Fiction Book of the Month: Andrew Taylor on The Royal Secret

Robert Lyman discusses with the bestselling author his latest novel, and his writing.
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Andrew Taylor, with The Royal Secret you’re now at 45 books (at my last count) in 39 years, not including a clutch of novellas! Is there something very special in the water where you live? What’s your secret?

The easy answer is that when you write for a living you need to keep the words coming. (I always think of a reply that the far more prolific Anthony Burgess made to a similar question: ‘I wrote much because I was paid little.’)

But of course there was more to it than this sordidly practical reason. I realised when I was writing my first novel, Caroline Minuscule, more than 40 years ago, that whether the book found a publisher or not I had found the thing in life I wanted to do: write stories.

You clearly like writing in a series, developing characters and stories as you go. You’ve stayed in the 20th Century so far, at least until James Marwood was introduced to us in 2016. What is it about the 17th century that fascinates you?

Series allow you to develop the recurring characters over time, and to build – perhaps ‘explore’ is a more accurate description – the world they inhabit.

Reading accounts of the Great Fire – especially Pepys’ – inspired The Ashes of London. My original plan was to write a trilogy of three novels with the government clerk James Marwood and the aspiring architect Cat Lovett as their central characters. But the more I learn about Restoration England, its brutal politics and its cultural ferment, the more I want to find out, and the less I want to leave this fascinating world.

In developing historical characters, believability is key. What do you do to enable your characters to come to life to a modern reader yet stay true to the historical context?

This is one of the challenges of writing of historical fiction, which exists in the no man’s land between historical fact and the novelist’s imagination.

I try to endow my characters with beliefs and lives that could plausibly belong to the period. If characters are based on real people, I keep their fictional actions within the bounds of the historical record (or at least that part of the record available to me). If they are fictional, I have much more room for manoeuvre. Sometimes I choose the possible over the probable. For example, James Marwood doesn’t think twice about slavery as a concept, which is historically probable; but he feels queasy about the reality of ‘owning’ another person when a young black boy comes to live in his household, which is a possible response from a man in his historical context.

Another tactic is to avoid the temptation to insert all my research into the novel. Readers (I include myself here) want a story with credible, interesting characters, not slabs of undigested historical detail. It surprises me, however, how much of the background research seems to permeate the narrative without any conscious effort on my part. It somehow integrates itself with the story, allowing the readers to join the dots and build their own view of this world. (Fortunately readers are very good at this, and like doing it!)

And then there’s dialogue as an aid to authenticity. I read a lot of Restoration literature, but the language of the period is too far removed from us to be easy to use directly in 21st-century fiction. So I base my dialogue on plain, modern English – but I allow the occasional 17th-century word or phrase or speech rhythm to creep in when the context allows it. I try to avoid clanging anachronisms.

Likewise, how much do you feel that you are an historian? What do you have to do to ensure that history and geography (especially the highways and byways of 17th century London) are accurate to the historic record?

I realised at the age of 15 that I was not cut out to be a historian in the scholarly sense, despite a frankly insatiable interest in the subject. But I am absurdly obsessed with trying to make sure the details are right. I browse contemporary maps, newspapers, diaries, letters and plays. I check the price of hiring a hack from a livery stable for the day or the probable layout of long-vanished buildings.

As an illustration: I have just spent the last three days trying to reconcile the use of both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars with the fragmentary documentary evidence available to me, in order to construct what I think is an accurate chronology of a two-week period in a particular place. Most of my readers couldn’t care less and wouldn’t notice if I made a mistake. But I care.

I think it was Hilary Mantel who suggested that historical novelists can ‘interrogate’ history in a different way from historians, by trying to inhabit the past imaginatively. That struck a chord with me.

Now, to Marwood and Lovett/Hakesby. Where did the idea for this combination come from? Is the development of their relationship just something that happens intuitively, or is there a master plan?

There is no master plan for Marwood and Lovett. I’m not very good at planning. At the beginning, I knew the characters would run for at least three novels, and that their relationship would often be stormy, if not downright antagonistic, and not romantic in any predictable sense. I wanted Marwood to be what we’d now call a civil servant, a sort of low-grade Pepys, struggling to survive and prosper in the Whitehall jungle. And I imagined that Cat would have been too damaged by her upbringing to envisage her future in the traditional wifely terms of the period.

Since then, their relationship has evolved over the series with very little conscious help from me. They are getting to know each other, and I’m getting to know them, over a period of years. As I write this, I’ve reached the last quarter of the current book, the sixth: I’ve no idea what will happen to Cat and Marwood in the final chapter. I hope they’ll let me know when the time is right.

I think you know that I’ve been a fan of your books for many years. I am a complete sucker for historical fiction, but as an historian myself I am always looking out for inadvertent howlers. How do you protect yourself from these?

This question is the stuff of nightmares. I try very hard to make sure the factual details are accurate (see above) but I’m sure I make mistakes. Given time and endless resources, I’d be delighted to have a panel of expert fact-checkers at my disposal.

The Royal Secret includes the Secret Treaty of Dover in 1670, one of the terms of which was Charles II would convert to Catholicism. How seriously do you think he took this?

Charles II was a wily man who played his cards close to his chest. He would have known better than anyone that there would be an enormous political price to pay if he announced his conversion to Catholicism during his reign. But he did keep the promise on his deathbed when it no longer really mattered, in this world at least, and when he and everyone else knew that his heir, his brother James, was already a Catholic.

My own theory is that Charles might well have been personally inclined towards Catholicism, which provided a sort of theological backbone to Stuart ideas of hierarchy and the divine right of kings. Moreover, many of those he particularly loved or admired were or had been Catholic.

By nature he was a pragmatist, however, not a fanatic. In 1670, I suspect that he crossed his fingers when he agreed to the treaty, and added the proviso to himself that he would announce his conversion only when the time was right for himself and for his kingdom. On his deathbed it was.

Charles’ sister, a key participant in the negotiations of the treaty, died soon after, amidst rumours of poisoning by her cruel husband. How seriously should we take these rumours?

On balance I think it’s unlikely that Minette was poisoned, either by the husband or by anyone else. She had a long history of ill-health. According to Nancy Goldstone in Daughters of the Winter Queen, Minette’s symptoms can be attributed either to intestinal tuberculosis, which was then widespread in France, or to a peptic ulcer. Either of those could have led to intestinal perforation and peritonitis, which was the probable cause of her violent pains and rapid death.

The autopsy, which was witnessed by both French and English observers in an atmosphere of rumour and suspicion, found no evidence of poison.

With The Royal Secret we now have the fifth chapter in James and Cat’s adventures. Can you assure your fan club that they have many more scrapes to experience yet?

I hope there will be more. It would be nice to reach the Glorious Revolution. And why stop there?

Andrew Taylor is a bestselling novelist and author of The Royal Secret, his latest novel of the Marwood & Lovett series. Robert Lyman is a historian and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain – 1941-45.

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