Mystery in the Garden: Interview with Ellis Peters

Ellis Peters reigns as the undisputed queen of mystery writers in the hearts of many herb lovers. She has written 19 novels and 3 short stories featuring Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century soldier-of-fortune-turned-Benedictine-monk. Cadfael is an herbalist, apothecary, and amateur sleuth. The early chapters of many of the books take place in his herb garden or in the small workshop he maintains adjoining it.

Peters made a recent trip to the United States to promote her newest Brother Cadfael book, The Holy Thief. I had an opportunity to interview her for The Herb Companion during a visit to the Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, California.

“I’m sorry to tell you I’m not an herb gardener myself,” she confesses. “Oh, I have a few kitchen herbs–I can snip off a sprig of rosemary, and one or two other things, but I don’t have a proper herb garden.”

Peters is a lifelong gardener and garden lover, however. “I have quite a large garden, but I have someone else tending it now, you know. I go out and deadhead the roses now and then, and I sit in it and admire. I’m not able to do much more.”

Peters is a slender, gracious woman who navigates with a confidence that belies her leather-thonged cane and recent recovery from major back surgery. She is cordial, humorous, and possesses an unfailing alertness and poise. She was born Edith Mary Pargeter in Horsehay, Shropshire, in 1913; she still lives within a few miles of her birthplace. She began her writing career in 1936 with the publication of her first novel, Hortensius, Friend of Nero. Over the years, she has published more than 90 historical novels, collections of short stories, mysteries and thrillers, plays, and book translations

from Czech. She taught herself Czech from books and recordings. Her work in translations earned her the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal in 1968.

I was a chemist’s [pharmacist’s] assistant for eight years before the war. That was before many modern synthetic drugs, and we used to prepare many of our own compounds. We used to make bottled medicine that we compounded specially, with ingredients like gentian, rosemary, horehound. You never see that nowadays; those tinctures are never prescribed. They often had bitters of some sort in them, a taste I rather liked. Some of Cadfael’s prescriptions come out of those years.

During World War II, Peters served in the Women’s Royal Navy Service. She was decorated by King George VI for her service in the communications department, and she has been writing ever since.

I write early in the day, when I am fresh. I write looking out on my garden, using a portable typewriter. I write right on through till I get tired; if I’m really going well I may write right through a meal. I generally stop then, and do something else to refresh myself.

I cook a bit, and I play music. I used to read thrillers voraciously. . . . I particularly like the medieval music that is being discovered and recorded. There must be loads and loads of musical manuscripts in the monastery libraries in Europe. We, of course, lost much of ours during the Dissolution. King Henry was an extremely destructive man. [King Henry VIII dissolved virtually all the monastic communities in England between 1536 and 1540. Buildings were demolished and the materials, together with the lands, sold or given away. Libraries were occasionally given away, but were more often destroyed.]

There are two large herb gardens that I picture when I think about Cadfael’s garden. One is down near London; one is in Cambridge. The Abbey Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury is being ­restored, and they plan to have a proper herb garden there eventually.

Cadfael’s adventures have been an unfolding project for Peters. “When I wrote the first Cadfael book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, I wasn’t planning on a series. It’s the only one in which I altered a historical event or two, in a minor way, and that’s come home to me since.”

Cadfael’s character and history have developed over the years. He is passionately Welsh, a retired soldier in the Crusades, a former sailor on the Mediterranean, a former man-at-arms on an English warship, the father of a son sired during his soldiering days, a contemplative monk with an occasional yen for travel and an eye for good horseflesh. His background has given him firsthand experience of the human condition in times of strife and allows him to move beyond his mon­astery walls with ease and interest. He has a wide range of friends in the shire and abroad, and maintains a keen eye for the people he meets. He has a special affinity for young people, and, somewhat atypically for his era, has a genuine fondness and respect for many of the women he meets. He is a calm, shrewd, immensely likable man with an unquenchable curiosity and a deep appreciation of God’s good gifts in this world.

Cadfael is not modeled after any one person of Peters’s acquaintance. “I suppose you could say he’s made up of attributes of quite a number of my friends. I didn’t know many clergy well before I started writing about Cadfael. I’ve gotten to know a number since, and I correspond with several. One, an Irish canon, writes gossip, and I suppose some of that gets into Cadfael.” Clergy seem to appreciate the positive characters Peters creates of her clergymen. She was recently invited to help design and take part in the celebration of the 900th anniversary of the Benedictine Order in England, and often receives letters complimenting her on her portrayal of Cadfael.

Peters receives large quantities of fan mail and hears frequently from fans who are herb gardeners. “They write comparing notes, or with suggestions, or sharing their expertise. They often have a great deal of knowledge.”

Peters relies on two primary book sources for her herbal information.

I draw a great deal on Culpeper. He’s a much later period, of course, but his information is sound. The other is a fifteenth-century leech book that I have a copy of. The original lost its title and back pages in a fire, so there is no indication of who compiled it. It is good for information closer to the period. It has some very peculiar remedies, besides the herbal ones. One called for the little bug we call a wood louse, a pill bug–I suppose because it looked like a pill when it rolled up.

I don’t picture Cadfael relying much on ritual words accompanying his prescriptions. He was a man of faith, of course, and might say a prayer for health along with the ingredients he was compounding, but that was largely his intention, not something he prescribed for someone else to say. I don’t think he would treat [such a prayer] quite as something laid down for him, but something to dedicate at the time.

Cadfael’s manner of practice is thus quite different from that of many other prescribers, who often included elaborate instructions for special words, prayers, timing, or actions to accompany the medications.

Many of the herbs and remedies Cadfael uses were picked up during travels in his earlier life. With no formal training in either herb cultivation or medicine, he has acquired a wide body of knowledge from conversations with people he has met. Much of the information he has tested out himself over the years, and he is generous in sharing his knowledge and skills with others. The only mention of Cadfael’s consulting a written source of knowledge is a description of “Aelfric’s list” of eleventh-century English native herbs.

Peters is careful in her descriptions not to give too many details of how Cadfael uses his herbs: “People could do peculiar things with them.” Cadfael cultivates at least 26 herbs in his garden and gathers, purchases, or trades for a great many more. Some 78 types of plants are mentioned in the course of his adventures.

Peters often begins researching her plot by studying a twelfth-century chronicle, looking for events in which Cadfael might have participated. She outlines and thinks about her plots and characters, staying within the framework of the actual historical events as much as possible. As she finishes writing each book, she reads the entire manuscript aloud to herself, checking particularly for the feel of the dialogue. “It also helps to hear several of my finished books, as they’re available on audiotape now.”

Herbs often play a supporting rather than a central role in Peters’s plots. “In Monk’s Hood, of course, that was the poison. I haven’t done much with herbs that have mixed properties–either beneficial or poisonous, depending on their use. I’d like to get back to using herbs more in my plots. I haven’t used them so much in the last few books.”

In spite of her lively interest in things Welsh, Peters does not speak the language: “Oh, not more than a few words or phrases, that is.” Shropshire borders on Wales, and Peters is familiar with the Welsh culture and pronunciation. “I ought to include a little pronunciation guide in future books,” she says. “The language is not at all phonetic. A double ‘D’, for instance, is pronounced ‘TH’. Gwynedd, as in The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, is pronounced ‘Gwyneth’, like the woman’s name. And Cadfael is pronounced ‘CAD-vel’.” Peters also gently corrects the pronunciation of her native town. “Many people do call it ‘SHREWS-b’ry’. My mother always pronounced it ‘SHROSE-b’ry’, so that’s how I say it. Local people are still arguing, so I suppose either is correct.”

Peters has no plans to bring her Cadfael series to a conclusion. “I might explore a character who was a midwife or female healer skilled in herbs. They were the GPs of their time, after all. That sort of person wasn’t too much under threat during Cadfael’s time, and he was the sort to be interested in such a person, to develop a collegial relationship with her.”

Peters notes that British television is producing four of her Cadfael novels for airing within the next year. If they are well received, additional productions will be added to the series. “At least they won’t run out of material too quickly!”

In an essay in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, Peters comments,

Apart from treating my char­acters with the same respect as in any other form of novel, I have one sacred rule about the thriller. It is, it ought to be, it must be, a morality. If it strays from the side of the angels, provokes total despair, willfully destroys–without pressing need in the plot–the innocent and the good, takes pleasure in evil, that is unforgivable sin. I use the word deliberately and gravely.

It is probably true that I am not very good at villains. The good interest me so much more.

Central Californian Robbie Cranch is a Unitarian Universalist minister, folklorist, medieval and Tudor historian, and herb gardener. Her household includes two high-energy babies, two cocker spaniels, six turtles, and the husband from heaven. Ellis Peters’s books are her cup of tea.

Further Reading

Ellis Peters’s Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, in chronological order:
A Rare Benedictine (containing “A Light on the Road to Woodstock”, “The Price of Light”, and “Eye Witness”)

A Morbid Taste for Bones
One Corpse Too Many
Monk’s Hood
Saint Peter’s Fair
The Leper of Saint Giles
The Virgin in the Ice
The Sanctuary Sparrow
The Devil’s Novice
Dead Man’s Ransom
The Pilgrim of Hate
An Excellent Mystery
The Raven in the Foregate
The Rose Rent
The Hermit of Eyton Forest
The Confession of Brother Haluin
The Heretic’s Apprentice
The Potter’s Field
The Summer of the Danes
The Holy Thief

The more recent Brother Cadfael books are published by Mysterious Press, which plans eventually to reprint them all. Some titles in the series are available from Fawcett Books, and some are not currently in print in the United States. Recorded Books has unabridged audiotape volumes of ten Brother Cadfael mysteries.

Also, the Ellis Peters Appreciation Society publishes a quarterly journal for its members. It is more than a fan club–the group reports news about medieval period books, reviews, aspects of period life, and themes out of the Cadfael series and Peters’s other works. Dues are $15 a year, which includes four issues of the journal. Write to the society, c/o Sue Feder, 7815 Daniels Avenue, Parkville, MD 21234.

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