BackStory: Five Questions with Rosanna Hildyard

The Great Matter (crop)

BackStory: Five Questions with Rosanna Hildyard
Author of Whispers, behind closed doors

What inspired you to write ‘Whispers, Behind Closed Doors’?

I’ve always been interested in Anne Boleyn. She seems to have been as glamourous to the English courtiers of the 1520s as she still seems to us now (in films and novels from Wolf Hall to The Other Boleyn Girl). She was a genuinely intelligent and radical woman; she was educated in contemporary international and religious politics, and when she caught the attention of Henry VIII she made sure she (a woman) was an independent landowner in her own right.

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?

I got into reading historical fiction writers when I was a young reader, searching for dramatic storylines and larger-than-life characters. I loved Philippa Gregory’s Tudors and Wars of The Roses sagas, Anya Seton’s Katherine Swynford and Jean Plaidy’s Mary Queen of Scots and Isabella of Castile. It was everyday, social history that interested me more than the dates and battles we learned about at school. These biographical novels focused on women’s stories – but rather than romance, the complex and usually transactional attitudes towards marriage often meant for a more nuanced portrayal of romantic relationships than the other romances teenagers are given to read.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I’m interested in the discourse of love in Tudor prose and poetry. This piece explores that: there’s a strange fakeness (or innocence) that comes from the sheer love of wordplay in much of the literature of this time. I was interested that at the time, politics and government was becoming modern, and going through huge international/religious/military changes; yet at court, pretending to be a chivalrous medieval knight was still idealised. The conflict and problems that developed from that were what interested me.

Many of the sonnets by Sidney, Wyatt and Surrey seem more in love with the idea of love than the women they address. They were a kind of public posing, to shape the writer himself as a kind of figure of romance. But you can see the tenderness under the posing. I’ve always liked the character of Berowne in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost; he’s a courtier who flirts for the fun of it, writes sonnets to show off, and then ends up unable to speak or write when he’s finally floored by love. Words can be a performance, truth might be in silence.

What do you like most about writing flash?

I like writers like Anne Carson and Mary Ruefle, whose work could be read as poetry, prose or essay. For me, writing flash is like writing a long, narrative poem – it gives you as the writer the opportunity to work more closely with the language than you might be able to do in a longer-form short story.

How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

Not at all. I think it’s important to consider how each author tells a subjective story – even if they’re a biographer claiming to ‘reveal the truth’, they’re always subjective. Pepy’s diary often avoids the ‘important’ or ‘historical’ truth – whether that means admitting his infidelities to himself, or skipping over a description of Charles II’s coronation because he (Pepys) ‘had so great a list to piss’. I think fantastical elements can have a function in written history and biography; like Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up The Ghost, which describes being haunted, or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a biography of Vita Sackville-West, which is uses fictional/magical elements in order to satirise her contemporary society.

Rosanna Hildyard’s essays and fiction have recently appeared in Under The Radar, Review31 and The Poetry School and newspapers in North East UK. She won Oxford University’s The Isis Short Story Competition in 2016, judged by Hossein Amini and Polly Toynbee, and her satirical drama, Ubu Trump, was published by Eyewear in 2017.

Image detail from The Courtship of Anne Boleyn by Emanuel Leutze (1846), Smithsonian American Art Museum 1980.28.