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Five Minutes With: Esther Erman, Author, “The Journey Of Rebecca”

Anyone who has loved and lost knows that Ivanhoe’s Rebecca deserves a fair chance at love, unfettered by social conventions or circumstances. And that makes her one of the most enduring heroines in the romance genre. For this Valentine’s Day edition, Esther Erman explains the universality of this character, explored in her up-and-coming trilogy, The Journey Of Rebecca.

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Rebecca as depicted in Sir Walter Scott’s novel. She’s arguably more memorable than Lady Rowena, Ivanhoe’s love interest, because of her selflessness and courage to rise above her feelings for the knight. Image source: British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tell us more about the trilogy you’re working on, The Journey Of Rebecca. It’s based on the character of Rebecca in Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. How did you get inspired to expand on her character?

I was inspired to write the trilogy based on Rebecca of Ivanhoe’s story because I found her such a fascinating character, I thought there was more to say about her after Scott wrote “The End”.

Of course, in many ways she was almost too good to be true – a case of “heroine” worship by Scott. While she was pretty terrific as originally conceived, it’s great to have the opportunity to make her a more human heroine. Definitely not perfect, definitely more nuanced than we see in the original. The original is two centuries old. There have been changes in how we write our novels.

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Poster of the Hollywood film, Ivanhoe, starring King Baggot as Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Through the novel, Scott examines the effect that the lengthy Crusades on the English, who have been neglected at home, and the tension that exists between the Norman elites and those under their rule. Ivanhoe is built around the events that lead to the conception of the Magna Carta. Image source: Wikipedia / Independent Moving Pictures

Why chose a medieval setting? Historically, the timeline in which Ivanhoe is set was a very challenging time for people of the Jewish faith. What manner of redemption do you hope to deliver through Rebecca’s journey?

The medieval setting is part of the “heritage” of basing my books on Walter Scott’s. I start the first book pretty much ten years after the end of Ivanhoe. It’s a time of great upheaval for pretty much everyone in Europe, not only the Jews.

At the start of my novel, the Fourth Crusade has just failed. In fact, the disgruntled crusaders sacked Constantinople, then a Christian city. The crusaders returning to western Europe were not a happy or peaceful bunch. In England, after the death of King Richard, Coeur de Lion, who as Ivanhoe’s king, his awful younger brother had claimed the crown.

King John was so awful, in a few years after my book’s setting, his nobles forced him to sign the Magna Carta. So this was a time of lots of upheaval – hard to live through, great for fiction.

“Her nature and the nature of society didn’t support her longing to be a ‘romantic’ heroine.”

How do you research for a medieval romance? How do you weave the facts with the fiction? How far can you go with the poetic license?

Research for the novel has been a combination of lots of reading, fiction and non-fiction, and, I’m happy and lucky to say, lots of travel to the actual sites. Though I live in the US, I visit my son, who lives in England, twice a year — and get to add on other sites. York, a setting for the original Ivanhoe, is one of my favourite cities in the world.

Walter Scott made many historical errors and had a definite axe to grind with his book. These days, readers are not as indulgent with authors about errors. That said, I’m writing fiction. There’s no way my vocabulary can be authentic for the era and readable for most readers (even if I could write it). The original Rebecca was not a faithful portrait of a Jewish woman of the era — not in the original, not in my version. Poetic license definitely needed there!

“This was a time of lots of upheaval – hard to live through, great for fiction.”

Love takes courage. Rebecca dares to love Ivanhoe. But unlike the usual ‘unrequited love’ trope that’s popularised in characters such as Eponine (Les Miserables) and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Rebecca endures heartbreak – and then moves abroad. She’s not a tragedy. She’s a survivor. Do you think we need to see more lead characters like this in historical romance genre, and not just in supporting roles?

Yes, her continuing on after Ivanhoe is definitely a tale of surviving and thriving! In the first sequel, she does have her moments of melancholy, but her nature and the nature of society didn’t support her longing to be a “romantic” heroine. I suppose there is a place for the sad sighing stories. I understand at time even Dickens’s Miss Havisham has been portrayed as more textured than the original. But I also feel there haven’t been enough powerful heroines who have a story “after”. I’d like to see a variety of heroines for people to read.

Unlike the usual ‘unrequited love’ tropes such as Éponine (Les Miserables) and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Rebecca endures heartbreak and moves on with her life. Image source: Jewish Women’s Archive. Illustration by R Westall

Can love save the world?

Can love save the world? I hope so!

What book did you last read?

Last book read: The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson and Eyes on the Prize, edited by Juan Williams. I’m also judging books for Romance Writers of America (RWA)‘s RITA contest. I’m listening to a book of stories about Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

About Esther Erman

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