More than an ancient site
MORE THAN JUST AN ANCIENT SITE
The site of Troy is not limited to its ancient ruins and museum. It is now an expansive 144,000 m² wide national park with several attractions, such as Achilles’ and Ajax’s tumuli, several ancient ruins, beautiful beaches and stunning views. Around the park, there are also the world famous archaeological sites such as Alexandria Troas, Assos, Apollon Smintheon, Parion, and Mount Ida
people. Those who have a plan and need to keep to it, and those for whom one step leads to another in the road and from there you never know where you are going. I daresay I have taken some wrong turnings in life, but at the time they always seemed more interesting than the one that was ahead of me. In the end, I suppose it’s a metaphysical question – there are just so many turnings! Terror and exhilaration in equal measure as you make your choice.
The same is true when it comes to writing. Every novel I have ever done, has had that same mix: terror and exhilaration. Right turn, wrong turn? Only when it comes to writing I have grown to realise that in order to get it right, you do have to get it wrong. Be scared, try the wrong path, not know what you are doing. I’m a great believer that if everything goes your way you have no understanding of what it is like to fail. I don’t think being alive is OK if you don’t know how to fail. There is something about always being successful that means that you have no vulnerability and you don’t understand anyone else's either. And certainly for a writer that’s not good enough. You need to be able to inhabit someone else's dark side.
Does it take a long time to research your novels?
It took five years to research the Borgia novels. The detective novels were easier. The reason that people read thrillers is because they want an adrenaline fix; a great plot, the book you can’t put down, though you also need character depth and to write well. In other words, it’s not as falling off a log as it seems to be.
But after writing six thrillers I became impatient with the constrictions of the form: the way there had to be an answer, the ends had to tie up. Yet life isn’t like that. The ends remain untidy and untied. My last thriller, Mapping the Edge told the story of a woman who leaves her sevenyear-old daughter to go away for a weekend and doesn’t come back. The novel gives two completely different versions of what happens to her while she is away and you have to decide which is true. Because when people disappear, for those left behind there isn’t an answer; all you have is your imagination and that is terrifying. Some people loved it! Others hated it. But for me it was a way of leaving thrillers behind.
How did you come to write a book about nuns?
The Birth of Venus,
the first historical novel I wrote, was set in Florence in the 1490s and was the story of a young woman who wanted to be a painter. It has a powerful genesis that novel. I’d become intoxicated by what it would be like to have lived in Florence during the moment when this revolution [i.e. the Renaissance] was unfolding. To experience the shock of the new.
But as you wander through the city comes another shock: the fact that every famous name on the tourist trail belongs to a man. So, I started to ask myself: where was the other half of the population? Did women have a renaissance?
Of course, as I went deeper into research, I discovered that in the 30 plus years since I had studied history, the discipline had changed. What used to be the story of dead white men was being cracked open by young scholars to reveal the role of women, or people of colour. And the work done on women was like watching a box of fireworks explode in the darkness: such colour and power and lights. Suddenly I wasn’t just writing one book, I was writing three! One about a painter in Florence, another about courtesans living in Venice. And then there were the nuns. And what an untold story they were.
By the mid 16th century half of all middle class or noble women were in convents. Because in order to get married they had to pay dowries which were getting ever more expensive. The men could stay bachelors, have affairs, keep a courtesan but the women had to be pure. So as soon as they reached puberty, the age of temptation (!), they were married to the only bridegroom who offered a cheap deal: Jesus Christ.
So what did you find?
Such riches! I used to walk Italian cities that I thought I knew well, only to realise that I had been walking past buildings – so many of them – that had once been convents. Only now I wanted to know what had been going on inside. Who were those women? How did they live? Of course, all those scholars I was studying were asking the same questions. And the answers were amazing: from the rebels who didn’t want to go, to those who were so passionate for God (or so angry with their parents) that they became visionaries, to those who found solace in study, in running the infirmary – no female doctors in the world outside – writing plays, or singing or playing even composing music. It was a gift to a novelist. And from it came Sacred Hearts, set entirely in a convent – one that still exists to this day – in the city of Ferrara.
Is it hard to blend history and storytelling well?
The history is quite complicated; it’s a different political structure, people live under a different religion, in a different
cultural and moral universe, and it’s quite a challenge to ask people to enter that world. You can’t do it superficially. If you write it like a pot boiler, people won’t get their teeth into anything rich enough. They won’t experience the 'journey' of time travelling, which takes imagination, theirs as well as mine. So, of course, I have to write well. On the other hand, not so 'well' that all you notice is the style. I am also driving a story, the need to know what happens next, so it’s a delicate balance.
The founding father of the BBC, (it's unfashionable to quote him now), Lord Reith, used to say that the BBC should: 'Entertain, inform and educate.' I actually think that I could apply those three words to everything that I’ve wanted to do. You have to entertain - you have to, it’s the way you pull people into another world. But if you do that well enough you can also offer them more; things they didn’t know. A world to learn about. The greatest compliment I receive is when a reader says: “I loved that book of yours on nuns. I learned so much. I was telling my friends about it.” And then they stop and add. “But I never felt I was being ‘Taught' because at school I didn’t really like history.” And I think. “Yes! I did it! “
Were these historical novels difficult to write?
Sacred Hearts was in some ways the hardest. Because, as a modern woman you can feel very angry on their behalf since they had no choice. And when I started writing I know I had that anger myself. So much so, that for a while I couldn’t write it.
But then I realised that I was making the classic mistake: approaching the past as a 21st century woman. And, yes, to me, it was unbearable. But for them, living in 16th century you have to ask what was the alternative: being married off at 14 or 15 to a man who you don’t love, being a breeding cow of children, burying babies, dying in childbirth, no agency of your own, while your husband sleeps around and gets syphilis. While in a convent at least you might found some solace: write plays, compose music, you had a space and if you were into God you could have a profound relationship with Him without worrying about any of the other stuff. Suddenly it doesn’t look so terrible compared with the other options.
Do you have a favourite historical person?
I fall in love with whoever I am working on, and so my recent one is Machiavelli. I was frightened of him at first because he was too famous, and in a sense too intimidating and too articulate, and because I’m not a political scientist, I thought I wouldn’t 'get' him.
But actually, when someone comes to you through history, you see you only what they have become. Not how they got there. And when I went back to a young Machiavelli it was quietly revelatory. A smart, 20 something young man, newly married in Florence, not from a wealthy family, just getting a first job in government, having to watch his back all the time, not having enough support behind him, and then given the biggest job of all - sent to negotiate with Cesare Borgia.
And suddenly I had a human being. And the more I read about him, the more
I liked him. I knew he was a 'bit of a lad', that he had a sense of humour and he got on with his colleagues well. I knew he thought on his feet, was spinning on a dime all the time. I could hear his voice when I read his dispatches and I could hear his thinking. So, I grew really fond of him. And I really liked the idea of his young wife, who has no place in history, save for a couple of letters where you can just hear her voice: ‘the baby looks just like you’ etc and I thought: well, she’s not scared of Machiavelli, so why should I be? And so, I found my way into him. I loved his smartness and wit and the fact that he wasn’t famous or rich or important and he was learning on the job. So many people have been scared of him, thinking he is the devil incarnate – in fact exactly like the Borgias - and it is so unfair to all of them.
What is the worst thing that you have read about the Borgias, that is untrue?
I think the most egregious slander is with Lucrezia. She has become the byword for how you slag off women. You slag them off sexually, and once their sexual integrity is gone they have nothing. So, as soon as someone suggests that she was sleeping with her father or numerous partners, then very easily she is seen as totally immoral, capable of murder or poison, and the fact was – how shocking is this? - I couldn’t find a scrap of evidence to prove this, although I could see how the rumours started.
There is an amazing part in the first novel, Blood and Beauty, one where her first marriage ends - she is a pawn in the marriage game – they need to annul the union to move onto another. And they do it on the grounds of non-consummation because they have no children. I think it is highly likely that the marriage was consummated and when they tell her husband that, he says to an ambassador: 'I have known her an infinity of times and the Pope only wants her back for himself ’. And in that moment, incest as a rumour is born. It’s a bit like reading something in a tabloid newspaper which you later discover is a total fabrication, but you can’t unthink it because you have read it. Lucrezia becomes the biggest whore – you’re reading scurrilous poems about her by the end of the year; about how she is sleeping with her brother and father. And it is the easiest thing to do to a woman. Once her chastity is gone, she is nobody. So it was really important to me to rehabilitate her as I thought that that was outrageous.
Do you have a favourite city?
I would have said up until recently that my favourite city was Florence as I live in it, but I have begun to find myself fighting with the overwhelming number of tourists and I have begun to feel that the collision of Airbnb, budget airlines and cruise ships have reached a kind of tipping point. And I’m not sure how much anyone 'feels' the city anymore as they spend so much time in groups hurtling around. This is happening not just to Florence, it is clearly in Venice too, and Barcelona and Amsterdam.
There is a thing going on at the moment where everybody needs to personally experience something and it seems to me what they are experiencing is fading i.e. their own footsteps are wiping out what is in the past. I don’t know what to do about this, as it’s about individual freedom, but I am worried. I think the imprint of the past is feeling chipped around the edges as if there is just too much present assaulting it. And also the economy – that in Florence now seems to be all tourist leather shops and coffee and cheap glasses of wine, so the area that I live in, around Santa Croce, used to have a lot of artisans, but they are all going now. It’s as if all those things that made it special are being wiped out by people coming to see what they were. So, I don’t have a favourite place anymore – I’m looking!
What is next? Are you writing another book?
I am thinking about another – though I haven’t started writing. I’m slightly in limbo as we’ve just finished a BBC r4 series [When
Greeks Flew Kites], a way of looking at the present through the prism of history. It’s taken a huge amount of time and energy and I am recuperating right at the moment.
I suppose it’s my old dilemma: I love making radio; the challenge, the collaboration, the element of performance. But I miss the silence and the different intensity of writing. Though I am also scared, because going back into writing is another kind of pain barrier. So, more radio or another book? I’m with Machiavelli in this, I believe in Fortuna – we will see what comes. It is not in my hands!
I think the imprint of the past is feeling chipped around the edges, as if there is just too much present assaulting it
Sarah’s latest Renaissance novel about Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia In the Name of the Family, is now out in paperback and available at Waterstones and on Amazon. You can listen to Sarah's latest history radio programme, When Greeks Flew Kites as a podcast. For more information about Sarah and all her work see www.sarahdunant.com
Bartolomeo Veneto's portrait of a Renaissance woman in 1515, thought to be Lucrezia Borgia