Author Q&A: Elizabeth Fremantle

Elena Bowes caught up with British author Elizabeth Fremantle to discuss her historical thriller Disobedient, a breath-taking story about the gifted 17th century painter Artemesia Gentileschi. She was a true feminist, both in art and in life. Disobedient spans one year of Artemisia’s life – a pivotal period when talent, ambition, revenge, and overcoming adversity all converge for one of the top artists of the Baroque period, a woman ahead of her time.

In the words of the author, Disobedient is about “triumph, not through adversity, but triumph from adversity, turning adversity into gold.”

This Q&A has been edited for brevity. The full podcast version is available here you can listen to the audio or read the full transcript. Author photo taken from the author’s website, here.

Can you tell us how you first became acquainted with Artemesia’s talent and life story?

I’m very interested in art history, and I’m always looking for women from the early modern period who have found their voice. I’d seen reproductions of her painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which is such a striking and visceral painting. You just think that’s not possible, that a woman of that time could have painted something like that. The part of her story that I’ve chosen to tell in my novel is so astonishing because there are some really challenging obstacles Artemesia has to overcome to be the hugely successful painter that she was in her day.

Your book spans just one year of Artemesia’s life. So much happened to her when she was just seventeen. Were you tempted to write about her later life and career success?

I always knew it would be limited because I saw the whole narrative once I started researching.

Is Artemesia the first woman painter to tackle, as far as you know, visceral biblical subjects? Women weren’t allowed to for so many reasons, they needed to be pious and virtuous. And yet, paintings often depicted them as sensual creatures with men ogling them. 

She is the first female painter to shift the male gaze. You look at her work and you experience it from the female’s perspective. That was completely new, completely revolutionary. Her figures, even when they’re nude, it’s not a pleasurable experience. You can feel (the women’s) discomfort with their nudity. Other women painters just simply wouldn’t have dared to paint something like that (ie images of nudity, violence, brutality).

Your other characters are equally well-portrayed. What do we know about Orazio, her father, and Agostino Tassi, her tutor, who raped her? 

Orazio was a very good and reasonably successful painter. And he taught Artemesia (his daughter) to paint. But if you look at their work side by side, and I was lucky enough to see the London exhibition at the National Gallery, he’s not got that extra spark that she’s got. There’s something about her work that you can really feel the characters she’s portraying. They have real life, whereas his work, there’s a passivity to it. The figures are flat in some ways. Hers are in three dimensions.

Artemesia’s mother died when Artemesia was young, so Orazio raised her and her three younger brothers. I kind of imagined that Orazio was thinking God had played some awful trick on him, giving all this talent to his daughter and none to his three sons. In his mind, what good was having a daughter with all that talent because she’s female, she’s got to marry, she’s got to have children. She’s not going to be a painter. Well, she showed him! 

I imagined that he must have been at once proud and very jealous of her talent.

And Tassi, her tutor?

I know him really well from the court case. Most of his testimony was a pack of lies. He was an incredibly duplicitous man. He seems to have been very striking, a physically good-looking man.

And then her future husband Piero?

We know she had a long and happy marriage with a man named Pieroantonio Stiatessi. From letters from their marriage, (we know) they had an unconventional setup. Made me wonder if they had some libertine marriage, so I characterised Piero as homosexual. It’s a friendship, one of admiral admiration. They are soulmates, but not romantic soulmates. 

You wrote this book during Covid so I assume you didn’t go to Italy to do your research? What were some of the most helpful sources to learn about the life and times of 17th century Rome?

It was new territory for me. Give me the Tudor court, the Jacobean court, I can do that standing on my head. But this was completely new. And the British Library was shut (Covid). There were a number of people who filmed drone footage of the empty streets of Rome. That was incredibly helpful, seeing Rome empty. And then it’s a real act of imagination to recreate that city of 1611. There are (old) maps with a zoom facility so I kind of worked out which buildings were there and which weren’t. The Spanish Steps weren’t. I looked at the migratory patterns of birds to work out what birds would have been in the city, all sorts of things. The internet is an amazing tool. And there are good history books, academic books about quotidian life.

What’s your writing process? Do you take tons of notes before setting pen to paper? 

I do a huge amount of reading. And luckily since the British Library was shut, I had already read the main books I wanted to read. I ended up buying a lot of books on painting, pigment, the trade. I read it all and made copious notes. And then there’s a moment where you say, I’m going to start writing. And I put it all aside, and just start. I usually have a vague map of a series of stepping stones, a bit like a list. And so I know where (the story) needs to go. 

Is there any advice you would give an aspiring historical fiction novelist?

Choose your story really carefully. Don’t think you have to put everything you know into the story. A story needs to breathe and flow. It’s all about the story, the characters. That’s what you need to focus on.

What tense do you prefer working in?

More often than not, I use present tense third person. I feel like a historical story has more immediacy if it’s told in the present tense. If it’s in the present tense your characters don’t have the benefit of hindsight. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them. So, we’re with them as readers.

I tried my most recent novel in the past tense, and I changed it all to the present tense. 

What novel are you working on now?

It’s kind of a prequel (to this book). It’s also set in Rome in 1598 and 1599. And it’s strongly linked to the first chapter of Disobedient. It’s about Beatrice Cenci, who is the woman being executed in the first chapter of Disobedient. It’s an extraordinary story, and if anything, it’s more of a viscerally brutal female story. It’s a true story, and it’s very shocking. She’s quite well known in Italy, but less elsewhere. She’s the kind of tragic story that people who write operas are drawn to.

So no happy ending?

I’m not one for great romantic happy endings. But I do like there to be a thread of hope.

-Elena Bowes

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