Helen Rayson-Hill trained as an infant teacher, and taught in country Victoria, Melbourne and the UK. Later, she became a drama teacher following a long interest in the theatre.
After a family transfer to Brisbane, she was appointed Queensland Manager of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. For two years she co-ordinated National Arts Week in Brisbane working closely with the Queensland Government’s Ministry of the Arts and Brisbane City Council.
On returning to Melbourne, Helen held a position at the Victorian Arts Centre in the Membership and Fundraising and Development Department. For two years she was an adjudicator for the Victorian Drama League.
Helen has also performed both on the stage in Melbourne and Brisbane and on television in Neighbours on Channel 10 and Something’s in the Air on the Australian ABC network.
Writing has always been an interest of Helen’s and she is a member of the Writers’ Circle at Melbourne’s Lyceum Club. She has written plays for her drama students as well as sketches for amateur theatre. Also an artist specialising in oils, Helen has held several successful exhibitions at several Victorian galleries.
Helen’s short stories and memoir pieces have been published in anthologies, and she has written a children’s book, Kid Detectives. The story was inspired by her grandson who wanted to know how children entertained themselves before electronic devices filled their lives.
Helen has long been interested in Medieval history, especially in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. After many years of research, inspired originally by the play The Lion in Winter by James Goldman, Helen was motivated to write about Eleanor’s amazing life. Consequently, Eleanor, the Firebrand Queen became the first in a planned series of historical novels about this Medieval feminist.
Petronilla was gazing out the door of the old school room in our palace at L’Ombriere as Papa recited a chapter from the multitude of laws of our Duchy of Aquitaine. A well-thumbed copy of Cicero lay on the table. The aroma of freshly threshed hay drifted in from nearby fields mixed with the scent of the blossoms from the garden.
Papa’s voice broke into my reverie, ‘Eleanor! Are you listening? Nilla, why do you not run off and play? You are daydreaming.’
‘That is not fair! Nilla is always allowed to miss lessons.’
‘Elea, it is you who is destined to be Duchess of Aquitaine, not your little sister.’
‘But Papa, I already know them off by heart. I feel like a talking parrot, over and over, law after law, till my eyes cross.’
Papa chided me for being rude but at times my heart is heavy with the responsibility I know will be mine one day. I hung my head and stared at the gold, bejewelled girdle round my waist, fiddling with a loose pearl. I must ask Renée to restitch it before it falls off. Papa gave me the girdle for my twelfth birthday.
Although I have been encouraged to question everything from Latin verbs to discourses by Aristotle, it was no use arguing with Papa. No, I was stuck in the schoolroom while Nilla and my friends, Clotilde and Jerome, played in the gardens, breathing fresh air instead of ink and parchment, practising, practising, practising, a never-ending education. Papa’s voice rang in my ears, ‘Do your duty, Eleanor’.
The wealth of the Aquitaine surrounds me. The opulence of our palaces and estates I take for granted as I do my education, music, poetry and the love in which I am enveloped. But the weight of my future duty hangs over me. I hope Papa lives forever.
We played many games around the old Roman walls. Renée was always darning our hose and kissing better scraped knees. I remember trying to learn the names of all the herbs in the Herbarium one summer. Everything grows so well here in the gardens, flowers as well as fruits and vegetables. The vines produce the most delicious wine. There are olive trees, too, some so old and twisted our gardeners say they were planted by the Romans. L’Ombriere has always been a favourite palace, but now it is carved on my heart as the place where the Archbishop broke the news that Papa had died.
Archbishop Geoffrey told me I was special in the eyes of God. If I was so special to God, why has He taken away all whom I love? He took my Maman before I knew her or can remember what she looked like, and my little brother also. He was only a baby named William after Papa. Everyone was crying. Renée came to look after Nilla and me because Maman died with William.
And now God has taken my beloved Papa. The Archbishop said Papa was in the bosom of St James in his shrine at Compostela and therefore mightily favoured by God. If I were not so bereaved this would be funny. Papa only went on this pilgrimage because the Pope had excommunicated him again. Maybe His Grace was trying to be kind. That I am now Duchess of Aquitaine is too fearful to comprehend. I think I am too young.
In this old school room Papa told us many stories about our Roman ancestors. It was here he read The Aeneid to Petronilla and me. He said I was Juno and Nilla was Dido. I love Aeneas’ adventures. Whatever fate awaits us, I must keep The Aeneid. I know Nilla will not want it. I will find some special trinkets for her.
Archbishop Geoffrey told me King Louis of France was to be my guardian. It was Papa’s wish to keep me safe. I find this most odd. Papa had no liking for the French. He said they were pious and dirty and spent more time praying than bathing. There was little I could do. I must obey Papa’s wishes. Renée said Papa would never have made this decision if it was not for a good purpose. I have heard King Louis is grossly fat.
Renée is calling me to get some fresh air. She grumbles if I stay at my journal too long, and worries I am becoming melancholy which is not my usual disposition.
But my head is whirling with the abrupt changes in my life when all around me life seems normal. Birds are tweeting, Petronilla’s pet monkey Simian, has stolen the laundry maids’ freshly washed linens and has dragged them though the dirt. The maids are furious. Nilla tried to catch the naughty monkey. He is now in a tree.