IT STARTED WITH A POEM ...
|Photo – Charlie Hopkinson 2010|
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Helen!
At author events, when it comes round to the Question and Answer time towards the end of the evening, writers often get asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ My answer to this is always pretty much the same – I don’t get ideas. Ideas get me. One minute I don’t have the idea, and then I do, and it’s got me by the throat, and won’t let go, and then I have to write it, and when I start writing, I often have perilously little idea where I’m going to end up.
I’ve just published my second novel, and it’s probably fair to say that the whole thing – my whole publishing experience to date – stems from one small inspirational source, which ‘got me’ in a really big way. That inspirational source was a poem: a particularly wonderful, fifty-six line dramatic monologue by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
I first met Browning’s My Last Duchess as an undergraduate, at Reading University, in a tutorial session run by a darling professor called Geoffrey Matthews (a brilliant elderly academic who endeared himself to me for ever by revealing that he had a copy of The Beano delivered to his study every Thursday). I was, to use a hackneyed phrase, utterly blown away by this dramatic monologue, narrated by a sinister, smug Renaissance aristocrat, who coldly admits that he had his first wife permanently silenced because she had annoyed him once too often. So much untold back story, a complex, fascinating, dangerous protagonist and an intriguing setting – the Italian Renaissance.
The narrator – the duke – was in real life Alfonso d’Este, the fifth duke of Ferrara, and his late duchess was a Medici heiress, one Lucrezia de’ Medici.
I’d like to say that I decided to write a novel based on the poem there and then, but in fact I didn’t. It wasn’t until more than twenty years later that I came across the poem again, now as a teacher, working with a group of Year Eleven English GCSE students. There in the AQA GCSE Poetry Anthology was Browning’s poem – I was absolutely delighted to find it again. It was like meeting an old friend! (well, no ... thinking about it, perhaps not a friend. Given the duke’s homicidal proclivities.)
In the process of preparing my lessons, I started really thinking about the poem in depth, and the more I thought about it, the more questions I found myself unable to answer satisfactorily. Why, if the duke so despised his late wife that he resorted to murder to rid himself of her, is he still so fascinated with her painted image that he keeps it reverently hidden behind a sumptuous curtain which only he has the right to draw back? Why does he feel the need to show her portrait off to prestigious visitors, almost like a holy relic? Could the poor girl really have been as ghastly a creature as he describes? If she wasn’t – why did he hate her so much? Is he slandering her deliberately in the poem, to exonerate himself of guilt at her demise, or did he in fact genuinely misunderstand her through some psychological flaw of his own?
It began to obsess me. I busied myself researching the facts which lay behind the poem, but signally failed to find adequate answers. The only way, it dawned on me one afternoon, to find out what really happened to these people and why, was to write it myself.
And thus was born my first novel, His Last Duchess (Sphere 2010). If you’d like to read Browning’s poem, and to find out more about how my book grew and developed – click here to link to my website
In the course of writing His Last Duchess, I gave Alfonso, my duke, a mistress. He is a damaged and difficult man, though, and I knew that anyone prepared to cope with the demands of a relationship with so volatile and dangerous a lover would have to be seriously resourceful. Which is just what Francesca Felizzi turned out to be. Spotted by the duke and rescued by him from life as a street whore in Ferrara, she spends the best part of eight years as his paid mistress, and learns much about survival and self-preservation along the way. Francesca is beautiful and sexy and clever and fundamentally adaptable, and she uses all these attributes shamelessly.
When I finished His Last Duchess I was surprised to find that, although I was happy to say goodbye to my characters and move on, Francesca stayed with me. She kept on intruding into my thoughts, and I found myself musing about her, and wondering what she was doing, and how she was managing. I had sent her off to Naples at the end of His Last Duchess and I began to need to know how she was, as badly as I had needed to know the truth about the marriage of Alfonso and Lucrezia when I first hatched the idea for the first novel. It began to feel like an obsession, all over again.
It was clear what I was going to have to do! A new novel was obviously brewing, and over the next couple of years it grew and developed and changed, and eventually became The Courtesan’s Lover.
The following link will take you to a blogpost I wrote about how the writing of The Courtesan’s Lover began and progressed Click Here and you’ll find some review excerpts for both The Courtesan’s Lover and for His Last Duchess on the home page of my website
I love the idea that a single source of inspiration – one fifty-six line poem – has taken me on such a journey. To take it right back to its start, Robert Browning was inspired by what he discovered about the marriage of the fifth duke of Ferrara, and that inspiration sparked the creation of his poem, My Last Duchess. His poem then inspired me, and led me to write my first novel – His Last Duchess. A fictional character created by me in the course of writing that book inspired me to produce a second book ... and to let you all in on a secret, I’m just in the early stages of planning a new book – a new book which, if things go the way I hope they’ll go, might just round the story off into a trilogy.Helen, you’ve asked me to come up with ten potential dinner guests – alive, dead or fictional. I’ve had such fun putting this list together – though it wasn’t easy! I originally came up with so many, I reckoned I’d need a giant marquee and corporate caterers, rather than creating the suggested intimate dinner party. So I started cutting the list down, and below are the ten who made the final cut. (I’m a strict vegetarian, so I hope all my guests will be happy with the veggie menu I’ve devised for them) I hope you’ll come along to the dinner too, Helen.
(H: I'll be delighted to attend - thank you!)
The final ten are here partly for their achievements and partly because I think they will all be wonderfully entertaining; I’ve tried to pick people I think will get on with each other too ...
Jane Austen A number of my chosen guests here are story tellers. Jane Austen of course needs no introduction – I’m just in awe of her abilities. She will be a quietly entertaining companion, I think - she has such a keen understanding of human nature, such a delightful, ironic wit. I adore her books, and I can’t wait to talk to her about plotting and characterisation.
Victoria Wood Dinner parties are best when the conversation is amusing, I reckon, and Victoria Wood is simply one of the funniest people on the telly. I wish she was on screen more often. I’ve always loved her observational humour, her insight, her brilliant characterisations – and her wonderful skill on the piano. (Hopefully, she’ll give us a rendition of The Ballad of Barry And Freda at the end of the meal.)
Alan Bennett I have two Bennetts on my chosen list. Alan is the first. Again, here’s a consummate story teller, with a dry, gentle wit, and a piercing ability to understand the frailty of the human condition. From the Talking Heads monologues to The History Boys – just utterly brilliant drama, told with an unmistakeable voice.
Mercutio Shakespeare’s wild and wonderful dreamer from Romeo and Juliet. It’s always been a toss-up for me as to whether the most fanciable man in literature is Mr Darcy or Mercutio. It’s a difficult one, this, but given that Mr Darcy can, as we know, be rather reserved in less than aristocratic social situations, I’ve plumped for Romeo’s excitable cousin instead. I love his wild, exuberant character, and his courage and loyalty. I’m not at all sure he’ll behave himself, but I hope my other guests will be up to the task of containing Mercutio’s effervescence.
Geoffrey Chaucer For me, he is just the best story teller of them all. Down to earth, funny, vulgar, poignant, endlessly inventive ... simply wonderful! The Canterbury Tales is, to my mind, one of the most impressive collections of stories ever written – and the foundation of so much of English literature. I hope it will entertain Mr Chaucer to meet people like Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett, who are so very clearly his literary descendents (albeit in other genre), and we’ll all have so much to learn from him.
Elizabeth Bennett I feel rather diffident bringing my second Bennett to the table. After all, I’m going to be sitting her down either next to or opposite her creator. But Elizabeth Bennett, from Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has to be one of the most delightful heroines in any novel. Intelligent, funny, determined, independent and compassionate – I hope she will enjoy the evening and be suitably diverted by the assembled company.
Leonardo da Vinci Given the era and settings of my two novels, I felt I ought to have a Renaissance man at the dinner. And Da Vinci has probably the greatest mind that there has ever been. Artist, scientist, inventor, anatomist – the list of his achievements is unique. I’m a little worried that he will be SO frighteningly clever that I won’t be brave enough to say a word to him, but, given that he is a well-known and life-long vegetarian, at least we’ll have that in common as a topic of conversation, if I find myself lacking in other respects.
Bill Bryson On a number of occasions I have been acutely embarrassed in public by Mr Bryson - because I have been reading one or other of his books, and have ended up shouting with laughter (they are howlingly funny), and have had to apologise to my companions for disturbing the peace. I’m a rubbish traveller, but I’m sure I would manage much better were Mr Bryson to travel along with me. (I’m lucky enough to be represented by the same literary agency, too) I think I’ll sit him next to Geoffrey Chaucer – and then I can just sit back and listen to the ensuing conversation.
Robert Browning Apart from the fact that I think Browning is a wonderful poet, and the fact that I know from what I’ve read of him that he was an entertaining and interesting companion, I will SO enjoy asking him whether he approves of what I’ve done with his duke in my novel, and discussing Signor d’Este with him. I have so much to thank Mr Browning for! I’ve tried writing verse in Browning’s style in the past – rhyming iambic couplets with the rhymes hidden in run-on lines - so if I’m feeling brave enough, I might show him one or two of my poems and see if I can get some feedback ...)
Modesto Helen, I’m hoping you won’t mind if I pick one of my own characters to come to this dinner party. Modesto is my eponymous courtesan’s manservant, and ever since he first came into my head, he’s been the character I’ve written with whom I would most like to sit down and have dinner – so I hope it’s OK if he comes along to this occasion. Modesto is what was known in the Renaissance as a castrato – as a ten year old boy (along with tens of thousands of other boys) he was castrated by the church authorities to preserve his extraordinary singing voice and keep him a permanent soprano. Despite this appalling start in life, Modesto is witty and wise and loyal and kind, and will so much enjoy the company around the table at this dinner.
(You can meet him here for yourself in the first chapter of the book on my website!)
Helen: what a delightful post Gabrielle - I'm dashing off now to buy the books!