"... Back then, it was simply the enchantment of being constantly touched by history - an enchantment that persisted in her memory even after she immigrated to Canada in her mid-teensOxford was a Royalist stronghold during the 17thcentury English civil war that led to the fall and beheading of King Charles I in 1649 and the emergence of an 11-year republican regime.'I was born there and there is so much evidence of these times all over the city,' Letemendia says by phone from her Toronto home. 'It was very alive to me. I was a member of a club called the Ashmole Club, named after the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, when I was 12 years old, and we were taken on a tour of the colleges. And of course we went along this whole area where a secret passage used to exist between Christ Church and Merton Colleges - Christ Church being where the king was and Merton, the queen.'
It was at Merton that the doomed king and his queen were reputed to have 'their private moments' - a story Letemendia seized on when writing her new novel, The Licence Of War, published by McClelland and Stewart. 'As I suggest, there were hints that their last child was conceived there during one of those private sessions,' she says.
The Licence of War is a sequel to The Best Of Men, the 2009 adventure that first plunged readers into the intrigues of the English Civil War and introduced them to an irresistible protagonist in the person of Laurence Beaumont, a womanizing spy and a reluctant participant in the dangerous power struggles of the day. Enthusiastic reviews greeted the first book both in Canada and the U.K., where it was snapped up by Jonathan Cape, the venerable publishing house whose illustrious back list includes such names as Ernest Hemingway, Kingsley Amis and James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
Beaumont is a nobleman's son with a dubious past, and in the earlier book, he decodes a series of letters stolen from a brothel and, in so doing, foils a plot to kill the king. In The Licence Of War, he's forced into becoming the agent of a man he dislikes - the king's unscrupulous secretary of state, Lord Digby - and assigned the hazardous job of tracking down the enemy's spymaster, a shadowy and frightening obsessive named Veech. On the domestic side, Beaumont is being pressured into a respectable marriage that jeopardizes his relationship with his seductive mistress, who is herself being drawn into a quagmire of betrayal and intrigue.
Letemendia clearly loves Beaumont as much for his flaws as his heroism. But she also believes that in this new book, he stops behaving like a 'rebellious adolescent' and 'really begins to develop a kind of moral conscience.'
At a time when the era of the Tudors, and in particular the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, continue to fascinate our current popular culture, Letemendia is on something of a mission to convince the public that 17th-century England and the turbulent times of the Stuart monarchs make for equally powerful drama. 'In English history, I think it is a staggeringly important time,' she says. 'The English Civil War was really the first of the revolutions,' she says, noting that the French Revolution a century and a half later echoed what had already happened in England - especially 'cutting off the king's head.'
With the arrival of the Stuarts after the death of Elizabeth in 1603, a power struggle emerged between the monarchy and an increasingly assertive Parliament - reaching its zenith with the reign of Charles I, who would not relinquish his belief in the divine right of kings. 'I think Charles had a good start as king, but found it very difficult to manage Parliament ... and all of these things - both religious and political - festered and of course, ended up in violent conflict.' The doomed king is one of the actual historical characters in this novel. And while a key character like Beaumont is fictional, his adventures are woven through a tapestry of historical accuracy. 'I am a bit obsessive about this,' Letemendia says. 'It's a hangover from my academic background.'
She came to Canada in 1976, when she was 16 and studied politics and French at the University of Toronto. Later, for her doctorate, she studied George Orwell and his political development. 'So, I've always had a very strong interest in merging political theory with literature and history.' She cringes at the cavalier disregard of history shown in some novels and TV series. 'I find it very irritating when ... things are massively reinvented. I find myself obsessively checking sources and especially minor details.'
The Licence of War revels in vividly detailed battle scenes. Yet, even as war raged through the country, ordinary life continued in so many ways - one of the book's most intriguing aspects. 'In certain areas people could be totally unaware that there was a war going on,' Letemendia says. 'The Battle of Edgehill - the armies were all lined up and the local squire would go hunting with his dogs, with absolutely no idea that two armies were drawn up on the battlefield right next to him.'