Interview with Historian Amy Licence
1. Amy, when completing your research of historical figures, particularly women such as Queen Anne Neville and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, how are you able to conclude with any certainty their contributions to history with so little contemporary sources to work with?
The short answer is that you can’t draw many conclusions with certainty, only probability. History simply isn’t a discipline that allows for us to present a concrete account of every moment in the lives of people in the past. Even the lives of those that are as comparatively well documented as Kings still raise debate about exactly what happened and why; even then we rarely know their feelings and motivation. All we can do is to try and get as close to the individual as possible by a mixture of methods. In the cases of Cecily and Anne, it is rather like a few matches being lit in the dark: there are a handful of known, fixed points in their lives with long sections of missing years between them. This is where the job of the historian becomes the most challenging and the most exciting. It becomes a search to find material that might suggest where they were or what they were up to, based on details like the location of their family, court records and Council payments etc. I’m quite happy to present my reader with possibilities, qualified by the “may have” or “might have,” because most of my readers do have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the nature of the genre and appreciate the opportunity to make up their own minds given the possibilities I present. In particular, I’ve done a lot of research on the early years of Cecily’s marriage, before her children were born, which is just skirted over in many other books. To ignore such sections gives a false impression of a life story; to Cecily, who lived through them, those years were as important as later ones, and the possibilities must be explored.
2. And to follow-up, do you find misconceptions perpetuated about these two women, and if so, how do you believe they took root?
Misconceptions about historical figures can come about for a number of reasons, during their lifetime and afterwards. Sometimes these are as a result of rumours, such as those regarding the paternity of Edward IV, which then evolve as different historians pick them up. There are also specific moments in historiography, when a certain view of an individual is presented and perpetuated through time, like More’s depiction of Richard III’s birth. It isn’t as simple as history being recorded by the winners; there are many complex reasons why certain interpretations survive over others, and history is rarely black and white. The misconceptions happen in differing degrees but women in particular do seem to have suffered from it more for two reasons; historical accounts are mostly written by men and the easiest way to attack a prominent woman was through allegations of misconduct, in terms of personality, sexuality or witchcraft. With most women dependent upon what society called their “good fame” or good reputation, mud did stick and still does. In history books published this century, the assumptions made about figures like Elizabeth Wydeville, Anne and Cecily are still being repeated without question. At the very least, it is essential that we distinguish opinion from fact.
3. Amy, many of the members of QAB are novice researchers and writers. Can you speak to the responsibility historical fiction writers have related to the authenticity of their work? How do you view how fact and fiction overlap in this writing genre? Do you believe it is possible for a person to be both a strong historian and a strong fiction writer? Are there skill-sets that overlap in completing strong non-fiction and fictional works?
I see no incompatibility at all between strong writing in fiction and non-fiction, in fact, a good writer in general should be able to write well in many forms. I was an English teacher for a decade and prioritised transferrable skills over genres: the most exciting writing borrows from a universal toolbox of skills. However, there are distinct criteria that remain in place when it comes to things like historical non-fiction and fiction, which really are set by the expectations of readers; if people expect to read a factual history book, then if an author chooses to use made-up sections, it must be stated explicitly in the text. The reader must know what they are getting into, that is only fair. Biographies and accounts are often more lively and accessible for such techniques but the author has a responsibility there to act as a guide and signpost the shift in gear.
However, when it comes to fiction, I think anything goes. I know this is an opinion that not everyone shares and understand that readers are annoyed when fictional authors pass off imaginative material as being real but I do think that so long as the author states it is fiction, they can do anything they like. Fiction is an art form; it can be a little bit magical and bend boundaries and rules. In it, characters can come back to life, time travel and live alternative worlds, so long as the book does what it says on the tin. That’s what it boils down to: authors stating clearly what they’re doing. It isn’t necessarily what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Being a good historian; finding and analysing sources and keeping an open mind, is another discipline entirely. It’s a tall order for any single author to juggle all these things.
4. We understand that you are releasing a new book detailing the life of King Richard III in January 2014. Can we expect any new revelations?
This book is really two things; an introduction to Richard and his life and a memorial. It is in two sections, biography first, then everything that happened after Bosworth. It includes the history of the site of his burial from 1485 until 2013, when the diggers moved in, as well as the findings of the dig and also looks at cultural representations of Richard in literature, art and film, as well as the chroniclers and historians who have contributed to his reputation.
We were also told that though this is a non-fiction work, you included an historical fiction preface. Is this the first time you have written fiction? Why did you choose this very unique and creative way to begin your non-fiction work?
Actually, it is me returning to my first love. I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was eight and wrote my first full length novel at eleven. I’ve been writing fiction ever since and have had several stories and poems published in Ambit, the New Writer magazine and elsewhere; I’ve been shortlisted twice for the Asham Award for short fiction. I employ quite a few fictional techniques in my writing anyway and I take quite a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on literature art and architecture of the times , plus later cultural representations like film, so it seemed an extension of that. I do think that in writing, genre boundaries have been too rigidly drawn and that borrowing from other disciplines makes for a more vibrant and readable book. I’ve read an awful lot of history books that have been dry and dull; besides the history, it is essential to be a good writer, or else the history remains lifeless. I use a variety of tools to try and interest my readers and there is a place for fiction, so long as it is clearly demarcated as such, as in my prologue. The circumstances of Richard’s death and burial are so emotive that I thought I would approach them first this way, as fiction can be far more immediate for a reader, especially one who is relatively new to Richard’s story. I’m also aware that many people have come to Richard after having read one of the many novels about him, such as Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour or Tey’s The Daughter of Time. As this book can work as a good introduction to the history behind the character, it seemed like a good bridge between those works and this.
5. Are there any other new projects you would like to tell QAB members and browsers about?
After Cecily Neville, I’ll be turning my attention to the wives and mistresses of Henry VIII. Many of the standard works on them are a few years old now and really use the wives to focus on Henry himself. There are also a lot of really good new books out there about the individual wives but I really want to look at the female experience of Henry; what was he like as a husband and lover? I did a lot of research for my first book In Bed with the Tudors, and developed some of my own theories about these women, although the wider scope of that book meant I didn’t go into them in as much detail as I would have liked, so this will be my chance to do that, plus a lot more new research.
I can also reveal that I’ve just had a proposal accepted for my next book after that, which is going to be a joint biography of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville, a Yorkist love story.
This is going to keep my busy for most of 2014 but if I do get any spare time, there may also be a historical novel too.
Amy Licence is an English historian of medieval women, powerful and common, Queens consorts and monarchs, rich and poor — particularly women living in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Topics of special interest include gender relations, Queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion, superstition, magic, fertility and childbirth. Besides Amy’s non-fiction historical books, she also is a prolific journalist, regularly contributing the New Statesman and The Huffington Post. For more information on Amy’s varied interests, check out her pinboard on Pininterest at http://www.pinterest.com/amylicence/.
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