There are moments in every life when something unexpected sets you off down a certain path, says Judith Koll Healey '61. She remembers clearly each such milestone on the road to publishing her novel - The Canterbury Papers.
Healey's interest in the novel's setting - medieval England and France and the days of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lion Hearted - began when she was in 3rd grade. "My brother got a Robin Hood book for Christmas and I just grabbed it," she says. "I knew I had found a really good set of stories." Later, as a young girl in post-W.W. II Chicago, she saw the movie The Crusades, and later wasnÕt surprised to read in college that the tradition of courtly love established at EleanorÕs courts had helped to shape the romantic ideals of 1940s and 50s Hollywood. "A copy of this movie is still available at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at Saint John's," Healey notes, smiling.
And so, the stage was set for Healey's life-long love for great stories and a passion for history. Then, in the late '80s while in Washington, D.C. in her role as a foundation director, Healey bought a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. "And I just fell into an incredible romance with that period," she says. There followed years of traveling, reading European history, studying French and doing immersion stays in France to hone her language skills. When she found in the chronicles of Henry and Eleanor's times some intriguing references to a French princess, "I thought, wow, what a great story," Healey says. "So I began to write about it."
The young princess, Alais, sister of French King Philippe, was caught up in the political and emotional tangles of the infinitely dysfunctional Plantagenets, Healey says, chuckling, and survived through a time turbulent with the Crusades, decades-long wars and royal family intrigues and betrayals. Alais had been betrothed to Henry's son, Richard the Lion Hearted, but the engagement was broken after the very young Alais became Henry's mistress. Hints in the historical chronicles that Alais bore Henry a child who could have challenged the old king's other sons for the throne stimulated Healey's rich imagination and sharp research instincts. The result - The Canterbury Papers: A Novel of Suspense, published in December, 2003, by HarperCollins - has wily Eleanor sending her former ward Alais on a quest to retrieve a packet of letters hidden in Canterbury Cathedral. In the end, the journey becomes a spiritual quest whereby the young woman retrieves an important part of her own personal history and her essential self-respect.
This novel, like all carefully researched historical fiction, is meant to serve a useful role in our understanding of distant times and lives, suggests Healey, who serves on the board of trustees of the College of Saint Benedict. "History is translated mostly in the form of formal documents, usually preceded by a tremendous battle," she notes wryly. "Everyone gets exhausted, they sign treaties, wipe the sweat off their brows and go home; pretty soon they get into another fight and it starts all over again," she says. "Those are the bare facts of history. But I believe that this history also involves humans who have emotional lives. And thatÕs what fiction can create - the emotional life of history. Of course, we can't include that in our formal histories because we just don't know for sure. But we can imagine it," she concludes. And that's what Judith Koll Healey's The Canterbury Papers, has managed to do: add new life to the old bones of a long-buried medieval story.