Sunday, November 20, 2022

Q&A with Nicola Cornick




Nicola Cornick is the author of the new novel The Winter Garden. Her other novels include House of Shadows. She also is a guide for the National Trust at historic Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, UK.


Q: What inspired you to write The Winter Garden, which relates to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in England?


A: Lots of different ideas came together to inspire The Winter Garden. I enjoy exploring historical mysteries from a modern perspective and one question that had always intrigued me was who had betrayed the gunpowder plotters to the authorities?


Whilst I was reading about that I discovered that the ringleader of the plot, Robert Catesby, had owned an estate at Chastleton, a few miles away from where I live. It struck me that whilst the story of the plot to blow up the House of Parliament is well known, we seldom hear much about the years running up to the plot and how it came about.


I decided to delve into the story behind the plot, Robert Catesby’s life before 1605 and how he came to hatch such a terrible and disastrous plan.


Q: How did you create your present-day character Lucy, a musician?


A: I come from a family of musicians and music has always been one of my passions. When I was younger, I was a trained singer and travelled all over Britain and Europe singing with different choirs. It was a wonderful experience.


Then when I was in my late 20s, I contracted glandular fever and after that an auto-immune condition called Sjogrens. It affects my vocal cords and I can’t sing any more. I drew on this experience a lot to create the character of Lucy. She’s a violinist who has lost her career and is dealing with the sense of grief and loss that this engenders, plus the need to find something else meaningful to do with her life.


I wanted to tie in her sense of vulnerability and loss with that of Catherine Catesby to build a link between the two of them and ultimate give them both new hope.


Q: You write, “Catherine Catesby is a woman who has left barely a trace in the historical record and yet her influence on her husband, Robert, is generally acknowledged to have been profound.” How did you research Catherine's life, and can you say more about the dynamic between Catherine and Robert?


A: One of my historical interests is women from the footnotes of history, whose lives are not well-documented having been over-shadowed by men or even written out of the historical record.

The way I try to “find” them is by retracing their steps – I visit the places where they lived and look at the context of their lives to try to recreate their stories. I also trawl through the records to find events at which they were present, or passing references to them in other people’s histories. It’s a completely fascinating process, piecing together a life from all these different sources.


Catherine, for example, came from a Protestant family that his made its money in trade over the previous century and went up in the world to become very important in local society. She had a sister who was close to her in age but very different in personality. She was an heiress and reputed to be beautiful… That tells you quite a lot to start with!


The dynamic between Robert and Catherine was very interesting, I think. They were both young when they married, and it seems that it was a love match of two good-looking and charming young people who fell for each other.


Robert was recorded as being handsome, charismatic and inspiring great love and loyalty in those around him but he had also been wild as a young man, and could be headstrong and even reckless. The sense we get from the record of his life with Catherine is that it steadied him and he matured. They had two children together and Robert settled down to the life of a country gentleman.


Most significantly, although he had been raised in a Catholic tradition – his parents were recusants who refused to worship in a Protestant church – he seemed quite happy to support Catherine’s Protestantism and become what was known as a “church papist,” someone who professed the Protestant faith for the sake of keeping on the right side of the authorities.


Had Catherine lived, his life might have turned out very differently, but after he lost his father, wife and one of his sons in quick succession he turned back to his original faith and became a fanatic.


Q: Why did you decide to highlight Robert's mother, Anne, in the novel?


A: I originally intended to tell the historical element of the story from Catherine Catesby’s point of view but as I wrote it, I found that I identified more with Robert’s mother Anne, perhaps because I am closer to her in age than to Catherine!


I also admired Anne Catesby enormously. She came from network of strong women. When the Gunpowder Plot failed and Robert was killed, she knew she had to do everything she could to protect his son, her grandson. She successfully managed to preserve some of his inheritance so that he wasn’t left destitute.


As with Catherine, Anne Catesby is not someone who has left much trace in the historical record so again I was weaving together the clues and information that I was able to find to put together a picture of this formidable woman.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently researching a nonfiction book set in the 17th century about the history of Ashdown House, where I work as a guide for the National Trust.


I’m also writing another dual time novel that is the prequel to House of Shadows, set during the English Civil War, with Prince Rupert of the Rhine as the central character. I suspect, however, that a woman from the footnotes of history will emerge to take center stage!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nicola Cornick.

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