This week, Corvus published The Tyrant’s Shadow, Antonia Senior’s third novel and the second to be set in the troubled middle years of the 17th century. The Civil War, and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, is one of the most compelling periods in English history (Oxford, where I live, is steeped in Civil War history) and I can’t get enough of it. I am so pleased to be able to host a guest post in which Antonia Senior looks at the challenges an author faces in bringing this period, and its remarkable personalities, back to life – especially Oliver Cromwell. Many thanks to Antonia for taking the time to write such a fascinating piece.
First, here is a little about The Tyrant’s Shadow. A review will follow shortly.
A court without a kingdom, a kingdom without a king…England, 1652: since Charles I’s execution the land has remained untethered, the people longing for change. When Patience Johnson meets preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she believes her destiny is to become his wife and help him spread the Lord’s word. Simmonds sees things quite differently. Patience’s brother Will has been bestowed the job of lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. Tasked with aiding England’s most powerful man, he must try to overcome his grief after the loss of his wife. Then Sam Challoner, Will’s brother-in-law, returns unannounced after years in exile, forcing Will and Patience to question their loyalties: one to a ruler, the other, a spouse. Who do they choose to save? Themselves, their loved ones or their country…
Writing Cromwell’s London
I was raised to hate Oliver Cromwell. Hatred of Cromwell, dark mutterings about Drogheda and a bone-deep affection for the Mountains of Mourne – these the are legacies of an Irish mother. It was a dark day when, steeled with red wine and misplaced bravado, I said to my Mum: “Actually, I don’t think Oliver Cromwell was so bad. In fact, I quite like him.”
Readers, she was not tickled.
I went looking for Cromwell the Monster in the sources when I set out to write The Tyrant’s Shadow. My first book on the period, Treason’s Daughter, followed events from 1640 until the death of Charles 1 in 1649. My second Stuart novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, is set in London in the mid 1650s – when England’s politicians and soldiers are desperately attempting to find a solution to the King-shaped hole in the constitution.
For me, this is one of the most fascinating moments in all of English history. We were without a King; without a settled constitution. A vacuum of power, and a violently unsettled body-politic. In all my work, I have grappled with the nature of power; how is it earned, exercised and lost. And more pertinently as a novelist, perhaps, why do people want it?
This is no new pre-occupation for a writer. In my novel, my character Will quotes Lucan’s Civil War – a masterpiece study on the men who fought for Rome, written by a poet compromised by his proximity to Nero’s toxic court. “As long as earth supports the sea and air the earth, there will be no loyalty between associates in tyranny and no power will tolerate a partner.’
This is the position in 1653: power is uneasily shared between Cromwell as head of the army, the army itself, and parliament. But the triumvirate is fatally flawed – all three partners want different things; and there is further dissent between army factions and within Parliament. There are two versions of what happened next. Version 1 has King Oliver violently seizing power as the fruition of years of scheming. Version 2 has Saint Oliver reluctantly taking charge to prevent a descent into anarchy and madness.
The answer, I think, is a tangle of the two. And it is these historical tangles that are irresistible to a novelist. In I wriggled, looking for the hints and clues, extrapolating wildly. I found not a monster, but a man who believed himself sincere, who was continually compromised by the exigencies of wielding power. A man who could be both sincere and duplicitous, violent and gentle.
I also found God. Not personally, you understand. There is nothing like a good rummage in the barmy theistic arguments of the seventeenth century to bolster your atheism. But Cromwell cannot be weighed without reference to his great and bombastic belief in God’s providence working through him.
God presents problems to the secular novelist. He is central to understanding the torments of Stuart Britain. It is too easy to be a little sneering of these ardent beliefs – which seem to us to be dancing on the head of a pin. Fighting over the unknowable. I was reminded of 6th century Constantinople – the setting for an earlier, unpublished novel. There were riots on the streets, vicious, bloody affairs whose entire catalyst was over the nature of Christ: was He both God and Human separately and simultaneously, or was He His own divine mesh of the two?
It is easy to mock the sincerity of these beliefs. Hard to understand that for our forefathers who interpreted the bible literally, these were not arcane arguments of the cloister, but questions of faith which could lead to eternal damnation in a flaming hell.
God, I think, is one of the reasons why the English Civil Wars are not a popular era for readers. Publishers find it hard to shift books on the Civil Wars, which is odd given the attractions: a murdered King, families split apart, a high blood count, stories of great courage and great betrayals.
But God muddies the waters. It is not east to know which side you are on. The old adage that the Parliamentarians were Right but Repulsive and the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic is actually pretty fair. Our 21st century souls rejoice in the Parliamentarians’ distrust of tyranny and impulse to freedom, but recoils at the peculiar joylessness of their puritanism.
And of course, the rebels ended up, anyway, with King Noll – a tyrant of sorts. But as tyrants go he was no Robespierre, no Lenin, no Mao. His Shadow was relatively benign. Unless you were an Irish catholic, I can hear my Mother muttering darkly.
Why did Cromwell want power? I did not quite find him – he is too obscured by other people’s views of his motives. I found a man who inspired great loyalty, and devotion. A man who roused fierce hatred. A man who tried – but often failed – to hold the moderate line in a world turned upside down.
Cromwell’s London is a place of subtlety and shadow – and I loved writing it for all the reasons that make the era difficult to sell. It is full of ambiguities. In The Tyrant’s Shadow, there is another Tyrant – a domestic one, rather than a political one. The obverse of tyranny is complicity with it; and I wanted to explore this idea as well. My heroine, Patience, is married to man of certainties who treats her badly. At one point, as he hits her, she thinks: “He will do as he will do. Such is the nature of tyranny. All she can do is find her pride, hiding in peculiar corners.”