You deal with the subject of religion in a way that feels attuned to the time. I found it remarkable because many historical novels don’t adequately address their characters’ religious beliefs, let alone give readers the opportunity to feel what the characters are experiencing. (I found the “Snow” chapter especially poignant, but there are many other evocative scenes as well.) What philosophers, texts, or other sources served as your greatest inspiration in this regard?
The spiritual aspects where they occur mirror my own experiences. I have been a student of practical philosophy for over thirty years now, and this, as well as studies into the Renaissance, has brought me into contact with all manner of useful texts. The greatest inspirations – apart from the contemporary works of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola – have been the works of Plato, Epictetus, Plotinus and Hermes Trismegistus, but they have been made intelligible by studying the Vedic scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The ‘holy philosophical tradition’ in the West was forced to become esoteric by politicized Christianity and so it hid its meaning in symbol and allegory. This can make it difficult to unpick. But in the East, the holy tradition is mainstream, so reading Eastern mysticism raises the fog. Theologians tell me that you shouldn’t seek to understand one culture by another, but Pico della Mirandola would have disagreed, and that’s my justification. The West gives us the metaphorical truth, the East, the literal truth, but it’s the same truth.
During the process of completing The Rebirth of Venus, the bodies of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano were exhumed to find out how they'd died. Can you explain a little about the historical controversy surrounding their deaths? Did you feel the results of this investigation vindicated your research?
I can’t describe to you the plummeting, sinking feeling that came when I heard that news of the exhumation. Venus had been proof-read and was ready to go. Should I pull it? How long would I have to wait for the results? I wrote to the professor at Bologna who was in charge but he did not deign to reply. Meanwhile I remembered that, over the thirty-three years I’d been working on the project, knowledge-by-intuition had been repeatedly tested and had always triumphed. So I said, ‘Go!’, and the book went.
The results came out the same week as Venus was published (please tell me I am not a character in the novel of some higher power) and all that I had written was vindicated. That’s not so remarkable. I’ve only read about this exhumation in the press, so it’s hard to tell, but I have my doubts as to the quality of the scholarship behind it. For instance, no mention was made, at least in the press, of the previous exhumation in 1947, upon which I had based my theory, and the same old silly stuff about Poliziano was being repeated (that he was the lover of Pico and died of syphilis) even though the exhumation findings showed that he died of arsenic poisoning. There was a remarkable paper written in the 50s by a scholar called Juliana Hill Cotton entitled ‘Death and Poliziano’. Everything that has been discovered in recent times validates the extraordinary claim she made in that paper, that the sudden death of several humanists as the French invaded Florence in 1494 was the result of murder.
The general view has always been that Pico was murdered by his secretary while Poliziano died in any one of a variety of ways, all of them colorfully ignoble apart from one, which must be the true one, that he died of a protracted fever. Following Hill Cotton, I had them both as the victims of murder, but I chose to exonerate Pico’s secretary. The recent studies now point at Piero de’ Medici as the culprit, but in the process of writing I’d followed that thread and not found it to lead anywhere. Venus is not a murder mystery. In the end I stayed realistic and Tommaso never finds out who did it, although he receives some powerful clues. It all rests on that previous exhumation, when Pico’s body was found intact. He had been buried in brocade and not in a Dominican habit as reported. That speaks volumes.
Hill Cotton spent her life writing a biography of Poliziano which she never published. She’s now dead and I’ve not been able to trace it. History needs that biography, and I don’t know where it is.
What do you hope readers take away with them after finishing your novels?
Hope. Hope that magic is real, that life is good, that everything has a plan and a purpose. Love is the part of being human which is wholly divine but it is such a hard path to follow since it requires sacrifice, sacrifice ultimately of our desire to control. I have had incredible feedback over the years but the best I heard, second-hand, was that one reader had been prevented from suicide. And I met one woman who told me she’d never owned a book before Tabernacle but now everyone knows what to get her for birthdays and Christmas and she is building a library of books on the Renaissance. Those kind of stories are thrilling, but they are less to do with my novels than with what they are about. The Renaissance was an incredible period and a fountain of inspiration we can still drink from. What I hope readers will gain is a thirst to find out more for themselves.
Life is no longer dull as it was in the 50s; now it is just plain frightening, and we cocoon ourselves and take the opium of consumerism and mass entertainment. But there is another life, accessed by some through the imagination and arts, by others through theology or philosophy. I hope my books open a door to that world and invite the reader to enter.
As a publisher, what do you find to be the greatest challenge in marketing and selling historical fiction?
Oh, how long have we got? In brief, there is a public out there craving serious historical fiction which educates as much as it entertains, and it is being ignored by mainstream publishers. As I said above, I am not a feminist, but I do get angry about certain things, and one of them is the prejudice about historical fiction written by females. I believe the reason I have not found a publisher in the States is not to do with the quality of my books so much as my name being ‘Linda’ – that leads to preconceptions and criteria which my books fail to meet. Books by female authors are given covers that men would not be seen dead reading. That means that authors of the quality of Philippa Gregory have an almost entirely female readership. That’s a crime!
As for the male authors, they are in denial. They pretend they are not writing historical fiction at all, but literary novels ‘set in the past’. It’s salutary to check the categories which are printed on the back of each novel.
It seems impossible these days that a book be judged by its merits rather than its accord with given ‘product profiles’ and categories. So the greatest challenge is to break down the categories and set books free. We have a polarization between popular fiction and literary fiction, with no real middle ground, at least in Britain (justly famed as we are for our snobbery). I want to see books that are as well-written as they are well-plotted. Readers deserve so much more than they are being given!
Publishing is in such a sorry state. You see, there’s no comeback to make the publishers feel or know public response. You can’t return a book to the shop like you can any other product on the basis that it’s rubbish. You just throw it away and wonder why you wasted your time and money. While a publisher is congratulating himself on selling one hundred thousand copies – on the strength of marketing alone – a situation is being created where people no longer trust reviews or puff and, very possibly, are being put off reading altogether. How can you tell if a book is good or not? – read the first page, not the back cover.
We founded Godstow Press out of necessity. My publisher was bought by a bigger concern and the entire staff changed. The new company didn’t want my second novel, and it seemed impossible that any other publisher would take the second part of a trilogy. Furthermore A Tabernacle for the Sun was not going to be reprinted when it sold its first edition. So we had to do it. But we had a broader agenda, for both my husband and I are sick and tired of reading fiction that gives no reward for the effort. We want reading matter that makes us think, wonder and rejoice. That makes us better people. So from the outset we knew we would be publishing others, and now we have a growing list of titles and, just as important, a growing list of dedicated customers, for we deal direct. Marketing and publicity require you to be brash and pushy, and we’re not, so we build slowly, step-by-step, and almost every day in the mail there’s a lovely letter of gratitude from someone we know only by name. That’s our reward.
I’m very cynical about huge advances, great print runs and sales. Many of these books are just shooting stars, never to be seen or heard of again. I like to tell myself that a real publishing phenomenon is a book which, although it only sold a few copies each week on publication, has continued to sell a few copies each week for ten years – and that’s A Tabernacle for the Sun, which we reprinted. At Godstow Press we are dedicated to the ‘trickle factor’ – anathema to big publishers since the cost of storage is so high. Any profits we make are eaten by storage, but we’re determined not only to make but to keep good books available.
You've been giving lectures on Renaissance-era notables to academic audiences, and have written book reviews for history journals. Have scholars generally welcomed your contributions to the field?
The scholars have been amazing. I have very few formal qualifications and never went to university so, naturally, I was in awe of the historians who, as I did my research, I was forced to meet and contact. Everyone I’ve spoken to, including some of the top guys, has confounded my expectations and been kind and supportive. Some of them are now even on our mailing list.
Whenever I’m asked to do one of these talks, I go into a fever of consternation, but so long as I’m clear, and the audience is clear, that I’m just a novelist, it’s all OK. What I then have to show them is that the novelist has a power of intuition which can often spot things the historians missed, or, through deep immersion, can gain psychological insight into a character. I think people enjoy that approach – they find it a bit of a relief.
Yes, my contributions, such as they are, have been welcomed. It’s all too easy in scholarship to become myopic. The work of a novelist is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, to show a character in the context of his life and times, which often reveals the causes of actions. So I think my work helps scholars to see their specialty in a broader context. But it’s a two-way process, of course, and the contribution of scholarship to my work far outweighs what I’ve given to scholarship. I am entirely indebted to their painstaking labors. What a pity it is that their papers become peer-reading only: we need to revive the middle ground in history books as much as in fiction. It’s all becoming polarized between popular and learned.
There is one particular contribution in Venus which I hope someone will take up. Those murders in 1494 were of men who were at the deathbed of Lorenzo in 1492. That made me wonder about Lorenzo’s death – was it from natural causes as always presumed? Although Venus isn’t a murder mystery, it does revolve on the question, ‘Who killed Lorenzo?’ – and I think the answer I found is very plausible. I hope some historian follows the lead and does the necessary investigation.
What other historical novels do you consider to be the pinnacle of the genre?
Anything by Mary Renault. There are others, of course, who write as well if not better, but Mary’s strength is that she believed in the good and in nobility without any trace of sentimentality. Content has to be as important as style, and content depends ultimately on the content of the author. Other novels: A Man on a Donkey by Hilda Prescott, and A Portrait of Hadrian by Marguerite Youcenar. The star of contemporary writing to my mind is Lindsay Clarke, but his books are more mythological than historical.
Dare I ask, now that your trilogy is complete, what projects – writing, publishing, or otherwise – will you be pursuing next?
Although I do have more than one idea for the next novel – which looks like it will be set in Elizabethan England – I’m not being given the opportunity to do anything about it. For one thing I’m looking after my mother in her extreme old age and what spare time I have is dedicated to teaching creative writing and to various talks and workshops arranged for the next twelve months, each of which requires a lot of preparation. One friend said that this is my jubilee year, when I’m to give back, which is a reassuring idea, if only because a year is a finite unit of time!
I’ve long dreaded this moment, since my path seems to fork, one way leading to continuing with Renaissance study, the other to a new novel, set in another period. The signs are, at the moment, pointing to the former. But I crave that experience of seeing something new, something I have not thought up, appearing on the page, which can only happen in creative fiction.
Anyway, I shall follow my intuition step-by-step. It has never failed in the past. Right this moment, as I’m preparing a talk on Lorenzo de’ Medici – a deeply complex, dualistic character who is utterly wonderful – I would love to do a biography of him. He is meanly represented these days by historians. If we persist in looking at the past through the spectacles of modern cynicism, we shall always fail to see what is there.
As to publishing, at Godstow Press we are working on a collection of lectures by the visionary Sir George Trevelyan and, after that, a reprint of Lindsay Clarke’s amazing novel, Parzival. And that’s another problem with publishing today – even great works are not reprinted if mass sales cannot be anticipated. What we need is a renaissance of integrity and service for the public good. That’s what Godstow Press is all about.
Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to answer questions for this interview!
To recap, The Rebirth of Venus was released in February 2008 (£14.00, pb, ISBN 978-0-9547367-6-7). It may be obtained, along with the first two novels in the trilogy, directly from Godstow Press or from standard sources like Amazon UK.