Today I’m sitting down with my friend Carole Penfield, who has just released her first novel, Midwife of Normandy. I haven’t read the book yet, just the blurb, but it sounds like a sweeping historic saga. Carole, can you give us a quick overview of the story?
Carole: Hi Melissa. Midwife of Normandy is a fictional story of love, ambition and heart-pounding adventure set in turbulent 17th century France. This was the actual period in history when King Louis XIV was not only building Versailles but also intent on forcefully converting all his subject to Catholicism. His religious persecution of Huguenots threatens to destroy the life of my protagonist and her family.
To summarize briefly, Clare Dupres is the headstrong daughter of an impoverished Huguenot minister. Her mother is training her in the art of midwifery, an ancestral profession including the secret formula for a pain-free childbirth called the “magic elixir.” On the brink of womanhood, Clare stubbornly rebels against her father’s wish that she settle down and marry a boring silk merchant she does not love, despite the fact that he offers her a life of wealth and ease. Dreamy-eyed, she envisions herself marrying his penniless handsome younger brother and enjoying a rewarding independent career as midwife to wealthy members of the aristocracy.
Clare’s life doesn’t turn out exactly the way she plans, when her own ambitions come into conflict with the powerful ambitions of King Louis, and she ends up facing unimaginable danger in a courageous attempt to save her family. Only then does she learn what is most important in life.
Sounds fascinating. It seems to me that writing about the dynamics of France during Louis XIV’s reign is a weighty and almost overwhelming task. How much research did you do for the book? And how long did it take you to research and write it?
Carole: I spent more than a year doing research for Midwife of Normandy. Not only on the dynamics of 17th century French politics, but also on midwifery practices, religious persecution of Huguenots, rigid class societal structure and growth of the merchant class, treatment of women, contrasting lives of the rich and poor, and possible locations in France in which to set my fictional story. Trying to time my character’s actions to coincide as closely as possible to actual historical events. Then it took a year to write and rewrite many times. Since I had no previous experience writing fiction, I did hire an editor to do a developmental edit, copy edit, and proofreading.
Well, it's nice to know all your hard work has paid off. Have you always had an interest in French history, or was your interest specifically on your story?
Carole: No, I haven’t always had an interest in French history. I have to admit my greatest interest has always been British history.
However, when I travel I generally try to study a little of the history of the places I visit. While vacationing in France a few years ago, I visited Versailles and decided to learn more about Louis XIV. That’s when I first became aware of his religious persecution of Huguenots which caused tens of thousands to flee France. I always knew I wanted to write a novel about a strong, unconventional woman and decided to place my story in 17th century France. There are relatively few works of fiction set in this interesting era, compared to numerous historical novels set in the English Tudor and Regency eras.
I find that surprising, since Louis's reign was such a turbulent one. You'd think there would be more novels set into that pivotal time. What inspired you to write this book? Where did the story idea come from, especially the “magic elixir”?
Carole: The “magic elixir” is based on my personal experience when giving birth to my first child in the sixties. He was born in a hospital and the obstetrician promised me I would feel no pain. Being young and inexperienced, I consented to having “twilight sleep” for the delivery. Have you ever watched Mad Men, the TV series depicting life in the 1960s? If not, seek out the episode on Netflix where Betty Draper gives birth to her third child, Gene. It is rather horrifying.
As I created the back story for my novel, I decided to invent an herbal equivalent to this twentieth century (now discredited) medical advance in obstetrics, and the “magic elixir” became the fictional vehicle for Clare’s initial success as a midwife.
I do plan to write a blog about the wildly popular “twilight sleep” on my website, so watch for it.
I'm sure there are many women would be interested in that. Now, I understand this book is the first of a series. How many books will be in the completed series, or do you know? Do you have them all plotted out? Will the same characters appear in each book, or will you go in other directions, to other families?
Carole: If I live long enough, there will be three. And yes, they will be the stories of Clare’s descendants. I’ve named the series “Secrets of the Austen Midwives” and the reason for that title will become more apparent in Book Two. There is one “Austen” sighting in the first book, a reference in a letter Clare receives from England. I’ve promised my fellow Jane Austen fans that there will be more. I should also add that Midwife of Normandy incorporates a number of Jane Austen’s famous words, hidden away in my characters’ dialogue and the narrative. My editor refers to it as an Easter Egg hunt for Janeites. I had fun putting them in and hope her devoted fans have as much fun finding them. But even if you are not an Austen fan, this book is a stand-alone story full of adventure.
Your story is historical fiction, but what about it is relevant to today?
Carole: The underlying theme of this book is fighting to escape oppression based on a person’s gender and/or religious beliefs. In centuries past, and even up into the twentieth century, women were considered unequal to men. During the 17th century, marriages were largely based on economic arrangements, not romantic love. Husbands owned their wives and children, and could lawfully beat them. Divorce was unheard of.
Careers for women? I had to beat the bushes to think of a suitable occupation for my female protagonist , which is why I chose to make her a midwife. (The other choice would have been prostitute). Midwifery had been a female-dominated profession since Biblical times, but most midwife/healers were uneducated and poor. Some were feared as witches. All the men in Clare’s life disapprove of her decision to work outside the home. Her husband denigrates her earnings as “ill-gotten gains.” Times are changing, but it has taken more than 2000 years to recognize that women can choose to have a career or a traditional family or both. Even run for president.
As far as religious persecution goes, one only has to check the depressing daily news to see that it still exists.
Unfortunately, you are so right. So are you working on the next book in the series already?
Carole: I’ve drawn the family tree from Clare Dupres (born 1654) to the present. Other than that, I’ve been too busy learning the ins and outs of publishing and promotion. I’d rather be working on the book.
How well I know the feeling. The cover of your book is beautiful. Who designed it for you?
Carole: Victoria Cooper is an amazing artist and a pleasure to work with. I highly recommend her. I spent many hours on the internet viewing bookcovers before I decided this was the right one for my book. She has also designed matching bookmarks which I will soon have available.
If people want to know more, how can they find you?
Carole: Check out my website www.carolepenfield.com (The header is an actual photo I took in Normandy.) Or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
I would like to take this opportunity to ask everyone to please read my book and leave a review on Amazon. Reviews are so important to newbie authors like me.
Thanks to you Melissa, for this interview and for starting me on the path to self-publishing. Your calm words of advice during my moments of panic kept me from throwing in the towel.
You're entirely welcome. I'm glad I could help you along on your journey.
Midwife of Normandy is available on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle ebook. http://tinyurl.com/MidwifeNormandy
Facebook Author Page: Coming soon
Twitter: I’m not a bird, I don’t tweet
Amazon Author Page: Coming soon
Blog: at www.carolepenfield.com
LinkedIn: carole penfield