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Historical Settings And Novel Writing, by Emma Darwin

One March morning a few years ago, while I was writing A Secret Alchemy, I got up earlier than I consider altogether decent for a Saturday, in order to drive to Hampton Court to do some research. It was cold and grey, with dull light and a nasty east wind, and there was scarcely anyone about except for security people with their coats buttoned up to their chins and an air of bracing themselves for the day as much as the weather.

I found my way through arches and past gates as instructed, collected my pass and trudged past the backs of low buildings – storehouses, offices, goods yards – and through the gardens. Seemingly miles away, the roof of the Tudor hall, and the chimneys and pinnacles of the great gateways, were elaborate and remote: an untidy accumulation of Wolsey’s blood-coloured grandeur. I could smell the woodsmoke where they were lighting the fires in Henry VIII’s kitchens. It began to rain.

Through a door in a wall, and round a corner and a couple of centuries, the long William & Mary front stretched away. The cream-coloured pillars, windows and even the clipped bay trees are as regular as a regiment, eyes fixed on the prospect across the formal garden. It must often have been cold and grey for them too on ordinary days: not rich or sunlit or exciting, just working days. I turned under a portico beyond which, in a courtyard, fountain-water was being thrown about by the wind, so that the noise echoed around among the pillars while I looked for the right door.

Hampton Court has two faces, their backs joined but their gaze in opposite directions. I love the place, but on that day this doubleness of aspect and character was confusing. The glamour and violence of Elysabeth and Antony’s world in A Secret Alchemy is not distant in time or nature from Henry’s, and that’s where I should have been: that’s the setting I had lived in for so long. The clean, clear rhythm of Wren’s palace spoke to me of the setting I wanted to enter: the ordering of science, the balance and elegance of form, and the confidence of reason.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. The late fifteenth century saw the beginnings of humanism, scientific enquiry, classical scholarship and modern economics. The late seventeenth century was a land of witch-hunts, starvation, heresy and violence. Each setting for me has its own particular texture of smell,colour and sound.

Treading along the thick, shifting gravel of the paths I felt unsteady, as you do on a long journey, suspended between two places which hold two separate meanings. I can’t work if I have to gaze in two opposite directions. William and Mary will have to wait.


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The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     Send Me Safely Back AgainThe Leopard Sword (Empire)The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)The Salt RoadPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels

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