Interview with Robert Stephen Parry

I am very excited today to be able to share an interview from Robert Stephen Parry, the author behind such books as ‘Virgin and the Crab’, ‘The Arrow Chest’ and his latest book ‘WILDISH’.

I have recently finished reading Parry’s book ‘Virgin and the Crab’, a look at astronomer John Dee and his life throughout the reign of Mary I, and was absolutely enthralled by this amazing and compelling book. I was lucky enough to get to ask Parry a few questions about his book and also about his upcoming book Wildish.

What inspired you to write Virgin and the Crab?

That must have been the day when I suddenly realised that two of my favourite figures from history, namely Elizabeth Tudor and John Dee knew each other and would probably have met at an early age. I got to wondering what the dynamics of such a relationship might have been, particularly during those bleak and dangerous years prior to Elizabeth’s accession. I wanted to present their story as a kind of theatrical extravaganza, as a kind of history play with larger-than life characters (and the Tudor age provides plenty of those, of course). Once all the various connections between the Cambridge scholars such as William Cecil, John Cheke and John Dee came to light (all men who had close connections to the Dudley’s, the Seymours and the Privy Council of Edward VI), I knew there was an untold story here, perhaps true, perhaps fanciful, but a good one nonetheless.

What research did you have to do for your book?

Quite a bit. The story spans a period between 1547 and 1559 – twelve extraordinary years in which England had to contend with the comings and goings of no less than 2 kings and 3 queens. I first started sketching out the plan during the 1980’s – in the days prior to the internet – so research was largely down to reading lots of books and visiting libraries and various historic places to gather information. I’m fortunate in having lived a large part of my life in London and the South-East of England. So most of the locations in the book were already known to me or could be reached easily. I wanted to make use of all the legends as well as the facts, and there is a rich source of all of these to be found in such places.

What drew you to the man John Dee?

I have a life-long interest in the stars, both as an amateur astronomer and as an enthusiast of astrology, particularly in the way these subjects apply to history or are used in a social context. Astrology at its best (not the dubious stuff we find in newspapers or magazines, by the way) is a very rich language of metaphor and symbolism and it was studied and used throughout history as a means of ordering and understanding the world in which people found themselves, everything from the agricultural calendar to navigation at sea. That’s where the title of the book comes from, by the way – the astrological signs of the two main protagonists – ‘the Virgin’ for Elizabeth, and ‘the Crab’ for John Dee.

John Dee was one of the most famous scholars of his day, and he remains a significant figure even now to anyone studying the history of astronomy, mathematics or geography. He was what we would today term a polymath, a ‘Renaissance man.’ He owned one of the largest libraries in Europe, travelled widely throughout England and overseas, and even received offers of employment from places as far afield as Russia. Everyone who was anyone in late Tudor and Elizabethan England, from the Seymours to the Dudleys, from the Queen to Drake and Raleigh, knew him or consulted him about  matters as diverse as navigation, genealogy, history and, of course, astronomy. He was almost certainly a spy and was closely affiliated with Elizabeth’s minister William Cecil and ‘spymaster’ Francis Walsingham. Amid all this he was also a great family man. He was married (probably) three times during his long life and had numerous children whom he adored.

How do you feel about Mary I and her treatment of people such as her half-sister Elizabeth and John Dee?

Queen Mary has managed to receive a bad press in literature and fiction, probably because most good stories require an antagonist (a ‘baddy’) and Mary Tudor, along with her associates, ambassadors and ministers, have provided plenty of ammunition in that respect. In ‘Virgin and the Crab’ she is portrayed as rather a doomed figure, at the mercy of her own prejudices and also suffering the consequences of a miserable adolescence. But Mary was also a very intelligent and resourceful woman. At the start of her reign she showed great bravery and determination in dealing with her foes. She also demonstrated that a woman could hold the reigns of power, at least for a time – until taking a foreign husband in the shape of Philip of Spain, that is. That was an error. It changed everything and resulted in a huge divergence between her wishes and those of the English people. The differences between her and her younger half-sister Elizabeth in terms of tolerance and humanity are highlighted through much of the story, as are the dreadful consequences of those moments of history in which the powers of the Church and State become joined.

What do you wish you knew about John Dee that you were unable to learn about through your research/writing?

I would like to know the true nature of his journey to Europe during the 1580’s when he visited the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II and undertook the bulk of his infamous ‘angelic conversations’ with the seer and alchemist Edward Kelly. Was it espionage? Was it research into some great scientific project? Was it a courageous bid to reach out across the religious divide? Or was it just plain daft? It seems we will never know.

If you had a time machine, and could go back in time for just one day where would you go and why?

I would go back to wherever Elizabeth was imprisoned in theTower of London during her darkest days of 1554 when she faced almost certain death and had hardly a friend or ally in the world and tell her that it would ‘all be fine’ – that she would preside over one of the greatest periods of discovery, literature and drama ever known to the English people, the Golden Age, in fact, and that she would be there at the head of it all as Queen.

Can you tell us a little more about your latest book WILDISH?

Wildish is set in Georgian England at the time of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 – a time, in fact, when England was still dealing with some of the consequences of the Reformation – so it does have a tenuous connection to those Tudors. The sub-title (a Story Concerning Different Kinds of Love) reveals much of what it is really all about, though: love – from the most libidinous to the most sacred kinds of love – and most of which is not at all obvious to the hero, a certain Mr Wildish, who rather stumbles upon it all quite accidentally during the course of what becomes an epic, self-indulgent quest to transcend reality via the senses. The book itself has only been out a few weeks, and so I am still very excited about it all and of what people might be making of it. If I had to sum it up in a few words, I would say that it is largely a story of celebration and joy.

For more information about Parry’s book ‘Virgin and the Crab’, reviews, and information where you can purchase it please visit: Virgin and the Crab

And for more information about Parry’s latest book Wildish click here: WILDISH

Virgin and the Crab by Robert Stephen Parry

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