It is my great pleasure to introduce to you historical fiction author, Helen Reynolds. Helen not only scores points for writing about the 17th century, she gets bonus points for focusing on the Interregnum. This period of history, between the execution of the King and the Restoration of the monarchy is dominated by Oliver Cromwell, and is rife with spies and intrigue.
Helen’s debut novel CONSPIRATESSA (still yet to be published), is an action adventure about a fledgling female spy who works for the English Resistance to help Charles II reclaim his throne. This is one novel that I can’t wait to read!!
I’ve asked Helen to stop by and chat with us about the 17th century and the Interregnum. Welcome, Helen!
You’ve chosen to write about an era that has been traditionally overshadowed by the Tudors. What does the Stuart Age offer that the Tudors do not?
Helen: I’ve studied Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and admire them both but the Tudors was the last hurrah of absolute monarchy. With the Stuarts, things are more complicated, more nuanced. It’s a world in flux, with religious extremism from not only the Catholics but Protestants too. Also the Civil Wars divided England like no other conflict, killing more than one in ten of the population, which I believe is the highest of any war in our history.
CONSPIRATESSA takes place during the Interregnum. What draws you to that chapter of 17th century and how far back does your interest in it go?
Helen: The blame mostly lies with watching the BBC TV series BY THE SWORD DIVIDED at an impressionable age. It was a swashbuckling costume drama centred on a Royalist family in the Civil Wars and the beginning of the Interregnum.
I also grew up near the picturesque market town of Saffron Walden in Essex. Here the former Sun Inn, a favourite bookshop, had once been Oliver Cromwell’s headquarters. As a result the history of that period has always felt very immediate.
Like most Brits I was vaguely aware of the Civil Wars, that Oliver Cromwell was in charge, then Charles II returned. Basically the lyrics of Horrible Histories’ inspired King of Bling song. But England was a republic, or rather a dictatorship with army backing, for ten years. When I first realised this, I was shocked that a whole decade could slip from the nation’s psyche so easily. But as a writer, it opens up so many possibilities.
[CB: I love Horrible Histories especially Charles II King of Bling. Thanks for suggesting it, Helen!]
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with either John Thurloe or Aphra Behn, which one would you choose?
Helen: Oh, that’s a tough one! As my novel is set in 1653, my head says my minor character John Thurloe, spymaster to Oliver Cromwell. Although I feel like I’ve spent a week with him already, given I’ve sifted through his secret papers that were hidden in his former law chambers until the 18th century. If you want to take a look, they’re online at British History Online.
No, I’d have to go with my heart and spend it with England’s first professional female writer. Reading about Aphra’s work as a spy when researching my Cambridge University dissertation was the spark for my novel after all. Where was she actually born? Did she have aristocratic parentage? Was she a Catholic? Was there a Mr Behn? What really happened in Surinam? Who bailed her out of that debtor’s prison? Whether this enigma would answer me is another matter entirely…
What was a surprising bit of history that you uncovered during your research?
Helen: I was amazed to discover, on a guest pass to the National Maritime Museum’s library at Greenwich, that in the 17th century there were treacherous rapids on the Thames. London’s then one and only bridge had ‘starlings’, like giant snowshoes, jutting out to stop debris colliding into its struts. This forced the water through narrow openings and, depending on the tide, could form torrents of water of six feet high or more.
The danger was such that there was a saying that London Bridge was “for the wise to go over, and for fools to go under”. This knowledge transformed my characters’ Tower of London prison break, much to my lead character’s dismay. She isn’t that keen on boats at the best of times.
Helen’s debut novel is set in 1653, with Parliament ruling England rather than the King. Those who will not swear allegiance to the new order are harried and persecuted. Those who try to leave are targeted by a deadly highwayman.
On the Continent the orphaned Lady Laurette Miles is desperate to return home, desperate to honour her father’s memory by helping the exiled Charles II regain his throne. Laurette volunteers to be a fledgling spy, secretly hoping her efforts may mean the king will reward her with her childhood home on his restoration.
However she soon discovers nothing goes to plan in the uncertain world of Oliver Cromwell’s England. A sudden military coup forces Laurette and her mentor to rely on the underground Catholic network to keep them safe. An unwanted attraction between herself and the enigmatic agent Carter further muddies the waters. When Laurette unearths a traitor, she must engineer a prison break from the Tower of London to prevent an assassination which could destroy their cause, and her own fragile prospects, forever.
Helen Reynolds, writing as H.J. Reynolds, was born in Cambridge, UK. After living in New Zealand, Brighton and the Lake District she is now soaking up the historical surroundings of York. She was shortlisted in the Chanticleer Book Reviews 2016 Writing Contest and is part of the Historical Novel Society media team. CONSPIRATESSA is currently under submission.