The "court dwarf" served up in a pie...

Hove author Frances Quinn fulfils an ambition with the publication of her first novel The Smallest Man (Simon & Schuster).

Thursday, 4th March 2021, 8:05 am
Frances Quinn
Frances Quinn

The book tells the story of Nat Davy, a ‘court dwarf’ at the time of Charles I, who is given to the queen as a present, just as England begins to slide into the civil war that will end with the execution of the king.

Frances wrote her first story at the age of seven ‘about a squirrel with a liking for pork chops’. Having a novel published has been her ambition ever since:

“But life got in the way, as it does for lots of people, and though I made a few attempts over the years, I never finished them. By the time I hit my 50s, I must have had ‘write a book’ as my New Year’s resolution over 20 times!”

That changed when she came across the story of Jeffrey Hudson, the real-life inspiration for Nat Davy, who was presented to the queen in a pie.

“Finally I had an idea I really wanted to stick with, and when that idea won me a place on a novel writing course at the Curtis Brown literary agency, I thought, I’ve got to do it this time.

“I turned up on the first night of the course, expecting to be the oldest by miles – not that 50-plus is old, but it’s not necessarily an age where you expect to be starting what you hope will be a new career.

“But in fact there were several of us in our 50s. Someone asked the tutor whether our age might go against us when it came to finding a publisher, and she said no, because when do you ever choose a book to read based on the author’s age?’

“The Smallest Man is set in 17th century England and tells the story of Nat Davy, a boy with dwarfism, who’s sold by his father at the age of ten, and given as a present to the new queen, Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1.

“Initially his role is as a sort of human pet, but the queen is young too, she’s been married to a man she doesn’t know in order to create an alliance between England and France, and when Nat realises she’s as lonely and homesick as he is, they form an unlikely friendship – one that will take them through the turbulent years of the Civil War that ends in the execution of the king.

“It’s inspired by a true story – Nat’s real-life counterpart was called Jeffrey Hudson and was presented to the queen in a pie! I came across his story when I was trying to write a completely different book, a murder mystery set at the time of the Great Plague.

“I wanted to include a disabled character, to give a different perspective on events, and when I was researching attitudes to disability in the 17th century, up popped the Wikipedia entry for Jeffrey Hudson. By the time I’d got the end of it, I knew I wanted to base a novel on his story, and the murder mystery bit the dust. It’s still in a drawer somewhere.

“What appealed to me about Jeffrey’s story was that he was someone who’d been dealt a difficult hand in life, but was determined to make the best of it. He had all sorts of adventures, and through all the stories I read about him, this incredible character shone through – clever and funny, brave and very loyal.

“Initially I planned for Jeffrey himself to be the main character in the book, but I soon found that trying to make real life into a novel isn’t as easy as you might imagine. A novel needs a shape and a direction; real life meanders around, goes off at tangents and has no respect for the need to tie up all the ends in the last chapter.

“I battled with it for quite a while, and then I got the idea of inventing a fictional counterpart to Jeffrey.

“There are big gaps in what we know about Jeffrey anyway, and it felt more honest to create a new story, than just make up the bits to fill those gaps. So I came up with Nat, and though I borrowed some of Jeffrey’s adventures, it’s his story, rather than an attempt to fictionalise Jeffrey’s.

“I’m often asked what attracted me to write about the Civil War period, and if I’m honest, nothing did; I’d studied the Civil War at school, and all I could recall was a load of deadly dull stuff about religious factions and taxes.

“It was Jeffrey’s adventures that hooked me and they just happened to be set against that backdrop. But when I started researching, I was fascinated to see how much of it arose from the personalities of the people involved: the king, who was convinced God had made him right about everything, and thought he could outwit his opponents right to the end; and the queen, pushing him on, and herself becoming involved in gathering arms and deciding strategy.

“They were real soulmates by then, yet their marriage started so badly, they made Prince Charles and Princess Diana look like love’s young dream. And I had a main character with a ringside seat for all of that.

“Almost everyone who’s read the book has said it’s a period they knew very little about, which is incredible when you think it’s our equivalent of the French Revolution – spoiler alert, they execute the king!

“Obviously, I hope it’ll appeal to fans of historical fiction, but it’s actually had good reviews from people who’ve said they don’t usually read historicals. I think sometimes historical fiction overdoes the history lessons – of course, the background has to be accurate but it was equally important to me to tell a page-turning story, with a bit of humour, some quirky characters, and not so much of the clashing swords, heaving bosoms and gadzookery side of things.

“It took four years in all to write, and I can’t say I enjoyed every day of that – I’m not one of those writers, if they actually exist, whose characters just come alive and whisper their stories in the author’s ear. Mine tend to loaf around, muttering ‘You’re the writer, make something up.’ But when the story starts to come right, and you see connections between characters that you didn’t even realise you’d put in there, there’s no better feeling.

“I’ve had quite a few attempts at a novel before, but The Smallest Man is the first one I’ve ever finished.”