Interview with Elizabeth Fremantle

Elizabeth Fremantle has published two novels about the Tudor era: Queen's Gambit, about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, about the Grey sisters who menaced their Tudor cousins. Her novels have been described by The Sunday Times as "Pacy, superb, harrowing. Terrifically entertaining."

Her most recent novel, Watch the Lady, about Lady Penelope Devereux was published in June 2015 to very positive reviews. The paperback version is available from 11 February 2016.

Elizabeth studied for a BA in English and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, London. She has contributed to various publications including Vogue, The Sunday Times, Vanity Fair and The Financial Times and reviews fiction for the Sunday Express. She lives in London.

TT: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in history?

EF: I have always enjoyed historical fiction, but I came to writing through an English degree, rather than being an historian. I was particularly interested in sixteenth and seventeenth century women writers – it was the period when women first began to find their voices and be heard as religious and political beings.

TT: With so many fascinating characters in the Tudor period, how have you selected the protagonists for your novels?

EF: The women who fascinate me are those for whom it is possible to access their authentic voices through texts, letters and, in the case of Levina Teerlinc, her paintings. I would find it difficult to write about someone where there is no voice, no trace of their personality left.

TT: Did you have a strong feeling about Katherine Parr, before you began researching, or did her personality unfold as you wrote?

EF: I was drawn to Katherine Parr as an author, whose works, although they may be easy to dismiss now, were an important political and religious statement.It is hard for the modern mind to understand the intimate intertwining of the religious and the political, but for people of that period, they were inextricably linked. Of course, my Katherine is a fictional character, we have no idea what she truly thought about anything, but we can extrapolate elements of character from facts we do know – the fact that she chose red for her liveries, and loved diamonds, the fact that she married Thomas Seymour – those things tell us something about her.

TT: How do you research your work?

EF: So far, I have written about women whose lives have already been well documented and for whom a discourse already exists, so I am fortunate in having lots of secondary material, but nothing comes close to holding an original artefact. At the moment I am writing about Arbella Stewart, who was a prolific letter-writer, and although her work can be read in transcript, I have sought out originals in the archives to actually see and hold them as a way to access the past. Also, my response to the originals may be different from another writer’s.

TT: Researching facts about individual lives is one thing, how do you build up enough background knowledge for the surroundings to seem realistic?

EF: I am very conscious of architectural space, and its importance, so I spend a good deal of time wandering around historic houses. Hampton Court Palace, so important to my novels on the Tudor period, is an inspiration and also gives a sense of what the palaces that no longer exist might have been like. I also research extensively around social customs, how people dressed and ate. Contemporary descriptions are helpful, such as the wonderful 16th French primer, The French Garden, which, through questions and answers designed to teach French, describes many everyday things – a schoolboy’s day, and the dressing of the rather difficult Lady Ri-Mellaine who is never satisfied with her maid’s efforts to dress her.

As enjoy engaging with the changing minutiae of people’s lives and as I move forward in time in my books, I see changes in social customs; for example, by the time of my later Stuart books, people are riding in carriages, and using forks, which Katherine Parr would not have done.

TT: Do you think authors of fiction should stay with known facts, or is it acceptable for facts to be manipulated in novels?

EF: I think we should strive for authenticity.Of course, one can’t have complete veracity, as even historians disagree on the facts – but readers don’t want to be taken for a ride. My characters experience the things that are known to be true, for example, I don’t say they were in a particular place if they were known to be somewhere else, and I believe we should stay with known facts. I enjoy working within the limitation of the framework the facts create. I explore character from the inside, extrapolating a sense of a person based on the ways they have responded to certain circumstances, and the project is to place that character within that framework.

Where facts are unknown, or there are different possible interpretations, is where the fiction truly lies.

TT: Which historical novelists do you admire most, and what have you learnt from them?

EF: When I was a girl, I was raised on a diet of Jean Plaidy. Rereading them, I am surprised by the amount of historical research contained in them, but the issues that writers were addressing in relation to women’s lives were very different then. I am a big fan of Rose Tremain. I love her books, “Restoration” and “Merivel”. She is a writer’s writer - literary with a wonderful sense of the comic.Her book, “Music and Silence” on Christian IV of Denmark’s court is superb.

I admire Hilary Mantel hugely. She has a wonderful prose style, and is a tremendous world-builder, just with use of language and punctuation. I do wonder if her works would have been so well-received had her protagonist been a woman, rather than a man. Male readers and critics are sometimes dismissive of writing about women, which is a shame.

I also love Sarah Waters who has a way of bringing the past to life so vividly you feel you can reach out and touch it.

One of my most favourite books is Stephan Zweig’s, “Beware of Pity”, was written just before the Second World War, exploring Germany and its complex social structures that contributed to the First World War. Whilst possibly not within the Historical Fiction Association definition of historical fiction, which is events thirty-five or more years before writing, it works as a picture of a past time.

TT: What is your next project?

EF: Watch the Lady about Penelope Devereux will be published in June, and I am working on a book about Arbella Stewart – she will be my link from the Tudors to the Stuarts.

TT: Are you a full time writer or do you have to juggle writing with other responsibilities?

EF: I am very lucky to have the luxury of being a full time writer and have even more time now even my youngest child is at university.

TT: What is your writing day like?

EF: I have a word count per day of a minimum 1,000 words, which may come within an hour, or take all day. I usually begin at 9am, and go on till 5pm, or later if I am on a roll. I don’t stop for lunch as it interrupts the flow, which can at times be like catching smoke in your fingers.

I am contracted to produce one book a year, which is a tight schedule, but just about doable.I like to keep the momentum up, researching the next book as I am editing the current one.

TT: There are many aspiring fiction writers – do you have any advice to share that you wish someone had given you before you began?

If you believe in what you are doing, don’t give up, although nothing can prepare you for the rejection – I had been writing for ten years and had three completed novels rejected before Queen’s Gambit was accepted.

I would strongly advise taking professional advice. Use a professional editor to review your script before you submit it; don’t just rely on the opinions of friends as they are always too kind.

TT: Are you planning to attend any events during 2015 where our readers might be able to hear you speak?

EF: A number of events will be related to the publication of Penelope Devereux in June, and details will be on my website at

Two events already planned are:

  • 27th June 2015 - Beacon Festival of Books and Writing, Brookmead School, Ivinghoe, Bucks. I will be talking with Toby Clements and Vanora Bennett
  • 9th July 2015 – Chichester Literary Festival, Chichester. I will be with Vannora Bennett and Robin Young discussing “Blood Royal – A curse or a blessing?”.