Susanna Gregory fans are in heaven right now. Last week saw the publication of two Matthew Bartholomew novels. A Grave Concern was published in hardback and A Poisonous Plot in paperback. By my reckoning, that’s her 21st and 22nd books in the series.
Set in the aftermath of the Great Plague in 14th Century Cambridge — a time of great social unrest among the devastated population – her protag Matthew Bartholomew is a fictional physician. He’s the master at the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches medicine. In A Poisonous Plot, he takes on an arrogant physician as a mysterious contagion afflicts Cambridge, and in A Grave Concern, the election of a new chancellor at the college gets very nasty indeed.
A former policewoman in Leeds, Susanna pursued a career in academia which, she says, exposed her to the political manoeuvring, infighting, and eccentricity that fuelled her writing. Susanna is also the creator of the Thomas Chaloner series of mysteries set in Restoration London.
Crime Thriller Fella is delighted Susanna has agreed to give us the intel on Bartholomew, the plague and the perennial allure of medieval murder…
Tell us about Matthew Bartholomew…
Bartholomew is a physician living in Cambridge in the mid-fourteenth century. He’s also a Fellow of Michaelhouse, which was one of eight Colleges in the University at the time.
How has the character developed since you began writing about him?
That’s hard to say without re-reading the first book! However, he’s twelve years older than when he started, and I’ve tried to make him learn from his mistakes. He’s certainly more cautious about leaping into danger now he’s no longer quite so young (well, aren’t we all?). At the beginning, I had him as something of a maverick in the medical world, with wild theories about hygiene and surgery. He still holds those opinions, but is now far more cautious about expressing them, and even acknowledges that astrology may have its place in a patient’s mental wellbeing. I hope he’s older, wiser and more mature, but I really think that’s for the reader to decide.
The series is based in the aftermath of the Great Plague – what kind of a society was it?
Crikey! Books have been written on this, so it’s hard to answer in a couple of paragraphs! But briefly, was the plague a good thing or a bad one? The jury is out, as academics have made good arguments for both sides of the debate, based on their assessments of the contemporary written evidence.
On the one hand, there had been a huge population increase just before the plague, and there were reports of famine, particularly when poor harvests failed to supply towns and cities with food. Lots of communities were being founded on scrubby land, because all the fertile areas were already taken. So the plague eliminated between a third and half the population, meaning there was more good land for the survivors. There was a shortage of manual labourers after the plague, too, which meant that peasants had their wealthy landlords over a barrel. Standards of living rose for the next twenty years — until the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 brought matters to a head, and reversed the trend.
On the other hand, whole communities were wiped out permanently, and there was a terrible fear that it would happen again. People’s faith in God and the Church wavered, especially as the plague took plenty of priests — the Dominicans in Cambridge, who bravely tended the sick and dying, were all but wiped out. If priests weren’t safe, then who was? There can have been very few people who didn’t suffer loss of loved ones, so the aftermath must have been socially and psychologically devastating.
What can we learn from the 14th Century – are there any similarities with our own?
Thankfully, not many! Medicine has improved somewhat, and so has hygiene. Our houses have heating, drains and running water, and buying a loaf of bread from a shop is a lot easier than growing your own grain, getting it milled, making dough, then taking it to a baker to get it cooked. Then there are the little things. In the fourteenth century, when the Sun went down, it was dark. Candles were expensive (and most of them smoked horribly), so winter nights were probably long and tiresome. There were no street lights to see you home from the tavern, and the roads were treacherously uneven. People were thus very much aware of the phases of the Moon — today, not many folk notice it at all, unless it’s particularly bright or unusually coloured — and the seasons. We get strawberries all year round, but they had them in the summer. Of course, they probably tasted a lot better then …
In all, it’s a lot better to be alive now than then, and while I occasionally think I’d like to be transported back there to see it for myself, I wouldn’t go unless I was assured that I could come back again!
Can we learn anything from the fourteenth century? I’m sure we could learn lots, but the main thing for me is the pace of life. It was slower then, with less dashing about. That isn’t a bad thing.
The series is set in the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge – why is academia such a ripe territory for murder?
Perhaps because there’s nothing more deadly than an intelligent person with time on his hands and a grudge.
How did you start writing?
It was one summer in the dim and distant past, when my husband had gone to Canada on an archaeological dig. I found myself with a few relatively quiet weeks, and so just decided to put fingers to keyboard. I wrote A Plague on Both your Houses, because I was interested in medieval Cambridge, and the College that no longer exists. I enjoyed writing it so much that I wrote another two books in the same series. It was a lot of fun.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That bad reviews can be hurtful. You just have to tell yourself that they’re only the opinion of one person, and then think about the many charming, friendly and encouraging messages you’ve had through the years from readers. After all, they are the ones whose opinions really count.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
There are so many — all my fellow Medieval Murderers for a start. Mike Jecks, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson, Chris Sansom, Karen Maitland and Philip Gooden are passionate about what they do, and they are all painstaking with the details of their research. I’ve learned a lot from them.
I also love Patrick O’Brien. Someone once told me that his books were “Jane Austen at sea”. What more could a reader ask for?
Give me some advice about writing…
There’s no such thing as writers’ block. If you feel uninspired, write through it — just get something, anything, down on the screen. It may be rubbish that you later delete, but it will get you over the hump and move you on with the story.
The other thing I would say is that you should write for yourself. Write want you want to write, not what you feel the publisher, agent, reader or reviewer would like. It’s just more enjoyable that way, and a good editor will always help you to smooth out any problems afterwards.
What’s next for you?
Today? A nice cup of coffee in the garden in company with my beloved chickens. There’s something incredibly relaxing about watching Ethel and her flock going about their daily round of scratching, sunbathing, taking dust baths and hunting for worms. I often get ideas for books when I’m sitting doing nothing with them. It’s like having my batteries recharged.
A Grave Concern in hardback and A Poisonous Plot in paperback, are available right now, published by Sphere.