R.N. Morris: The book tells the story of Walter Raleigh’s life, seen from Raleigh’s point of view as his life flashes by before him, just as the axe comes down to chop off his head. In many respects it follows the historical account, but obviously omits some things and focuses on particular incidents. I should also point out that in places it launches off into Magic-Realism-style flights of fantasy. The Raleigh of Fortune’s Hand is an all-seeing and all-knowing narrator, who has been released from the limitations of perception that mortals normally experience. It is almost as if he is dreaming his life.
|Raleigh just before he was beheaded. According to legend and Wikipedia, his last words were “Strike, man, strike!”|
I came to write it after visiting an exhibition at the British Museum about El Dorado and the search for gold. It occurred to me that these voyages of exploration into unknown territories, in the hope of discovering sources of vast wealth, were incredibly speculative endeavours, sometimes, as in Raleigh’s case, based on little more than a rumour.
In order for such expeditions to take place, the proposers, men like Raleigh, would have had to raise money from investors who would be promised untold wealth. It seemed strange to me that people would invest in these enterprises when experience showed that most of them ended in failure. Of course, for the men who went on the voyages there was a huge risk. Lives, as well as ships, were lost. And the whole experience was generally not very pleasant, fraught with hardship, brutality and danger. I certainly wouldn’t like to have crossed the Atlantic as a crew hand on an Elizabethan boat!
|The Ark Raleigh, which was commissioned by Raleigh when he was 32. It was renamed the Ark Royal after the Queen ‘bought’ it off him by reducing the money he owed her.|
I realised that Raleigh must have been an incredibly charismatic man, capable of inspiring others to take enormous risks. I imagine he had no compunction saying whatever he needed to get his way. History depicts him as a hero, but maybe he was a kind of Trumpian figure? Something of a blagger, perhaps, but a very persuasive one.
His greatest talent seems to have been as a self-publicist, or as a propagandist for the adventures he launched. He liked to give the impression that he was a great sailor and adventurer, but I discovered he himself did not go on as many voyages as I had thought. We think of him as the man who brought back tobacco and the potato from America. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but he was certainly the man who took the credit for it.
In many ways he created a myth – the myth of himself – which had tremendous power during his lifetime, and even endures today. When I started thinking about the book, the image of Raleigh spreading his cloak across a puddle for the Queen, reproduced in countless school history books from the sixties and seventies, was foremost in my mind. When I was a child, I thought the point of the story was his chivalry. What a gentleman he was to sacrifice his cloak so the Queen wouldn’t get her feet wet. Now I realise that it was a metaphor: the puddle was the Atlantic Ocean, and he was proposing himself as the means to get Elizabeth across it safely. Did the incident really happen? If it did, I’m fairly sure it was not a spontaneous act of kindness on Raleigh’s part, but a carefully stage-managed piece of performance art. But whether the story is apocryphal or not is not the issue. The important thing is that the idea of it is embedded in people’s minds, even today.
Raleigh differed from Trump in that he was genuinely interested in learning from the experts of his time. He gathered around him a school of scientists, intellectuals and freethinkers, and even sought the advice of Dr John Dee, the alchemist, astrologer and conjurer of angels and demons. What he was interested in was improving navigational techniques, but he also wanted to know as much as he could about the lands his ships were venturing into. The discussions ranged freely and even got Raleigh into trouble, as he was accused of being an atheist. He was certainly a bold thinker, capable of contemplating anything, including, I don’t doubt, the possibility of a godless universe.
|Elizabeth I, depicted striding a map.|
The central relationship of the book – as it was of Raleigh’s life – is his relationship with Queen Elizabeth. It dominates even over his relationship with his wife Bess. Indeed, he was slow to acknowledge his marriage for fear of offending his queen. In writing the book, I often thought of Raleigh’s life in tidal imagery. Elizabeth was his Moon. And he was her Ocean. In fact, her nickname for him was ‘Water’, mocking his West Country pronunciation of his own name. (The book’s working title was I Am Water.) Turbulent as their relationship was, when Elizabeth died and Raleigh had to deal with the new king, he was hopelessly adrift. His charisma did not work on James. And just when he needed them most, his energy, his resources and his judgement began to fail him.
Mary Anne: Sir Walter Raleigh’s life was extraordinary, while researching his life did you stumble across any unexpected surprises?
R.N. Morris: When I began researching the book, I confess I knew very little about Walter Raleigh. So it was all new to me, and all surprising. I think the most unexpected thing I learnt was that he was not a particularly good sailor and suffered badly from seasickness. That features in the book, naturally! Also I didn’t know the story about his head – that after his death, his wife kept his severed head and carried it around in a red velvet bag. I think there’s possibly another novel in that, a companion piece perhaps, where Bess berates Raleigh’s head for all that he put her through!
|Beth Raleigh, who was said to have carried around her husband’s mummified head in a velvet bag.|
Mary Anne: As well as an adventurer and a soldier, Sir Walter Raleigh was something of a bard. What is your favourite poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and why does it appeal to you?
R.N. Morris: You’re right, he was a poet. One of his poems – Farewell to the Court – even gave me the title for the novel. Many courtiers were poets. Writing poetry was thought to be an essential accomplishment for a gentleman. I had this idea of them all as the Elizabethan equivalent of rappers, with the same kind of macho culture prevalent. I can even imagine rap battles taking place between rivals, which would occasionally get out of hand, with the participants reaching for their swords instead of guns.
I wanted to allude to this creative part of his life in the novel in some way, though obviously having scenes of him sitting down and writing a poem would be quite static and possibly dull. That was what led me to push the language and even include sections of blank verse.
In contrast to the epic bravado of his life, Raleigh’s own poetry can sometimes seem quite mordant, and personal. It is as if he is addressing the side of his nature that he was not able to express through his public persona. We see him giving in to regrets, doubts, fears and other emotions that he would not normally voice. At times, he can be a surprisingly self-aware and reflective poet. It’s also worth remembering that he was something of an outsider at court, coming from gentry rather than aristocracy. I think that introduced a note of bitterness into some of his poems.
Renaissance poetry in general can be quite difficult. The imagery is often obscure, the language antiquated, and the ideas so condensed that it’s hard to grasp immediately what the poet means. The great thing about Raleigh’s poetry for a modern reader is a lot of it is still accessible. That’s true, I think, of the poem that I’ve chosen, The Lie. In it we see Raleigh’s disillusionment, as he reflects on the deceit that lies behind everything he has pinned his career, life and reputation on.
Here are a few verses to give you a flavour. I particularly love the way he has constructed the opening of the second stanza, where it seems that at first he approves of the court “Say to the court, it glows…” but then quickly twists it round, with a sting in the tail even in the same sentence. It’s very skilful.
Go, soul, the body’s guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.
Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good, and doth no good.
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.
Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others’ action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.
Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate.
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie…
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
R.N. Morris: This is a very interesting question. Having written about an actual historical figure, and quite a famous one at that, I was going to say the challenge of separating the man from the myth. But actually, what I think I ended up doing was playing with both the myth and the man, if you like, so it actually became quite fun.
More of a challenge, for any historical writer, is how to make the past relevant to contemporary readers. I think this is especially an issue at the moment, when the world is looking very critically at, for example, the colonialism of the past. A lot of people would reasonably say, why on earth write a book about Raleigh, who was the arch colonialist? His whole life was dedicated to going into other people’s lands and appropriating and exploiting what he found there. Then there was the whole issue of capturing Spanish galleons and seizing their cargoes. Of course, for the men involved it was a great, if desperate game. But really it was just licensed pillaging - not the kind of thing people approve of these days.
And so that period of our history is very problematic. Attitudes and beliefs that were ingrained then are seen, quite rightly, as appalling now, or simply baffling. What you have to be careful not to do is simply transport modern characters back to an earlier era and put them in costume, so that they speak and act in a way that will be acceptable to the modern reader, but which is actually completely anachronistic.
At the same time, you want your characters to be recognisably human. They can’t be so alien that modern readers have no way to access their emotions, struggles and stories. So for me, writing historical fiction is about forming a bond with the past – or at least with our idea of the past. At the same time, we have to be honest, and own up to the horrors of the past. The historical novelist Lawrence Norfolk has read the book and he called Raleigh, amongst other things, a ‘sentimental war criminal’, which I think is spot on. I won’t go into the atrocities he was responsible for in Ireland here, you’ll have to read the book.
I believe very much that historical fiction is a prism through which we view the present. Every age reinvents the past to tell its own story. My attitude to Raleigh in the book is critical. It has to be. I think he’s a very flawed individual with a definite dark side.
What led me to Raleigh was an interest in the way human beings are driven to undertake bold, outrageous, even nonsensical ventures in the pursuit of a dream. The dream itself may well be tarnished or even illusory. Dreams are illusions, after all. If he was alive today, Raleigh might well be a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, hustling to raise money for his next project. It may seem a bathetic comparison, but the main reason Raleigh did what he did was to enrich himself. The idea of the British Empire was arguably first conceived around this time by Dr John Dee. It was from its outset a grandiose cover for an exercise in looting. A cloak, you might say.
|Dr John Dee, the Queen’s astronomer.|
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
R.N. Morris: Do your research, obviously, but try not to get bogged down in it. What you are trying to do is reach a point where you can close all the history books, put them to one side and start telling a story. For me, the purpose of the research is to feed my imagination. The secret therefore is to trust your imagination. I also think you have to learn what to leave out as well as what to put in. You may have discovered some fascinating nugget of information that you’re desperate to share with people. But if it doesn’t advance your story, it shouldn’t be in there. You can save it for the pub, or for when you’re interviewed for Coffee Pot Book Club.
Hope that helps!
Mary Anne: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to chat to us.
If you would like to find out more about R.N Morris' fabulous book then you know what to do – SCROLL DOWN!
The Triumph and Tragedy of
By R.N. Morris
Adventurer, soldier, courtier, poet, prisoner – outsider.
Drawn by ambition to Elizabeth’s court, Walter Raleigh soon becomes the queen’s favourite. But his meteoric rise attracts the enmity of powerful rivals.
Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spy master, proves a dangerous enemy.
While the Earl of Oxford is an equally dangerous friend.
Even Elizabeth’s favour is an uncertain gift. It can be withdrawn on a whim as easily as it is granted and earns him as much trouble as it does profit.
Seeking gold for his queen and glory for himself, Raleigh launches a series of ever more reckless adventures.
The ultimate prize he dreams of is the fabled city of Eldorado in the New World. He is possessed by the dream.
After Elizabeth’s death, Raleigh fails to find favour with the new king and is imprisoned in the Tower.
To restore his reputation, he embarks on his most desperate venture yet.
By now an old and broken man, he risks everything to discover the city of his dreams.
I see the acorn falling to the ground, full of energy and intent. The stippled cup splits. A tiny tongue licks out.
I see it. I see it all. Now.
This tongue, a shoot, parts the sodden ground, probing it with its insinuating tip. Taking root.
It is Nature’s business to be questing.
I see this. Though it happens within the closed darkness of the soil.
The speed of it would take your breath away.
And above, another shoot hurtles upwards, a fine jet of living matter fired towards the Sun.
The stem writhes as it grows, whipping the air. It is almost too fast for itself, has not the strength to support its vaunting height. Quick, quick, quickening, it girds itself with growth, thickening into a sapling’s adolescent tremor.
I see the parting and spreading of the roots, the restless subterranean colonisation. It is the nature of all life, the urge to encroach.
I see the orb of the heavens wheel about. I see the Sun on its ceaseless course, a bouncing ball across the horizon. The waxing and waning of countless moons. The slow strophes of an eternal dance sped up into a frantic jig.
I see the sapling’s tremor steady as it takes on girth. The Sun warms its coarsening skin. It is lashed by downpours. Bent by winds. Pert and unbowed, it springs back, the stamp of its future stalwart nature already showing. It laps up the rain.
A fountain of tendrils shoots out from the stem, lightning thrown back at the sky: the young plant’s first branches. No sooner have they waved themselves into rude existence, than a rash of green bursts over them. The leaves are lips that kiss the sky.
The elastic vigour quickly slackens. Autumn’s golden cloak crackles like a benign fire over the branches.
Boughs thicken, effortlessly bearing their swaying burden. Acorns!
I see this.
I see the secret accretions building within. Each summer’s growth encircling the last.
The tree stands its ground, chests itself out like a warrior, staking its claim for a corner of the forest. But is never still. Its thrusting energy strains ever outwards and upwards.
I see the acorn falling to the ground. I see a host of acorns falling. I see forests shooting up. I see the Earth colonised by the Empire of Oak.
And then I see them come into the forests. The men.
I see men differently now. The oak is more my brother.
The men are kindred with the mites that flit in the sunshine. With the spiders that weave between the leaves. With the woodlice and maggots that scuttle and twitch in the forest’s darkest places.
They seek out the finest, grandest oak. I see them survey it with proprietary pride, abrogating its creation to their own account. It is theirs already. Its monumental steadfastness a challenge to their quicksilver wits.
They wield their axes with a sidelong swoop. Two men planting alternate blows, digging the future out of the tree’s flesh with remorseless precision. The blows lack reverberation, empty dead clacks hushed up by the surrounding forest, as if in shame.
A pulpy wound deepens. The men’s shoulders grow as their work progresses. I see the sweat on their brow, the crook of their wrist as they wipe it away.
A thunderclap cracks within the stricken tree. The men step back, their final blow a sharp nod of twin satisfaction. The forest quakes. The leaves shiver on the outspread tremble of branches. The tree topples into timber.
A horse as big as a dromedary drags it over to the saw pit. The men fall on it like locusts. It doesn’t stand a chance against their savage rip saws and adzes. Their hearty muscular swinging of blades. Their oaths and earthy songs. Their cunning wielding of the unwieldy. I see the long flexing metal snap into shape, biting when bidden.
I see this happening all over the forest. Other men bringing low other trees. And in other forests, the same thing.
The forests are converted into open ground, piled high with massive logs.
But it is not over yet. The hurtling of the oak.
The stripped logs are rolled and loaded onto wagons, which hurtle and rattle along country lanes. Or they float in solid torrent towards a new becoming.
The Empire of Oak has been conquered, enslaved, transported. Now it will serve the Empire of Man.
It hurtles into the sawmill, eager for its reformation.
I see the fine, unrelenting teeth of enormous saws.
Water turns the wheel that drives the gang saw, a swinging chisel-toothed pendulum that measures the tree’s end and the ship’s beginning. It is somehow appropriate that water powers this transition.
I see the saw’s teeth sink into the timber. Sawdust fills my eyes. I do not blink.
Sawing and hewing and rasping and shaping. A focused bustle of activity.
The men throw themselves at it, all hands to the latent decks.
I see the swift, smooth glide of the plane, as rough logs are tamed. The men peel off planks and beams and masts, the timbers of a preordained fleet.
Fleet! One word expresses the hastening destiny of the oak.
The raw wood hurtles on, to the shipyards now.
Here I see the timbers bent and beckoned into shape. The workmen stand sweating over pits of humid ash. Steam seeps into the grain, loosening the fibres of the wood, making malleable that unyielding matter. It is slow, aching, patient work. But to my eyes, it happens in an instant. The great wood beams curl like furled paper.
The hefting and hammering begins. The shaped timbers offered up and butted, joints mallet-slammed together. A skeleton of oak forms. The boards fly onto it, as fast as the ruffling of a hawk’s feathers. I see the nails fly into the boards, the neat carvel hull complete in the unblinking of my eyes. This is not industry, it is conjuring. The wood of six-hundred trees flies together to form one ship.
Miles of rigging, the ropes from Muscovy, the cordage wound and bound into dense bundles, all are hauled on board and stowed. The folded sails are borne with reverence and ceremony, sacraments on a vast scale.
I see the towering masts rise up. And hear the cheer that rises with them. I smell the tar that caulks the keel.
The quarters are subdivided and fitted, before the mainmast for the men, behind the mainmast for the gentlemen and officers. Chisels snout out details. Abrasive blocks wear away the wood’s last coarseness. Under the master carpenter’s overseeing eye, beneath the touch of his fine, critical fingers, a perfect surface emerges. He blows away the flecks that mar it.
And now a carnival, a riotous assembly. Exultant colour splashes onto primed and burnished ornamenting. The brushes dance in the artisans’ hands. But the music that accompanies this is a solemn death march. The sonorous rumble of the guns manoeuvred into place.
This is what it has all been about, so far, the placing of the guns. For what is this vessel but a courier of cannon fire? The cargo it will trade in: death.
The ovens are built, deep in the ship’s belly. In a universe of wood, the fire must be held in brick prisons.
I see the barrels of supplies, the salted meat and fish, the hard tack, the casks of pickled and dried produce, the butts of drinking water, beer and brandy. And the livestock too. The capons and chickens. The goats. Sustenance for the men who will set the course, steer the ship, climb the rigging, swab the decks, for those who will drink and swear and brawl, who will man the watch, who will sicken and die, who will live to tell the tale. But above all, for the men who will load and aim and fire the cannon, for that is what they are all about.
I see them now, the crew, filing on. They bring with them a couple of cats and a dog, platters and tankards and backgammon boards, playing cards, knives – for cutting food, whittling wood and settling arguments – fiddles, whistles, bass viol and drum, even a portative organ for the captain’s company of musicians. One or two may bring a Bible or some other, more dangerous tract.
I see them teem over the decks, a flood of life, raucous and unruly. There is a whetted edge to them, sharp enough to kill. They have that glint in their eyes, a keen hunger: they are avid for movement and action and plunder. They see the prize already. They look into the empty hold and see its expected cargo manifest. The plate, the coins, the gold.
I have looked through eyes like theirs.
And now I see the floodgates open. I see the inundation. The dry dock is no more. The ship at last is in her element.
Another cheer, as the men feel the kick of buoyancy enter their legs, the sudden, giddy instability that can reduce even the saltiest dog to sickness. They know there is no going back. The water will bear them to their destiny.
The hurtling continues. The onrush of oak.
The first commands go out. The sails are raised. The cries of the men are lusty and eager. They are pulling together, with a common purpose. The river widens into estuary. The tide, the wind, the gulls concur. The ocean opens up before them.
But it is not just this one ship I see. I see others too. Setting sail from other shipyards. On other days. (The links of time have been unchained for me now. The minutes, hours and days do not connect. It is one of the ways I see things differently.)
A great hurtling from the forest to the sea.
The energy and intent of the acorn.
All this I see.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx