Testament started life as the germ of an idea for a radio play – a vague image of a ghost in an Oxford college lodge. The usual questions followed to see if there really was a story there: who was the ghost, why was he there, who was he haunting, why?
The answers to those questions soon exceeded the scope of sixty minutes’ radio drama and my imagination overran the bounds of any real city. So Testament became a novel and I set it, not in Oxford where I would have had to stick to what actually happened there in the fourteenth century, but in an entirely fictitious city - Salster.
My central character is a mason – more than just a mason, actually, a master builder – but I wanted him to be an outsider so I made him something of a pariah within his craft and gave him a patron who, as well as being monumentally rich, was also a heretic. I also gave him the son he and his wife had been waiting twenty years for. But the whole point of the book – the central reason for the book’s existence, in fact - is the boy turns out not to be the son he had hoped for.
Toby, the master mason’s son, was what the ghost in the college had turned into; no longer a ghost but a real live fourteenth century boy. A real live and very different boy.
So far so expansionist. But my imagination hadn’t finished with the narrative yet. I decided not to write it as a straightforward historical novel. No. I wanted to have somebody in our own time looking back on the story, trying to piece it all together, to make sense of it, the way we do with real historical narratives.
So, I needed a device to link two narratives separated by more than six hundred years. But what?
Newly discovered documents? Hackneyed.
Time shifts with some kind of vaguely supernatural/quasi-psychological underpinning? Irritating.
A medieval wall painting hidden by circumstance until now? Perfect. Medieval wall paintings are fascinating – often containing little narratives all of their own.
Nothing about the people or the buildings or the circumstances in Testament could be said to be an everyday tale of fourteenth century folk.
The building Simon – my master builder - plans is extraordinary.
His patron is out of the usual run of magnates and is a Lollard heretic.
Simon’s master carpenter is none other than his wife.
Did things like this really happen, people always want to know.
Not often, is my response, and never – as far as I know – in exactly this way; but they could have and that’s the fascination of writing historical fiction. This could have happened.
Women did, in some circumstances, practice male crafts and were even masters.
There were Lollard heretics who – seemingly out of the blue – believed things that differed sharply from the orthodoxy of the day.
The extraordinary building Simon creates could have been built in the city I’ve invented. The university, both very like and utterly dissimilar from Oxford and Cambridge, is a plausible institution.
And, from the point of view of the twenty-first century characters in Testament, all of it did happen. The fourteenth century narrative represents part of the history of Salster, where the college Simon built for his patron still stands. The people who inhabit the college now – twenty-first century people who fill the book with blog-posts and email and cyber-attacks – are as much of their time as Simon and his family are of the fourteenth century and it’s in the meeting of these two times, in the grasping of the present to understand the past, that the key to the book lies.
The reader is privy to Simon’s story in a way that the twenty-first century characters aren’t. From a vantage point of privileged knowledge, the reader watches Simon’s life and work being pieced together by the twenty-first century characters in a patchy, sometimes inaccurate way and that’s the way I wanted it. I didn’t want my contemporary characters to fully understand events in the fourteenth century because, in the real world, that’s never possible. We can understand certain things, see through a glass darkly, but we will never completely understand the past and the people who lived there. We can’t.
Damia Miller – marketing manager to the twenty-first century college and would-be wall-painting decipherer - discovers enough of the mystery of Simon’s life to enable the college, mired in financial difficulties, to move forward confidently into the future; but she doesn’t uncover the whole truth.
Only the reader is given that.