A reader comes across a new novel and falls in love with the story, the characters, and the voice of the storyteller. Soon that reader is compelled to go out to find anything and everything the author has written, without delay. If the fascination lasts, the reader will start wondering about this author who has so captured the imagination.
Diana Norman has been on the receiving end of this kind of admiration since the publication of her first novel, but interest in her life and work has never been easy to come by. My own curiosity remained unsatisfied until just recently, when I had the opportunity to talk to her. The interview presented here is the product of our very lively conversation.
As is the case with many of the very best historical novelists, Norman’s background is not academic and so to start, I asked her for some of her own history. Most specifically, how she came to write historical novels with such insight and obvious love of the subject matter.
My mother was a single parent and I went out to work at the age of sixteen to help support her and my two young brothers. I worked on a local paper in my home town of Torquay in Devonshire, graduated to a bigger one in London’s East End and finally made it to a national newspaper in Fleet Street where you don’t learn anything much except how and where to find things out. Oh, and a lot about human nature.
Norman started studying history after she was married and found herself living in a Hertfordshire village with two children. Life in Fleet Street had been turbulent but exciting, but while motherhood was often equally turbulent, it wasn’t enough.
She began to write a novel about Henry II, the 12th century king who had always fascinated her as “the
instigator of one of those enormous leaps forward that have brought us out of the Dark Ages, a man who gave us the jury system, Common Law and who restored England after an annihilating civil war.” As an aside Norman notes that Henry has taken the blame for the murder of Thomas à Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral despite the fact that he was in France at the time, and beyond that:
“Saint Thomas was a very, very trying man.”
After three novels about Henry II, Norman cantered off through the succeeding ages, mainly trying to chart women’s history by means of storytelling. Norman states. “But if you peer deeply enough into the archives you find amazing women, not necessarily the famous ones, but ordinary widows pursuing trades from which, officially, they were banned.”
Norman’s interest in the untold in history comes through in all her work. She creates strong women characters who are put into the situations which test them and their beliefs to the extreme. Norman attributes her inclination to creating such characters to her own family history.
I come of a long line of strong women. At the age of fourteen, my Welsh grandmother was sent to England to work as a laundry maid in what was then known as a lunatic asylum without being able to understand a word of English. At first she didn’t know who were the staff and who the inmates, but she lived to old age to terrorize and fascinate us, her descendants. Women through the ages have had it so tough that I flounder in admiration at their struggle against prejudice and adversity, especially those who made the path smoother for those of us who came after. So, yes, I suppose all my heroines are bound to reflect that.
More recently Norman’s work has turned toward historical mystery with the publication of two very different, but equally compelling novels, both appearing under the pen name Ariana Franklin. The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II’s England, while City of Shadows jumped to post World War I Germany. “I was running out of steam,” Norman says. “And suddenly I was approached by a literary agent called Helen Heller – and if ever there was a forceful woman, she’s it. She wasn’t having any of my excuses. She said, What about an historical thriller? Change your name and format.”
It was Helen Heller’s suggestion that Norman write a thriller based on the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, the sole survivor of the massacre of the Russian Tsar and his family in 1918. She hadn’t got very far into the research before she realized that it was impossible to make Anna the heroine – too flaky, too pro-fascist and bad-tempered by half. And she wasn’t Anastasia, as was proved by DNA later; though it looks as though she convinced herself that she was. But there was fascinating stuff there; she met and approved of Hitler, for one thing.
The twenties and thirties were turbulent times in Europe, something Americans tend to forget. One thing Norman set out to do was to bring it all into focus for an audience increasingly unfamiliar with the facts. “If the Allies hadn’t been so vindictive towards Germany after the first World War, Hitler wouldn’t have had the material to work on that he did – and I hope City of Shadows shows the disintegration and hideous inflation that brought him to power. It’s a murder story, of course, but I tried to set it against that real and depressing background.”
Published almost simultaneously with City of Shadows was Mistress of the Art of Death, the first novel in a trilogy set in the 12th century about Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a trained physician and pathologist. Like City of Shadows, Mistress of the Art of Death is called historical mystery, though neither of the novels — as is the case with all of Norman’s work — fits easily into a single genre cubbyhole.
What remains constant is the inclination to use the framework of thrillers to structure narrative, and her abiding interest in the lives of women in the long-ago. She speaks with equal enthusiasm and interest about the Black Death, Germany’s post war inflation, witch burning, ancient wars in the Middle East and pathology. Like many historical novelists, she has learned to keep her fascination with the details to herself.
Norman’s husband is Barry Norman (seen here to the left), the well known and respected film critic. “We discuss the mechanics of writing a lot, but we don’t let our work impinge on the other. We work in such different fields that we don’t feel qualified to criticize. Besides, we get thrilled by different things – he likes films, when I prefer the theater; my gobbets of history leave him cold.” A typical conversation goes something like
–Barry, Barry, did you know that Oliver Cromwell died of malaria?
–And good for him.
Fitzempress’ Law (St. Martin’s Press; Hodder & Stoughton), Norman’s first novel, appeared in 1980 with twelve more to follow, but for twenty years she has been better known in her native Great Britain than in North America. That changed in 2003 when a trade paperback edition of Catch of Consequence was released and seriously marketed, which brought Norman a new and enthusiastic North American readership.
The Catch of Consequence trilogy (set during the American and French Revolutions) sent many readers out in search of the rest of Norman’s work, but most were disappointed. A great deal of her blacklist is out of print and very difficult to find. For example, Fitzempress’ Law shows up on abebooks.com for anywhere from $100 to $900. The good news: many libraries seem to carry some or all of Norman’s novels.
UPDATED: In February of 2011 Diana Norman passed away at the age of seventy-seven. There is an obituary at The Guardian, as well as a beautiful essay in her memory, written by her husband and published in The Daily Mail. Barry Norman’s essay is also available in pdf format, here: An eternal love: Barry Norman’s moving tribute to his late wife who was his soulmate for 50 years .