©2010 by Patricia Bracewell
On a sunny July day in Fecamp, Normandy, I stood in front of the stony corpse of an 11th century ducal palace, studying the ruin before me with the eyes of an Independent Scholar. That’s an impressive way of saying that I was a history student without the benefit of credentials, university affiliation, or professors.
So, what kind of historical inquiry was a former Lit Major with a minimal grasp of French and a dreadful accent conducting in a fishing village on Normandy’s Alabaster Coast? I was doing background research for a novel, of course.
Having blithely disregarded the standard “write what you know” advice drummed into me in college, I had decided to write a novel set in the 11th century, about which, when I started the book, I had known precisely nothing. The first task I set myself was to research the period feverishly, reading history texts and poring over dusty translations of primary sources written by guys with names like Dudo and Wulfstan. Still, after a year of independent study I’d concluded that I needed a boots-on- the-ground approach as well. So I had come to Normandy to explore first hand the setting where my novel would take place and where my real-life heroine had grown up.
This palace at Fecamp, I had determined, was where my story would begin.
In front of me, the favorite retreat of the early Norman dukes looked desolate, even in bright sunshine. Ivy climbed up the broken walls from below to meet leggy shrubs cascading down from above. Three square, roofless towers guarded the outer ramparts, but the threat of invasion had disappeared centuries ago. The ducal palace held little interest, these days, for anybody but ghosts. Nature had been allowed to run riot within the walls, and since no one from Disney had come along to transform this ruin into a replica of its former glory, it was clear that I was going to have to do it myself. Camera and notebook in hand, I slipped past the flimsy barricade strung across the entrance to take a closer look.
I realized right away that I was seeing only a fraction of what had been here a millennium ago. In 1002 there would have been guesthouses, kitchens, stables, storerooms, an armory, animal pens, dovecots – all vanished now. Meantime, the detritus of centuries hid much of what was left. The ground had risen up around the castle walls, burying their foundations several yards below my feet. In the great hall where William the Conqueror held a feast in 1067 to celebrate his narrow victory at Hastings, a couple of good-sized trees grew in the spot where a huge central hearth would have been. I had to step carefully over tree roots, shrubs, and broken stones to make my way around what must once have been a magnificent and elaborate chamber. In a silence broken only by traffic noise and birdsong, there was no echo of the family members, retainers and servants who must once have filled this space.
Clambering up to stand in one of the square towers, I looked out through a narrow window embrasure cut into walls that were several feet thick. Had the roof been intact, the tower room where I stood would have been dark and cold, even in July. Mentally rolling up my sleeves I set to work, imagining the solid roof into place, its wooden beams intricately carved and gilded. I clothed the walls in plaster, painted them with limewash, and hung them with embroidered tapestries. I furnished the room with several beds, wooden coffers for storage, charcoal braziers for heat, and thick beeswax candles for light. I divided the beds among the duke’s daughters, and imagined one of them peering out that tiny window slit towards the river.
If she looked to her right she would see the grounds of an abbey founded in the 7th century, its ancient church rebuilt again and again. Looking at it myself I could see, on either side of the church door, massive statues of the first two Norman dukes gazing back at me. But the statues and the church façade were recent additions, I reminded myself, only three hundred years old. To see the abbey church that had stood there a thousand years ago, I had to time shift, to re-focus my vision and imagine a smaller building studded with cloisters and surrounded by green fields instead of stone walls and asphalt roadways.
Leaving the palace I made my way to the nearby shore, to a white, shingled beach below a chalk headland – the mirror image of Dover’s white cliffs. I imagined a fifteen-year-old girl surrounded by a crowd of servants and family as she was escorted aboard a longship, its high prow pointed towards England and a royal wedding. Would my heroine have looked forward with eager anticipation to those cliffs across the water, or backwards with regret at the cliffs of her home? That was the question that would lie at the heart of my novel.
Now, two years later, the book has been written, its opening scenes set in that Fecamp palace. In the writing of it I consulted photographs that documented my visit, but what my camera recorded that day and what I envisioned were two very different things.
A friend asked me once where I would go if I could travel anywhere I wished. I didn’t even have to think about it. I would go into the past, I replied, back a thousand years like a character in some time travel novel. I wouldn’t want to stay for very long, because I’ve learned enough to know how dangerous it would be. But I’d be willing to hazard a week there, in the distant past – just long enough to discover if I’d imagined any of it right.
Patricia Bracewell’s novel, “Royal Hostage”, is under consideration by publishers in New York and London. An essayist as well as a novelist, Patricia is the editor of Roadwork. LCW members who wish to submit to the Roadwork column should contact her at Roadwork@LeftCoastWriters.com.