It is my very great pleasure to welcome Elizabeth St. John today on the blog to talk about her latest novel, Written in their Stars, the third and final instalment of the Lydiard Chronicles about three dynamic women: a spymistress, a rebel and a courtier.
Liz and I share a love of the 17th century and the War of the Three Kingdoms. She has a unique insight into this turbulent time as she writes about her famous ancestors who had a ringside seat to the troubles and often found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.
Without further ado, welcome Elizabeth!
When researching Written in their Stars, what tidbit of information did you uncover that surprised you?
Well, let’s jump right to the heart of this book: the memoirs and diaries my work is based on. Oscar Wilde said “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train” and four hundred years ago my ancestors must have thought the same about traveling by coach. In reading their words, I stumbled upon a number of “wow” moments that perhaps weren’t intended for others to read. Code names for Allen Apsley, Ned Villiers, Edward Hyde and the king himself; confirmation of spying activities for the Sealed Knot; and a surprise appearance by Barbara Villiers, the king’s mistress, in pleading for regicide John Hutchinson’s life, to name a few. But perhaps the biggest piece of gossip was the rumour of an illicit affair between Allen Apsley and his cousin Nan Wilmot (who is a lead character in the book). That tidbit created an intriguing side plot. Who doesn’t love a bit of 400-year-old gossip?
What inspired you to write this story?
The people and settings, without a doubt. Each of the Lydiard Chronicles novels tell the stories of my family, who left behind evidence of the turbulent and divided times on the seventeenth century, and so many intimate and endearing details of daily struggles and happiness. The more I researched the more they came alive, and even if there had not been the family connection, I was inspired to write how these great events in history impacted everyday people. And, the more I wrote, the more I felt they were just like us, which inspired me to bring them to life.
You visit Lydiard quite frequently. Tell us how that influences your writing.
Lydiard Park in Wiltshire is my “special place” and has been part of my life since I can remember. The St.John family lived there from the 1400s to World War II, when it was acquired and fortunately saved from dereliction by the local government. Now, as Ambassador of the Friends of Lydiard Park, I am working with the Trustees to preserve the Grade I house and church, and the priceless artwork and monuments contained within. Staying at Lydiard, walking in the parkland, seeing the house by moonlight, exploring the medieval and Elizabethan heart of the home, and sitting quietly with the tombs within the church blurs the lines between past and present and inspires my writing.
If one of your characters jumped off the page and was transported to modern day, what life do you see them living?
That’s a great question! Nan Wilmot, Lady Rochester, was without a doubt one of the most fascinating women of the times. Definitely part of the “Shadow Court” (the influential women who worked behind the scenes to grant favours, manipulate outcomes, and influence the men who made up court and parliament), Nan was brilliant at landing on her feet and playing both sides to the middle. I think she would make a great Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State…or Brexit negotiator!
Tell us a little about your latest. What were some of the challenges you encountered writing it?
Written in their Stars is the true story of three cousins—Luce Hutchinson, Frances Apsley and Nan Wilmot—and opens with the shockwaves of Charles I’s execution. For Luce, as the wife of regicide John Hutchinson, the incredible event of killing a king signifies the realization of her dream of a fair republic for England. But for Frances and Nan, it marks the start of their formation of the network of women agents and the men they love to dismantle Parliament and restore the monarchy to England. The book is written from each of the three women’s points of view, so keeping a clear voice for each and allowing them to individualize their ambitions from their perspectives was initially challenging. However, once I sank into their stories and went to original sources (both Luce and Nan were great letter writers and diary-keepers) I could bring the cadence of their voices into my writing. I discovered, to my joy, that Nan had rather a good repertoire of exclamations and was not shy in issuing stern advice (she thought her grandson’s wife “a very plane woman and not such a won as to make a man run the hazard of his ruine by her”).
Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An award-winning author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, 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…
About Written in their Stars
London, 1649. Horrified eyewitnesses to King Charles’s bloody execution, Royalists Nan Wilmot and Frances Apsley plot to return the king’s exiled son to England’s throne, while their radical cousin Luce, the wife of king-killer John Hutchinson, rejoices in the new republic’s triumph. Nan exploits her high-ranking position as Countess of Rochester to manipulate England’s great divide, flouting Cromwell and establishing a Royalist spy network as Frances and her husband Allen join the destitute prince in Paris’s Louvre Palace to support his restoration. As the women work from the shadows to topple Cromwell’s regime, their husbands fight openly for the throne on England’s bloody battlefields.
But will the return of the king be a victory, or could it rip apart the very heart of their family? Separated by loyalty and bound by love, Luce, Nan and Frances hold the fate of England—and their family—in their hands.
A true story based on surviving memoirs of Elizabeth St.John’s family, Written in their Stars is the third novel in the Lydiard Chronicles series.