A Q&A with Linda Lafferty
Question: The Bloodletter's Daughter
takes place during the 17th-century reign of the Hapsburg Empire in Old Bohemia. What intrigued you about this period?
Linda Lafferty: Prague, not Vienna, was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the center of Europe during Rudolf II's lifetime. Yet relatively little historical fiction has been written about Prague and Bohemia. The sciences, especially astronomy, lit up Rudolf II's court--he collected art and rare plant species from all over the world. But witchcraft, alchemy, and superstition were rampant and religious persecution existed, despite Rudolf II's relatively lenient mindset on faith. When my husband and I hiked through the Czech Republic in 2005, we spent a couple of days in Cesky Krumlov, a Bohemian village. I learned the tale of Rudolf II's mad bastard son, Don Julius, who became romantically involved with Marketa Pichler, a bath maiden in the bathhouse at the foot of Rozmberk Castle.
Q: How much were you able to find out about Marketa? Did she really have secret ambitions to become a doctor?
LL: She was the daughter of a town barber. At that time, barbers were also barber-surgeons, or bloodletters. The villagers relied on the barber to relieve their ailments by balancing the four "humors." The subplot of Marketa's wanting to become a doctor was fiction. Her real story was so sad. She did have the nickname "muscle," and that slur on a 16-year-old made me angry. In my novel, I wanted to lift her up from the sordid life she lived while exploring the relationship between science, religion, and witchcraft.
Q: Marketa is both reviled and fascinated by Don Julius in your book. Do you think she truly fell in love with him?
LL: Given how cruel and difficult life was during the 17th century, I am certain that Marketa--and especially Marketa's family--was desperate to have a relationship with a Hapsburg. She did endure horrible treatment at the hands of Don Julius. They were lovers. Her mother did deliver her to Rozmberk Castle.
Q: The Bloodletter's Daughter touches on the schism between old-fashioned healing practices (bloodletting and witchcraft) and modern medicine. Did you intend for Marketa to embody this duality?
LL: Absolutely. I wanted to show the progression of science born of "witch's remedies" and the study of anatomy. Every science starts somewhere. It is hard to delineate where superstition and folk remedies end and science begins.
Q: The Coded Book of Wonder that Don Julius is obsessed with is based on the Voynich manuscript, a real secret coded document. How did it feel to see it in person? Were you enraptured, too?
LL: "Enraptured" is le mot juste! Through a personal contact and permission from the president of Yale, I had the opportunity to hold it in my hands. I had studied the manuscript so thoroughly on the library's website, I knew exactly which pages I wanted to inspect. It was simply one of the highlights of my life to hold this ancient manuscript.
This dark and tragic fairy tale is loosely based on the life of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s irretrievably mad, bastard son, Don Julius. Set in Prague and outer Bohemia in the early seventeenth century, the book’s backdrop is at once dazzling and gloomy. An embarrassment and a liability to his sophisticated father, Don Julius is exiled to a remote village, where he becomes obsessed with Marketa Pichler, an educated and ambitious bath maiden and the daughter of the local barber and bloodletter. As the tension between science and superstition mounts, the fine line between reason and insanity is irrevocably breached, resoundingly and inevitably resulting in murder. Lafferty has composed a passionate Bohemian rhapsody, replete with enough mysticism, madness, and mayhem to keep the pages turning. A must-read for those who prefer historical fiction on the sinister side. --Margaret Flanagan