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Friday, 30 September 2011

The de Lacy Inheritance by Elizabeth Ashworth

Although I’ve been a short story writer for many years I had never planned to write a novel −until I came across the story of a hermit who had lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe in Lancashire.

The idea took form when I was researching a non-fiction book, Tales of Old Lancashire, for Countryside Books. Whilst looking for more information about the hermit I discovered that he was claimed to be a member of the de Lacy family. As a local, some of the history of the de Lacy family, who were Lords of Blackburnshire, was already familiar to me, but when I realised that the hermit would have inherited a fortune except for his leprosy I wanted to know more about him.

Richard was a real person. He is recorded as Richard of Chester and as Richard, a leper. In those days, around the turn of the 13th century, those who suffered from this terrible affliction were forced to hear the Mass of Separation and make vows that included not entering any church or marketplace and not touching the rim or rope of a well except with gloved hands. Lepers were also excluded from inheriting, which is where the basic idea of my book came from.

When you go back a thousand years events are not always well recorded and that can be a good as well as a bad thing. Lack of finite detail gives the opportunity to fictionalise the gaps between the known facts, although known facts can be worked into the story.

So where does the truth end and the fiction begin in The de Lacy Inheritance? That’s not as easy to answer as you might think. One thing you learn when you’re researching for a historical novel is that there are many, many versions of the truth. Inaccuracies are often copied from source to source and sorting out the reliable from the unreliable is difficult and time consuming.

The lives of women and lepers are not so well documented as those of nobles, and there is much more information about Richard’s brother Roger de Lacy than there is about him and his sisters. The other main character in the book, Johanna, is based on a figure who is recorded as being a daughter of Roger de Lacy, but for the novel I decided to make her a sister of Richard and Roger as the ages seemed more appropriate. There is no clear historical record of her name and sometimes she is referred to as Maud or even confused with another family member Helen de Lacy, so I took a leap of faith based on very flimsy evidence and named her with the feminine version of John, who was either her father or grandfather.

In the end this is a story. It is fiction. Although it is based on known facts and on an old legend it is my interpretation of the lives of people who lived almost a thousand years ago. But they are very real and important to me and I hope that I have told their stories with integrity and not done them a disservice. As I continue with my research into the history of the de Lacy family I may discover facts that are at variance with the ones I’ve presented in the book. But I hope that doesn’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the story, because, in the end, it is a novel and not an academic history.

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Ann Turnbull said...

This sounds an intriguing story. I've been fascinated by lepers ever since I read The Black Arrow by R.L.Stevenson as a child. I like the idea of a leper as a main character and would love to read about how society treated them at that time.

Christina St Clair said...

Sounds fascinating. I've downloaded a Kindle sample to read more.
Best wishes for more inspirations to lead you to write more interesting stories.