Monday, September 20, 2010

Remembering Judith Merkle Riley (1942 - 2010)

Some very sad news to report:  Judith Merkle Riley, author of six delightful historical novels including the Margaret of Ashbury trilogy, passed away on September 12th after a lengthy illness. I'd like to extend my sympathy to her family and friends, and thought I'd use this space to add my own recollections.

I got the chance to meet Judith in person at the 2005 Historical Novel Society conference in Salt Lake City, where she was a special guest.  Ann Chamberlin, Claire Morris, and I made up the organizing committee, and when Claire suggested we invite Judith as a speaker, Ann and I immediately agreed.  She'd written some of our favorite medieval novels, and we knew she'd be a perfect choice to fill some gaps we had on the program.  We were thrilled when she accepted.  Judith spoke on several panels, but the highlight was a standing-room-only workshop she gave on applying primary source materials to one's research.  She used examples from The Book of Margery Kempe, speaking eloquently of how she extracted details about medieval women's daily lives from the writings of this 14th-15th century Englishwoman and mystic, the author of the earliest known autobiography in English.  Throughout the event, Judith was extremely gracious and down to earth, finding time to speak with all of the attendees who considered themselves fans of hers - of whom there were many, myself included.

It was also exciting to be present when Judith first met Rachel Kahan, her editor at Crown/Three Rivers Press.  Rachel was another guest at the conference and, as it so happened, the editor who would be responsible for bringing three of Judith historical novels back into print and for publishing another, The Water Devil, in English for the first time.  (Before 2007, The Water Devil, the final volume of her Margaret of Ashbury trilogy, had been available only in German, a fact lamented by many an English-speaking historical fiction reader!)  Just before the conference, my husband and I had picked Judith and Rachel up at the airport in our rented van, sharing an enjoyable literary conversation with them on the long drive over to the conference hotel. 

Judith Merkle Riley was that rare author who proved that historical fiction need not be grim and dour even when dealing with serious subjects.  She focused on supposedly average women from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, interweaving her compelling character sketches with insights into religion, art, literature, and people's belief in the supernatural (fantastical creatures play more than passing roles in some of her books). Present throughout was evidence of her dry wit; her characters were always able to find humor in themselves and in the world around them.  Her 1996 novel The Serpent Garden (link to a review I wrote for this site) is a great example of this.  My personal pick among her work is A Vision of Light, in which an illiterate 14th-century woman, Margaret of Ashbury, hires a priest to take down her life story.  Her website provides details on all six of her novels, and they should go far in convincing you to read (or reread) her work if you haven't done so already.

In addition to being a critically acclaimed historical novelist, Judith was an accomplished academic.  Her colleagues at Claremont McKenna College, where she was an associate professor of government, have posted their own In Memoriam piece on the school's website, with details on where donations in her memory can be sent.

Added later:  Her obituary from the Los Angeles Times.  Also, a wonderful tribute written by her friend (and mine), Christopher Gortner, at his blog Historical Boys.

The "medieval fiction" panel from Salt Lake, 2005, Judith Merkle Riley at far right. 
(Photo credit: Richard Scott)

19 comments:

  1. Thank you for this lovely post. I'm only passingly familar with Ms. Riley's work but I will now make a point of tracking her books down and reading them.

    Katherine
    Historical Fiction Notebook

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  2. A lovely lady, a dear friend and a very gifted writer - Judith is greatly missed. Thank you, Sarah, for this lovely tribute to her memory. She lives on in her books.

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  3. Thanks Sarah. I haven't read any of her books but shall be sure to track them down. A wonderful tribute to a gifted writer.

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  4. I am so sorry to read this Sarah. Thank you for posting. I have long been a fan of her novels; they brought so much pleasure and the Margaret of Ashbury ones are on my keeper shelf.
    Hale and farewell to a wonderful writer.

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  5. I'm so sorry to hear that Ms Riley has passed away. I picked up her novels based off of a recommendation on author Elizabeth Chadwick's blog and was hooked instantly and bought all her books in quick succession. She had a wonderful ability to write about 'out there' topics but still keep her story firmly grounded and her characters believable and lovable.

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  6. I'm sorry to learn of her death, but it was a joy to read your tribute and recall the wonderful reading experience provided by the Margaret of Ashbury trilogy. The Serpent Garden is on the TBR shelf. I linked over to your review and now I plan to read it sooner rather than later. Thanks for this lovely post.

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  7. So sad to hear the news of the passing of such a wonderful novelist of historical fiction.
    I remember reading The Oracle Glass and The Serpent Garden while discovering them on a bookshelf in an actual bookstore way back when!
    Thank you for your post.

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  8. Sad news, Sarah. She was a fantastic writer, and one of the true "pathfinders" in historical fiction. Thank you for the lovely tribute - you've honored her well.

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  9. So sad to hear. I've read a number of her novels and enjoyed them immensely.

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  10. Such sad news today, Sarah. I don't think I've been this saddened by an author's passing since Eudora Welty died. Thank you for the wonderful tribute to her work.

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  11. Sorry to hear this, I randomly discovered her last year when I picked up a copy of A Vision of Light at a library sale.

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  12. Such a great writer. She will be missed.

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  13. How horribly sad. I remember seeing her speak in SLC. What a loss for the world of Historical Fiction.

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  14. What a lovely face!

    What writers create remains after they are gone.

    That's why we do it.

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  15. I'm a bit late coming here and seeing this. I am so sad! I read all her books and loved Margaret.

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  16. So sorry to read this. Riley's MASTER OF ALL DESIRES is one of my favorite novels, so clever and imaginative.

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  17. Tina Michelle4:58 AM

    I have loved Judith's books since I read A Vision of Light when it was first published. I did not know she had passed away, and I am truly saddened. I own and reread all her books on a regular basis. I can honestly say I laugh out loud everytime, with every book. What a great loss.

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  18. Anonymous6:31 PM

    I only just heard about her passing. I've loved her writing since picking up a Vision of Light, and am sad that a wonderful voice has been silenced.

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  19. Anonymous8:23 AM

    simply love her way of writing, so sorry she passed away.

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