Author Interview: Helen Rayson-Hill

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Helen Rayson-Hill, the author of Eleanor, the Firebrand Queen, took some time out to have a chat with Beauty and Lace.

Get to know Helen in this interview.

Tell us a little about yourself…

I started out as an Infant Teacher and then became a Drama Teacher before moving into Arts Administration. On my husband’s transfer to Brisbane, I became the Queensland Manager of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

On my return to Melbourne, I worked at the Victorian Arts Centre in the then Fundraising and Development Department. I am now a full-time writer. I am also an artist and have had a few exhibitions, but that side of my life has been put on hold while I concentrate on writing which I love.

Can you tell us about Eleanor, the Firebrand Queen?

I became interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine when I was involved with the play, The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. The play spurred me to get to know this fascinating woman better so I started researching her life. I became more and more addicted with this early feminist and started reading the work of many historians like Amy Kelly, Alison Wier, Ralph Turner, Marion Mead as well as the early chronicles of John of Salisbury, Walter Map and William of Tyre.  The last three were not very kind and gave Eleanor pretty bad press. I have also recently read a book by another historian, The Queens of Jerusalem: Women who dared to Rule, by Katherine Pangonis in which Eleanor has a chapter connected with The Second Crusade.

As a result of my early research, I wanted to get into Eleanor’s head. I wanted to work out how she thought, not specifically as a 12th century queen, but as a woman. That is why Eleanor, the Firebrand Queen and the subsequent volumes are written as her journals, recording her innermost thoughts, emotions and observations of her medieval world.

I also asked myself, why her father William X of Aquitaine did not place her and her younger sister in a convent when their mother died with her baby brother. That was the norm. Instead, he elected to educate the girls himself and declared Eleanor at aged six years his heir to the Aquitaine.

William also never remarried to produce a male heir, which would have been expected at that time. What did he see in his little girl? I hope in my book Eleanor, the Firebrand Queen I answer some of those questions.

Eleanor was clever and well educated, a polyglot, rich beyond belief, tall, slender and beautiful (even the nasty chroniclers acknowledged that). Her father’s death when she was thirteen, changed Eleanor’s idyllic childhood. On his deathbed, William placed her under the guardianship of King Louis VI of France who promptly married the now wealthy young Duchess of Aquitaine off to his fifteen year old son and heir, young Louis. Louis, until his older brother Phillip’s death had been brought up in a monastery.

The marriage was a disaster. Louis VII’s clerical mentors considered Eleanor’s education, the work of the devil, unwomanly and she was castigated for emulating men, her betters.  She was expected to look decorative produce a male heir and to keep her eloquent mouth shut. But not Eleanor, she fought and raged to be recognised for who she believed she was and her right to use her talents, even against the Pope.

This book, the first in a series of historical fiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I hope conveys her guts and determination. It covers her life from thirteen to thirty-two; from Queen of France to Queen of England and includes the Second Crusade, and her divorce from Louis.

Who is your target audience?

People who are interested in historical fiction should find the book fascinating. Those who belong to book groups, those who are interested in the 12th century and dare I say it feminists of both sexes. So far those who have read it have enjoyed it and are looking forward to the following volumes in the series.

What is your favourite and least favourite part of publishing?

Being published! Such a thrill! Probably marketing because it takes me out of my comfort zone.

What 3 items would we find on your desk?

Cup of tea, reference books, plastic bag of USB sticks to grab and run with in an emergency.

Name an underappreciated novel that you love.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

What are you currently reading?

The Plague by Albert Camus.

Who are your favourite authors?

Vikram Seth, Geraldine Brooks, Jane Austen, Donna Leon, Alexander McCall Smith, Jackie French to name a few and in no particular order. All time favourite but a playwright William Shakespeare.

Where can our readers follow you?

I do not have an active blog. I started one but do not have the time to keep it going. Facebook, though again mostly rubbish with family. David Reiter of Interactive Publications P/L has a web page and and of course, you can keep in contact by email  

What is next for Helen Rayson-Hill?

I have just sent it back to the publisher, I hope the last set of edits for The Lion and The Tigress, the second book in my Eleanor series. I am not sure when it will come out.

It covers ten years of Eleanor’s tumultuous marriage to Henry II of England, the births of their nine children, and introduces Thomas Becket to the mix.  I am also working on further volumes in the series which at the moment are in draft form.

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