Interview with Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon

Katherine Clements’ debut novel The Crimson Ribbon was published by Headline on 27th March. I reviewed the book just after publication, having read it earlier in the year, and I must say I loved it. An historical novel with a bit of a Sarah Waters ‘romp’ feel, laced together with intelligent exploration of the sociopolitical issues of England in 1646, particularly for women.Thanks to the magic of Bookbridgr and the lovely Caitlin Raynor at Headline, I was able to ask Katherine a few questions about her work. Enjoy!

Katherine Clements. Image: headline.co.uk
Katherine Clements. Image: headline.co.uk

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What made you want to write about Lizzie Poole, and this period in history?

I’ve always been passionate about history and studied it at university. I became particularly interested in the 17th century after reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful novel “Restoration”. I began reading history books about the period and was fascinated by the English Civil Wars. It was in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Oliver Cromwell that I first encountered Elizabeth Poole, a mysterious woman who appears in the historical records as she attempted to influence the trial of Charles I. I was intrigued by the way that she was given serious consideration by some of the most important men of the day. This led to more research about women’s history during the period and I decided I wanted to explore some of the things that interested me; women’s role in society, new freedoms brought about by the war, new religious sects, radical political thinking and the witchcraft trials. After that it was a process of finding a story that allowed me to explore some of these themes. Using a relatively unknown figure gave me some factual structure but a lot of freedom to do this.

How did you develop the character of Ruth, and intertwine her life with that of Lizzie?

I first began to develop the character of Lizzie but it soon became clear that the voice in my head was not Lizzie herself and I needed to tell Lizzie’s story through the eyes of another. Creating a completely fictional character gave me more freedom and allowed me to bridge the links between some of the real-life characters. I had researched the real Elizabeth Poole, and there were facts that I wanted to maintain, for example, where she lived, where she worshipped, her relationships with certain people etc. so I had a structure to start with. Then it was like solving a puzzle fitting it all together. I love that process – part research, part imagination – and the light bulb moment when the answers come.

‘Witch hunts’ and religious persecution are very important in the novel – how did you go about gathering information and recreating the mood and culture of the time?

I did a lot of broad reading before I started writing. I learned about the political situation, the religious tensions, the role of women, attitudes to witchcraft and practical stuff about clothing, food, domestic arrangements, travel, currency etc.

Once I was writing I focused my research on the specific concerns of the book and learned in more detail about things like printing and pamphleteering, the witch hunts in the 1640s, the emergence of new religious sects and political groups like the Levellers. I did several research trips too. I went to Ely to visit Oliver Cromwell’s house and the Cathedral. I visited Wicken Fen to get an idea of what the Fens might have looked like before it was all drained. I visited Abingdon, and of course London. I find it helpful to understand the size and layout of the places I’m writing about when comparing with old maps. I went to Sealed Knot re-enactments (they do brilliant social history camps as well as battle re-enactment). I went to museums and 17th century houses, looked at art, listened to music, read literature and other writing of the time. I read historical fiction set in the period to see how other authors had handled things. All of these things are helpful to me in some way. Basically, I became a bit obsessed. I still am. (Just ask my poor friends.)

Joseph is a very interesting character, as he is both a soldier and a revolutionary involved in printing. How did you develop his character? Was he based on any real people?

Joseph isn’t based on anyone in particular but he represents the brutal experience of many men who were involved in fighting in the wars. I was interested in how certain camps in Cromwell’s New Model Army became disillusioned as the war went on. They felt they weren’t given the things they had been fighting for, plus they often weren’t paid and had to put up with appalling conditions. As Cromwell and the other Army leaders asserted their power, the more radical factions in the Army felt betrayed. I wanted someone to bring the progressive politics to the novel, and to challenge Ruth’s perceptions. Joseph’s character developed so that he has some modern ideas, working the illegal press and encouraging Lizzie in her writing, for example, but also provides a counterpoint to Lizzie’s unpredictability.

How did the title come about? Ruth has a red ribbon from her mother and associates them with her; Lizzie also wears a red ribbon. Did this image come to represent something deeper for you?

The title actually came rather late, after much discussion with my publisher. I originally had a working title that they weren’t happy with, for various reasons, so we decided to bring out the symbolism of the crimson ribbon that runs throughout the book. You’re right that Ruth associates the red ribbons with her mother, and when Ruth and Lizzie exchange gifts, Lizzie gives Ruth a pair of the same. Unbeknownst to Lizzie, this has significant meaning for Ruth and the exchange seals the bond between them. It’s the point at which Ruth commits herself completely. Ribbons were traditionally used in hand-fasting ceremonies and this imagery was in my mind too. Ruth is bound to her past – to her mother and to the Cromwells – but also trapped by her relationship with Lizzie. I’ll be interested to see what other meanings readers bring to it.

As you are an historian, do you think you will continue to write historical fiction? Are you planning another novel?

I’m not a historian by profession but I love it so much I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. Perhaps that will change in the future but my next two novels will certainly be historical. Right now I’m working on the second, which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. (You might know the 1945 film with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason that was loosely based on the same story). The legend tells of a noble-born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real-life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new.

2014 Headline cover. Image: goodreads.com
2014 Headline cover. Image: goodreads.com

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My thanks to both Katherine Clements and Caitlin Raynor at Headline for this interview.

Published in the UK by Headline on 27th March 2014. My copy was very kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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