Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Interview With Helena Woulfe


Today, Our Historical Novel Reviewer Lisa, is interviewing Helena Woulfe Palmer, the main character of Anita's Davison's 17th Century novels Duking Days Rebellion and Duking Days Revolution.

1. Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule as a wife and mother of three small boys. What is life like for a seventeenth century wife and mother?

When Guy and I first married, we lived in a tall, narrow house in King Street near Whitehall Palace. I had only three servants and with the constant dirt London generates, it was hard work. I had to go to the market early each day to buy fresh food and have you tried cleaning a house by throwing sand and water on a hardboard floor, then scrubbing the stuff away again by hand? Well that’s what I had to do every Saturday.
Living at Palmer House is much easier as we have a houseful of servants, but in some ways, I miss those early days in King Street. Life was simpler then.

2. What is your happiest memory from your youth in Exeter?

My childhood was idyllic. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was a distant memory my parents told us stories about. My grandfather, Thomas Woulfe, was a Parliamentarian and he worked hard to become one of Charles II’s closest friends. My father, Sir Jonathan Woulfe, didn’t have to worry about politics and spent his time building up the estate, which made what happened to him so ironic. Exeter is a city made prosperous from wool production and we were one of the leading families, so I was treated like royalty in my home city.

3. Your father and brother joined in the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion. What was it like as a daughter and sister watching them both ride away from your home at Loxsbeare?

Horrible. I didn’t want them to go and couldn’t understand why they risked everything just to keep a Protestant King on the throne instead of a Catholic one? What possible difference could it have made to us in the West Country? However, I didn’t dare say any of this aloud, Father would have been furious that I dared challenge his decisions, or suggested his principals were reckless. I still think they should have stayed in Exeter.


4. After the events of Sedgemoor, you rallied to go off and find your family. Would you compare your actions to your father’s strong-willed determination or your mother’s spiritedness?

It was frustration which drove me to do something. The alternative would have been to wait for news brought by rumour and hysteria. The newssheets were too slow and after a month of waiting I had had enough. Without Father and Uncle Edmund? who was there to forbid me? Mother was a nervous wreck and I have always been able to get Henry to do what I want. I’m ashamed to say I was annoyed with Mother too, and angry with her fearful terror. With Father gone, she just fell to pieces. Then the only time she did show some spirit, she was killed by one of the King's troopers.

5. What were your thoughts upon first entering London, where you lived with the Devereaux family for a time?

It was noisy, smelly, claustrophobic and terrifying – but I loved it on sight. Once I saw that Lambtons was a luxurious chophouse and not a mean little tavern with rush floors and stinking of ale, I loved it. Adella Devereux was a true mother to me and taught me so much about life.

6. And that’s where you met William Devereaux? First impressions of him?

William was as handsome as the Duke Of Monmouth, daring and bounded into my life like a charming cavalier. Everyone loved him, and I flattered myself he noticed me too. He left me breathless and each moment I spent with him I longed for the next. But I was serious and loaded down with sadness after the Rebellion and I had Henry to worry about. How could I have handed over my future happiness to a womanizing, gambling rake? Not that he even asked me, but I had certain hopes there for a while.

7. Even in those happy times in London, what did you assume about the final fate of your brother and father?

For over a year, I used to dream about both of them. Sometimes they were together and running from King James’ soldiers and I would wake up shaking with fear as they were about to be caught.
At others I saw them lying dead in a field and bundled into the mass grave near Weston with all those other rebels, with no prayers or markers to their graves. The there were the dreams where Father would ride off over a hill and Aaron would run in another direction and I was left, alone, wondering which one I should follow and frozen with indecision. For a long time I was always asking myself what father would have said if he was there, before I made a decision, but I enjoyed deciding things for myself. In my head I never really knew if they were alive or dead.

8. Before you met your first husband, Guy Palmer, what were your thoughts on marriage?

My family had arranged my betrothal to lord Blanden’s son, Martyn when I was sixteen. I didn’t think much about it and I certainly never thought to refuse. I had grown up with Martyn and knew him well. A handsome boy, he always treated me with respect. I was aware from the beginning that it was a marriage arranged to merge Blandon lands with the Woulfes. That’s what marriages in our circle were for.
Between you and me though, I was relieved when Martyn died. It confused me at the time because I enjoyed all the attention of the betrothal and we received some lovely gifts. I felt guilty though because I didn’t want him to die, but it meant I didn’t have to get married that year.

9. The birth of your twin boys must have been a surprise. Did you feel a closer connection or better understanding of your own mother when you became a parent?
To be honest, I was never quite sure how such things came about. I mean, I know what I was supposed to do as a wife, we had sheep at Loxsbeare so I knew the basics. But, well when it happened to me, I was quite shocked – and the pain! It didn’t help that I gave birth on the parlour floor during a riot in the street, but even so! Perhaps that was why it took me a while to grow to love them. Adella Devereaux didn’t think me strange, she said it was sensible not to get too attached straight away in case the babies died. Besides, I love them now, so I suppose it makes little difference.
But it made me realize how much sorrow my mother suffered having lost all those babies. How awful to have gone through all that and had empty arms at the end. I was never able to tell her I understood though.

10. Although you settled and married, you learned of your brother Aaron’s fate. What were your hopes and fears when you knew he was alive?

At first, I was nervous that Aaron would assume Father’s role and tell me what to do. He might have seen Lambtons as unsuitable, and as the head of the house, he could insist I left and I would have had no choice but to obey. Then when he wrote and said he wasn’t coming back, but would staying The Hague to plot with the Prince of Orange, I was furious he had abandoned Henry and me. He was all we had left, he should have come home to take care of us - hadn’t chasing after his precious Duke caused enough unhappiness. Hadn’t plotting against the king taught him anything?
I had also grown accustomed to my independence and wasn’t going to let Aaron walk in and spoil it. So I accepted Guy Palmer’s proposal and dared him to order a married woman about. I was hurt he hadn’t come home after the general pardon, when there was no danger. I had all these conversations in my head giving him a piece of my mind, but when he walked in that day, I forgot it all in my happiness to have my big brother home.

11. Your husband made a fortune in his business. Did the comforts of London erase the specter of Sedgemoor for you?

The first few years of my marriage helped do that. Having a home of my own and a husband who adored me helped the bad dreams go away and I felt safe again. Guy provided well for us, but then he became obsessed with trying to prove he was good enough for me and he wouldn’t stop. He opened two more shops and became obsessed with this bank idea, which took him away from home a lot.
I’m afraid Palmer House was the last straw. I mean, the name itself must tell you how self important Guy had become. If the Rebellion hadn’t happened, I would have been as thrilled by it too, and become one of those women who only cared what she could show off to others and whom she knew.
But I stopped caring. I just wanted to be loved and be safe, I wanted my brother home and to find out what had happened to Father, alive or dead. So none of those things, really mattered to me and Guy was frustrated by it. Perhaps that’s why he did what he did, who knows?
Oh I enjoyed being wealthy again of course, what woman wouldn’t, but I would have been happy to stay in King Street and change the draperies every few years and have a jewel for Yuletide, not one a week. I couldn’t tell Guy that, it would have hurt his pride and he would never have understood.

12. Your brother Henry also proved prosperous in London. What do you think your parents might have made of each of their children’s choices?

If the Rebellion hadn’t happened, Henry would never have met Sir Christopher Wren and become an architect. He would have stayed at home and managed the fulling business for Father and probably had a house of his own in Exeter and got married to a local girl, probably a sheep farmer’s daughter or a city elder. So in a way, what we went through was the making of Henry. He made his own choices and he’s doing exactly what he wants to do. I’m very happy for him.
If Father had come home, there may have been a few heated rows with him demanding Henry come home and Henry refusing. Or as a second son he may have let him live his own life and been proud – who can really know? What would Mother have thought? I doubt she would have been asked.

13. So, William Devereaux, the love of your life. What was most unexpected about William in his later years, compared to the young man you first met?

At the back of my mind, I always assumed William would marry the kind of woman I didn’t want to be. Beautiful, but empty headed, socially perfect and obsessed with jewels, gowns, masques and getting as close to the Royal Court as she could.
I was surprised at what a considerate, loving man he became. We grew close after I had the boys and he would sit with me and tell me about the Royal Society. And so handsome, always breathtakingly handsome.
When Guy and I began to drift apart, I dreaded William finding someone else, but when he said he’d waited until I was ready for him, I knew we were destined to be together.

14. What traits do you like best about each of your brothers?

Aaron is so like William, with his extravagant good looks all women are drawn to. Roguish and outrageous but not malicious. Everyone forgives Aaron because he is so loveable and has a capacity for fun that makes life so much more interesting than soberness and good works. William treats all the women in his life as if they were princesses and when I am with him, I feel beautiful and loved. Aaron would be the same should he find a woman to devote himself to.
Henry is more serious, but he respects women in a way which is unusual and although Aaron laughs at him for being faithful to Mary Anne, his devotion doesn’t surprise me at all. I have always been able to trust him and tell him my secrets. He knew about baby Charles for instance before anyone else knew, and he never betrayed my secret.

15. If there were a motto or phrase that sums up your life, what would it be?

What will be, will be. You cannot plan what happens in your life, you can only live it.

Thanks again for speaking with us.
You are most welcome.