Friday, November 18, 2016

The Monstrous Regiment

In July 2013, about six months after my first interview for New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF), I had the fun of speaking with Marie Macpherson about her First Blast of the Trumpet, the opener to her trilogy about the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. You can hear the full interview on our site. Here is what I wrote about her novel at that time.

There’s nothing quite like sitting down to write a novel about a man who, to quote Marie Macpherson, is blamed for “banning Christmas, football on Sundays,” and the like. What is one to do with such a subject, never mind making him interesting and sympathetic? Yet this is exactly what The First Blast of the Trumpet does for John Knox—best known as the dour misogynist who spearheaded the Scottish Reformation.

Macpherson approaches Knox sideways through the character of Elizabeth Hepburn, a reluctant nun installed at the uncanonically young age of 24 as prioress of St. Mary’s Abbey to ensure the continued dominance of the earls of Bothwell (whose family name was Hepburn) over the abbey and its resources. Elizabeth’s determination to craft a life that suits her never wavers, despite the conflicting claims of her family, the lure of court politics, and the opposition of a male clergy bent on keeping women in their place. This wonderfully researched novel mixes history and fiction to reveal Scotland during its last century of independence in all its complexity, depravity, and richness; and as Elizabeth’s career increasingly intertwines with the childhood and youth of John Knox, the need for reform in the Scottish Catholic Church becomes ever clearer.
 

Now, as I celebrate my fourth anniversary as the host of NBHF, the saga of John Knox continues with The Second Blast of the Trumpet, released in hardcover in the United States yesterday (Kindle edition to come). So it’s my pleasure to welcome Marie back—this time to my blog—and to let her speak for herself about this next novel in the series. Take it away, Marie!

 

At the end of The First Blast of the Trumpet Knox is sentenced to toil in the galleys and that’s where I intended to leave him, but my publisher had other ideas. “What happens to this character Knox?” they asked. Could there be a sequel—or two?

Like many Scots, I knew about Knox’s role in the Scottish Reformation from 1560 onwards but hardly anything about his wilderness years. What was he was up to during the ten years between 1549 and 1559? Quite a lot, as it turned out.

While Knox was persona non grata in Scotland, the English Protestant King Edward VI welcomed him. Forced to flee to Geneva when Edward’s untimely death brought Mary Tudor to the throne, Knox wrote his diatribe, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, aimed at Bloody Mary. This rant has forever condemned him as a rampant misogynist, but to be fair, he was only echoing what many men felt at the time: that it was monstrous or unnatural for a woman to wear the pants, never mind the crown.

Was he such a misogynist? As an author, I feared to find out. If Knox was to be the hero, how could I write about such an offensive character? But behind every great man there is a woman or, in Knox’s case, several women. Not only did he marry twice—and to much younger brides—but he also had a flock of female followers who followed him around. He must have had some charisma.

Yet while Knox was blessed with the perfect wife in Marjory, he was cursed with the mother-in-law from hell, Elizabeth Bowes, who was obsessed with him. Imagining what life was like in this ménage à trois was a writer’s dream.

Another surprise was his intense relationship with the poet and translator Anna Locke, an intelligent, educated English woman to whom Knox poured out his heart in a long correspondence. According to Robert Louis Stevenson, she was the only woman Knox truly loved.

It turned out to be quite a journey following Knox as he criss-crossed the continent several times, as well as traveling back and forth to Scotland. What stamina “God’s messenger” must have had to endure such tortuous journeys.

Writing historical fiction about a famous personality is a tricky undertaking at the best of times: writing about such a controversial figure as John Knox brings its own challenges, but I hope in The Second Blast of the Trumpet I’ve succeeded in adding another dimension to the pantomime villain caricature and revealing the man behind the myth.

 


Hailing from Musselburgh, East Lothian, Marie Macpherson left the Honest Toun to study Russian language and literature. She graduated from and earned her PhD at Strathclyde University and spent a year at Moscow State University researching  the 19th-century Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish poet and seer Thomas the Rhymer. After a career teaching languages and literature, she can pursue her interest in creative writing and has found her niche in historical fiction. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing at Edinburgh University in 1994 and in 2011 received the title “Writer of the Year,” awarded by Tyne and Esk Writers.

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