Martin Stephen, head of St Paul's school, greets the Diary's call with a sigh. "Forgive my reaction. My books get quite well reviewed but as soon as the educational hacks get a hold of them they always call them 'bodice rippers'. Perhaps I should put my head in my hands and accept my fate?"
Stephen's latest novel, The Galleon's Grave, the third in his series starring the Tudor 007 Henry Gresham, is published in February.
The Diary can confirm, from reading the final draft, that it is not so much a bodice as a gut ripper. St Paul's pupils searching for dirty bits need only look at page 332 ("a delirious, wonderful, extended loss of control") and page 35 (a student and a sheep).
What is lost in salaciousness, however, is more than made up for in Stephen's intrigiung revelation that his characters are based on real people. Who, for instance, is "Will Smith", the puritan, "thin almost to extinction" college fellow, defined by his "hatred of anyone having fun"? Who is the awesome Sir Francis Walsingham, an old man who lives in Barnes, down the road from St Paul's, who makes ladies in waiting turn pale with fear?
Who is the sultry 17-year-old Anna ("The simple, erotic power of this creature hit Henry Gresham. (He) hated beautiful girls. He loved their bodies, hated the power that love gave them over him.")?
Who, above all, is the "sour faced" baddie Robert Cecil , "a man clawing his way up the ladder of preferment"?
Stephen is coy: "He is somebody in real life but for obvious reasons it would be legally inadvisable to reveal who."