About The Author
Sarah Gristwood began her writing career as a journalist, specialising in the theatre but also writing on a wide range of topics for newspapers and magazines from the Daily Telegraph to Cosmopolitan.
As writer, she started out purely as an historian, writing two bestelling Tudor-era biographies, Arbella: England's Lost Queen and Elizabeth and Leicester; this was followed by Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic, about the life of Mary Robinson, the 18th-century writer and courtesan.
She also wrote an authorised account of the filming and subsequent cultural impact of the film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, to mark its 50th anniversary. (Beneath her interview about her new book, you can see the article Sarah wrote for Foyles in 2010 about why the film is still so relevant today.) She has also cowritten, with Jane Eastoe, a book celebrating a century of extraordinary dressmaker's creations, Fabulous Frocks.
Her other joint project, with fellow historians Alison Weir, Kate Williams and Tracy Borman, is a history of royal weddings called The Ring and the Crown.
She has now brought her extensive knowledge of the Tudor period to bear on her first work of fiction, The Girl in the Mirror. Set in the final years of the reign of Elizabeth I, it tells the story, from the perspective of Dutch refugee girl masquerading as a boy, of the dashing Earl of Essex and his fall from grace at a time when the heirless Queen's successor is a matter of much tension and debate.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, she talks about maintaining historical accuracy in a work of fiction, the continuing imbalance between attitudes to male and female
Below the interview and extract is a list of titles by Sarah Gristwood currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
Why did you decide to feature a girl masquerading as a boy as your principal character?
It's an odd one, isn't it... especially as I was never one of those little girls you read about, who dreamt of being a boy. I think the idea began with my first, abortive, attempt at a different historical novel, where I kept on being brought up short by the problem of just how limited a woman's opportunities really were, in the sixteenth century. Of course there are the great exceptions, like Elizabeth I - but they've been written about so much already.
There's much delightful detail of the Sir Robert Cecil's gardens. Were magnificent gardens just an indulgence of the nobility or were they a real indicator of social status?
The turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a real explosion in garden design, with new plants flooding in from the east and the New World practically every day. So although the huge fantasias of Elizabethan garden design - the artificial lakes, the feats of topiary - may have been just for nobility, this was a game in which everyone could join to some degree.
Jeanne takes up with Martin Slaughter, a member of a company of itinerant actors. How would society at large have viewed such people?
As the proverbial 'rogues and vagabonds'. But useful rogues and vagabonds, maybe.... There is an extensive true history of theatre people dabbling in the espionage industry.
While other characters speak for themselves, Elizabeth's role in the story is seen through the eyes of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Katherine, Countess of Nottingham. Given her isolated position, are the real thoughts and feelings of the Queen unknowable?
I began by writing in a voice for the Queen herself, but that's very hard to do convincingly. It tends to come over like stage directions for an old movie - Good Queen Bess as played by Dame Flora Robson, circa 1930! It's not that we don't often have information as to what Elizabeth thought and felt - she wasn't exactly shy about making her feelings known. But you have always to be aware, with someone as clever as she, that there are other layers you don't get to see.
In your book, Essex's popular following derives largely from his charisma. Did the real Essex have such a magnetic personality?
He must have done - though charisma, like charm, is one of those things you have to take on trust in historical personages. Reports just can't convey it, really. But certainly the galvanic effect he had on the minds of his generation suggests he had many of the qualities of a demagogue of the twentieth century.
Where do you feel you had to take the greatest liberty with the established historical record?
The only points on which I've knowingly contradicted the historical record (as opposed to any errors I may have perpetrated inadvertently!) are comparatively minor ones - showing a portrait some months before it was actually created, that sort of thing.
But what there is, is a process of extrapolation, beyond what might be permissible in a non-fiction book. When I think of my suggestions about the precise role Francis Bacon, for example, may have played in Essex's downfall, then I could, with my historian's hat on, feel a little guilty. But where the central historical relationships are concerned - between Essex and the Queen, between both those two and the Cecils - than if I had been writing non-fiction, I'm not sure I would have understood them any differently.
Having honed your writing skills in non-fiction, did you find it difficult to focus on the story you were telling without being tempted down an unfamiliar avenue of investigation?
I think the hardest and most important thing for any new fiction writer is to find (and, yes, stick to) your story. Really to understand what your novel is about, rather than just taking a collection of historical facts and dramatising them.
Along with fellow published historians Alison Weir, Kate Williams and Tracy Borman, you're one of what has been dubbed the 'History Girls' and have often appeared at literary events together. Do you feel female historians are still not being accorded the respect of their male counterparts?
There are a lot of wonderful female historians and a lot of wonderful books (not all of them by women!) about female history. But Virginia Woolf said that we assume a book about a war is more important than a book about women in a drawing room, and I don't think that attitude has entirely gone away.
And at least three of you have, like a number of other historians recently, turned to writing fiction, set in the eras in which your expertise also lies. Why do you think so many respected writers of historical fact are turning to fiction?
I wonder if the borderlines of fact and fiction aren't changing, in a very interesting way. Invention being taken for fact has to be a bad thing, and that's happened all too frequently. But perhaps today, faced with a very sophisticated and medium-savvy readership, writers of both genres are beginning to relish the freedom and insight that can come from exploring other ways of approaching history.
Do you know what your next fiction and non-fiction projects will be?
For non-fiction, yes - I'm working on a book about the women who ushered the Tudor era into being. It's provisionally called 'Blood Sisters', and it will be out in 2012, hopefully. For fiction, I've got several ideas - but I'm waiting to discover how this one goes down, and then we'll see!
In 2010, Sarah published The Breakfast at Tiffany's Companion, marking the 50th anniversary of the classic film that, more than any other, made Audrey Hepburn in a star. Sarah wrote this exlcusive piece for Foyles on why the film is still so popular and significant today.
'The cab door opens and a girl gets out. She wears a backless evening dress and carries, in addition to her purse, a brown paper bag. The angle of the camera is such that we see only her slim, straight back'. It's the first scene in the script of Breakfast at Tiffany's as it was filmed on Fifth Avenue fifty years ago this autumn, and it's an image that has never gone away.
The image has been printed on everything from hearth rugs to postage stamps, and has even been used to sell the wife of the US President. For her first official White House pictures, Michelle Obama chose a plain black dress and pearls, and the papers at once made the connection with Audrey. The word 'iconic' might have been invented for that shot of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, and it's understandable, really. A woman alone, walking through the dawn in the world's most vibrant city, into the most exciting decade of recent history. A woman dressed for a night of romance, but with those sunglasses to suggest there are things in her life not suited to the bright light of day. But the question is, does the picture in your head obscure the reality of an often oddball movie - and a fascinating piece of social history?
This, for me, has been the pleasure of writing the Official Companion to celebrate Breakfast at Tiffany's 50th birthday. You might enjoy the unseen pictures Paramount released from their archive. I did too, naturally. But almost more, I enjoyed reading some of the documents we reproduce. The final page of the script, which never made it into the completed movie. The letter from the producers, rejecting another writer's earlier version in terms (the hero was too 'effeminate, which we all detest') that you would never hear today. The letter from the MPA, the film industry's own censor, demanding endless tiny cuts in scenes that only the dirtiest mind could think risqué.
You may already know that Truman Capote envisaged Marilyn Monroe as the star most suited to his original novella. That director Blake Edwards wanted Steve McQueen in the George Peppard role, and that the boss of Paramount wanted 'Moon River' to be dropped. But what none of us can ever truly know - know, as in having a single definitive answer - is just why the film is still so beloved today.
Surely we ought to hate the ending (so different from Capote's)? To feel that Holly should be able to keep her independence, not give it up for love in that distinctly pre-feminist way? I can understand that view, actually. But then again, do we want the tussle between independence and commitment made to seem easy? It's a juggling act with which we are still struggling in the 21st century. You could argue that the film's Holly is actually braver than Capote's heroine, in that she's the one who finds the courage to change . . . OK, that's it, I've got the answer. Never mind the style, never mind the star. Never mind the fact that almost every woman has a Little Black Dress and pearls in her wardrobe, or in her imagination, anyway. The reason Breakfast at Tiffany's still matters, fifty years on, is that it still gives us fodder for debate today.
© Sarah Gristwood 2010
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