Tremain's Terrain

Article excerpt

Rose Tremain reveals how her fascination with the seventeenth century was the key that unlocked the world of her acclaimed historical novels.

TALK AT LENGTH with any writer of fiction and you will discover a particular terrain that the writer likes to inhabit. This terrain might be an actual country or city; it might be that lost domaine we call childhood; it might be an area of psychopathology; it might be one of a thousand places of the mind -- and one of these is the past. What attaches a writer to his or her terrain is that, in this place more than any other, the writer's imagination feels both liberated and at home.

The seventeenth century has been my terrain of preference for more than twenty years. Or rather, I have had an on-off love affair with that period of history for all this time, abandoning it frequently in favour of the contemporary but then returning to it over and over again. If I had to paint a picture of how I see `my seventeenth century' the ground of the painting would be a deep, thick, black with, at its centre, a pale empty space, like an arched window. The moment I catch sight of that window, my mind longs to wander through it.

I first saw the window when I was teaching history at a London prep school in the seventies. I was trying to make vivid for the children the reign of James I and was struggling because its colours seemed sombre after the great shimmering tapestry of the Elizabethan period. And then I saw that undemeath the black-brown texture of the Scottish king's life, there was a colourful struggle going on between James's infatuation with his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and the King's foreign diplomacy. Buckingham, because he had suffered a personal insult from the King of Spain, led James into a war with Spain that he did not want and could not afford. Here was something -- the betrayal of a greater good for the sake of a passionate friendship -- that fascinated both the children and me. For some time I had been trying -- and failing -- to write a really enthralling play for radio. Now I had my subject and my first play for Radio 4, called The Wisest Fool, was broadcast in April 1976.

I worked on this play while simultaneously writing my first novel, Sadler's Birthday. In the novel, my terrain (heavily disguised) was my own childhood. And one fact of this simultaneity is significant: the play was written very fast in a kind of hectic excitement, looting and grabbing from the facts of history, then distorting -- or distilling -- these facts with inventions. The novel, on the contrary, was measured, difficult work. And when I emerged from the two, I understood how the distant past had set my imagination alight to a far greater extent than the past of my own girlhood. It was from this time onwards that I decided I didn't want to draw heavily on personal data in my fictions, but rather solicit subjects outside my experience of the world and learn about the world through writing about these.

Twelve years went by before I returned to the seventeenth century. I don't know why I waited so long to go back there. Then I re-read the Pepys Diaries. The day I read the entry where Pepys spends the duration of a tedious church sermon dreaming about his new curtain fabric, I knew that the little pale window in the dark canvas was appearing again and beckoning me on. I first envisaged a play about Pepys himself, but couldn't make this work; perhaps no fiction about Pepys can ever really work precisely because the Diaries are so brilliant. But Pepys gave me the clue to my next subject. He describes the way Charles II, when he wanted to camouflage a love affair, would find a husband for the new mistress, a husband who could be bribed, of course, to let the affair with the King continue uninterrupted. And it occurred to me that the idea of the `professional' cuckold, the `paper bridegroom' paid with money and lands and rifles, was not only a deliciously funny conception, but that, in such a man's existence, there might be a marvellous dramatic dilemma. …