I first met Elizabeth St. John after one of the sessions at the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver. We were waiting to meet the speaker, the lovely Jenny Quinlan (aka Jenny Q) of Historical Editorial, when we struck up a conversation about what we were writing. You should realize that when you’re at a historical fiction conference, you can skip the genre question and go straight to, ‘What period are you writing in?”. We both answered 17th century England, and this pretty much sealed it for us.
Elizabeth is blessed with a closet-full of famous relatives from which she can draw sources for her fiction, and she wraps them into a compelling story. Her debut novel (the one she had been working on when we met) is The Lady of the Tower, the story of Lady Lucy Apsley (nee St. John). The novel which takes us through the early part of Lucy’s life and her marriage to Sir Allen Apsley, governor of the Tower, with all the ups and downs of a politically charged royal court. There is an earlier interview her on the blog about this book (click here) which I would encourage you to read.
Today, I’ve invited Elizabeth back to discuss the sequel, By Love Divided. I absolutely adored this book, and not just because it took place during the English Civil War. In By Love Divided, we are reintroduced to Lucy Apsley and her two children, Allen Apsley Jr, and Lucy Apsley Hutchinson, the famous 17th century writer. The family is torn apart by the civil war when the siblings choose opposing sides. It’s heartbreaking, and yet, Elizabeth does not leave us without hope.
Without further ado, welcome Elizabeth!
Thank you for such interesting questions, Cryssa!
It must be inspiring to have such illustrious ancestors to base your novels on. What was the most challenging aspect of choosing to write about your ancestors?
Elizabeth: It is very inspiring to have such a rich and well-documented family history to draw on for my novels. Growing up in England where the weather promotes reading and the countryside is full of castles and ancient churches, I spent much of my childhood buried in books, family papers and walking around ruins. My parents loved history and passed that gene on to me. Our favorite days were spent “St.John-hunting” where we would follow some thread in a family tree and end up in a forgotten churchyard or country house, face-to-face with an ancestor. When I came to write The Lady of the Tower, I felt I knew the characters intimately, because of my deep acquaintance with them, and that so many of their portraits are preserved at their country home of Lydiard House.
However, reading about the past is not the same as writing about it, and for me, the most challenging part of capturing my ancestors on paper was to ensure that I stayed as true to their characters as I could. I did this by reading as many extant document as possible – even fragments of a letter, or the inventory accompanying a will can give so many clues into a person’s life. And then, looking at the actions across their lives can sometimes inform their character. In researching Allen Apsley, Lucy St.John’s son in By Love Divided, I came across a record that he frequently came drunk into Parliament (he was an MP during the Restoration). That started a whole train of thought that perhaps he was suffering from PTSD as a result of his action in the Civil War, and so I then sought to find evidence that might support that.
Tell us about your research. Did you have access to records that were not available to the general public?
Elizabeth: I’m very fortunate since my family kept some personal documents, and an extensive family tree preserved on great pieces of Antiquarian sized paper which had been handed down by generations. Those inspired me to want to write only relying on primary sources, and so I then visited museums and libraries where records might be stored. By Love Divided draws on Lucy Apsley Hutchinson’s Memoirs, which are archived at Nottingham Castle. When I first encountered them 20 years ago, they were hidden in a battered file cabinet in the castle offices, and by asking and poking around I was thrilled to see them first hand. So although pretty much all my records are accessible to the general public, it can take a lot of detective work to find them.
By Love Divided follows the fortunes of Lucy Apsley’s grown children, her daughter Lucy (Luce) Hutchinson, the famous Parliamentarian diarist, and her son, Allen Apsley, a Royalist officer. If you were in England in the 1640’s would you have chosen King, Parliament, or neither, and why.
Elizabeth: When I was at school, the Civil War was taught in very black and white terms, and pretty much in favor of the Royalists. So, who didn’t want to be a dashing cavalier, all long curls and gorgeous clothes, defending the monarchy and preserving our way of life. Besides, the only portrait of Oliver Cromwell showed him “warts and all” and he just wasn’t attractive. And, the fact that our family was closely related to Cromwell didn’t make me particularly popular in the playground.
Coming into By Love Divided, I was really determined to be independent, and try to throw off all pre-conceived biases, and that made for an extremely interesting journey. Firstly, the ambiguity of the war as it unfolded struck home. A credible historical fiction writer has to “write in the now”; our characters don’t know what lies ahead, although we (often tragically) do. In the 1630s and ‘40s so many people were making decisions based on very limited knowledge, hear-say and confusing information. And, they really didn’t think that their actions would lead to armed conflict. Loyalties were fluid – often more to their Land Lords than to any particular cause. And, as in any war, the masses just wanted to get on with their daily lives.
As I read Lucy’s memoirs, and the speeches made in Parliament, and the king’s proclamations, I really began to have a deeper understanding of Parliament’s position. Another ancestor, Solicitor General Oliver St.John, made some good points. He was leader of the “Middle Group” in parliament – less radical Independents that still believed negotiation was a way forward. But I think it was a single incident recounted in Lucy’s memoirs that made me think I would probably be a Parliamentarian; and it occurred when Lucy and her husband John Hutchinson were attempting to prevent the king from requisitioning Nottingham’s ammunition for his own cause. I made this a defining moment in By Love Divided, so I will be interested to see if any readers feel the same way.
What were some of the challenges and rewards of writing a sequel?
Elizabeth: Well, firstly, I didn’t realize I was going to write a sequel until I reached the end of The Lady of the Tower, and discovered that I could not leave Lucy’s world. My readers wanted to know more, and so By Love Divided was born.
Frankly, the biggest challenge was probably a technical one, since By Love Divided covers a much broader landscape than the first book. Deciding the point of view, mapping out which characters would have prominence, and weaving in enough of The Lady of the Tower to satisfy those readers but still make By Love Divided readable as a stand-alone – these were all huge challenges at the beginning. And the rewards? Absolutely getting to know Lucy, Luce, John, Allen, Edward, Frances – and even Barbara – and living in their world. I miss them, now I’m not with them every day.
I understand that as part of your research, you visited Edge Hill. How did that inspire you?
Elizabeth: I had never written about war, and as I came closer to the Civil War in my writing, I began the difficult business of really trying to understand the visceral emotions of fighting, in a time when it was so close to hand and bloody.
I read books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, and talked to war veterans of all ages. I interviewed Sealed Knot members, who have such an authentic understanding of the sounds of battle. And I decided that if was going to bring my readers into war, I should do so from different perspectives.
I chose key battles that Allen and Edward fought in – Edge Hill, Cropredy Bridge, Newbury II, and visited those sites. The atmosphere is still so weighed with the past, even in today’s world. And I chose to visit very early in the mornings, before traffic and other visitors disturbed the air. So, standing on the windy escarpment at Edge Hill and seeing the whole valley spread below, I could see the Parliamentary army in full formation, the smoke from their campfires, the distant sound of men preparing for battle. And walking through the marshy ground to the defensive earth works surrounding Donnington Castle, I could think about the struggle the troops had to defend and access the castle. It was a somber experience, and I hope I was able to bring this home to my readers.
What’s your next project?
Elizabeth: Well, in By Love Divided we left our family at the end of the first Civil War, hoping for a peaceful negotiation and a resumption of normal life. We all know it didn’t work out that way. And both Allen Apsley and John Hutchinson played a key role in the world-changing events that followed. I guess it’s time for a third in the Lydiard Chronicles! I hope to complete most of my research by the early spring of 2018, and return to their world to follow their fortunes through the next twenty years.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Elizabeth! There is so much that makes me want to jump in and continue the conversation. I particularly love your advice, “write in the now”, which is probably the single best tip for writing historical fiction.
Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story…
By Love Divided, Elizabeth’s sequel to her debut best-seller, The Lady of the Tower, continues the family saga and follows the fortunes of the St.John family during the English Civil War.