I first met Susan through a Seventeenth Century Twitter group, and it was love at first tweet. You don’t often find someone who shares your research passions – as well as many other loves of animals, countryside and John Wilmot, Lord Rochester.
May I first thank you Elizabeth for inviting me to tea and a chat. Here are my thoughts:
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
In the loosest sense of literary pilgrimages, my first port of call was many years ago, when I first visited the Samuel Pepys Library, (Bibliotheca Pepysiana 1724) at Magdelene College, Cambridge. At that time, not being a student of the college, I was only able to view his book collection as displayed in his magnificent carved and glazed oak presses. However, after several years’ pilgrimages, I was privileged to actually look though many of the books in the collection. On one particularly memorable visit, coinciding with my birthday, I was given permission to hold and admire the 1660 volume of Samuel’s famous diary, opened for me at the page showing the date of my birthday. Having previously read the 11 volumes of R. Latham and W. Matthews complete publication of the journal, it was such a thrill to see Samuel’s original ‘in the flesh’ so to speak.
A sort of literary pilgrimage began with my long-time interest in and studies of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, tracing the footsteps of this remarkable man and those of his family and friends, whilst exploring his many exploits. With all this knowledge to hand, I embarked on the writing of a historical fiction, although I prefer to call it a historical ‘faction’, and bravely penned it in the first person. I decided on that genre as, having read many brilliant biographies of John Wilmot, to compete with such experts would be a tough call indeed, but a comprehensive novel on Rochester would almost certainly be a rarity.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?
This is easy to answer. My main writings stem from a passion for research and, after publishing my first and only novel, I was very keen to write non-fiction. And no better position to begin this than to research hitherto unpublished subjects relating to Rochester himself. The first of my series of biographical accounts was that of the Earl’s daughter Elizabeth Montagu, Countess of Sandwich. After studying her father’s extraordinary life, this lady did not disappoint, and did certainly possess a good deal of her father’s charismatic genes. ‘She partook of all the fire and vivacity of her father, and at the Death of her Husband, quitted England and resided at Paris.’
The next in the series was that of Thomas Alcock, a devoted servant and friend of Rochester. My discovery of new material on Mr. Alcock was both fascinating and rewarding; in particular the finding of Thomas’s continued friendship with Lady Anne Baynton, Rochester’s eldest daughter, many years after her father’s demise.
Also a surprising wealth of material was to be found in the researching of William Clarke, enduring friend and trustee of John Wilmot, the third book in the biographical series.
I must admit though, my latest publication was far removed from Rochester and is of an 18th century actor, although the Earl was very fond of the playhouse, so it could be said that it has a distant connection, if not a direct one. With the actor, Roger Bridgwater being an ancestor of mine, writing his biographical account proved to be one I could not resist. Despite my being immersed in the 17th Century, my work on Roger opened a door to the 18th and a new, steep learning curve to boot. From Stuart to Georgian was an interesting adventure, if not an alien one, and at times hitting the 1 and 7 keys for dates was at first most out of ‘character’.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
There is a non-fiction work in progress at the moment but what will come of it is anybody’s guess. And there is a historical ‘faction’ which has been waiting in the wings for some time. It’s based on certain of my Bridgewater ancestors and spans some 400 years. The manuscript is around 80% complete, with more research to be done. In the future, it may see the light of day and the Bridgewaters’ story be told.
What kind of research did you do, and how long did it take you?
‘Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue’ was not published until 2014. After commencing research on Lord Rochester and his times as early as 2006, with reading numerous excellent biographies about him and consulting contemporary sources of and by Rochester, I had accumulated a stack of research papers. I was also fortunate indeed in living only sixty miles from the idyllic Cotswolds of John Wilmot’s birth, and so was able to make many trips to Oxfordshire visiting Ditchley, Adderbury, High Lodge at Blenheim Palace, and the village church of Spelsbury, where the Earl is buried. Walking in the very footsteps of my muse captured and fuelled my imaginings of his life there. I also travelled as far afield as London, and to Somerset, the ancestral home of his wife Elizabeth Malet. I also journeyed to the nether regions of Cornwall where at the time was stored, sadly in a grave and dilapidated state, Rochester’s bed. Seeing this object was, albeit far from the famous scene of the repentant Earl’s poignant demise in High Lodge at Blenheim Palace, an extremely moving experience.
Did you hide any secrets in this book that only a few people will find?
No, there are no secrets as such. However, apart from the obvious historical figures, what I did in the novel was to create other feasible characters in real places. I did this often by connecting map place names with my envisaged characters. This I believe worked well, in that a reader of ‘Ink’ could, if they felt so inclined, travel to many of the sites in Rochester’s story and connect with the characters and their places. This would leave the reader to decide what was true and what was not. To my delight I have had many readers enquiring as to the reality or otherwise of certain characters, and some were very disappointed to find that families of such and such were my own creations.
What’s the best thing a reader has said about or written to you?
Once written by an eminent historian; “Susan has unearthed obscure and important details about his life with scholarly diligence. Now, in this imaginative recreation of Rochester’s inmost thoughts and feelings, she delves even deeper.”
Tea or Coffee
Morning coffee, afternoon tea, both with the all-important custard cream biscuits.
Dark or Milk Chocolate
Just love chocolate!
When were you the happiest?
More times than I can remember, but one particular event comes to mind; owning my first horse at the age of 24. This was a very special dream that came true, after wishing for one ever since I was a young girl. Am still donning boots and mucking out!
Favourite Children’s Book
Apart from Rupert Annuals when very young, shamefully, I did not read avidly until I was in my 30s!
Favourite Adult Novel
In the main a non-fiction reader. As to a favourite non-fiction, that’s an easy call; my admiration for Emeritus Professor James William Johnson’s ‘A Profane Wit, The Life of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester’ is an outstanding work of long-term dedicated research, and must take the number one slot for me.