Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Elizabeth Fremantle, Author of Disobedient

April 28th, 2024
Books & Authors

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, a modern feminist, both in art and in life.

Disobedient spans one year of Artemisia’s life, when she was just 17, a pivotal period when talent, ambition, revenge and overcoming adversity all converge for one of the top artists of the Baroque period, a woman way 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.

EB: Do you think Artemesia, the first woman to be accepted into Florence’s prestigious Academy of Art and Drawing, was as talented as Caravaggio?

EF: I personally do, yes. And I think she should be as well-recognised as he is, as a painter.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Throughout the book, you have empowering, self-aware quotes from Artemesia. “You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.” Or “I’ll show you what a woman can do.” Where did you find those quotes?

They’re from her letters later in life when she’s convincing patrons of what she can do. She was so absolutely confident in her abilities, even as a young woman, she knew how talented she was. She knew that she was more talented than her father, even at a very early age.

Your novel, Queen’s Gambit about Henry VIII’s last wife Catherine Parr is coming out as a major motion picture in June called Firebrand starring Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Michelle Williams and Sam Riley.


Parr was the wife who survived. Were you involved in the making of the film at all?

I was quite involved. Often the writer of the book isn’t particularly involved with the film. But the UK producer Gabrielle Tana wanted me to feel like I was part of ‘the film family’. So, I had lots of meetings and dinners with the directors and the actors. And she wanted me to talk to them about how I conceived the novel, what I felt about the characters. I really enjoyed that.

Is there anything similar between Artemesia and Catherine Parr, both survivors? What sort of protagonists are you drawn to?

The parallels between the two women are astonishing. While Artemesia is much younger, 17, and Catherine Parr is 31, they’re both women wanting to be heard. Parr is a writer, a three times published writer. It’s a world where women are supposed to be silent. They both overcame extraordinarily dangerous obstacles to become queen of sorts.. Artemisia queen of the world of art. They both managed to understand how to work patriarchy in their favour. And they both made themselves heard and are heard centuries later. There’s no wonder I was drawn to both those women. Those are my concerns, and all my work tends to deal with those kinds of concerns.

On a more personal level in your author’s notes, you tell us how Artemesia’s story is quite personal to you- both as a reason you didn’t want to write the book, and the reason you eventually did.  Can you tell us how watching Christine Blasey Ford testify about Brett Kavenaugh in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018 affected you?

 Artemesia is a rape survivor, a survivor of violent rape I should say. And so am I. At a similar age, I was a teenager and I was raped by six men and left for dead. So that’s something I’ve had to come to terms with over the years. That was one of the reasons I felt I wasn’t able to write Artemesia’s story because I thought it’s too close to home.

But then a lot of women were coming out and telling their stories, the whole Me-Too Movement, and I was watching Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and it had a profound effect on me.

I was astonished at her courage. It happens to so many women who think, well, no one’s going to believe me. So, I may as well not tell anyone. I’m just going to deal with it on my own. Or people will judge me. People will think I’m spoiled or ruined. They will judge me negatively. You live with a lot of shame.

EB That’s awful. I’m sorry.

 EF: So, seeing the way she spoke about her experience with such courage. We all believed her. And it made me very angry. Instead of the shame, it put me in touch with rage. When I revisited Artemesia’s story, I thought I can do it. It was an extraordinarily cathartic process. I used my novel and Artemesia’s life to tell my story. And that’s why the book is dedicated to all the survivors. These stories, they’ve got to be heard.

Thank you so much Liz. That’s the end of my questions. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me and being so open and honest.

You can read the rest of my edited interview here on 26. Or you can listen to the whole Q&A here on my podcast, Elena Meets the Author.

April, 2024

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