One day on Twitter, I discovered some very striking book covers and after a bit of exploring, I found out they were written by an author in Australia – Catherine Meyrick. I decided to follow Catherine and find out more about her writing. I’ve since ordered one of her novels and invited her to be a guest on The Scribbler. She has been gracious in sharing my posts as well as those of other authors.
She is joining us this week with a 4Q Interview and sharing an excerpt from her newest novel – The Bridled Tongue, which has received many great reviews.
When you visit Catherine’s website (links below) you are greeted by the following words:
Historical Fiction with a touch of Romance.
I am an Australian writer. I grew up in Ballarat, a large regional city in Victoria, but moved to Melbourne when I was seventeen to study nursing and have lived here ever since. I quickly realized that nursing wasn’t my calling so I dropped out and went to university where I took a double major in History. I joined the Public Service and worked for a number of years as a tax assessor. Somehow, while working full time, I managed to complete a Master of Arts in History and later Librarianship qualifications and then worked as a departmental librarian. I took about ten years out of the paid workforce when my children were young and then worked as a primary school librarian and later at my local public library. I started writing in earnest when my children were little and once they were at secondary school undertook a number of writing courses. I managed to get an agent at one stage but that didn’t work out so I decided to publish myself and have never regretted that decision for a moment.
Apart from spending time reading and writing, I am an obsessive genealogist and have managed to identify previously unknown family members and clear up mysteries using both traditional document-based methods and DNA. And, in the time left over, I enjoy gardening, the cinema, and music of all sorts from early music and classical to folk and country and western – listening not playing. I did take piano lessons as an adult but gave up when my children were young and they were already embarrassingly better than I was.
4Q: I’ve always been a big fan of Historical Fiction. What inspires you to write in the genre?
CM: While the short stories I wrote when I first started out were contemporary, I never considered writing novels set in the present. The bulk of my reading is historical fiction or non-fiction and I come from a family that has always been fascinated by history. My father read a lot of historical fiction and for my thirteenth birthday he gave me The Flight of the Heron by DK Broster, a story set in Scotland at the time of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. This was the first work of historical fiction I clearly remember reading. My mother read biographies of historical figures and would read aloud to us interesting snippets she came across. She also was a meticulous family researcher and her stories about her forbears made these long dead people real, not just names attached to dates. My maternal grandfather, especially, was a storyteller. We visited my grandparents most years during the summer holidays and, as there was no television, evenings were spent with the adults talking and telling stories. Most of my grandfather’s tales were about his childhood (he was born in 1887), his travels as a stockman and as a fencer in the early decades of the 20th century, and his family so the past was very alive to me.
Growing up in Ballarat also helped to develop an awareness of the past. Ballarat, about 70 miles from Melbourne, was one of the first places where gold was discovered in the early 1850s. History is a constant presence there – from the fine 19th century buildings, the statues of long dead notables, and the wide streets (the main street was wide enough to turn a bullock team) to the Eureka Stockade. This was an armed rebellion by gold miners objecting to the cost of a miner’s licence, seen basically as taxation without representation. It ultimately resulted in the Victorian Electoral Act 1856 which mandated suffrage for adult male colonists. You can’t escape history if you live in Ballarat.
4Q: I’ve read the synopsis of The Bridled Tongue but perhaps, you could tell our readers what to expect when they pick up their own copy.
CM: The Bridled Tongue begins in 1586 and follows the life of Alyce Bradley, the daughter of a wealthy Norwich mercer, as she adjusts to an arranged marriage, not one she particularly wishes for but has entered because she has no other options. It shows the way she grows into her role of manor wife and faces dangers not only from her husband’s enemies but her own past when jealousies stir up old slanders concerning her relationship with her grandmother, thought by some to be a witch. The novel is set at a time when these sorts of slanders, combined with the contemporary beliefs, could result in a formal accusation of witchcraft. In a witchcraft case normal evidential rules were set aside and the most dubious hearsay accepted which could be enough to bring a person to the gallows. It also touches on other issues such as sibling rivalry and jealousy, and the way the past can reach out and affect the present. The backdrop is the threat of immanent invasion by the Spanish in 1588 – the Spanish Armada.
I have always been more interested in the lives of ordinary people than the big names of the past so the major characters in my novel are fictional although they do rub shoulders with some historical personages but the timeline and background are as accurate as I could make them. Alyce is a reasonably conventional young woman of the middling sort and while she questions why life cannot offer her more opportunities and why the same standards are not expected of men as of women, she ultimately accepts her society’s rules and expectations. By making my characters conventional, I hoped to show something of the reality of lives in the past, the lack of freedom that women, and men as well, had in determining their own lives and even their choice of spouse, and the difficulties that a could arise when they tried to step outside the boundaries of a far more rigidly structured society than our own.
The novel is a third person narrative told from four points of view: Alyce, her husband Thomas Granville, her sister Isabel and a spurned suitor, Robin Chapman. The language is reasonably formal and while I have attempted to avoid the use of thoroughly modern terms, I have included some terms common in the sixteenth century, rarely used now, to give a uniquely Elizabethan flavour.
I would describe it as historical fiction with romantic elements. The relationship between Alyce and Thomas is an important element of the novel. In the past, for most ordinary women relationships were important, few occupations were open to them with marriage and household management the usual life path. The choice of a spouse, a matter over which most did not have a complete say, was of critical importance. It could mean the difference between a contented life or one of misery and discord. For this reason, the path to and through marriage plays an important role in my novels.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
CM: A vivid memory of my childhood, perhaps because it was repeated so often, is of holidays spent at my grandparents. They lived in Maffra, a town of several thousand people about 200 miles away, on the other side of the state.
Those holidays seemed to be a time of perpetual sunshine, the way memories of childhood can be, every day the same and carefree. I and my younger sister would wake up early and go out the back where our grandfather would be feeding the kookaburras lined up along the fence. We’d then go inside and he’d fry sausages for breakfast. While we were having ours, he would take our grandmother breakfast in bed, tea and toast cooked in front of the open firebox of the stove. We’d spend the morning up at an aunt’s house, our grandfather’s sister who had no children of her own. She had a basket of broken ornaments and we were given these to play with out on the back verandah. We’d make little villages out there and invent stories about the bits and pieces we played with. She’d take us to the font gate just before midday and let us go as the milk factory’s siren went. We would run down the hill and across the road before the cars from the factory came round the corner, men driving home to have their lunch. When we ran along the side of the house Nanna’s clock would still be striking twelve. We would have been between five and ten years old and had far more freedom to roam that we ever did at home. The evenings were times when the adults talked and we listened in and heard good stories and learnt a lot more than we would have if we had been noisier.
It was a far slower pace than the life we lived back in Ballarat. My grandparent’s house was modest with a massive back yard where there were fruit trees and my grandfather grew all the vegetables they ate and a chook yard. The house, like so many built in the early 1900s, had cold running water, if you wanted hot water it had to be heated. There was a big back cast iron water urn that sat permanently on the stove and a copper in the washhouse where clothes were boiled and water had to be carried by bucket to fill the bath which was also in the washhouse. In many ways it was a step back into an earlier time and, as children, we loved it.
4Q: Can you give us a brief outline of Forsaking all Other.
CM: Forsaking All Other begins in 1585 and follows the struggles of a young widow and waiting woman, Bess Stoughton, who discovers that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and manages to convince her father to allow her a year to find a husband with whom she has some hope of happiness. Bess’s domestic concerns are set against the background of simmering Catholic plots to unseat Queen Elizabeth, and the involvement of English forces under the Earl of Leicester in the Netherlands in support of Dutch resistance to Spanish rule.
Like The Bridled Tongue, the major characters are fictional but the timeline and background as accurate as I could make them.
4Q: You have expressed an interest in gardening. Do any ideas for writing come from your working in your garden?
CM: I like looking at the garden and seeing things grow and bloom but sometimes I get so caught up in other things that my garden survives under a regime of benign neglect. I put things in the ground and leave them to look after themselves, other than watering and occasionally weeding. When I need to prune, unfortunately, I often channel my mother who could turn a standard bush into a single stick. But my plants are hardy and they survive. I am particularly fond of fuchsias and hellebores.
So far, Alyce has been the only character with an interest in gardening. She has the time, the skills and the patience that I would love to have and, not forgetting, the assistance of servants for the more routine and backbreaking work.
I do find, though, that when I am on my knees weeding, the sunshine on my back, I can fall into almost a reverie. (Often accompanied by a male blackbird busy working about two feet from me, scratching in the dirt I have turned over.) It is at times like these that plot and character problems can resolve themselves or I have other bright ideas to enhance a scene.
4Q: I’m always interested in what other authors are reading. Your favorites?
CM: At present I am finishing the brilliant biography Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I am also reading the 2020 the Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It is an intense and grim novel set in Glasgow in the 1980s so when I need a break from it, I have been reading Taking the Waters by Lesley Sainty, the story of a sheltered but intelligent woman’s entry into fashionable society in Cheltenham in 1827.
There are so many novels I love. Two of my favourite reads of 2020 were A Murder By Any Name by Suzanne M Wolfe, an Elizabethan murder mystery that was suspenseful, humourous and compassionate, and This Is Happiness by Neill Williams which was set around the arrival of electricity in rural village in Ireland. This is something of a coming-of-age novel and a nostalgic look back to a way of life that was passing. The greatest joy in reading this novel was its gentle humour and the pleasure of being enraptured by the storyteller’s voice.
The book that altered the way I viewed fiction was The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a novel taking inspiration from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre but giving a voice to Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife. I read it twice in two days.
My favourite books include Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman – the story of Joanna, illegitimate daughter of King John, who married Llewelyn, Prince of Gwenydd (north Wales) in 1205; and the much-loved Australian classic Harp in the South and its sequel Poor Man’s Orange by Ruth Park. These two novels follow the fortunes of the Darcys, a struggling working-class family in Sydney just after World War 2. There are a number of other writers whose new books I will automatically read. These include C J Sansom, Donal Ryan, Laura Purcell, Rebecca Mascull, Barbara Erskine, Tracy Chevalier and Cryssa Bazos.
4Q: When you are feeling most creative, where will we find you writing and what habits can you share with us.
CM: These days I have a desk in the living room at the back of the house. It’s beneath a window so I can stare out at the back garden when I need to think. I used to have a room of my own at the front of the house but about five years ago my husband started working from home and he needed that space. It works pretty well because we are home alone on weekdays, the house is quiet and we are working at different ends of the house. I am good at ignoring distracting noises anyway.
I used to try to start the day with a walk or a swim at the local pool but Covid put an end to that and although restrictions have now eased here, I haven’t gone back to it as my current routine is working well. These days I try to get up earlier than the rest of the household and get straight into the more creative writing before I am distracted by anything else. I aim to do at least three to four hours most days. I have my most productive days when I do this. When I have finished, I have a ride on an exercise bike and I find that I often mull over what I have been writing while riding. The benefit of a stationary bike is that you don’t have to worry about other traffic. I leave research, the writing of blog posts and social media until the late morning or the afternoon. Then there are days when I am completely inspired and do nothing but write all day barely stopping for meals. It is on these sorts of days that, occasionally, a new character I hadn’t planned on arrives and makes him or herself critical to the story. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it is absolutely brilliant.
4Q: What’s next for Catherine Meyrick, the author?
CM: I am revising my next novel, currently called ‘Unspoken Promises’ which is based on a period in the lives of one set of great-great grandparents on my father’s side. It is set in the years around 1880 in Hobart, Tasmania. Both were the children of convicts – Harry Woods had been born in Fremantle in 1834, four years after first settlement of the Swan River colony and Ellen Thompson in 1858 in Hobart. Their story emerged as the result of my own genealogical research and was basically unknown until I uncovered it through my family history digging about ten years ago. It is a story of very unVictorian Victorians who belonged to the lower end of the social scale where life was a struggle and middle-class virtues not much regarded. The story touches on such issues as secrets, family ties, poverty and the struggles of unmarried mothers. I am hoping to show just how hard life was for these people, women in particular. While I would describe it as a love story, encompassing not only romantic love but a mother’s love for her children, this time it certainly doesn’t fall into the standard definition of a romance.
I am also doing some reading for the novel after that which, once again, will be set in the late Elizabethan period and look at the lives of recusant women. My ideas are very preliminary at this stage but I would like to show something of their steadfastness in their faith and the way Catholic families coped in this dangerous period.
4Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
CM: Thank you, Allan, but your questions have been comprehensive and interesting. Thank you for inviting me onto your blog.
**My pleasure, Catherine. You’ve been a most gracious guest and I hope this won’t be your last visit.
Excerpt from The Bridled Tongue.
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)
Alyce paused at the head of the stairs and tugged at her new square-necked doublet. She brushed her hands across her partlet, borrowed from Isabel and of delicate embroidered lawn. Squaring her shoulders, she followed her mother down to the hall.
She was aware of Granville’s scrutiny as soon as she entered the room. He watched her walk towards him. She could read nothing in his face and hoped her own face was as guarded.
He bowed courteously. ‘Mistress Bradley, Alyce.’
Both women curtsied.
Her father stood beside Granville, looking exceedingly pleased with himself. ‘Alyce, Master Granville wishes to speak with you.’
As her parents moved to the other end of the hall, Alyce said, ‘Master Granville, please sit.’ She indicated the settle beneath the window overlooking the street. She sat, ensuring a distance between them, and tried to ignore her parents pretending an intense conversation at the other end of the room.
‘Alyce.’ He paused.
For a ridiculous moment, Alyce thought that he was as uneasy as she was.
‘As you are aware, your father has suggested that you would make a suitable wife. I am—’
Alyce’s eyebrows shot up. ‘My father suggested it?’
‘Perhaps not so directly. He made me aware that he was seeking a husband for you. And I know that it is beyond time that I married. It seems to me, from our recent acquaintance, that we might make a reasonable match.’
It was not the most elegant, nor courtly, of proposals but Alyce knew that she would have despised him if he had claimed he was suddenly smitten with her.
As she sat in silence, Granville continued on, describing his manor and the household there.
Alyce lowered her eyes to her hands in her lap. So close, she found herself acutely aware of him as a man. Beneath the brocade doublet, pinked to show the bright silk lining, she could sense the strength of his broad shoulders, his muscular arms. Her downward gaze took in his strong hands crossed with scars, his broad wrists. She forced herself to look towards his face. He looked to be around forty. His eyes were grey, deep creases at the corners. Ruddy, weathered skin, dark close-cropped hair. His lips were firm, not fleshy, above his neatly trimmed beard. His nose was crooked; broken how many times? The flaws in his once-handsome face somehow made him more appealing.
Silence stretched out between them.
Granville was staring at her, an eyebrow raised. ‘Do you consider your skills are sufficient to the task?’ He spoke with the patience of someone repeating an obvious question, which no doubt he was.
‘Skills?’ Better to have him think she had misunderstood than that she had not been listening to him.
‘The skills you learnt from the late Lady Faulconer in the management of a large manor.’
‘I have never managed a manor.’
‘But you learnt the necessary skills when you were with her.’
Alyce paused, blinking quickly. She supposed she had. ‘Ay, though Lady Faulconer was always at my shoulder. Hers was an elderly household. When servants died, she had no wish to employ and train younger people to her ways, so over time many tasks fell to me.’
‘You can cast accounts?’
‘I can. My ledgers always balanced.’
‘Ledgers can be made to balance even by those with poor arithmetic. Say you were to add one hundred and ninety-three to two hundred and fifteen?’
‘The answer would be four hundred and eight.’
‘And divide it by three.’
Alyce paused. ‘One hundred and thirty-six.’
‘Two hundred and seventy-two.’
Alyce frowned with concentration. ‘One hundred and seventy-five. Is that correct?’
‘I have no idea,’ Granville laughed, ‘I gave up at the addition.’
Alyce grinned. In that moment the thought of a life spent in this man’s company seemed a not unpleasant prospect.
‘Were you involved with any aspects of the management of Lady Faulconer’s wider manor lands?’
‘Not to any great degree. My skills are in household management including ensuring meat was cured or salted for the winter, stores got in. I oversaw the dairy and cheesemaking. I can card and spin wool as well.’
‘And you have your skills in physic. You would understand the workings of the body and the balancing of the humours.’
Alyce shook her head. ‘My lady would not permit me to read any of her texts concerning that, nor would she explain it to me. She said it would be beyond my understanding. I use those remedies I know will work.’
‘I will not stand in your way of reading whatever you wish, short of seditious tracts.’
‘I would not know where to find such things.’
‘It is safest not to know,’ he said. ‘Up until now, my manor and household have been managed by my sister, Cecily, but she is ailing and in need of care herself. My sister is very dear to me, and I would expect my wife to treat her as a sister.’
Alyce nodded, wondering what this sister was like, what she would be taking on beyond a husband she barely knew.
‘We are agreed.’
Alyce said nothing in reply—he was not asking, merely stating an accepted fact.
Granville frowned. ‘The proposition displeases you?’
‘Nay, but marriage is a serious step. I have been given less than a day in which to make up my mind. I know nothing of you.’
‘You are right. We both know each other only by repute. Would you like longer to consider the matter?’
It was not Granville’s fault she was being hurried into marriage by her father. ‘Nay, I believe even if we waited half a year, my decision would be the same.’
He stood. ‘Your father and I will now beat out the details of the dowry and jointure. Once the documents are ready for signing, we can plight our troth.’
As Granville walked across the room towards her parents, Alyce thought they might as well have been discussing the sale of livestock. It would not have surprised her had he asked to examine her teeth and run his hands down her legs.
Thank you, Catherine, for being our guest this week. Wishing you continued success with your stories.
For all you fantastic visitors that wish to discover more about Catherine and her writing, please follow these links:
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