The Secret Commonwealth
By Jane Stevenson
History and folklore collide when a 17th century alchemist discovers there are supernatural forces at work as England slides towards Civil War
A Tour of Oxford and Drink at the Eagle and Child
Oxford Book Launch
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Like two of my previous novels, it’s set in the seventeenth century, but a fantasy seventeenth century, where supernatural forces are at work. I have created a ‘world under the hill’ based on a study of folklore, which says that there are both good and bad beings, they’re always difficult to deal with, and they don’t think quite the way we do.
I also looked at witch trials, and found people who insisted that they weren’t witches, but were working against evil witches and demons with the aid of some sort of good spirits, and trying to preserve order, while the ‘demons’ or ‘bad people’ were trying to destroy it. So I moved away from the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fairies, towards order versus chaos.
Something went terribly wrong with England and Scotland in the early seventeenth century, so clearly, chaos was triumphing. According to folklore, ‘the fairies’ allegedly left England around the time of Elizabeth I; so these two ideas came together with a Welsh legend of a supernatural king called Bran imprisoned beneath the Tower of London, and the idea of a rescue-mission out of Scotland.
My story opens with Andrew, an unworldly English alchemist, attempting to make the Philosopher’s stone with the aid of a gruff maidservant called Christian, whose father was Scottish. Having failed, they go to Scotland to get help from beings that Christian half-believes in.
To their astonishment, they find there really is a world under the hills, and between them, Andrew and its ruler Arcas make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the price is finding themselves drafted in as combatants in a terrifying supernatural battle. Meanwhile, England has slid into Civil War, and Andrew must walk from Edinburgh to London in the hopes of restoring order and balance in England by freeing Bran. The real world events are meticulously researched and chronologically accurate, only the causality is fictional.
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Like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I am a novelist who is also an academic, and like them, my background is in early medieval literature. I was born in London in 1959. My father was Scotto-Irish, my mother was from Berwick on Tweed. Both were first members of their respective families to go to University. My father went into the Foreign Office, so I was brought up in Beijing, London, and Bonn. At school, I was neither popular nor despised, merely odd: I wrote poetry and stories, studied Latin and Greek, and made no attempt to conform. I went to Cambridge to read Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, and finally felt I belonged somewhere. After ten years in Cambridge, I got a job teaching history at Sheffield University, and a year or so later, married Peter Davidson, academic, writer, and poet.
We commuted between England and Scotland, and then between England and the Netherlands. We did not manage to get ourselves to the same place until 1995, when we both taught at Warwick. We lived in a piece of a mansion ruined by Cromwell and reconstructed as a farmhouse in the seventeenth century, which strengthened my interest in that period. It was during my time at Warwick that I finally made time to work seriously on my fiction, and became a published novelist. In 2000, we moved to Scotland to teach at Aberdeen and spent fifteen years living in a remote house within sight of a mountain called Bennachie. We are currently in Oxford.
‘Lord Arcas, how is the Work to be achieved?’ asked Andrew. They were talking while sitting together with the king and queen over their first meal of the second day. ‘When I made my attempt, the first and the second stage took more than seven weeks. But my books spoke in riddles of a third, swift way? Secret, and dangerous?’
Arcas nodded. ‘I don’t know if it’s the same, but our way is certainly dangerous and swift, and it doesn’t need your Gresham College cookery. But we do need you, Andrew and Christian. If you’re to wield the stone, you must help with its making, so it will know you and be part of you. We need your goodwill, but above all, I need your changeableness. Humans understand change with every fibre of your being because you’re short-lived and mutable creatures. We leluri are prisoners of our own stability. I know what I must do in the transformation, but my body doesn’t believe it. You must believe it for me. Intentions count for a great deal in the shadow world. My powers aren’t infinite, and much of the strength that I have has to be spent on defending our borders. Ilmatar and I could make the stone together, because her love for me is strong enough to call me back from death, but we can’t both risk ourselves at the same time –– the work carries a risk of destruction, even for leluri. But to help in the Great Work, you must be purified. Your books didn’t tell you to purge the dross from yourself, Andrew, and in that respect, they were gravely in error. You thought of yourself as something apart from the operation, and for this particular Work, that will not do. The Stone is living, in fact, it’s life itself, and it partakes of the character of those who bring it into the created universe.’
- 24th December 2016 Dark corners of the land
A few days ago, I had a chance to visit the Wye valley, which is where an important part of this novel is set, heading for Hay on Wye. In the seventeenth century, it really must have been incredibly remote, because it’s extremely remote even now. It’s one of the most secretive counties in England, because it’s hilly, with huge, tall old trees. Most of the time you can’t see where you’re going. The…5th December 2016 Wayfaring
I had to research all kinds of odd stuff for this book. One thing which was surprisingly difficult to imagine was a world without good roads. Roads are one of the most dramatic features of the landscape, the most taken for granted, and central to the way we experience it. In the 1640s, there were mostly routes, some of them very ancient, which isn’t at all the same thing. The Romans had made a network…7th November 2016 Kings and Queens
Another post on naming, which is one of the things which has to feel right. There are quite a lot of names for fairy kings and queens; due to the shape of my story, I needed several. Most of them are so thoroughly stamped with one particular interpretation that they’re unusable. You can’t have characters called Oberon and Titania without causing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to pop into people’s heads…31st October 2016 Someone unexpected
The ‘real world’ bit of Secret Commonwealth is peopled with an extensive caste of real people. I was reading John Buchan’s biography of the Marquess of Montrose, who I knew I wanted as a character, when I came across someone else I felt I really had to include; Frances Dalyell. I’ve had hard words to say from time to time about historical fiction which features intrepid heroines engaging in improbable…28th October 2016 Why the Secret Commonwealth?
Why the name? -- of course, there’s a natural association between the word ‘Commonwealth’, and the English Civil War, the time period in which the novel is set, which ended in precisely that. But I actually chose my title because of a pre-existing book, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. This was written by a Scottish minister called Robert Kirk, in 1691. He was a Gaelic scholar…26th October 2016 Umbrellas and cellar doors
One tricky aspect of writing a story which involves non-human entities is that they have to have names and, up to a point, a language. The problems of inventing a language are many and various. First of all, it has to sound right. I wanted something beautiful and a bit strange, but not completely strange. So it had to be basically Indo-European – the language family which includes English, Latin,…24th October 2016 How did I get the idea?
I've often found it true that one book leads to another, even if they're very different. It's hardly obvious that one of the starting points for this particular project was writing the biography of a painter, Edward Burra, who was born in 1905. Burra was no optimist; he had to cope with crippling pain from arthritis and other chronic health problems, and he had a great sense of the darkness of life…
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