Interview with Robyn Cadwallader: Time has travelled but the warmth in our hearts has stayed

By Louise Sapphira

Centuries can pass, but relating to the pain and the injustices that people have and continue to experience is still powerful

Historical fiction can speak to the reader about the present by engaging with the past. In The Fire and the Rose, Robyn Cadwallader achieves this by depicting the expulsion of Jews in Lincoln, England in the late 13th century. Woven within the narrative are the mysterious stories of those around this threatened Jewish community. Some people remain supportive in awful circumstances. Whereas some turn against each other and are a threat to the individuals’ values. The novel shows how the boundaries that society can set often destroy ‘the other’ or those who do not have the power to stand up for their beliefs.

Cadwallader’s narrative is well-researched and delves into a dark period of English history. It is also about the romantic love between the two main protagonists, Eleanor and Asher, regardless of their different faiths. With Eleanor’s yearning to be loved and finding herself in love with a Jewish man, together, the two show the warmth that can exist in times of pain and grief. Eleanor’s strength is also shown through her passion for words and writing, which she longs to pursue. Cadwallader’s The Fire and the Rose invites the reader to feel loss, love, and a sense of exploring our own strengths.

I interviewed Robyn to discuss the main starting point for writing the historical novel. We also discussed the drive behind the main protagonist, Eleanor. Including the heart of the story and the creative elements of the walls and stones that could speak.

Three factors initially drove the novel. Robyn said first, ‘I was doing research for my previous novel, Book of Colours, and came across a mention of the expulsion of the Jews from England.’ Robyn added, ‘I thought how do you just expel people who are living in a country and who have made it their home? I’ve been reading medieval literature and researching medieval history for…forty years and I hadn’t come across it.’

This then led to the incredibly awful story of Little Hugh, who went missing. Robyn discussed that the stories about ‘the Jews…killing young boys for rituals was told in Europe and London as well…It was just a strange idea that developed around the time [and] I suppose there weren’t that many of them, but there were enough for it to be an appalling collection of stories.’ She stressed, ‘It’s not surprising in a way that people would say, “a little boy is missing…this must be another case of blood libel.’”

The third reason was the character, Eleanor. Robyn explained how the story of Little Hugh and the expulsion of Jewish ‘the dates aligned very closely with Eleanor.’ That is, ‘how does she manage when she has discovered words, and stories, and writing…I had the strong sense that she wouldn’t manage well in the village, and that just stayed with me.’

To draw these three elements together, Robyn said, ‘I love the story to have its own life and not be constrained by the historical events.’ She added:

            ‘Once I had done enough research to recognise which events had to sit on certain dates, then I had to make sure that I allowed Eleanor’s story to just continue as her story and not be squeezed into the gaps. Where love really resides and how it’s expressed is probably the heart of the novel for Eleanor and the story of the Jews.’

Robyn discussed the context of how the Jews were treated. ‘The past is a little bit strange to us.’ However, this provides an opportunity to engage with the present. Robyn said, ‘I think we sort of see the issues a little more clearly because we’re not caught up in them…we see prejudice really clearly, because we’re not implicated in it ourselves.’

Robyn’s study of geology is also woven into the narrative with the walls that can speak. She said:

‘What I hoped to do particularly with the commentary of the walls…[is that] the stones and the walls have a kind of ageless wisdom which I hope helps people recognise when they’re reading that this isn’t just a story that belongs in the thirteenth century. It’s a story that has happened over and over again.’

She added, ‘I wanted to suggest that those issues in one way or another [are] with us still today.’ Robyn continued, ‘I think people feel that it takes distance and time to look back and see things.’

Like Eleanor says to Asher:

‘The stone is so warm, almost as if it’s alive,’ she says. ‘Do you think the walls tell secrets?’

Through the concept of prejudice, The Fire and the Rose explores the notion of ‘the other’. Balancing the stories of the Christians and the Jews was a challenge for Robyn. She said, ‘I wanted all the characters just to be real characters.’ And explained how the reader ‘had an array of characters,’ demonstrating different stories. She added, ‘I didn’t want to say, well, the Jews were all good, and the Christians were all bad, or the other way around…They needed to be real people as well.’

About the main protagonist, Eleanor, and connecting her story with the voices of women, Robyn said ‘I really hope that people would recognise Eleanor’s desires…and her messiness…She was determined, she wanted to write. She wanted to protect herself from the damage from her past.’ Robyn added, ‘but it wasn’t that she was out to…make any statements about…the status of women…She went with her heart both with Asher and her writing.’ Robyn said:

‘In all my three novels I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that women, my main characters, [are] women who are out to push boundaries for women. They’re more women who want something or find themselves in a situation where their own needs and their own desires push them to kind of nudge at the edges, nudge at the boundaries.’

She said, ‘If you’ve got a longing that is strong enough, it will make you push at the edges of your limitations.’

But Eleanor faced a wall of stones herself. During a conversation with Jevon, a possible marital partner for her in The Fire and the Rose he says:

‘Ellie, don’t be foolish. You’re a woman. You won’t get work as a scribe. You either scrub Stephen’s pots and dig his garden, or you marry me.’ He pauses and gestures to her face. ‘And there’s not many men as will see past that.’

In the context of today, Robyn added, ‘It is a kind of different voice, but it’s still a powerful one, [with Eleanor] standing up for her rights in the face of so much persecution. It’s a kind of strength that women do have in whatever age, so we can relate.’

Another element skillfully woven in The Fire and the Rose is the use of the senses. Robyn said, ‘I love writing about the senses…I think because I used to write poetry.’ She said:

‘When I started writing I knew there was going to be some very hard stuff in the novel, and I wanted to be able to balance that out with some beauty and something pleasurable. And I felt that having Asher own a spice shop would give me colour and smell and also the beautiful sight of the herbs.’

And added, ‘I just wanted to give a strong sense of Eleanor’s experience of the world.’

With Robyn’s next writing project, she is taking a break from historical fiction and said, ‘What I have at the moment is a few images and a possible setting…we’ll see what happens.’ Again, pushing the boundaries just like Eleanor, Asher, and their loved ones in The Fire and the Rose.


And here is the audio of this interview!