barbara Greig delves into the intriguing characters of the story and reveals the inspiration behind their creation. 

After Part 1 of my novel Secret Lives was released, one of the most frequently asked questions was, “Are your fictional characters based on a particular person?”. Or as my son-in-law recently queried, with a twinkle in his eye, “Did you have anyone in mind when you created the unsuitable son-in-law, Yusuf?”

The answer is a definite “no”, but my characters are representative of people of the time. Although there is not space to look at every character, I want to offer a brief look at what influenced me in the creation of some of my characters.

The portrayal of the Morisco, Hernando Gharsia, draws on the history of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain and is my depiction of a displaced person and how he would survive. Muslim physicians were known to be very skilled, due to their advanced medical knowledge, which won them respect and acceptance outside their communities. In the first chapter of the book Hernando uses distilled alcohol to clean Luis’s wound. As early as the tenth century, Muslim physicians had an understanding of antiseptic. Their success rates in surgery were such that dignitaries throughout Europe came to be treated in Cordoba. By placing Hernando in an academic environment, I could move the Gharsias to Caors. When they were forcibly converted in the sixteenth century, and eventually expelled in 1609, some Moriscos did go to France although the majority went to North Africa.

Ysabel Bernade, the first significant female character to be introduced in the book, is a childless widow, having survived two prosperous husbands. In sixteenth-century Western Europe this would make her as independent as a woman could be, in a society where the father, husband, or brother, controlled the means of a woman’s survival. Evidence for such women is garnered from applications seeking permission to carry on the trade of their late husbands, although they were often still hampered by not being allowed full membership of the associations which governed these trades. Other possible evidence for the significant role of certain widows can also be seen towards the end of the period covered in Secret Lives. In 1557 the list of burgesses in Bridgwater, contributing cash to help the relief of the siege of Calais, included the names of three women.

Such women as Ysabel Bernade were in the minority. Her sister-in-law, Loise Gaulbert, is one of the silent majority who toiled relentlessly alongside their husbands. An indication of the work expected of wives can be seen in Sir Anthony Fitzherbert’s manual on a wife’s duties, published in 1555. Women like Loise have left little evidence for the historian to analyse but if Fitzherbert’s views are to be taken seriously, the wife needed to be superhuman!

The main protagonist, Luis, is the character who develops most as the story starts when he is a young child. He is probably the product of all the children I have observed over the years, as is Meg. One is shy and retiring while the other is confident and precocious. Perhaps because of their upbringing as described in the book? That is a minefield which I am going to avoid! As a young man, Luis grows in experience and matures in his own way – one I believed to be credible but not like anyone I know.

Alyce Weaver’s portrayal, as an educated woman, was influenced by someone I can name -  Margaret, the elder daughter of Sir Thomas More. Margaret was renowned for being schooled in many disciplines, including philosophy, astronomy, and languages. All of More’s daughters, his ward, and his niece, were educated alongside his son, John. The debate about the value of educating women, contributed to by Juan Luis Vives, Erasmus, and More himself, arose with the new humanist thinking but by the end of the century, women with learning were still the exception.

The fictional clergyman, Matthew Blake, is typical of those priests who married but were then affected by Mary I’s reforms. Figures vary but it is estimated that most clergymen, like Blake, abandoned their wives, choosing to keep their livings and to return to celibacy. The emotional upset the wives must have experienced, coupled with the fear of a precarious future, can only be imagined. There is a paucity of evidence about these women. The fates of the high-profile ones, like Luther’s wife, and Cranmer’s second wife, are documented but the rest have been lost in the mists of time. What the wife of one parish priest thought when he sold her to the butcher is open to speculation!

Finally, I need to say that although my characters are illustrative of people in the sixteenth century, their characteristics are entirely my creation, as are their physical attributes. Part of the enjoyment of writing a book is, surely, to make the people your own. 

Barbara Greig's novel Secret Lives (part 2) will be released on 1 February – pre-order now! The first part of the series, Secret Lives (part 1), is also available in our online shop.  

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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