Anne O'Brien: Mills & Boon in the Marches
PUBLISHED: 20:44 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013
Herefordshire's history and culture with its ruined castles, medieval villages and legends of strong-willed women has provided a rich source of inspiration for the romantic novels penned by Anne O'Brien. Rachel Crow visited her beautif...
"Their eyes caught and held, tight as a fist. Awareness one of the other, strange and unbidden, danced in the flickering light. Then desire arced between them, hot and ruthless as a flame..."
As is to be expected, there's plenty of lingering looks and heated passion in the latest of Anne O'Brien's historical romances for publishing house Mills & Boon, but peppered throughout are references to the dark deeds and historical events that occurred within miles of Anne's home in the Welsh Marches. Chosen for the Marriage Bed is brimming with the aura and atmosphere of medieval Herefordshire, set against the backdrop of the War of the Roses.
The heroine, Elizabeth de Lacy, was inspired by the dramatic tale of Ellen Gethin, wife to Thomas Vaughan, Lord of Hergest in the Welsh Marches. Legend has it that Ellen, whose body lies entombed beside her husband's in Kington Church, took revenge on her cousin who was responsible for murdering her brother, by slaying him in an archery contest, earning herself the title Terrible Ellen.
Anne's heroine, Elizabeth is equally skilled with a bow and arrow, and proves a match for Richard Malinder to whom she's betrothed in order to engineer a powerful union of Lancastrian and Yorkist families to dominate the Marches.
A history teacher in Yorkshire for many years until she and her husband, George relocated to their 18th century cottage in Herefordshire 12 years ago, Anne is well versed in providing an accurate historical context for her stories.
"Although I knew very little of the history of the Welsh Marches before I came here, so that was very interesting from a discovery point of view," admits Anne.
We are sitting in the conservatory to the back of her home, a modern extension to the original cottage which retains its original beams and small, cosy rooms with picture windows. Surrounded by rolling hills of farmland and orchards, the cottage provides the perfect setting for Anne's historical romances to develop.
Anne and George relocated following his retirement as a manager of an insurance company and having spent time in Herefordshire, were struck with the county's beauty.
It was following their move that George issued Anne with the challenge: "Right, you said you wanted to write, so do it!" Having always entertained the idea of writing but with a busy teaching career, she had struggled to find the time. Winning a romantic story competition in the Yorkshire Post newspaper gave her confidence.
"I suppose that one got me to think, yes, I can write. But the problem was what on earth do I write about? Where do authors get their plots? It wasn't until I thought about writing historical novels that the ideas began to come and since then, it's never been a problem. Looking back I can't understand why I couldn't think of ideas back then."
Clearly these days not lacking in inspiration, Anne has seen eight of her novels published with Mills & Boon since the first in 2004 and also recently sold a longer historical novel to MIRA, based on the story of Anne Neville the wife of Richard III.
"I started the writing just to see if I could do it but since then it has grown. It still amazes me I've sold nearly 500,000 books since 2004 and they've been translated into so many languages and sold into so many countries.
"No matter how romantic the novel or how much of the plot is a figment of my imagination, the history of it has to be accurate so everything I write about fits with the period. I think that is very important so you give a correct atmosphere of the time."
Beginning with a novel based in the Regency era, Anne wrote stories set during the Civil War, before moving on to medieval romances. "It depends on the people and the situation but I don't mind what the period is," explains Anne. "When I began finding out what went on here, in Herefordshire, it inspired me to write medieval romances. It can just be snippets of information or relationships between members of a family or an exciting historical event and you think, yes, that can make the basis for a story."
Having visited the picturesque black and white village of Lyonshall with its church and castle built on the ridge; this became Ledenshall in Anne's latest novel due to its connection to the Vaughan family, the inspiration for the De Lacys.
Other places or characters from Herefordshire history that have provided inspiration for her novels include Clifford Castle, the Harley family of Brampton Bryan, the village of Weobley, and Wigmore Castle to the north of the county.
Anne carefully weaves fact and fiction, using historical events, legend or people as the initial inspiration but adapts and changes the turn of events to allow for the necessary input of romance.
"For instance, one story I based on Lady Brilliana Harley of Brampton Bryan, who bravely held their castle during a siege in the Civil War on her own but sadly died at the end of the siege. You can't have that ending if you want to write a romance. So it became Brampton Percy, home to Honoria who held the siege, but escaped with her life to rescue her husband and lover from imprisonment," explains Anne.
If ever Anne finds the words aren't flowing, she'll help clear her mind by sitting in or tending to part of their beautiful, rambling gardens.
An avid vegetarian cook, Anne planted a herb garden based on a Tudor pattern and surrounded by Rosa Mundi vintage roses. This also serves as a useful research resource, the use of herbs for medicine and witchcraft featuring in some of her novels, inspired by the writing of Herefordshire folklorist, Ella Mary Leather, who in the 1930s recorded the local folklore, rituals, practices and witchcraft, much of which had been passed down many generations.
With the garden also featuring an orchard, lawned areas, formal pond, herbaceous flower borders, and burgeoning vegetable and fruit gardens, it is a tranquil and beautiful spot which they share with the local wildlife. And it's no wonder in such a setting that romance flows from Anne's pen. "You see, romance isn't dead," she smiles. Chosen for the Marriage Bed by Anne O'Brien is published by Mills & Boon Historical. RRP 3.79