A Conversation with Susanna Calkins
Today, April 23rd, marks the release of a novel I've been looking forward to very much: A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE by Susanna Calkins. It tells the story of Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate. Her life, an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores, is interrupted when a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone she loves is wrongly arrested for the crime.
Susanna kindly accepted my invitation to chat about our novels, both of which are set in Restoration England and feature strong female protagonists who must struggle against the gender and class constraints of their time in order to achieve their goals.
HW: When I tell people I've written a historical mystery they often comment on how much research it must've taken and how daunting that is. But I actually found that writing a story set 350 years ago was freeing in some ways. I like the world building involved in reconstructing a historical time period for the purposes of my fiction. Plus, I'm a complete geek about the Restoration so I found my research a pleasure. Did you find the research you did for A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE at all daunting?
SC: I started doing research in early modern English history when I was a graduate student, years before I began to put A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE to paper. I had come across some really interesting murder ballads from the 1650s when I was writing a paper on "gender patterns in domestic homicide in 17th c. England." Later those ballads became the impetus for my novel. So, for me, doing historical research was always part of what I loved about being a historian. So, in A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE, I wanted to place my heroine in some deeper themes, reflecting what I knew about gender (specifically the role of working class women), religion, politics, and culture.
What themes did you explore in DIARY of BEDLAM?
HW: At first, I only knew I wanted to write a story set during the Restoration. But as I got to writing, my protagonist evolved into a fairly complex person--she's been a mistress to the King for fifteen years and at his behest, she operated as a spy against the Dutch. She lost her brother in the plague and she's served time in prison. I was surprised, however, when the subject of motherhood entered her story, and realized it's because of my own relationship with motherhood (I don't have children and don't plan to) that I wanted to explore the subject with her.
The story takes place during the Popish Plot so religion, politics and the corruption of the court all play big roles in the story as well.
In an interview I read, you indicate that you're not overly fond of using real-life people as characters (I paraphrased that, obviously). Which, if any, real-life people did you use in the novel, and why?
SC: I don't think I have any "real" historical figures in my novel, although of course I mention important figures from time to time (Charles II, the diarist Pepys, as well as the murderess Anne Scarisbruck). I don't have anything against other writers who fictionalize historic figures--Sam Thomas, for example, quite admirably fictionalizes the midwife Bridget Hodgson in A MIDWIFE'S TALE. I don't like when historical figures are either romanticized (made to seem more important and perfect than they were) or trivialized (diminished as a punch line). There's too much 'Great man's history' as it is; I don't like to add to that in the public imagination.
Is your heroine, Isabel Wilde, a real historical figure? She sounds like Aphra Behn, the famous writer, who was also a spy. Did Behn's life influence you at all?
HW: Two parts of Isabel's backstory come from Aphra Behn: the spying, of course, and the prison time for debt. But I've got other real-life people who appear: King Charles II is a character and the murder itself is based upon a true crime that was never solved. For me, there was never any question that Charles II would be an actual character in the book and not just mentioned. He's not a main character, but the scenes in which he appears were definitely the most fun to write.
Tell me a little bit about your protagonist, Lucy Campion. I'm assuming that she is, in some ways, a woman of her time, but I want to know how she rises the above the constraints of her place in society (that of a chambermaid) in order to achieve her goals in the novel.
SC: Even though Lucy was not particularly well-educated, I wanted her to have a lively, inquisitive mind. I deliberately placed her in a small household run by a thoughtful magistrate--someone who would not shut the door on a good idea just because it came from a woman and a servant. There was, after all, a progressive spirit of Enlightenment thought that was infusing the thinking of more educated people at the time. If Lucy had been in a different type of household, she might well have been beaten for some of things she did, and than that would have been the end of her curiosity and her pursuit of justice. What's the fun of that? Moreover, at the time of the plague, and certainly after the Great Fire, there was an unprecedented social mobility in England, as servants rose up and took over their master's trades and households. (If everyone else flees or dies, who's around to say something isn't yours?)
Why did you come to focus on the murder of Edmund Godfrey? How did you come across it? I think it's told in Magnolia...did you ever see that movie?
HW: The story, as told in Magnolia, is more about the coincidence of Green, Berry, and Hill, three men who were falsely accused and executed of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. Godfrey's body was found at what is today known as Primrose Hill, but for a time, the location was known as Greenberry Hill. It has a small mention in Magnolia.
I came upon Sir Edmund's murder quite randomly--it was a featured entry on Wikipedia's home page one day when I happened to be looking for inspiration and I thought it might work for my plot. I soaked up every account of his killing I could find and constructed my story from there. Though his murder is a true historical event, my telling of it is fiction, through and through.
I find myself now in the exciting but daunting position of writing a sequel to DIARY OF BEDLAM. I know you've written an sequel to A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE. I'm curious to know what your experience has been writing a second Lucy Campion novel. Was it easier? Will there be others in the series?
SC: Yes, I've finished the sequel, tentatively titled FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS, which like ROSAMUND'S GATE, gets its title from a fictional pamphlet which relates to the murder. I really enjoyed writing the sequel, if only to continue with my characters. This book picks up about 2 weeks after the last one left off, in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Lucy, like many Londoners, is pressed into service to help with the massive cleanup. A body is discovered in a barrel outside of an old tavern; the man was clearly murdered before the Fire. Unbeknownst to others, a pickpocket takes a little bag off the body and passes it to Lucy. Inside are a number of odd objects, including a poem, which Lucy convinces the local printer to publish as a pamphlet. She begins to be targeted by some people who believe she knows the secret of the man's murder.
What was the funniest or more surprising question you got from people when they found out you had written a novel?
HW: Honestly, I haven't gotten what I thought was a funny response to me writing a novel. I'd been talking about it since I was a teenager, and after a failed attempt to write one ten years ago, they were probably thinking "finally," or "yeah, right." But for the most part, people have been really supportive. What about you?
SC: Supportive yes, but a lot (A LOT!) of people asked me how much sex was in my novel. First question! Yikes!
Yikes indeed! Well, my response to Susanna's writing a novel is obviously "YAY!" There's nothing I like more than a good historical novel set in my favorite time period, Restoration England. Thank you, Susanna, for stopping by my blog and congratulations on your Book Birthday.
Susanna Calkins is an educator and faculty developer by day and a writer by night. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons.