Margery Paston

Defictionalizing Margery

It’s around 25 years since writer Susan Curran suggested to her agent that she write a novel about Margery Paston, one of the well-known medieval Norfolk family of letter-writers, and her marriage to the family’s land agent Richard Calle. His response was that it would be better to plan a series of books about the family, developing the characters as she went along. So Susan dutifully set out to write a novel about the first generation of Pastons whose letters have survived.

Alas, she found Judge William Paston and his wife to be unsympathetic characters, and the book she eventually wrote (The Heron’s Catch, published by Collins in 1989) was more about other historical characters than about the Paston family. She never wrote the rest of the series.

But Margery stayed in her mind, and when Susan came back to writing after she began to wind down her publishing services business, she decided this was the time to tell the story – but not as a novel. This time around, she is concentrating on nonfiction writing.

The Marriage of Margery Paston, published 17 October 2013 by the Lasse Press, is the result. It’s the second in what is intended as a series of medieval nonfiction books: the first (which also grew out of the research for The Heron’s Catch) was The English Friend, published as the Lasse Press’s first title in 2011.

As Susan says, ‘I’m primarily a writer, not a historian. My aim isn’t to do primary research, but to present the information that’s already available for a wider audience. Books today have to compete with games, multimedia apps and DVDs for people’s spare time, so I feel they need to make a real effort to entertain. There’s great material in the Paston letters, but even the selected and edited editions are not a particularly easy read for a general audience. I’d like to think this is a book about the Pastons that people will read on the beach, on a train, or curled up on a Friday night after a hard week at work.’

The illustrations are a large part of that. One reason Susan chose to set up her own imprint was her desire to produce full-colour books with illustrations on almost every page, and her years designing and typesetting books for major publishers gave her the skills to do so. ‘The Marriage of Margery Paston is set almost entirely in East Anglia – in Norwich, Caister, Framlingham and elsewhere – and I’ve illustrated it with photos designed to evoke the East Anglia of Margery and Richard’s era’, Susan says. ‘I’m a huge fan of Norwich School stained glass of the fifteenth century, so there’s a great deal of that in the book., and there are also photos of the places where the events occurred.’

The result is a book that – like The English Friend – consciously echoes medieval illuminated manuscripts. The stained glass details are a delight, but the main focus remains on the story.

‘Margery and Richard’s marriage is often described as a misalliance’, Susan says, ‘with Margery marrying beneath herself to the fury of her family. It’s certainly true that her family were bitterly opposed to her marrying Richard, but there’s more to the story than a rich girl throwing herself away on a penniless man. Not least, Margery wasn’t an heiress, and Richard wasn’t penniless – in fact he was well able to support a wife in the style her family might have expected. But when you look into the background to the marriage, the reasons for her family’s attitude start to become much clearer.’

It’s a story of ambition, greed, forgery – and of course, passionate love. And it’s a plus, Susan believes, that it’s all true. ‘There’s much we don’t know about Richard and Margery’, she says, ‘but there’s quite a lot that can be uncovered by reading between the lines of the surviving letters and papers, and the other historical sources for the period. And I’d far rather feel that I’ve cleared the cobwebs and given a sense of what really happened, than that I’ve put invented words into the mouths of characters I’ve had largely to invent.’