The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien

The Queen's Choice

I recently read and reviewed ‘The Queen’s Choice’ by Anne O’Brien. If you read my review here you’ll see I loved it. Consequently I am utterly delighted to be supporting the launch of this wonderful book with a question and answer session with Anne below, where Anne gives a fascinating insight into the writing of this super book. The Queen’s Choice’ is published by Mira Books on 14th January 2016 priced £12.99 in hardback.

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The Queen’s Choice

October 1396. Attending the marriage of Richard II, King of England, Joanna of Navarre encounters Henry Bolingbroke, the Earl of Derby. Their attraction is immediate and mutual, despite Joanna’s marriage to the much older John, Duke of Brittany.

Several years later, Henry has been crowned King of England having overthrown the tyrannical Richard, and the recently widowed Joanna is surprised to receive a proposal of marriage from him. To accept means losing her sons, and abandoning her Regency of Brittany, but unable to discard her still-strong feelings for Henry, Joanna reluctantly agrees.

However, life in England is not what Joanna had expected. Accustomed to having her previous husband’s ear and a say in matters of policy, she is shocked to find herself shut out of politics and regarded by many as an enemy for her Breton heritage. Henry is distracted by rebellions from all corners of the country, and the repeated attempts upon his life lead him to suspect everyone – even his wife. Both are too proud to confront the distance that is growing between them. Alone, and with no one to confide in, can Joanna overcome her pride and make amends with her husband? And if the two reconcile, can Henry maintain his hold upon the Crown and establish himself as rightful King?

An Interview with Anne O’Brien

Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed about ‘The Queen’s Choice’ Anne. Firstly, how and why did you choose the quotations that appear at the start of The Queen’s Choice’?

I chose them because they all seemed directly relevant to Joanna’s story, and of course might intrigue the reader to read on …

– ‘Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?’

                                   Christopher Marlowe 1564-1593:  Hero and Leander

Evidence suggests an attraction, a love at first sight, between Henry and Joanna.

– Forasmuch as I am eager to hear of your good estate … I pray you, my most dear and most honoured lord and cousin, that you would tell me often of the certainty of it, for the great comfort and gladness of my heart.  For whenever I am able to hear a good account of you, my heart rejoices exceedingly.’

Written at Vannes 15th February 1400: the Duchess of Brittany to King Henry IV

This is taken from the only letter we have in Joanna’s own words.  It is the closest to a love letter as we ever get from her.

– (The wives of powerful noblemen) must be highly knowledgeable about government, and wise …

Christine de Pizan: The Book of the City of Ladies c. 1405

Christine was contemporary with Joanna.  Although there is no evidence that they ever met, I am sure that Joanna would have been aware of her work.  I expect that she read Christine’s thoughts on the role of women in government with interest – and perhaps applied them to herself.

– Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

                                    Exodus  22.18

How to remove a potentially influential woman from the scene?  Accuse her of witchcraft! Joanna was not the first nor would she be the last to suffer.  And the penalty for being a witch could indeed be death.

When you’re writing how easy is it to leave aside your teaching voice and adopt a narrative voice or do you think they are the same?

What an interesting question!  In some ways they are the same.

To make history enjoyable for students, it must engage their emotions.  It must be lively and driven by the excitement of the characters and the events.  The same can definitely be said for telling a good story.  The reader must be drawn in, to live the experience.

But teaching demands that students be given a thorough detail of historical facts.  Here is the danger when writing fiction.  There must be a fine balance between drama and fact.  Too many facts can destroy the pace and the excitement.  Sometimes ‘history’ must be omitted for the sake of the novel.

Why did you choose the first person to relate Joanna’s story rather than the third?

To write in the first person puts Joanna centre stage.  This is her story, the tale of a woman with power who was forced to make some painful decisions, and then live with the consequences.  I enjoy writing about medieval women who, through history, have very little voice.  To make Joanna the main protagonist – with everything seen and experienced through her eyes – restores her voice and her place in history.

There is an immediate attraction between Joanna and Henry. What is your personal view of love at first sight?

I think that for some fortunate people it happens.  An  instant connection.  A basic attraction.  Something that ‘clicks’ between them that is more than just sexual allure.  Love in its fullest sense perhaps takes time to develop as they come to know each other better, but I certainly believe in it.

What research methods do you use to ensure historical accuracy?

To begin I need a structure of the life of my main character.  In this case Joanna.  I read everything that might give insight into her.  Here there are some historians I trust more than others.  I use primary sources as well as secondary ones where they are important.

Once I have a basic ‘skeleton’ and for Joanna it was very basic, I delved into the dark and bloody politics of Henry IV’s reign because this will set the scene.  Joanna will act out her life against this back ground.

A final layer is to apply the personal bits to make Joanna a complete figure, to clothe her skeleton in flesh and also clothes and jewels and talents.  This knowledge is acquired through my writing about this period in history over a number of years.

Accuracy to the historical time is essential, and I have a responsibility to Joanna and the people she meets on her journey.  There will always be dispute over some events, but based on the evidence, and what seems realistic, in the end I must make my own decisions.

(I really thought you brought Joanna alive perfectly.)

The women you present embody the full range of personalities. How far is the presentation of a female perspective important to you as opposed to just writing a highly entertaining story?

It is vitally important.  The medieval women I write about faced different pressures and influences from those facing most women today: the demands of family, status, religion.  Women had little freedom to express themselves, even royal women.  They are for the most part silent.

And yet these women in their lives were not too different from their 21st century sisters.  I write about relationships.  Within those, I am sure that women expressed the same emotions that we do.  The laugh and weep, they rejoice and feel hatred.  They are afraid but can be very courageous.  History leaves us with a two dimensional picture of these women – such as Joanna.  I hope to make them rounded characters, reacting to life as women of their time and status.  Here is their chance to speak out.

Although I give a female perspective, it is not my intent to write feminist history, and – bottom line – it must be a good story which develops the characters of the men in power as much as it does that of my heroine.

I thought the style you adopted was perfect. How difficult is it to keep your writing authentic to the period whilst still appealing to a modern audience?

I try to think through the mind and thoughts of my ‘heroine’.  I think that helps.  Her experience must be authentic and true to her place in history.  She is not allowed to do or think anything that is anachronistic.  But it must be lively and personal, always with that element of drama to give a page-turning quality.

I particularly like to use conversation to get ideas across.  Through talking to each other, I hope my characters draw the reader in and carry them through the plot to a satisfactory end.  I try to keep the language ‘modern’ in that it is not Shakespearean nor what I would call ‘gadzooks’ history which is very artificial.  It is a fine balance and I simply write with ‘gut feeling’.

(I’d say your ‘gut feeling’ is spot on!)

Had you been Joanna, would you have married Henry?

I would like to think that I would have had the courage to abandon family and power for an uncertain life in a foreign country.  Joanna of course did not have hindsight.  I’m not sure that I would have coped well with Henry at his most recalcitrant!

How far do you think Joanna orchestrates her own destiny and how far is she a hostage to the times in which she lived?

Definitely something of both.

By choosing to marry the King of England rather than be Regent in Brittany for her young son, Joanna chose her own destiny and set her own future path.  There was an enormous about of political pressure on her to reject Henry, but she chose to follow her personal desires.  And how much she had to give up to do so!

But when she was Queen Consort, then she soon discovered the restrictions on a foreign queen in a country devastated by civil war and with an increasingly hostile parliament, restrictions that she could not influence.  The charges of witchcraft indicate how even the most powerful women of the highest rank were vulnerable if they made enemies.  Joanna learned how powerless she could be and was forced to come to terms with it.

I think that is one of the reasons why Joanna is such an engaging and complex character.

If you could choose a period in history in which to spend the rest of your life which would it be and why?

This would be England in the reign of Richard II.  I would like to be attached to the royal court ( I expect I would end up as something menial) which would give me the opportunity to meet so many of the  people I have written about.  Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt, Elizabeth of Lancaster, John Holand and of course the characters in The Queen’s Choice were all people of Richard’s Court.  It was a glittering reign with a youthful ambitious king, but one touched by tragedy too as Richard’s faults and failures led to his downfall and death.   I would like to have been there, to see if my interpretation of these characters was correct.  How exciting that would be.

Other than Joanna and Henry, which character in ‘The Queen’s Choice’ would you most like to spend a day with and why?

This would be Bishop Henry Beaufort, Henry’s half brother, one of the Beaufort offspring of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.  A cleric but a clever, ambitious one, a true medieval wheeler and dealer, full of cunning intelligence.  I think that he would be well informed on all that was going on in Henry’s reign.  I imagine conversation with him would be highly enlightening on the state of the realm.

Although I might like a conversation in passing with Lord Thomas de Camoys too.  Now there’s an interesting character …

(Definitely my choice would be Thomas de Camoys)

Were Joanna alive today, what role do you think she would have in society? 

She would have her eye on a top job, for sure.  Probably financial.  Chancellor perhaps?  Watch out George Osborne!

Anne, thank you so much for such detailed answers to my questions.

Loved the questions.  Thank you so much for the chance to talk about my interests and about Queen Joanna in particular.

About Anne O’Brien

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‘Anne O’Brien has joined the exclusive club of excellent historical novelists’ Sunday Express

 Praise for Anne’s previous novel The King’s Sister:

‘A gripping tale…packed with love, loss and intrigue’ S Magazine

‘A fast-paced historical drama that is full of suspense’ Essentials

‘A brilliantly researched and well-told story; you won’t be able to put this book down’ Candis

‘An epic historical adventure…4 stars’ Heat

‘An exciting and intriguing story of love and historical politics. If you enjoy Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, you will love Anne O’Brien’ We Love This Book

‘A fast-moving, compelling account of one wilful royal woman’s determination to defy powerful dynastic expectations and marry the man she loves.’ Lancashire Evening Post

‘This book is flawlessly written and well researched, and will appeal to her fans and those who like Philippa Gregory’s novels too. ’Birmingham Post

ANNE O’BRIEN was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in the East Riding for many years where she taught History. Leaving teaching – but not her love of history – Anne turned to novel writing and her passion for giving voice to the oft forgotten women of the medieval era was born. Today Anne lives in an eighteenth-century cottage in Herefordshire, an area steeped in history and full of inspiration for her work.

Visit Anne online at www.anneobrienbooks.com

Find Anne on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @anne_obrien

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