Today I’m happy to welcome historical fiction author Beverly Swerling. Beverly’s new book, Bristol House, is a captivating tale of modern day London, Tudor London, a mystery, a romance and a ghost. Click the link to read my full review – I highly recommend it.
I’m also GIVING AWAY a copy of the book – CLICK HERE TO ENTER.
Such a complex, intricate narrative, woven in historical facts, begs a little insight from the author on how she researched and made decisions about characters, settings, plot turns.
Beverly’s story began at the real No. 8 Bristol House in London…
Bristol House: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep… by Beverly Swerling
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” Generations of children have said that prayer. I suspect its popularity has as much to do with the promise of stability as the petition for divine protection. How many nursery books have illustrated those words with the picture of a little boy or girl, head resting on the pillow, covers tucked up to the chin? Would that all the world’s children had such secure places to rest every night of their lives.
They don’t, of course. Not the children, and not the grown-ups they become. Some of us with a firm roof over our heads now can remember times when it was not there and we were not at all sure it ever would be. Few things are more terrifying for most people. We humans are, it seems, born with the need for a “place,” a home, what a character in my novel calls, “…a bolt hole.” That imperative appears hard-wired, part of our DNA.
I’ve been very conscious of those considerations in writing a novel named for a specific building on a specific street in a specific city. Indeed, the action of the novel is so tightly connected to a particular flat within the building that I almost made the title No. 8 Bristol House. That felt right because in the alternate universe we designate as “real life,” the story began for me in that exact flat. The place where my heroine, the American historian Annie Kendal, goes to live when she moves to London is an apartment I know well. When Annie first walks in she sees pretty much what I saw on my initial visit. High ceilings, fireplaces, the long corridor with the succession of rooms overlooking Southampton Row…
There are pitfalls and glide paths connected to being so precise and detailed in a work of fiction. On the one hand you can easily call to mind your own thoughts and feelings when you first saw the places you’re writing about; that’s half your job done. On the other, you feel constrained by that very reality. In this case I was determined that everything around Bristol House had to be located and described with the same fidelity with which I wanted to recreate No. 8 itself. Eventually I did give myself some leeway in the matter of the street level shops either side of the building. They, after all, have changed character repeatedly during the twenty-plus years that I’ve been visiting Bristol House. They even changed while I was writing the book. But London itself? The section of London known as Holborn? How was I to faithfully depict that given that my story is set in two different time periods separated by nearly six hundred years?
Research went a long way to solving that problem. I discovered that in the time of Henry VIII Holborn was a rural fastness beyond the walled City of London. Inside them everything was jammed together, people lived cheek by jowl, frequently separated by nothing more than twisting, cobbled paths and alleys. All life was bound by – indeed, made possible by – two rivers, the Fleet and the Thames. Those rivers supplied transportation, water for drinking and washing, and a place to dispose of ton after ton of every sort of human waste.
The Thames is tidal. Some of what is tipped into it has always been washed out to sea. But the tides cannot cope with the volume of sewerage and garbage generated by uncounted generations of Londoners. In 1535 the whole town existed beneath the pall of its own stench. Small wonder that, exactly as happens in my story, illness regularly reached epidemic proportions. At such times women – outcasts because their faces had been eaten away by the pox – roamed the streets and alleys, collecting bodies for burial or burning. Bells sewn to the hems of their enveloping black cloaks warned others to stay away.
Outside the city walls, North of Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane and St. Andrew’s Church, was a landscape of open fields and meadows, dotted with the occasional cottage. In 1535 two large monasteries dominate the landscape. One is distinguished by its distinctive round church. Two hundred years before that monastery belonged to the Knights Templar. Once the richest order in all Christendom, by 1535 they had been disgraced and disbanded, and their property given to the Knights of St. John. The other, a low, sprawling, and much less architecturally imposing affair, was the Charterhouse, home to the hermit monks called Carthusians. (Today’s Charterhouse Square is not in Holborn, incidentally. It’s part of the borough of Islington. But it’s the borders of the various legal municipalities that have moved, not the physical structures.)
Getting the physical facts right is a big job, but it’s doable. A novel, however, is an exercise in the difference between fact and truth. My facts are as accurate as I can make them, particularly in the matter of location. Truth is harder to pin down. A story begins with questions. Might not all the Carthusians be faithful hermits? Could it be that one is connected to a goldsmith living in one of those little cottages beside the Fleet? Could the two men be divided by religion – one a Jew, and as such as much an outcast as the plague women – but linked by the smith’s beautiful daughter?
Could all of them speak to us – to Annie – from beyond the grave?
Intrigued? Want to know more? Check out these other book blogs for more posts from Beverly about Bristol House, now available everywhere books are sold.
Cheryl’s Book Nook, Cheryl Koch
Booksie’s Blog, Sandie Kirkland
The Novel Life, Stacey Millican
2 Read or Not 2 Read, Marcie Turner
Maurice On Books, Jean Lewis
Historical Fiction Connection, Marie Burton
Giraffe Days, Shannon Badcock
Devourer of Books, Jen Karsbaek
Thoughts in Progress, Pamela Purcell
Share notes: @TeriHarman, @BeverlySwerling #amreading