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Monday, 16 July 2012

Tracing the Tudors - Jenny Barden Talks at the RNA Conference

Apologies to Jenny for the slightly blurry photograph, caused by my over excitement at seeing a real pistol! I was lucky enough to hear Jenny Barden talk about how she researched her new Tudor novel, Mistress of the Sea at the Romantic Novelists Association Conference in Penrith.
Jenny's book features Sir Francis Drake, and she told us how his illustrious career actually began with a disaster at San Juan de Ulua, and that he spent years seeking revenge, "Vengeance is always a good theme," she said.

In tracing the real events surrounding the sinking of the English flagship at San Juan de Ulua
she showed us how she traced the story from modern historians colourful accounts, back to the almost contemporary reports, and from there even further back to the original source. Often the amount of material can be overwhelming for a novelist embarking on this sort of research, but as Jenny said, "Fear not and relax. The only things that matter are the primary sources." She then explained that the original account from the ship had been burnt in a later fire and that the account had been reconstructed from the fragments. This was demonstrated by slides on the screen.

Original sources can disagree about events, depending on which side they are on, but Jenny said she enjoys building a story around the parts where sources disagree. 

Visits to real places are a large part of Jenny's research, such as to tall-ships to see how cramped the spaces are on board ship, and a trip to the islands where Drake sailed. In Mistress of the Sea the character of Drake is drawn by the opinions of those around him, and Jenny told us that the evidence showed he could be both compassionate and ruthless - for example he was outraged at the mortal wounding of a black messenger following his attack on Santo Domingo and had two friars hanged in retaliation.

Jenny treated us to slides from her research visits, showing us the mule tracks and mangrove swamps where Drake would have walked.  Her talk included showing us the  pistol (see the picture) along with a ruff and a boned bodice of the time, which Henri Gyland dutifully put on - sorry,  I forgot to take a picture. We were also treated to the waft of rosemary, the sound of Thomas Tallis's music, and were allowed to handle a 16th century key - all to give us a flavour of the past. These little touches - to feel, smell, hear the past, brought the period more vividly to life.  Jenny has a reconstruction of an Elizabethan musket on order, and she tells me she's looking forward to being able to show a proper 'caliver' in future talks.

Questions from the floor enabled Jenny to talk more about her cross-dressing heroine, Ellyn, who stows away on Drake's ship the Swan. For those interested in more nautical tales of cross-dressing heroines you might like to check out Linda Collison's blog.

For an hour's  talk Jenny managed to cram an awful lot in, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've always been a sucker for the romance of the sea, so I'm really looking forward to the book, which will be published by Ebury Press 30th August 2012. More about Jenny Barden and her research process can be found here

More about the Romantic Novelist's Association here

Jenny is organising the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September, more about that here.

Mistress of the Sea
Plymouth 1570; Ellyn Cooksley fears for her elderly father's health when he declares his intention to sail with Drake on an expedition he has been backing. Already yearning for escape from the loveless marriage planned for her, Ellyn boards the expedition ship as a stowaway. 

Also aboard the Swan is Will Doonan, Ellyn's charming but socially inferior neighbour. Will has courted Ellyn playfully without any real hope of winning her, but when she is discovered aboard ship, dressed in the garb of a cabin boy, he is furious. 

To Will's mind, Drake's secret plot to attack the Spanish bullion supply in the New World is a means to the kind of wealth with which he might win a girl like Ellyn, but first and foremost it is an opportunity to avenge his brother Kit, taken hostage and likely tortured to death by the Spanish. For the sake of the mission he supports Drake's plan to abandon Ellyn and her father on an island in the Caribbean until their mission is completed. But will love prove more important than revenge or gold?

Pre-order the book


  1. This is a delightful piece and I loved Jenny's talk too. She really captured the atmosphere of the historical background she has worked with so well. I really am looking forward to this book. And of course to The Gilded Lily as well!

  2. Thanks for writing this up as I wasn't able to make Jenny's talk!

  3. Hi Carol and Liz, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I missed a few talks I would have liked to have gone to, because I couldn't be in two places at once!

  4. Very good, concise post, Deborah. I'm looking forward to Jenny's debut book and to meeting her in person at HNS in London! (I have a soft spot for stowaway daughters...)

  5. Hi Linda, I'll look out for you at HNS London. I'll need my reading glasses to read everyone's name badges - it's hard to recognise people when you've only seen an icon the size of a postage stamp!