We recently spoke with novelist Suzanne M. Wolfe, whose latest book, The Course of All Treasons, an Elizabethan spy mystery, was just published by Crooked Lane.
Q: Your first two novels were literary fiction. Now you just published your second Elizabethan mystery novel, The Course of All Treasons—a very different genre. But the thread that seems to run through them all is a fascination with history. Could you walk us through the evolution of your writing?
A: Even as a child, I was enthralled with the past. I read all the historical fiction I could get my hands on such as Adam of the Road, by Newbery winner Elizabeth Vining, set in 13th century England, and books by Henry Treece, Cynthia Harnett, Joan Aiken, Geoffrey Trease, and many others. In fact, I was so fascinated that I planned on reading history at Oxford and only switched to literature at the last minute.
My first novel, Unveiling, is a contemporary novel set in present-day Rome. Rachel Piers, an art conservationist specializing in medieval panel paintings, is sent to Rome by her New York museum to restore a mysterious triptych. In the course of the restoration, she uncovers the astonishing medieval history and provenance of the painting. This evolved into a historical subplot that became key to Rachel’s personal story.
No one could have been more surprised than I was when this historical element emerged. I had not planned on the history of the painting playing such a dominant role in the plot of Unveiling but I guess it was the twin tributaries of my love of history and love of writing coming together in my imagination into one river. It was an unexpected, subconscious merging and one that has characterized my writing ever since.
As a child, I did not understand the source of my fascination with history. All I knew was that there was a peculiar pleasure in discovering that people long ago had the same feelings and thoughts as me. In short, that they were real flesh and blood people and not just remote historical figures.
I have since come to realize that I have always been in search of those who have been forgotten, those who are invisible to the contemporary eye.
My second book, The Confessions of X, was a direct product of my desire to bring the past to life. It is the story Augustine’s concubine (more properly, his common-law wife), told in the first person, and set in ancient Carthage, Rome, and Milan.
I first came across the concubine when I was eleven and we were studying Augustine’s Confessions in religion class in my convent school. When I put up my hand to ask Sister Bernadette the name of the concubine, she replied, “We do not know. She is lost to history.” That phrase, “lost to history,” stuck with me and, years later, I set out to give an identity to this forgotten woman. I hope I succeeded.
I should say that some people, on hearing the basic plot of The Confessions of X, imagine it to be some sort of feminist take-down of St. Augustine. All I can tell you is that if you read it attentively, you might be surprised . . .
Q: Are there historical novelists who have particularly inspired you?
A: I name some children’s authors above, but there are many historical novelists who I read as an adult and which have hugely inspired me over the years: Colleen McCullough’s magisterial Rome series; Patrick O’Brian’s astonishing British naval series; The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, a truly remarkable first-person account of the life of the Roman emperor Hadrian; The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault, and many, many others. It is an incredibly rich and rewarding genre and one that is a crucial counter-balance to contemporary fiction because, sometimes, I think that we tend to disregard the experiences of the past as being irrelevant to the present. This is a great mistake, I think. It may be a cliché but there’s no way around George Santayana’s famous dictum: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Q: Why turn to mystery novels? What is it about the form that appeals to you?
A: The mystery genre is one of the few that retains a moral universe in which evil still exists. In a world where morality has morphed into ideological correctness, I find this incredibly refreshing. There is no ambiguity about the heinousness of murder nor the sleuth’s mandate to bring the perpetrator to justice. In the mystery world, crime and punishment are alive and well.
Another thing I like about the genre is its mythic quality. The sleuth is the flawed hero who rides out to slay the dragon. In our increasingly fraught and confusing social-media world of competing opinions, ideologies, and worldviews, it is refreshing to be able to agree on one thing—murder is wrong and the perpetrator must be punished. In my opinion, it is this moral clarity that makes the mystery genre so popular.
Q: The Course of All Treasons is the second in what have been called the Elizabethan Spy Mysteries. What attracts you to the period?
A: What does not attract me! The Elizabethan period is an incredibly rich brew of intrigue, skullduggery, overweening ambition, and betrayal. In short, it has all the marvelous human ingredients for a series of novels.
Looming over this period, of course, is the fascinating and mercurial figure of Queen Elizabeth the First herself—shrewd, vain, witty, highly educated, courageous, hot-tempered and, for her time, surprisingly compassionate. No wonder she inspired the blossoming of the English Renaissance and such towering literary figures as Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and intrepid explorers such as Sir Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh.
But if the period is glittering, it also has a disturbingly dark and violent side. In the 16th century, there was no such thing as the separation of Church and State. The subsequent power of the Crown to seek out and destroy its civic and religious enemies was far-reaching and merciless. Despite famously stating on her accession in 1558 that she did not intend to “make windows into men’s souls,” the years of Elizabeth’s reign saw an increasingly brutal crackdown on Catholics.
In one of the worst political and moral blunders in the history of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius V issued the 1570 bull of excommunication of Elizabeth, thereby giving the Church’s tacit approval for Elizabeth’s assassination. Overnight, every English Catholic became a potential traitor. It now became a crime punishable by death to harbor a priest or attend Mass. The public executions of the pregnant Margaret Clitherow in York by pressing, and Edmund Campion in London by being hung, drawn, and quartered, are two such instances of the crown’s barbaric and pitiless repression of Catholics.
Q: Your portrait of Queen Elizabeth is quite complex. She seems a mysterious combination of shrewdness and folly.
A: As the first long-reigning queen of England, Elizabeth was an incredibly successful monarch for her time. Unlike her Catholic sister, Mary, she was beloved of her subjects and, despite the threat of Spanish invasion, managed to steer her country safely through the perils of religious war and economic ruin. However, she was not a woman without faults. The most puzzling of these was her susceptibility to the flattery of male favorites, notably the unstable and malignant figure of the Earl of Essex from 1586 until nearly the very end of her reign.
Given that Elizabeth was usually a shrewd judge of character—testified by the fact that she retained most of her servants and friends from childhood such as Sir William Cecil and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester—it is all the more puzzling why she favored Robert Devereaux, Second Earl of Essex, for so many years. Young enough to be her son, Essex was a constant thorn in Elizabeth’s side. It was Essex who accused her personal physician, the converso Jew Roderigo Lopez, of treason, resulting in Lopez’s hideous execution at Tyburn despite the overwhelming probability of his innocence. In 1599 Elizabeth appointed Essex Lieutenant and Governor of Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Earl of Tyrone. Against her explicit orders, Essex made a truce with Tyrone and returned to England without the Queen’s permission. Stripped of his positions for dereliction of duty, he was eventually executed at the Tower in 1601 for fomenting an armed uprising in London.
Q: Your sleuth is Nicholas Holt, who you describe as being from a “Recusant” family. What does that mean and how does it play out in the novels?
Q: Nick Holt is close to a brother and sister, Eli and Rivkah, both of whom are Spanish Jews. Rivkah might be called Nick’s “love interest.” Why are these characters so important to you?
A: As third generation converso Jews—their grandfather made the decision as head of the family to convert to Christianity in order to survive the Spanish Inquisition—and as exiles from Spain, the hated Catholic enemy of Protestant England, Rivkah and Eli are exiled twice over. Their plight highlights the barbaric nature of religious intolerance at this time and means that they live in constant danger of betrayal to the authorities. As a member of a Catholic family, Nick is similarly at risk.
As physicians, Eli and Rivkah represent everything that is humane. Despite their own marginalized status, they minister to their neighbors irrespective of gender, creed, or class. This makes them the only truly humanist characters in the series and a touchstone for all that is good and true, even transcendent, about human nature despite the brutal and unjust times in which they live. This is a quality that Nick recognizes and is the source of his deep love for Rivkah.
The fact that Rivkah is an accomplished physician despite being denied formal training because she is a woman, is a potent reminder that courage, skill, tenacity, and compassion cannot be destroyed by a society that regarded women as inferior at best and at worst as little more than reproductive vessels.
The third novel in the series—tentatively entitled The Witching Time—confronts Elizabethan misogyny head-on when Nick investigates a series of murders thought to be the work of witchcraft.
Q: There is a lot of humor in your mystery novels—was turning to that after two heart-breaking literary novels fun for you?
A: Hell, yes. It was tremendous fun just to satirically let rip in the first novel, A Murder by Any Name. Writing the character of Codpiece—Queen Elizabeth’s (fictional) Fool—was pure joy. Like Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear, he is my truth-teller character. Humor is a great stalking-horse for unpalatable truth.
However, it became apparent that my British sense of humor in the first novel puzzled some readers. They wondered what levity had to do with the grim theme of murder. My response to this is that the novels are set in the time of Shakespeare, an age in which humor and homicide abound. As Hamlet himself says, “one can smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
Q: The Course of All Treasons clearly deals with the themes of loyalty and betrayal. Can you tell us a little about what those themes mean to you?
A: What comes as a surprise to many readers is that 16th century England was a theocracy, much like present day Iran. That meant that there was no area of life that was private from the government, including individual conscience. In such a society, people such as recusant Catholics or converso Jews were in constant fear of informers who would betray them to the authorities. Add to this the threat of infiltration by continental Catholicism in the shape of the Jesuits and the Spanish, and you have a society that is riddled with suspicion and paranoia.
This is the world in which Nick must survive. Although a lapsed Catholic, he is from a prominent recusant family and knows full well that he is not fully trusted by either Walsingham or Sir Robert Cecil, his immediate boss in the spy game. Indeed, he has been strong-armed into becoming a spy with a threat to his brother, Robert, who has been corresponding with Catholics abroad. Nick is in constant fear that either his brother or his strong-willed mother, the Dowager Countess of Blackwell, are hiding priests at his ancestral home, Binsey House. If evidence of this should be found, his family would be attainted as traitors to the Crown and his mother, brother, and possibly Nick himself, would be executed.
Thus Nick is divided: he is loyal to his Queen and serves her faithfully but must do so at the expense of his conscience.
The Course of All Treasons examines the conflicting loyalties of its main characters. It asks the question: to whom or to what do we give our allegiance? Nick is loyal to his family and friends, and tries to be loyal to his country; Annie is loyal to her Irish clan but betrays her country; Rivkah and Eli will never betray their friends or their patients but live in a country at war with Spain; Essex seems to be loyal only to himself.
The theme of loyalty proves to be a tangled web that Nick must unravel if he is to discover who is murdering the Queen’s agents. In the process, he discovers much about the nature of his own allegiances and how far he is prepared to go to protect those he loves.
Q: You and your husband, Gregory Wolfe, founded Image journal and now you work with him on his literary imprint, Slant Books. You have written books together and also taught literature and creative writing for many years at the same institutions. What has this partnership meant to you and how do you hope it speaks to our time?
A: Greg sometimes says that when it comes to matters of literature and faith, we have never quarreled—it is just the rest of life where we often want to throttle each other. (Don’t be shocked: he is clearly absorbed a bit of the harder-edged British humor that’s second nature to me.)
But yes, we have been blessed to share very similar vocations. We met at Oxford. We were both reading literature. He had been on a long religious search that was leading him in the direction of Rome. At the time I was what I like to call a “collapsed” Catholic. He helped me regain my faith and in some way I helped him take the final step toward reception into the Church. Within our first term we had founded the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society (which is still going nearly 40 years later) and things went on from there.
In the early 1980’s, almost no one was talking about the relationship between art and faith, except a few demagogues decrying blasphemous art in order to win a minor skirmish in the nascent culture wars. The notion that artists and writers of faith could extend the tradition in the contemporary environment was also off the table—despite the great mid-century flourishing of truly modern writers like T.S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor. Conservatives treated our era in a Gnostic fashion, as somehow tainted and incapable of producing great work. Liberals were likewise oblivious.
Greg and I and a few friends began to discuss the situation and seek a remedy, a revival of the incarnational tradition of Christian humanism as an antidote to politicization and ideology. That led to the founding of Image and, later, the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University. I am biased but I do not think we would be where we are today, with such a resurgent interest in faith and the imagination, if it was not for Greg’s indefatigable efforts.
And now Slant is producing a wide range of books that exemplify both literary craft and the vision of humanism—precisely as a new and even more ferocious wave of moralistic ideologies threatens to once again reduce art to propaganda. We’ve come a long way, baby, but the work continues.