Wednesday, October 10, 2007


The story takes place in an alternate history that I’ve used elsewhere. In 1511, Henry VIII of England and his wife Katherine of Aragon had a son, also named Henry, who died when he was only a few weeks old. I have tried to imagine what would have happened if this child had lived to grow up and succeed his father. With the succession secure, Henry would have had no need of a divorce; there would have been no break with the Roman Catholic Church. England – and later Britain – would have remained politically and culturally much closer to Europe. However, as the story indicates, some things would have remained the same…

The first version of this story focused much more on the relationship between Crispin and Lucas. I’d written about half of it, and was finding it heavy going, when my computer’s hard disc crashed. This story and one other – which had already been accepted for publication – were the only items not backed up. Clearly Version One was never meant to see the light of day. By the time I stopped complaining and settled down to write Version Two, I’d seen ways of opening up the story so that it took a much wider view of what might have been taking place in seventeenth century Oxford.

The story touches on several areas that I find interesting: history, art, alchemy and theology. The Oxford setting is close to my heart as I studied there, and important events in my life took place there. Cardinal College was the original name of Christ Church, founded by Cardinal Wolsey, who fell from power because of his failure to arrange Henry’s divorce. In this time-line Wolsey presumably retained his office and saw his college project to completion; I’ve assumed, however, that the college would have developed in a similar way and I’ve retained the bell, Old Tom, which hangs in the gatehouse and still rings 101 times each night to call each individual scholar home.

My main difficulty in writing Version Two was structural: where to begin, how to guide the reader through the various preliminaries – Crispin’s meeting with Stanford, his commission, his discovery of Stanford’s alchemy and meeting with Lucas – which had to be established before getting down to business with the Grand Inquisitor and the demon. The solution I came up with was to use the painting of the altarpiece as an introduction to the story and as punctuation throughout until the two time-lines come together at the death of Fr Alfonso. That enabled me to introduce danger at the very beginning and – I hope – make the reader curious about the reason for Stanford’s trial and its outcome.

The other thing I hoped to do as I wrote the story was to leave room for ambiguity. Is Lucas a demon, intent on destroying the good wherever he finds it? Did Crispin murder Fr Alfonso with his hatred channelled through the painting? Or was the death coincidental, no more than might be expected when an old man is placed under a lot of stress? Is Crispin a rather unstable young man with a vivid imagination? I’d like readers to make up their own minds.

When I wrote A Spear through the Heart I never intended it to have a sequel. But just recently I’ve started to wonder what Crispin was doing, starving in a garret in Oxford. He must have studied in the studio of an established artist, so presumably he left or was thrown out. Why? I have a few ideas, which I’m currently playing with and allowing to ‘compost’. Maybe some time they will emerge as another story.

No comments: