This is Part II of a three-part interview with historical fiction writer Valerie Anand. In Part I, Ms. Anand talked about how she became a writer. In Part III she talks about writing and the business of writing.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: How would you characterize the Ursula Blanchard series?
VALERIE ANAND: I’ll start by saying what it isn’t. It isn’t dark, grim, violent or unflinchingly realistic (this usually decodes as full of descriptions of torture and disgusting executions but it’s historically accurate so it isn’t porn. Yes, it is!).
Another thing that the series isn’t, however, is ‘cozy.’ Ursula comes up against moral dilemmas, finds herself forced to accept responsibility for violent deaths (although I don’t describe them in detail), and also has to realize that there are times when the needs of a realm must take precedence over private happiness. At the end of Queen’s Ransom, she finds that Elizabeth and Cecil have betrayed her in the interests of England. At the beginning of the current book, she comes, reluctantly, to see their point.
Now to what I feel my Ursula Blanchard series is. It’s essentially a mixture of mystery and Elizabethan espionage and it is more concerned with detection and mystery-solving than with violent adventure. This is one of the reasons why the main character is a young woman.
I decided on that partly because most (though not all) lead characters in this type of novel are male and I wanted to be different. But I also felt that merely because Ursula is a woman, she can’t get out of difficult situations just by knocking her opponents down or felling them with broadswords. She has to use brain instead of brawn, and this is my favorite kind of thriller. I have a weakness for Agatha Christie and this is partly because Hercule Poirot depends on his little gray cells and not on violence, while Miss Marple is even less capable of violence than Poirot and most certainly has to work by thinking. You may be getting the feeling that I don’t like violence. That’s true. I don’t. Of course I accept that to fight in self-defense is legitimate (you can’t have people like Hitler just trampling all over everyone in sight and do nothing about it). But it is intelligence, not muscle, that makes human beings different from the animals.
In Ursula, I have tried to create an intelligent, normally feminine woman who is involved in espionage. She is often handicapped by being female, especially since she lives in the days of Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II. She has to find ways round that. Her manservant Roger Brockley is there to do the bits which have to involve muscle. I have also tried to keep the tone entertaining. I want people to enjoy my books, to be amused as well as interested. I wish the books to be fun as well as accurate and – I hope – properly plotted and tense.
FLJ: Why did you choose the Elizabethan era?
VA: As far as I could see, most other historical whodunit series were medieval or ancient Egyptian. Elizabeth’s era hadn’t been much used. But it was a splendid era for espionage – there was so much going on and the people involved seemed to get such an extraordinary kick out of it. It was an interesting time, too, in other ways. It was the outcome of the Renaissance. New ideas were burgeoning; art, poetry, drama and music were developing fast throughout the whole Tudor era. It produced Shakespeare and Hans Holbein. Seamen were opening up new trade routes to Russia and beginning to explore America; technology and science were developing. And there was a woman on the throne, which somehow seemed to make Ursula and her unusual calling more believable. The possibilities seemed immense.
FLJ: How do Ursula and your other women characters reflect your views on women’s roles in history?
VA: Throughout history women have been largely undervalued, but their contribution was undoubtedly there. They don’t get recorded, when they must have been enormous influence behind the scenes. We’re half the human race after all. There must have been an awful lot of women who’s names haven’t echoed down the ages the same way as if they had been men. I think that in creating Ursula, and some of my other heroines, I have been trying to demonstrate what that contribution could be and also how women made it. So often, they had to dissemble so that although they were wielding influence, they weren’t seen to be wielding it.
Under the name of Valerie Anand, I did a six-book series called Bridges Over Time which followed the fortunes of one family from before the Conquest up to the 1960s. This was inspired by the life of my Great Aunt Clara, who was born in 1862, lived until 1957 and was therefore a living bridge over time. As a child she may well have known an elderly person who could just remember the end of the 18th century; she also knew me, and here I am in the 21st century. She made herself a successful businesswoman in the late 19th century and one way and another, was a fascinating character. I used her as the basis for Charlotte Whitmead, the lead character in the last book of the series, The Dowerless Sisters.
Charlotte Whitmead and quite a few of my other heroines in Bridges were influential in their fashion. Charlotte, like my great aunt, overcomes social and financial difficulties in early life to become a woman of influence and substance later on. In Women of Ashdon (which covered the late medieval and the Tudor periods), Susannah, though she has little choice in the matter of marriage, is the creator of the great house of Ashdon. In The Cherished Wives (18th century), Lucy-Anne, who starts off as a put-upon mouse of a wife, ends up as the most powerful figure in the family, who rushes to the rescue when her granddaughter is being bullied by Lucy-Anne’s son. But because the son will not accept authority in a woman, not even his mother; Lucy-Anne has to use guile to get what she wants.
FLJ: You seem to have a strong feminist streak. I believe you call it “feminism of the mind.”
VA: That sensibility began in the 1950’s when I was young. 1960’s feminism seemed to be about women being free to go around and have one-night stands and all the rest of it. I never wanted to do that. But I did want was to be able allowed to think for myself and not be confronted with this dreadful business of you must do what the men tell you because they are men. Women must not surrender their intellectual integrity. We have exactly the same right to live our lives by the light of our intelligence, to be free to learn all we can, to study if we want to, to develop an intellectual life and not to be told we shouldn’t do this by anybody.
I find that marriage clause “to obey” appalling. A woman should be free to use her intelligence to get out of an abusive relationship or earn a living if necessary. It’s important to develop intellectual resources. If you have intellectual interests and mental resources you’re not so stricken when the beauty goes and you get older. It won’t matter so much then, you’ll have something else to do.
Oh, well, I will go on for just a little while more. It is to some degree relevant to my work (I’ll explain why in a moment). If you argue with one of the kind of clergymen who believes in that obey clause, he will assure you that the woman doesn’t have to obey if she is told to do something she knows is morally wrong. He will then think he has answered your protests completely. He has done nothing of the kind. It might not be a question of wrongdoing. What if a man insists on investing most of his own and his wife’s joint savings in a dubious gold mine or the railway system in an unstable country, and demands that his wife should ‘obey’ by signing the necessary documents? He probably isn’t a wrongdoer, just an idiot. Why on earth should intelligent women have to be dominated by foolish men? Intelligence and foolishness are about evenly distributed between the sexes, after all.
The relevance is because in some of my books, I have taken a swipe at that obey clause. In the final book of the Bridges series, The Dowerless Sisters (19th and 20th centuries), one old-fashioned husband, horrified to discover scandal in his wife’s family, orders her to cut off contact with them and claims that he has the right to do so. The wife, of course, refuses.
Oh, and the argument ‘But if you take up employment, you obey your employer, don’t you?’ is just as bad as the one about wrongdoing. Marriage and employment aren’t parallel. You don’t promise to stay with your employer till death do you part; the boss has usually had to work his way up and earn his position; you have the option of taking the same career path and challenging him for his job; and he pays you, anyway. In that lovely quote from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, “No Money, No Grovel.” If offered a better deal somewhere else (more money for less grovel), you are free to go.
Oh dear, I have gone on a bit, but you did ask!
FLJ: How has that applied in your own life?
VA: Mother believed the life of the mind was only for men and wanted me to be very domesticated. But as a young woman, fired by my father’s accounts of going up in planes during the war, I learned to fly light aircraft. I didn’t go on with it after I’d got my private pilot’s license. It was too expensive! I just wanted to have done it and I did enjoy it. I used some of that experience in The Dowerless Sisters. I did my training at Biggin Hill, the famous fighter station.
I took my time getting married. In the fifties, over here, marriage was very repressive. One really was expected to knuckle under and ‘obey’. I had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Also, my background, though very loving was in some ways very narrow. I wanted wider horizons and wasn’t sure how to get them. Then, at the age of 31, after my father had died, I went dancing with some other girls, met Dalip Singh Anand, from northern India and that seemed to be it. The spark leapt the gap of race and culture instantly, and I have never regretted it. We married on 26th March 1970. It widened my horizons most satisfactorily. I now have a whole family in Delhi and Chandigarh and they have made me most welcome.
We have never had children but it hasn’t worried us.
FLJ: Has that widened horizon influenced your writing?
VA: I’ve written a couple of books about India. One was a little romance To a Native Shore. The heroine married an Indian, moved there, and was quite homesick. She had to come back to England for some reason and hesitated about returning to her husband, but it takes time and various things happen. In the end she realizes that although she will never break the links with home, she does want to go back to him. The other one, West of Sunset, was a much darker book because it took place in Delhi after the awful riots in 1984 after Mrs. Ghandi was assassinated. It’s about the fortunes of Indian immigrants in England. That incident changed lives and attitudes here.
FLJ: A reviewer has described your characters as amusingly modern. Do you agree?
VA: Yes, up to a point. I do it because that way, they will be easier for modern readers to identify with. I have read several historical novels in which the author has tried hard to make the characters be completely people of their time, and it never really works. The characters are alienated from the reader.
There’s also the point that when they were alive, people in history thought that they were modern, and after all, basic human nature doesn’t change much. Language changes, fashionable ideas change, the state of knowledge changes, but needs and emotions stay much the same. Take a look round the world now. Round the globe there are many different cultures. The difference between them is quite as great as the difference between the cultures of the 21st century and, say, the 18th. Greater in some cases! But good old human nature is there under the surface layer, just the same. I’ve even lived through quite drastic changes in culture. The world of the 1950s, in which I grew up, was very very different from the world of 2001. Yet quite a lot of the people who occupied those worlds are the same people! The words “amusingly modern” imply an anachronism, but that may be more apparent than real. Sometimes I think that the authors who try to make their characters too true to their era, lose their essential humanity.
In PART III, Ms. Anand talks about writing and the business of writing.