Anne O’Brien, author of “The Virgin Widow”, “Queen Defiant”, and the upcoming “The King’s Concubine” answers 10 questions about her favorite time period in history, her favorite figures from history, and the age old question of coffee or tea.
1. If you could go back in time and be any figure from history, who would it be?
I would be Brilliana Harley, one of those overlooked heroines in the English Civil War. Her husband, a Parliamentary supporter, was in London when their home at Brampton Bryan Castle in Herefordshire was besieged by a Royalist army. Brilliana held the siege against a much stronger force for almost two months – she was definitely a heroine. Unfortunately she died from pneumonia shortly afterwards, contracted during the difficult siege conditions. I would like to think that I could fight for my principles and stand in defiance on the ramparts of my castle, probably wielding a sword, with the best of them.
There is a story to be written here about Brilliana ( and what a lovely name …)
2. What year in history would you have liked to live in?
I think it would be 1660, in London, in the year of the Restoration. After the horrors of Civil War and the hardship and repression of the Protectorate under Cromwell, it would have seemed like a year of hope and renewal. Festivities and the theatre were allowed again. The return of Charles II, a particularly charismatic figure, would have heralded a bright future. (Fortunately I would not be able to see the imminent Plague and Fire!)
3. You’re having a dinner party and you can invite 5 people from history, who would they be?
Not surprisingly, the characters of my recent novels and some for the future:
– Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, wife of Richard III. A young girl with a weight of political expectation weighing on her shoulders.
– Eleanor of Aquitaine, who needs no introduction. A woman with power and ambition and the talent to achieve it.
– Alice Perrers, the most notorious woman of her day in the fourteenth century, royal mistress to Edward III and an extraordinary business woman.
– Katharine de Valois, wife of a national hero – Henry V – but not quite as obedient and colourless as history has portrayed her.
– Katherine Swynford, the woman who captured John of Gaunt’s heart, living openly as his mistress for so many years, but eventually becoming his wife.
All women! And what would we talk about? Men, I expect. Nothing like a hen party for a good gossip.
4. What castle from the past or present would you like to live in?
I would choose Ludlow Castle. It is only about 20 miles from where I live, so I know it well. It stands in a magnificent position in the little town with views over the countryside towards Wales – to keep an eye on invading armies. It was one of the Mortimer strongholds which eventually passed to the Duke of York. His sons, Edward IV and Richard III, together with their mother Duchess Cecily, spent time there when very young. It was also the home of Catherine of Aragon when she first wed the ill-fated Arthur.
So many spectacular memories …
5. Two fellow historical fiction authors you’d like to go on a history themed tour of the world with?
What a difficult decision! There are so many historical novelists whose work impresses me. I decided to resurrect the shades of two novelists I particularly admire, sadly no longer with us:
– Dorothy Dunnett: she was the novelist who first inspired me to read historical fiction at a time when historicals were not fashionable. I found her “Lymond Chronicles” compulsive reading – I had to wait very impatiently for the next in the series of six to be written – and later I became lost in the extraordinary machinations of the House of Niccolo. The scope of her knowledge and her ability to use it within a complex story was fantastic. To travel with such a writer would be an honour.
– Ariana Franklin: I have loved her recent series about Adelia, in the “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, and her unlikely lover Rowley Picot, the Bishop of St Albans. I appreciate her elegant characterisation, her eye for detail and her often sly sense of humour. Travelling with her would be fun as well as informative. I am very sorry that we have only four of Adelia’s and Rowley’s adventures to enjoy.
6. Who was more dashing and interesting, King Henry VIII of England or King Louis XIV of France?
Both monarchs are dashing: Henry the golden youth, Louis XIV the magnificent Sun King. I can admire both, but for interest it has to be Henry VIII. His personal decisions, driven by pure selfish lust, made so great an impact on England. The split with Rome over the Anne Boleyn affair completely changed the direction of English policies at home and abroad for ever. And, of course, the children of his various marriages add such colour to the 16th Century. It is without doubt a fascinating period.
7. Which of the six wives of King Henry VIII is your favorite?
It has to be Catherine of Aragon for me. What a difficult situation she was forced to face, after years of what she had considered to be a happy marriage, and yet she withstood all the grief and personal humiliation of her divorce with dignity and amazing composure. I doubt I could have been so tolerant and forgiving. I like this early portrait of her. I imagine Henry falling in love with her.
8. English monarchy or French monarchy?
English monarchy for preference, but probably for the simple reason that I know far more about the English than the French. Not a great admission for a historian! My knowledge of English Kings and Queens has expanded considerably since I have become immersed in medieval history. Henry II, Edward III, Henry V – what a colourful lot they are. And so are their wives and mistresses …
9. What three novels could you read over and over?
I have read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” more times that I can count, and particularly since thoroughly enjoying the BBC series. Colin Firth and the wet shirt scene (and what would Jane have thought of that!) has become Darcy in my mind for ever.
Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” has always fascinated me. An amazing story of the American Civil War, skilfully dovetailing the sweeping events of the war and the personal story of Scarlett and Rhet. And what a strong heroine Scarlett makes. I do not always find her a sympathetic character, but I still find myself firmly on her side.
Georgette Heyer’s “These Old Shades” was the first of her novels that I read many years ago. I have enjoyed her Regency romances, but I have re-read “These Old Shades” many times. Perhaps I have a liking for reformed rakes …
10. Tea or coffee when writing?
I enjoy both, tea early in the day and then coffee. But in the evening, best of all, when I review what I have done during the day, a glass of wine – or two.
Anne O’Brien’s official website: