Not their finest work of the mid-to-late nineties, but a reflection at the moment on how to bring stories to a close and open up possibilities for the next one(s). Book IV is different, in some ways, to the earlier books. If nothing else, I had a much clearer idea of the characters' roles in the historical events up to the beginning of 1549. I had a notion of who would end up where, although I ended up being taken by surprise a couple of times at events that meant the overall plan had to shift to adjust. When I wrote the original 'master' of the events of 1547 through to about September 1549, I didn't have a sense that the relationship between Edward Strelley and Elizabeth Tudor would be such a strong theme, but that is where their story has taken me in writing them. So, re-reading the scenes that take place in the Devon countryside and the besieged city of Exeter, it is not the Prayer Book Rebellion speaking out through the proto-pages of the fourth book, but Edward and Elizabeth. Even when the focus of the story is what is happening in the rebellion, Strelley's volatility, his propensity* to turn outwards those inward reflections that so trouble him seems to invade the scenes and draw the focus. I have written before about that being, at times, frustrating to the point of being tiresome, but that is as a writer. I hope that as a reader your experience will be one of a beautifully crafted document detailing the. breakdown of a young man's mind as he grieves over a love forbidden. But there you go. I set out, probably nearly ten years ago, to write in English the equivalent of Dumas' history of the French nation through the various sets of books of which the Musketeers is by far the most famous. It turns out that much like him, the stories of personal relationships are the ones that drive the writing, not the goal of fictionalising history. In those ten years, I have managed to do about five years of history, so at this rate the thousand-year history of England in the form of novels will take me the small order of two thousand years. I blame having to actually work for a living.
So, when it comes to an ending for book IV (don't get excited: one thread is closing, but others are still far from wound up in the writing and we are nowhere close to release), I am looking for something that can give me an opening into book V, but also something that brings the stories in book IV to some manner of conclusion. The historical events of 1549 do lead to a clear and easy-to-define end point, which is (sort-of-spoiler alert) the downfall of Protector Somerset. But that's not my point. Part of the problem of writing about two people's love for each other (in any context) is that if they just end up together, with a healthy, happy life and the problems of stable long-term relationships, that is a much less easy subject to make compelling in fiction. Part of the problem is the absolute forbidding by history of Edward and Elizabeth's relationship developing this way. So I am constrained, regardless of how the scenes develop from when the pages are blank. The option is not open to me to take John Fowles' line in The Magus, where he winds his story for six-hundred pages, then ends it half-a-page before it finishes. What a bastard, I thought at the time, and still do, but that choice is part of the work. If he ends it definitely, it is a different book altogether from the one that is, as it stands, one of the finest ever written. I can't do that, because those characters have a life beyond book IV, and indefiniteness isn't compatible. It is, if I were to offer one criticism of another giant of literature, Jane Eyre, an option that Charlotte Brontë might have taken, rather than to wrap her story up so completely. The impediment to Jane and Rochester's love is removed, Rochester has the chance to show that he has some moral fibre regarding his first wife. Jane gets what she wants, but one can't help but feel at the end that it won't keep her happy for long.
So what of the other stories in book IV? My intention throughout (that is, since starting to write book I) had been to have Will Pike at the French court with Mary of Scots, and now that he is there, I find that the situation isn't stable enough to keep it that way for the duration of the several years that she spends there. History prevents her leaving, but fiction allows him to go elsewhere. We shall see. Longshawe and de Winter are making their way to the rebellion in Norwich (known to history as Ket(t)'s Rebellion), where there is a surprise waiting for de Winter in particular, one that history and my choices of how to embed the invented characters makes inevitable. An ending? Of sorts, but de Winter has a role to play for several years yet in the service of Mary Tudor. And the relationship between his sister and Longshawe? As I wrote above, a comfortable, happy marriage is not in itself a compelling subject for fiction, but one can't help but wish that at least one of them gets what he wants, avoids dying in battle or of plague, and lives a long life filled with joy and children and peace. We shall see!
*The first time I typed that, it said 'popensity', and didn't auto-correct to include the 'r'. I shall henceforth be using this new coinage to measure the amount/intensity of Roman Catholicism: Mary Tudor is of high popensity; James Longshawe is not...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought