Radmila May talks with C B Hanley
C B Hanley (who also writes as Catherine Hanley) was born in Perth, Western Australia.
She gained a degree and a PhD at the University of Sheffield. Her love of medieval studies led to a number of academic and non-fiction publications, but she decided that writing fiction was more fun.
Since moving to the UK she has lived in Somerset and Sheffield,
and is currently based in the Midlands with her husband and three children.
Radmila: Looking up your website it seems clear that your interest in history began well before you started writing fiction. What attracted you to history and in particular the Middle Ages? And what was the subject of your Ph.D? And do tell us about the ‘hands-on’ historical research that you have done and still do.
Cath: My interest was first piqued when I moved as a child from Australia (where I was born) to the UK. I couldn’t get over how old some of the buildings were – churches, castles and so on – and I wanted to know more. At my new school I was given a free choice of reading, so I picked an encyclopaedia of history and read it from cover to cover. After that I buried myself in the children’s novels of Rosemary Sutcliff and Ronald Welch, and from then on I was hooked. And as to ‘why the Middle Ages’: how could anyone not be fascinated by castles, knights and swords?
My PhD, perhaps unsurprisingly, was on the subject of warfare in France and England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and how contemporaries depicted it in different types of text. That last bit is hugely important both to historians and to writers of historical fiction: reading contemporary texts really gives us an insight into the mindset of medieval people.
My practical experience stems from having been both a re-enactor, as a hobby, and working professionally as a historical interpreter at a replica early medieval village. The former was very useful for learning about things like armour and weapons – the weight, the balance, the physical sensation of what it’s like to wear a helmet, and so on. And the latter was invaluable for learning about daily life: if you’ve ever actually tried lighting a fire without matches when your kindling is wet, or cooking over an open flame, it’s easier to write about.
Radmila: And why did you then decide also to write fiction? And in particular to set your stories in the years after the death of King John and the accession of the child king Henry III?
Cath: Several things converged to make it the perfect choice for me. Firstly, the study of history does have its frustrations, particularly when there are gaps in the sources. I knew, for example, that Earl William de Warenne was on John’s side of the war in 1215, when Magna Carta was agreed; that the following year he defected to Prince Louis of France, who had invaded; but that in 1217 he switched back to the royalist party now represented by Henry III. All of these were documented, but there was no explanation at all as to why he should have taken any of these actions. Taking a fictional character and dropping him into the middle of all this meant that I could make up my own story about it.
At the time I was having these ideas I lived in Sheffield, where I spent a great deal of time at Conisbrough Castle, a place I love and came to know very well. By happy coincidence Conisbrough was, in the early thirteenth century, in the hands of the very same William de Warenne, so where better to set the story?
And thirdly, I have always felt that too much of history (and historical fiction) is about the royals and nobles – what we might call the ‘1%’ these days. That’s understandable, as they are the best documented, but I wanted to explore what life was like for everyone else. This is why you will find in my books that the nobles, although present, are relegated to the background: all the point-of-view characters are from the ‘support staff’, so to speak: the commoner, the squire, the lady’s maid, the shop girl. I wanted to give those voices from the Middle Ages a chance to speak.
Radmila: Your account of certain aspects of mediaeval life is far from the excessively romantic depiction by eg the pre-Raphaelite artists. Take, for instance, the bloodshed of the siege of Lincoln (The Bloody City) and the merciless hanging as outlaws of the French soldiers (Whited Sepulchres), even the comparatively merciful punishment of the priest in Brother’s Blood. And the desperate poverty and near slavery conditions of the peasantry. I suspect this is the most truthful version – would I be right? The feudal system seems to be particularly rigid and hierarchical at this time – was it never challenged?
Cath: For most people, including the ones I focus on, life was certainly no picnic – and it could be cut short without warning by illness, accident or violence. Society was highly stratified and it was very difficult to move from one section to another (although the occasional, generally very talented, person did manage it). Many of the villagers of Conisbrough were tied to the land, and their livelihoods were very much dependent on the character of the lord who ruled over them.
Having said that, there was a little more scope for self-determination than might be expected. Villagers and townsfolk were aware of their rights under the law and were often prepared to organise themselves to stand up for those rights. And we also have to remember that they themselves might not have considered their lives to be all that harsh, as they knew no different: to them it was just the way things were. To take a slightly facetious example, how can you know that life is harder without a washing machine or a telephone or a clock when you can have noconception of what such things are?
So, in short – yes, life back then was by our modern standards unimaginably harsh, but equally, people did notapply modern standards to themselves.
Radmila: Edwin, however, is quite different to his contemporaries. He is quiet, observant, uses his intelligence: I was particularly struck by his mental arithmetic abilities which so impress those around him. And his friend Martin, a great big lumbering creature, not a great brain but well-meaning, did you plan him as a contrast?
Cath: When I created the character of Edwin, I wanted to depict someone who wasn’t your usual type of ‘hero’. In many of the detective stories I’ve read (both historical and those set in the modern day), the protagonist is a hardboiled, been-there-done-that sort of person who isn’t fazed by much. I was interested in exploring what it might be like to be thrust into a violent and confusing world if you were young and scared. And yes, he’s intelligent, even startlingly so: just because medieval people didn’t have access to modern technology, it doesn’t mean they were all stupid. Great thinkers are, and always have been, found in the most unlikely places.
Having said that, we also have to recognise that the thirteenth century was a very different place, and that being clever and able to think clearly wouldn’t always have got you where you wanted to be. Martin is, as you say, a contrast: he’s not nearly as clever as Edwin, but he’s in a much better social position because he was born noble and has the physical ability to bash the living daylights out of people – the first necessary to be a member of the knightly class, and the second a very admired trait within that class.
Radmila: Did you find writing about Alys very challenging when the role of mediaeval women is soobscure? Of course, you do bring in the real life Nicola de la Haye who would have been a member of the aristocracy but presumably her courage and determination were not unique (eg the fearsome Empress Matilda herself). One way in which women seem to have achieved influence on the continent was by becoming a nun – I am thinking particularly of Hildegarde of Bingen. Were there others?
Cath: Fortunately, thanks to the tireless work of many (mainly female) scholars in recent years, we now know much more about medieval women’s lives than was previously the case – the days of the ‘great man’ way oflooking at history are long gone. I wanted to make Alys an integral part of the story, not just have her on the sidelines in a bit-part as ‘Edwin’s wife’. Of course it is true that the roles played by men and women at all levels of society were highly gendered, but it is also true that many women were able – within those confines – to be much more active and independent than might generally be supposed. And courage and determination certainly weren’t limited to those of the upper classes!
Yes, one way in which a woman could achieve authority was in becoming a nun – but achieving that sort of autonomy was much more likely if the woman in question came from one of the upper echelons of society. Religious life was just as socially stratified as lay society, and the women who became influential abbesses and patrons of learning were unlikely to have come from a peasant background.
Radmila: On the whole, people in your stories seem to have been pretty devout and unquestioning. Was that so everywhere? No sign of heresies?
Cath: Clearly I can’t speak for the internal thoughts of individual medieval people, but I do believe that unquestioning acceptance of religion was more widespread than is sometimes depicted in historical novels. There is a tendency for authors to make their medieval characters more attractive or empathetic to modern readers by having them continually question organised religion or the existence of God, and I honestly don’t think this happened to any great extent, certainly not in thirteenth-century England.
Religion, after all, was not just one facet of life: it was all-encompassing, influencing one’s existence literally from the cradle to the grave; it was just the way things were. How likely is it that one doubting individual could
convince themselves that they were right and that every single churchman and institution were wrong? That the whole fabric of their society was built on a lie? The enormity of it would be too much to contemplate for most. There is ample evidence of medieval people being desperate to arrange the baptism of infants not expected to live, or making deathbed bequests to pay for Masses for their own soul; this shows that their thoughts, even in extremis, were of a religious nature.
The most widespread ‘heresy’ of the thirteenth century in Europe was Catharism, but it’s important to note that even they weren’t rejecting religion wholesale – they were simply believing in and promoting a different form of it.
Radmila: One topic which particularly interests me is the criminal investigations and procedures of the time. You refer to coroners and sheriffs: what was their role? Who actually conducted trials for serious offences? Did the changes brought in by Henry II (judges going out on assize etc) apply?
Cath: Medieval England, in general, was much less lawless than you might think – Henry II had, as you say, overhauled the justice system, and royal judges made regular countrywide visitations.
However, in the absence of Richard I for most of his reign and his predilection for selling offices to raise money for his crusades, and following the corruption endemic under John’s rule, some of these well-organised systems started to fall by the wayside: the reason there is a specific clause in Magna Carta about not selling or delaying justice was because John was doing exactly that.
Further confusion was caused during the civil war of 1216–17 (during which the first five books in my series are set) when some barons and their counties declared for Louis and others held for John: who, then, was responsible for justice? There was a bit of a free-for-all, and this is another of the reasons why I decided to set my series during this period: the general confusion of the war gives much more scope for the sort of extra-judicial, private investigation that Edwin carries out on behalf of his lord.
, Cast the First Stone, is set just after the end of the war, when those ruling on behalf of the new boy king, Henry III, were attempting to re-impose order, so it’s actually the first time Edwin encounters an appointed sheriff. Things will be different from now on – or so he thinks.
Radmila: The historical elements in your novels are detailed and authentic and also interesting in themselves yet you manage to maintain pace in the story you are telling and interest in the characters. How do you achieve the balance between narrative and background?Cath: This is actually something I find quite difficult! I love historical research (can you tell?) and there’s always a big temptation to put lots of it in a novel just for the sake of it, because it’s all so fascinating. So I have to keep reminding myself that I’m telling a story, not writing a history book, and I’m very strict with myself at the stage of editing the first draft: if there’s a bit of background which helps to further the plot or gives an insight into one of the characters, it stays, but if it’s only there for information – or, worse, if it’s actually hindering the plot – it comes out, no matter how much I like it.
To take a specific example from Cast the First Stone (and without giving too much away …), while researching this novel I did rather a lot of reading up on how bread was baked in the thirteenth century, and much of this
information ended up in the first draft. When I read through it again, I kept the scene where Alys has to take her dough to the village’s communal oven, because the women gathering there and talking over recent events is an integral part of the plot, and the bread is the means by which I placed her there. But I cut out a scene where she was at home preparing the dough, because this served no other purpose than to show off that I had researched how bread was made, and it slowed down the action while providing no particular information about her character.
Radmila: Finally, a writing question. Do you plan your stories well before you start writing or do you plunge right in? At the end of your latest published novel (Cast the First Stone), Edwin is in the process of making a momentous decision which will change his life for ever? Which way will he turn?Cath: This is probably going to make me sound very boring indeed, but I’m afraid I’m 100% a planner. I don’t start typing Chapter 1 until I’ve got a complete outline of the plot and the characters, a plan of who is going to do what and when, and some idea of the background colour and of the way in which I need to drop in hints that will relate to later books. Indeed, I’ve even got a rough outline here of the whole of the rest of the series: this means that I know what Edwin is going to do next, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait to find out …
Books by C B Hanley
was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.