In the town of Dartford, a 40-minute train ride south of London Charing Cross, stands a building called the Manor Gatehouse. Inside you will find a registration office to record the births, marriages, and deaths that occur in Kent. This handsome red-brick building, fronted by a garden, is also a popular place to have a wedding.
But as I looked at the Gatehouse last week, I thought about who stood on this same piece of ground 474 years ago. Because it was then a Catholic priory—a community of women who constituted the sole Dominican order in England before the dissolution of the monasteries. And the priory is where I chose to tell the story of my first novel, The Crown.
There are all sorts of ways to write historical fiction. The books can range from reimagined stories of famous people of the past, such as novels written by Philippa Gregory and Margaret George, Robert Graves and Mary Renault, to tales of purely imagined characters in a different time, such as Cold Mountain, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Historian (although Dracula may at this point seem as familiar to us as Great-Uncle Vlad, he was never alive—or undead!). The last one on the list, The Historian, is a leading example in the subgenre I have chosen to write in: the historical thriller.
In my novel, the main character, Sister Joanna Stafford, is fictional. As are Geoffrey Scovill, Brother Edmund, Sister Winifred, Brother Richard, Joanna’s parents, and many of the secondary characters. But Lady Margaret Bulmer, whose burning at the stake for treason begins my novel, did exist. So did Bishop Stephen Gardiner; Sir William Kingston; Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk; Mary Howard, Dowager Duchess of Richmond; Dartford’s Prioress Elizabeth Croessner; Malmesbury’s Prior Roger Frampton; and a half dozen more. And then comes the A-list of the Tudor court: Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, Anne and George Boleyn, and of course, the rock star himself, Henry VIII. They’re very much in the mix of my debut novel.
Why did I not confine myself to imaginary creations of the 1530s? The truth is because as much as I loved crafting my own characters, the real people were irresistible. I’ve been reading about them and thinking about them since I was a teenager. So when the time came for me to write a book, there was just no damn way that they wouldn’t be invited to the party.
Last week I spent five days in London and Dartford, researching my second book and meeting with my amazing team in the U.K.: my editor at Orion Publishing and my co-agent at Abner Stein. I spent nearly every waking hour running around the city. You have only to take a tour of the Tower of London given by a dry-witted yeoman warder or peek into the Tower gift shops (yes, plural; I counted three) to know that this is a place that mines its history well. The Tudors, the Plantagenets, the Stuarts, the Hanovers and the present House of Windsor… the gang’s all here, each with a fascinating—if a trifle well worn—story to tell.
My day in Dartford awakened different emotions. The priory was a vital part of the town’s life for 180 years. It was torn down after surrendering to the will of King Henry VIII, who destroyed the abbeys and priories of England in his break from Rome. That dissolution is a key part of the plot to my book.
The Gatehouse you see today, the one that that offers charming wedding packages, did not exist during the time of the nuns. It was raised shortly after the sisters were expelled. King Henry VIII demolished the priory and built a very expensive manor house for himself. He never slept there, although his least troublesome ex-wife, Anne of Cleves, did. Years later, Anne’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth I, did too. It was exciting to see it and I pleaded with the woman who runs the registration office to snap my picture in front of the Gatehouse’s main entrance.
But the only physical evidence left of the house of Dominican nuns is the stone wall that ran along the property’s perimeter. On a cloudy July afternoon I walked it as the cars whizzed by, and I felt very humbled. I had researched priory life, with the help of many books and articles and the guidance of the wonderful staff at Dartford Borough Museum, located near the center of the town. Joanna Stafford may not be real. But nuns and novices and prioresses and friars took vows at Dartford, they lived and worshipped and sang and laughed and suffered and died on the other side of this 600-year-old wall. There are no mugs bearing their faces on sale at any gift shop. But their lives were significant all the same. I paid them silent homage in my solitary walk.
And I hope in my small way I’ve done them justice.