Please welcome Sarah Bower, author of a new historical novel, The Needle in the Blood!
The first thing to say, which perhaps your readers don’t know because the novels have been published in reverse order in the United States, is that The Needle in the Blood is, in fact, my first novel. A first novel is a little like a first love affair. You write it with a kind of fierce, naive passion that you can never recapture in subsequent work. While Sins of the House of Borgia is, I believe, technically a better book, I still have a special affection for The Needle in the Blood, even though I finished writing it nearly ten years ago now.
As those of you who read my previous guest post here about the Borgia novel will know, I had been a student of the Borgias for many years by the time I came to write the book, but the idea for The Needle in the Blood came to me in a flash of inspiration which shed a sudden light on the Bayeux Tapestry for me and focused my interest on a subject I had, until then, like most English people, taken largely for granted. The English are famous for commemorating their defeats with far more enthusiasm than their victories, so it is not surprising that the Tapestry, which chronicles William of Normandy’s successful invasion of these islands in 1066, has become almost the wallpaper to our history. 1066 is the one date every English school child knows. The images from the Tapestry are so familiar to us we take them completely for granted.
It was only when I heard Simon Schama, in a TV documentary on the history of Britain, assert that the Bayeux Tapestry contained the earliest images in Western art of what war does to civilians that I began to look at the Tapestry more closely, and to find in it the seeds of a novel. While I had already read the major works in English and French about Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia long before I wrote Sins of the House of Borgia, I had to begin my research for The Needle in the Blood pretty much from scratch. Although I had studied medieval history at university, I had specialised in a later period – and besides, it was a long time ago!
While the history of the Borgias has been well documented, I quickly discovered that, despite its fame, the Bayeux Tapestry is a very enigmatic icon indeed. Virtually nothing is known about it. It is uncertain who commissioned it, when, where and by whom it was made, or why it is designed as it is, in a way which is very unlike most embroidery being made in France or England at the time. And yes, it is an embroidery, of wool on linen, not a tapestry. It has been suggested that tapestry, in this context, is a mis-translation of the French ‘tapisserie’, meaning a carpet or wall hanging. Its subject matter suggests a Norman patron, its size suggests a wealthy one. As southern England was at this period the go-to place for high quality embroidery, it was most probably made in England. It is first recorded on display at the dedication of a new cathedral in Bayeux in 1077. Because of the frequency and flattering nature of his representation in the narrative, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half brother of William the Conqueror, is popularly supposed to have been the patron.
As I discovered all this speculation (one can hardly call it information), a story began to take shape, which would explore the tensions between the conquering Norman patron and his English embroiderers. Unlike my novel about the Borgias, where speculation is quite tightly constrained by historical circumstance, the The Needle in the Blood is almost entirely my invention because so little is known either about the Tapestry or Odo himself.
The other big difference is that, while I wrote Sins of the House of Borgia largely in isolation, The Needle in the Blood was a far more collaborative exercise because it was my project for my creative writing masters degree at the University of East Anglia. It was critiqued, not only by my fellow students, but also by my tutors, the poet Andrew Motion and novelists Paul Magrs and Michele Roberts. The critic and novelist Patricia Duncker had a particular fondness for it because her mother had been planning a doctoral thesis on Odo before World War Two intervened and she was evacuated to Jamaica. Even now, when I revise the book for readings, I can see all these different influences at work in my writing. Like the Tapestry itself, the novel is the weaving together of a lot of different stories.
Although the novels are different in many ways, they have one key feature in common. Each of them is haunted by a strong, yet troubled, man, and each of them features women who have to duck and dive, dodge and weave, to survive in his orbit.
I hope you enjoy reading The Needle in the Blood and, if you do, please stop by the book’s Facebook page and leave a comment.
Learn more about Sarah Bower: