Brenda Rickman Vantrease is the best-selling author of THE ILLUMINATOR and THE MERCY SELLER. Her third novel THE HERETIC’S WIFE, a novel of love and the perils of faith in Tudor England, was released in April from St. Martin’s Press. Her work has been translated into fifteen foreign languages. Welcome to The Debutante Ball, Brenda!
Although my books draw their central conflicts from the historical struggle for the translation and distribution of the Bible in English, motherhood is a theme running like a deep current through each.
I was inspired by the writings of the fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write in the English language, to write my first novel, THE ILLUMINATOR. Julian, in her DIVINE REVELATIONS, likens the love of Christ to a mother’s love. So enchanted was I by her concept—a radical one for her time —that I wanted to write about her. But I soon found that I was just not holy enough to stay in the head of a contemplative anchoress very long, so she became a minor character. Kathryn, my female protagonist, is far from the perfect ideal of motherhood that Julian celebrates. But she is a devoted one. To protect her sons she commits acts of betrayal that set in motion a tragic chain of events. Her behavior is often reprehensible—like Rebecca in the Old Testament, she plays favorites. But the bond she has with even her least favorite son is so strong that she sacrifices the only man she ever loved to protect her son from punishment for a crime she thinks he has committed.
Motherhood is not gender specific. Rippling beneath my storylines is the notion that one doesn’t have to give birth, or even be a female, to be a mother. Motherhood is more about love and sacrifice and nurturing than it is about the natural act of birthing. In my lexicon “mother” is a verb. Finn in THE ILLUMINATOR is both mother and father to his young daughter and later in my second book THE MERCY SELLER to his granddaughter Anna. In THE MERCY SELLER, the loss of his mother early in life haunts Father Gabriel. The influential priest who drives Father Gabriel’s mother away and then oversees his childhood development knows how to mentor but he does not know how to mother. Anna, the female protagonist of THE MERCY SELLER, is a young woman alone, fleeing religious persecution in medieval Prague. She takes in a child who, because of his severe disabilities, has been abandoned on Charles Bridge. She did not give birth to him, but she will be the only mother he ever remembers.
In my latest novel THE HERETIC’S WIFE, Kate Gough is a fearless and determined bookseller of illegal books in Paternoster Row who finds that the truth by which she has ordered her life is altered when she becomes pregnant. This new relationship trumps all others. Kate is not happy to be left behind in Antwerp while her husband returns to England to gain support for their illegal Bible translations. She fears it will end badly and when her worst fears are realized, she demands to be taken to visit him in prison. When she is reminded to think of the babe she carries in her womb she is dissuaded. For a time.
A writer sometimes is not aware until a work is written what themes may bubble up in the telling of a story. I did not set out to write about motherhood in my novels. I saw them as essentially freedom stories: freedom to speak, freedom to print, freedom to publish, freedom to embrace—or not to embrace—the received wisdom of the age. But by the time I had finished the second one, I saw this reoccurring theme.
It is a theme that permeates many works of literature, throughout many ages. Pick a writer you admire and examine his or her body of work. You can probably find this timeless theme asserts itself. This first human bond is rooted too deeply in our subconscious to be expunged. It shapes us in ways we cannot even know, but it bleeds or seeps or flows—whatever metaphor best suits the writer’s particular experience—into the writing. Story is not created in a vacuum. Tap the well deep, and you may be surprised what comes out. So may your mother.