Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A View from Siri Mitchell's Window

Siri Mitchell's work is new to me, but I can tell you now that I sincerely hope to be reading her historical romances for a long time to come! Her latest novel, A Constant Heart, is set amid Queen Elizabeth's court. Please, join me now as Siri Mitchell shares a bit of her own heart with her readers. I think you will find this as fascinating as I did! Welcome, Siri Mitchell to my Window!

A Constant Heart is a book very different in type from those preceding it. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

I’ve always been interested in history and fashion. And it’s always struck me that if women (myself included) could learn how to be okay with who they are, we would be able to avoid so many pitfalls, both spiritually and physically. As I looked at fashion through history, it appalled me how many times women tried to alter themselves in dangerous ways and how many times frivolous fads created dangerous situations for those trying to wear and supply them. A Constant Heart was born from that observation and the thought that women need to learn the lessons of the past or we’re bound to repeat them.

How did you so accurately capture the practices of the courtier and their wives? How did you make their emotions so realistic? The scenes between Lord Lytham and Marget were so tense with passion and distrust!! Tell us a little about that.

In preparation for writing, I did a lot of research into the time period. I read broadly about the era and more specifically several biographies of women of the time. I was also able to find a treasure-trove of primary documents on the internet that gave me insight into the thinking of the times. Because Queen Elizabeth was (obviously) a woman, gender politics were reversed during her reign. I was fascinated by the idea of men acting in ways that we think are female. i.e. dressing and primping to impress, practicing the arts of charm and flirtation, purposely trying to catch the eye of a person in power. Once I realized that love was not the answer in Elizabethan England, the structure of the story fell into place. Because Queen Elizabeth was so vain and jealous and because Lytham, as courtier, had to please her, Lytham and Marget’s marriage feels much more like an affair. I suspect that the tempestuous emotions they experience are so tense because they were trying so hard to hide their relationship.

The scene with the radishes!! Explain the meaning of the salad ingredients…where on earth did you discover that and how common was that in practice? I never dreamed a radish could be so breathtaking and romantic!! Were they really that superstitious about everything? Did everything have meaning like that?

The inspiration for the salad scene came from a passage in Elizabeth’s London by Liza Picard. In a section about food and drink (p. 157-158), she quotes a book from the period (The Englishe Scholemaister by Jacques Bellot, an English language textbook for French speakers). In that passage, Bellot identifies the meanings of the ingredients of a ‘salatte of love’:

Borage = You make me glad

Bugloss = I am pleased with you

Scallion = I love you not

Cabbage lettuce = Your love feedeth me

Bitter lettuce = I love you not

Olives = Your love annoyeth me

Rosemary flowers = I accept your love

Winter savory = I offer you my love

Radish = Pardon me

Later, in that section, Picard states that strawberries meant “I am altogether yours” and “lilies of the valley…meant ‘kiss me.’”

In my historical, I try to set up challenges for myself. My challenge in this book was to write a scene in which the relationship between Marget and Lytham reached a turning point, but in which no words were exchanged. I think the ‘love salad’ accomplished it quite nicely!

The Elizbethan world encompassed both medieval barbarity and modern civility. Many things in nature were still imbued with meaning and superstition abounded. Shakespeare referred to the language of flowers in his plays (in Hamlet for instance he references herbs and flowers throughout) without necessarily explaining their significance, so I think we can assume that these symbolic meanings were widely known. I’m sure not every dish was eaten as carefully as Marget and Lytham’s love salad, but the opportunity to communicate a message through food was entirely possible.

Lady de Winter certainly had an agenda as does the Queen herself. Were all of the women during that period so mean and jealous? So deadly in their power? I assume this existed only within the wealthy class?

I’d say most of the women in the upper class who lived at court were bent on scheming and conniving. If you were at court, the only reason you were there was to consolidate your power or try to gain more. And most often, a gain in power came at the expense of someone else. The Queen showed her favor by bestowing gifts and one of her favorite things to do was re-gift (I’ll just take this estate from you and give it to him!). I think of the whole system as a precursor to Project Runway: One day you’re in, the next you’re out! The lower classes didn’t have nearly as much to lose in terms of wealth and power and there was very little mobility between the classes so the women of the lower classes had much more relative freedom than their upper class counterparts.

The face-painting, hair coloring, brow plucking certainly was a deadly exercise during that century!! I’ve noticed we still practice a lot of the same things today albeit with safer products! Did women really steal babies? What was the percentage of deaths due to the make-up? Was that solely the result of mimicking the Queen??

I’m sure they compensated the families from which they took them, but yes, that was a practice of the time. Especially male babies. There are many instances where promising young boys were ‘adopted’ by some wealthy patron. Often they were nephews or cousins (blood relations), but sometimes they were not. Remember that the poor often had more babies than they could care for, so it would not have been quite the terrible crime that it is today. Another way for the Elizabethans to come by an heir was to legitimize an illegitimate son.

I could not find any statistics for deaths due specifically to lead-based make-up, but in reading through period texts and descriptions of people and their mannerisms, the symptoms of lead poisoning are easily seen. The use of lead make-up may have been in effect before Queen Elizabeth, but it reached a zenith during her reign. Her skin had always been noted for being pale and the upper class women tried to imitate it, but the Queen herself began using the paints after her bout with small pox in 1562. She used it to hide her scars. And because she used it, the court women began using it as well. It’s interesting to note that its use fell from favor after the Queen died.

What is next on the horizon for your writing? Any more historicals? Can you share a sneak peek?

I do have more historicals on the horizon, thanks for asking! My second, Love’s Pursuit, is set in Puritan New England and investigates the amazing lengths to which God will go in order to pursue us. A classic love story, it also includes a fashion element: Puritan America’s dress codes. I hope to start on my third historical for Bethany House in October. The third book will be set in 1890s New York City. It was an era when tight-laced corseting was still practiced and high-society women lived their lives in the fishbowl of celebrity culture the same way those in Hollywood do today.

What exciting things is God doing in your life right now? Any words of encouragement you’d like to share with your readers?

I’ve been learning to trust in God’s thoughts and rely on his timing. I’ve found out that there’s really nothing I can do better than God can. And in a strange way, that’s been very encouraging!


Scrambled Dregs said...

GREAT interview.

I LOVED the salad scene. I LOVED it. Thanks for sharing the research behind it.

Unknown said...

Interesting interview. Thanks!