From Marie Antoinette to Jack the Ripper, Melanie Clegg on the influences behind her novels

For as long as I can remember, writes Melanie Clegg, I have wanted to write about history. I was raised by my grandparents since early infancy, which was mostly really odd but had the bonus of meaning that I grew up surrounded by my grandmother’s enormous historical fiction collection, which was very much of its time and featured such treats as the Catherine series by Juliette Benzoni; Forever Amber; the complete works of Jean Plaidy, Norah Lofts, Margaret Irwin and Anya Seton and also a plethora of Georgette Heyers. Even more pleasingly, nothing was off limits as my grandparents discouraged me from reading children’s books so although I read my first Charles Dickens at the age of seven, I have never read a single line written by CS Lewis.

Coupled with this were my bedtime stories from my history mad grandmother and former Scots Guard grandfather whose particular specialty were gruesome tales of executions and hauntings in his old beat, the Tower of London. I grew up madly in love with the past, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. Living, flesh and blood boys held no interest for me – how could they when my heart belonged to Prince Rupert, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, Oscar Wilde and Henry V? Why wear a uniform to school when you can go in dressed as Anne Boleyn? The ensuing detentions (which were just as much to save me from vengeful beatings from my classmates as a punishment) were perfect down time to read more history books. Also, who in their right mind would prefer a ra-ra skirt to a really nicely trimmed and furbelowed polonaise? I’m showing my age now so I’ll move swiftly on…

The Secret Diary of a Princess

My own first excursion into writing historical fiction came when I was just twelve when I wrote a novel based on The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. I have since lost what was probably a work of unparalleled magnificence (I am being highly ironic here) but recall that I’d just discovered the word ‘vermilion’ and so slipped it in at least half a dozen times a chapter. Very pleasing. I dabbled from that point on, writing short stories and scraps that never saw the light of day and it wasn’t until about four years ago that I completed what was to be my first published novel, The Secret Diary of a Princess, a fictional journal of the young Marie Antoinette.

Blood Sisters

The Secret Diary was swiftly followed by Blood Sisters, which is set in Paris during the French Revolution and Before the Storm, which is a French Revolutionary reworking of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. I became rather obsessed with the French Revolution when I was in my very early teens and devoured every book I could lay my hands on from that point on so that when I decided to write novels about it, it felt as if I’d spent most of my life limbering up and preparing for the task ahead. I even taught myself French so that I could read primary texts, memoirs and French books about the Revolution. There were also several trips to Paris over the years to take photographs, visit the National Archives and just stand in spots, however obscure, of Revolutionary significance. I’m a great believer in seeing things for myself and luckily for me, you can still see the streets where Robespierre, Danton and Saint-Just once lived, the prison where the prisoners of the Terror were held and the spots where a lot of them died. I find it all incredibly evocative and moving and have hundreds of photographs of apparently random houses and streets that are actually imbued with memories and history.

I’ve now moved temporarily away from the French Revolution and am now writing about Henrietta-Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orléans, the beloved youngest sister of Charles II and sister-in-law (and some say rather more) of Louis XIV. I’ve always taken a great interest in the seventeenth century (there was even a rather lengthy and unfortunate period of Sealed Knot membership in my youth) and in particular the English Civil War and the Restoration, and so this book is a pure joy to both research and write. I sit at my desk almost rubbing my hands together in glee as I work away, thinking how fortunate I am to be able to spend my days with Charles II, Henrietta Maria, Athénaïs de Montespan, Barbara Castlemaine, all those scandalous Mancinis, Queen Christina of Sweden, Monsieur, the Grande Mademoiselle and more. It really feels like I have hit some sort of historical fiction jackpot and I’ll be immensely sad when I finish this book and have to leave them all behind. In fact, like some sort of accidental time traveller who discovers some sort of time slip in their study that leads them into a colourful, flamboyant and more exciting world, I’m already plotting ways to return.

Jack the Ripper

I need to stay away from the seventeenth century though as I am writing about Jack the Ripper next and this is a book that will not wait any longer, plus my readers are starting to send me angry emails demanding to know when it is coming out. I became absolutely fascinated by the Ripper murders of 1888 when I was in my early teens, at about the same time as I went a bit mad about the French Revolution – clearly I had a taste for bloodshed and iniquity back then. Well, I was a goth after all. I spent the next couple of decades reading huge quantities of books about the murders, Victorian society and London in the late nineteenth century as well as hanging about Spitalfields many times in a suspicious manner, visiting sites associated with the murders. I’ve never been interested in the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the case, with unmasking Jack himself – for me the fascination has always been with his victims, their lives and the paths that led them into his clutches. I’m also really interested in the history of the east end as that is where my family come from although they’d moved out to Essex by the time I was born.

My already huge interest intensified massively recently when I discovered by chance that my great-great-great grandfather was a police sergeant in Whitechapel’s H Division in 1888 and so would have been involved in the original Ripper case as well as probably knowing his victims, at least by sight. This information was hugely inspiring to me as a writer and so, pleasingly, the research for my upcoming novel isn’t just about recreating 1888 Whitechapel but also a means of delving into my own family’s past. I just hope that I don’t randomly discover that my ancestor was actually Jack himself! Although imagine the book launch publicity if I did…

Melanie Clegg is a pink haired art history graduate, casual historian, GIN taster, lapsed goth, failed Parisienne, Versailles obsessive, proud Ripperologist, Georgette Heyer fanatic, blogger and Victorian Prostitute re- enactor who lives in deepest darkest Bristol with her family but would rather be in either Whitechapel or Paris.

Meticulously researched and elegantly crafted, The Secret Diary of a Princess is her first novel and was born from a desire to tell the story of Marie Antoinette from an unusual and yet still fascinating angle, focusing on her early life at the Viennese court, the machinations behind her betrothal to the Dauphin Louis and then finally her initial impressions of her new home, Versailles. All told by Marie Antoinette herself as she grows from an enchanting, willful child into a poised and beautiful young woman.

Melanie’s second book, Blood Sisters, a sweeping and dramatic saga set during the turbulent years of the French Revolution follows the fortunes of a trio of aristocratic sisters who are caught up in the Revolution while trying to discover the truth about their past.

Her third novel, Before The Storm, an epic tale of love, ambition and posh doom set in eighteenth century London and Paris and described as having ‘lush, dreamy historical detail with a slightly punk rock aesthetic’, is available now for Amazon Kindle.

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