Thursday, September 30, 2010

An interview with Susan Holloway Scott, author of The Countess & the King

Today I'd like to welcome Susan Holloway Scott back to Reading the Past to talk about her latest novel, The Countess and the King, which recounts the dramatic early life of Restoration-era royal mistress Katherine Sedley.  While Susan's most recent biographical novels focused on mistresses of Charles II – Barbara Palmer (Royal Harlot), Nell Gwyn (The King's Favorite), and Louise de Keroualle (The French Mistress) – Katherine was closely associated instead with the Merry Monarch's brother, James, Duke of York, who ascended the throne in 1685 as James II. 

Although she was born the only daughter of a wealthy family – her father is one of the king's dearest friends – Katherine is known simply as "Miss Sedley," for she bears no title herself.  A woman of average looks amid a sea of great beauties, Katherine develops a talent for bold repartee at a young age; while this makes her popularity rise at court, it also earns her others' enmity.  The relationship between Katherine and the Duke of York puzzles other courtiers, who can't fathom the attraction between a plain-faced Protestant commoner and the king's unpopular, Catholic, and less charismatic younger brother. But opposites have a way of attracting, and Katherine stands by him during a period of intense political and religious turmoil in England. 

I enjoyed being able to observe the Restoration court through a different set of eyes; Katherine has a unique perspective on her lover, James II, who hasn't exactly gone down in history as the most popular or successful monarch.  Katherine makes for an appealing heroine, and I can imagine her clever banter (the girl has quite a mouth on her at times!) was as fun to write as it was to read.  I couldn't resist asking Susan about this aspect of Katherine's character, as well as her research methods, the historical background, and details on other personalities who played significant roles in the courts of Charles II and James II.

The Countess and the King was published by NAL in September ($15.00, 384pp), and the publisher has provided me with a spare copy for a giveaway.  (Thanks!)  I hope you'll enjoy the interview, and please read to the end for details on how to win yourself a copy.  Because I've managed to squeeze this interview in on the last day of September, I'm also making this my entry for the letter S in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge (S is for Sedley or Susan – take your pick).

Katherine's barbed, ribald wit is especially shocking when you consider her youth. You don't hear much about the children who grew up around Charles II's bawdy Restoration court, which made me wonder if her childhood was unique in that respect. Was it? How did you go about researching such a topic?

Researching Katherine’s childhood – and, really, her entire life – was a challenge. There has never been a full-length biography written about her, nor have her letters been collected and published. If she kept a diary or journal, it has been lost. Like most women of the past, Katherine remains defined by the men in her life, and as a result, most of my research began with them: her father, poet, dramatist, and courtier Sir Charles Sedley; her most famous lover, James II; and the various other gentlemen who were her friends, enemies, and suitors. It’s a true testament to the strength of her personality that when she does appear in their letters, diaries, or biographies, she often quite steals the scene.

While I don’t doubt that 17th c. folk loved their children as much as modern parents do, the pattern for English aristocrats was to have their offspring raised by nursemaids and tutors, often in the healthier country. Yet because Katherine was an only child with distracted parents, it seems that her education and supervision were scattered at best. While few noble-born girls received much schooling (even the royal princesses, Mary and Anne, were woefully undereducated), Katherine’s haphazard upbringing, and the unusual freedoms that her indulgent father granted her, were considered quite scandalous at the time. And a good thing, too. If people hadn’t been shocked, they wouldn’t have written about Sir Charles’s wicked small daughter, and she would have been entirely forgotten 300 years later.

Along the same lines, I found Charles Sedley to be a curious character. I wasn't sure what to make of him, and I imagine Katherine could have felt similarly. Though a doting father at times, he was also rather immature and, considering his own marital arrangements (so to speak), hypocritical in his reaction to Katherine's role in the Duke of York's life. Did the nature of his character puzzle you as well?

Everything I read about the relationship between Sir Charles Sedley and Katherine as a girl reminded me of certain Hollywood versions of parenting: the child as an amusing accessory, a sidekick rather than a daughter, a pet to be carried about rather than a child who needs discipline and guidance because, really, I’m too cool to be a real father. By the time Sir Charles remarries (bigamously, but that’s another story) and becomes that most tedious of creatures, a Reformed Rake, it was much too late for the wild adolescent Katherine to become a meek and dutiful daughter. Instead Katherine continued to act up (and out) for the rest of her life – perhaps unconsciously hoping to regain her father’s attention, or perhaps simply behaving as he, too, had as a younger man. I agree that Sir Charles’s disapproval of Katherine’s place as a royal mistress did seem hypocritical, but more likely I suspect that he didn’t wish her hurt; he’d seen court politics first-hand, and knew all too well the perils of dallying with kings.

All of your previous Stuart-era heroines make appearances in The Countess and the King, though some don't make the best impression! Katherine finds Sarah Jennings (later Churchill) to be an odious woman, for example. Have you ever discovered new things about your previous heroines in the course of writing about them from a rival's perspective?

Oh, all the time! With each book I’ve discovered new things about the history as well as the people that I’d wished I’d known earlier. Research is an on-going and never-ending process. Fortunately, publishers don’t let authors rewrite books once they’ve been published, or I’d never move forward.

But I do enjoy the changing points of view with each book, and how it affects the story. As you noted, the Sarah Jennings in The Countess & the King is a very different animal from the one who’s the heroine of Duchess – but then the Katherine Sedley in Duchess isn’t nearly as charming as she is in her own book, either. *g*

You've made it easy for readers to picture Windsor Castle, the Palace of Whitehall, and their multitudes of richly decorated rooms. Do you do any of your research on site? With regard to Whitehall -- which I understand burned down (for the most part) in 1698 -- did you find it any more of a challenge to re-create in fiction?

Alas, I’m not one of those fortunate writers who can afford to travel for research – kids in college take care of that! On the other hand, many of the places that my 17th century characters visit are very different today, or, like Whitehall Palace, have been lost entirely. Charles II spent most of his reign repairing and remodeling the interior of Windsor Palace into an English version of Versailles; by 1800, almost all of his efforts were gone, obliterated by successive remodeling. Even the modern Thames is a much-changed river from what it was during the Restoration. So while I do study modern photographs and videos, I rely much more on contemporary drawings and descriptions of buildings and places to create an accurate version of the past.

James, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son, comes across as an overconfident, misguided soul who gambles on his uncle's forgiveness and pays the ultimate price. Do you share Katherine's opinion of him? How do you think Monmouth would have fared if his father had lived longer?

Monmouth is one of the more maddening personalities in 17th c. England, and also one of the most tragic. I suppose he could also be called another victim of bad parenting. The illegitimate son of the teenaged Charles Stuart and his mistress Lucy Walter, Monmouth was born while his father was in exile. As soon as Charles was restored to the throne, he brought the boy to court, made him a duke, and gave him an heiress for a wife. Charles continued to spoil Monmouth, always excusing his often outrageous behavior and forgiving him even when his misbehavior reached the point of treason. It didn’t help that Monmouth wasn’t very bright, nor that he could be easily led by others. Charles sadly understood this, too, and even indulgent royal fathers have their limits. I suspect that after Monmouth’s involvement in the Rye House Plot to assassinate both Charles and James, his banishment would have been last, even if Charles had lived longer. Monmouth had simply gone too far, and when his less tolerant uncle James became king, his foolish ambitions cost him his life. (One of my favorite historical novels tells Monmouth’s story: The King’s Touch by Jude Morgan.)

I don't want to ask if any of your royal mistress heroines are your favorites (an impossible sort of question to answer!) but are there any whose dialogue you especially enjoyed writing?

You’re right: it would be impossible to choose one lady over another. But I will admit that I’ve really enjoyed writing the dialogue for the ones known for their wit and bawdy humor: Nell Gwyn in The King’s Favorite, Barbara Palmer in Royal Harlot, and Katherine Sedley in The Countess & the King. The Restoration was a great time to be clever. Charles II liked to be amused, and he enjoyed – and admired – smart, funny women. I loved the challenge of incorporating their surviving quotes with my own sense of these women, and creating dialogue that I hope was worthy of them.


Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to reply to my questions!  For readers who'd like the chance to win a copy of her latest novel, simply leave a comment on this post.  Deadline is next Friday, October 8th.  This giveaway is open to international readers.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's Donne is done

Over the past two weeks, I've finished not one but two historical novels centering on the love affair between metaphysical poet John Donne and Ann More, the teenage noblewoman whom he married secretly and against her family's wishes.  Both are well worth reading, rich in period detail and channeling the spirit of Donne's works throughout the text, but they're quite different in terms of style.  I purchased them separately, about a year ago, one from a UK bookstore and the other on a trip to Canada.

Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet takes a more traditional approach to the story, though I don't mean to denigrate it in any way by that.  Ann More, a well-educated young woman of fourteen, first meets Donne when she travels from her father's home at Loseley Park in Surrey to the London house of her uncle, Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Repelled by the sycophantic behavior and hypocrisy at court, Ann has zero interest in taking a position as one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies.  This angers her family, who were hoping to get some mileage out of her closeness to the Queen.  Despite the scandalous rumors that surround him, Ann grows steadily more intrigued by her uncle's handsome secretary, John Donne, both a known libertine and a supposedly reformed Catholic.  Their courtship progresses via secret meetings, penned exchanges, and lengthy separations which make their hearts grow fonder.   

Despite the unabashedly romantic focus, The Lady and the Poet is saved from sentimentality by Ann's assured narrative voice.  Because she and Donne are so often apart, Ann's uncertainty about the character of the man with whom she's fallen in love comes through clearly.  She, like the reader, gets to know him through his poems, which are in turn bawdy and deeply heartfelt.  Haran takes the tack that some of his erotic poetry was directed toward other mistresses with whom he was involved before he met Ann, while his love poems such as "The Good Morrow" (quoted at the beginning) were more obviously inspired by her.

Full of details about late Elizabethan country and city life, the novel unfolds in lively fashion.  While Ann's and Donne's marriage is recorded history, Haran fills in the whys and hows with reasonable supposition (which includes a suitor for Ann who proves unworthy; no big loss there).  The language is overlaid with a slight archaic feel, and the result made me feel like I was indeed breathing the air of another time.  I turned the pages compulsively but not too quickly — it's not that sort of read — and I also found it amusing that it took a novel set away from Tudor court life to reinvigorate my interest in the Elizabethan era.  In that respect, I found in Ann a kindred spirit!

Haran ends her book with Ann and Donne beginning their new life together, having triumphed over society's obstacles and her family's objections, of which there were many.  Donne endured a short stay in the Fleet Prison for her sake, while their marriage was still unproved, and he also lost his position in her uncle's household; Ann lost her father's favor, and the couple wasn't granted her dowry for several years afterward. But there's more to the couple's story, of course, than a tidy epilogue can provide.

Mary Novik's Conceit looks deeper into the relationship between the two, tracing it from its earliest stages through Ann's early death and beyond, examining how the legacy of their celebrated passion impacted the life of their daughter, Margaret, known familiarly as Pegge.  (This is a fictional interpretation, as little is known of the real-life Ann or her daughter.)  It unites the earthy bawdiness of John Donne's earlier poems, and that of mid-17th century London itself, with the solemnity and holiness found in his later works, mingling the sacred and the profane just as Donne himself did. The word "conceit," in a literary sense, refers to a juxtaposition of dissimilar concepts, and Novik makes creative use of the term, conjuring up many vivid and memorable images that take the breath away. One wouldn't expect a fishing expedition on the Thames to be an especially sensual experience, for instance, but the novel makes it so.

The novel opens with the Great Fire of 1666, as Pegge, a middle-aged wife and mother of eight (twelve if you count those who died, as she does), struggles to rescue her father's effigy from St. Paul's Cathedral before it burns.  The timeframe then reverts to her childhood and adolescence.  Pegge wants nothing more than to experience for herself the passion that consumed her parents in their youth, but she finds it not.  Izaak Walton, the young fisherman she adores, is in love with her older sister.  Even her father's love for his late wife, Ann, who died giving birth to her twelfth child in 1617, has muted over time.  John Donne's focus turned toward the religious as he grew older, and although he'd once promised his beloved Ann that their bodies would rest together in one grave, he's since changed his mind and now asks to be buried at St. Paul's among his fellow clerics.  Pegge comes close to losing herself in her pursuit of the secret of desire, as she cares for her dying father, pores over his writings, and sets down words of her own.

Conceit gathers new content from many corners, alternating among the viewpoints of Pegge, John, and even Ann, both in her headstrong youth and as she lies alone in her dingy grave. It's both thoughtful and thought-provoking as it explores the intimate connections between love and death as well as between people, in romantic relationships and within families.  The writing is simply stunning (it's no wonder it made it onto many literary prize lists), and it also made me feel well situated in the heart of 17th-century London: its houses, streets, bookshops, taverns, cathedrals, and even burial grounds, all of the places where the majority of its people lived, interacted, and still remain.

Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet was published in 2009 by Pan (UK) at £6.99 and by St. Martin's (UK) in 2010 at $25.99.  I bought the UK version, with its rich red cover, before I knew the US edition would appear (heavy discount alert on this one at Amazon).  Mary Novik's Conceit appeared in 2007 from Doubleday Canada at $29.95 Canadian; the paperback is out at $21.00 (both discounted at Amazon Canada).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bits and pieces

Calling all historical fiction readers!  Jerome de Groot's English students at the University of Manchester are interested in learning more about your views and reading preferences.  Visit the Meet the Readers site to take a short survey.  Keep an eye on that page, too, since student projects will be posted there over the next month or so.

If you live in or will be visiting NYC between October 13 and December 5, you'll have the opportunity to see the world premiere of "Banished Children of Eve," a dramatic production of the Irish Repertory Theatre based on the bestselling historical novel by Peter Quinn.  A short synopsis:  "Against the backdrop of the dangerous, sweltering Civil War summer of 1863, the Bowery explodes with racial tension and the City of New York rushes headlong toward the fatal July draft riots. Moving to the music and rhythms of these dangerous times, a diverse band of characters is drawn together in a net of intrigue and violence."  Head on over to the IRT site for show times and to purchase tickets.

At NPR, Mary Sharratt recommends three novels to take you back to the Italian Renaissance.

The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld's sequel to The Interpretation of Murder, is out in the UK... but not yet in the US, where it will be published on January 20th by Riverhead.  Rubenfeld is an American novelist writing about early 20th-century New York, yet his literary thrillers have attracted more attention from the British reading public. Perhaps this new one, about a real-life terrorist attack in the center of Manhattan in 1920, will change that?  He's interviewed in The Independent.

Hey, I just realized this was my 500th post.  I've been buried in reference desk work, review editing, and grant proposal reading, but I hope to have more reviews and forthcoming title info posted soon.

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)

Friday, September 17, 2010

I'm guest blogging today...

Pop on over to Michelle Black's excellent blog to read about my personal picks for novels set in the Victorian West.  Michelle's site is entitled "Victorian West: A Writer's Notebook," and I love how that phrase conjures up images of society and manners on the western frontier in the 19th century.  Having thoroughly enjoyed all three of Michelle's Eden Murdoch mysteries at the time they were published, I was really pleased to accept her invitation to write about other novels incorporating this fascinating setting.  If you have other favorite novels to recommend, please leave a comment there!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Update on Kathleen Herbert, and her fourth (as yet unpublished) novel

Connie Jensen, a friend of historical novelist Kathleen Herbert (Bride of the Spear, Queen of the Lightning, Ghost in the Sunlight), left a comment at the end of my post about the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize that I thought I'd bring to the forefront here, as I know Ms. Herbert still has many fans.  Connie has established a blog at for those who would like to follow along with the path to publication for Kathleen Herbert's fourth novel.  Queen of the Lightning won the Heyer Prize in 1983.  I wish them the best of luck!


Hello- I have just come across this fascinating blog while doing research on Kathleen Herbert. I am so pleased to see she has some current fans. I may have some good news for you: as well as being an admirer of Kathleen's books, I have been a personal friend for many years, and she has entrusted me with finding a publisher for her fourth and sadly, final novel. She completed Moon in Leo about ten years ago, and then had a very severe stroke. In the years of struggle since, she has been unable to gather the book together and get it published. She has suffered increasing anxiety over this but finally managed to give me the manuscript in two large carrier bags. The pages were all out of sequence and very badly typed, but after hours and days of work, my husband and I managed to get it into order and scan it. It is now ready and I am looking for an agent. Kathleen's former agent now only deals with tv scripts.

Here is a short extract from the synopsis to whet your appetites:

A time and place much like our own. Hardship up and down the country. People turned out of their homes; others living rich beyond the dreams of the dispossessed. Above all, religious hatred sending groups into hiding; feeding constant fear of plots and threats and rumour. Terrorist packmen roam the remote parts of the country. Celebrity and Royalty parade in a public sexual carnival.
This is England in the last years of the Stuarts; England in the days just before Monmouth’s rebellion; England at the time of the “Popish plot”; England of Restoration Comedy romps.
In these dangerous times how can a naïve girl live? It’s harder to find a safe path through the thickets of treason and bigotry than through the rip-tides and quicksands, solid routes and sanctuary in the sand of Morecambe Bay.
Her occultist father’s body burned; her brother pronounced dead from the deepest dungeon of Lancaster Castle; she fears herself threatened with marriage-by-rape to a predatory Placeman.

I am now in the process of submitting details to several agents, including at least one American agency; Kathleen is a quintessentially English writer, but I believe has many American fans. If anybody knows of an agent and/or publisher who might be interested, please let me know. In any case, I will try to keep readers of "Reading the Past" informed about the progress of Moon in Leo. I hope that, if it is a success, the earlier three novels will be republished.

Connie Jensen

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guest post from Susan Holloway Scott: Historical Queens and Reading Teens

Today Susan Holloway Scott is stopping by to talk about teen girls' increasing interest in historical fiction. Her latest biographical novel The Countess and the King, telling the story of King James II's mistress Katherine Sedley, was published this month by NAL. Her website is, and she blogs along with Loretta Chase at Two Nerdy History Girls.  Welcome, Susan!

Historical Queens and Reading Teens

By Susan Holloway Scott

One of the oldest forms of literary criticism has been deploring the books that young women read. From the instant that girls were first permitted to choose their own reading material, they apparently chose novels that were decried as being Very Bad for Delicate Young Females. While this might seem like a Victorian form of criticism, it’s still current today, and with the same scolding tone, too, only now it’s directed at vampires and gossip girls.

But I have news. While Bella and Edward continue to have their fans, as do Mockingjay and Harry Potter, there’s another kind of book that teenaged girls are choosing: historical fiction.

Now I don’t have hard facts and complex surveys to back this up. My conclusions are purely anecdotal – I’m a novelist and a mom, not a sociologist or statistician – and I’m basing this on what I’ve heard from booksellers and librarians, from my daughter’s friends, and from the girls I meet at book signings and on-line. But it does seem to be a growing trend, and a heartening one, too.

For some girls, the choice must seem a natural progression, from Little House on the Prairie to The Witch of Blackbird Pond to Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory. For them, the past has always seemed an enticing destination and a satisfying fictional escape.

But there’s another group of readers, too, one that’s just now discovering historical fiction. Some come by way of fantasy, making an easy transition from a princess in an alternative universe to one at the court of Henry VIII. Some are lured to it by the packaging of popular historical fiction. I don’t want to play the magpie-card too vigorously, but the current crop of historical novels is being beautifully presented. There’s always a young woman on the cover, and while she may be missing her head (I promise I’m not going there), she will be dressed in a gorgeous gown. Many teenaged readers think the traditional historical romance covers are cheesy beyond words, books aimed at their mothers or grandmothers, but these girls find the often-solitary ladies in their jewels and court gowns enticing indeed.

But what I think attracts these young readers the most are the stories themselves. New historical fiction is largely written in the first person, and that first person voice is usually the heroine’s. While these heroines live in worlds that are vastly different from the reader’s, there is still enough to relate to: difficult parents and handsome young gentlemen, dreams and worries about the future.

Most importantly, the heroines in historical novels are often compelled by circumstances to make difficult decisions with wide-reaching, even life-threatening consequences to themselves, to their families, and their countries. No matter the odds against them, these women are often resourceful, brave, thoughtful, and clever. They remain true to their loyalties and convictions, no matter the personal peril. In short, these historical heroines are strong women who appeal to modern girls. These girls understand and accept the dangers that women of the past faced, and they don’t shy from the harsher realities that were part of their lives; they like reality. While saving a kingdom from a conniving enemy may seem like an obvious escape from learner’s permits and SATs, the historical heroines also offer heady stories of women who dared and achieved – and got to wear the most awesome outfits while they did so, too.

If these readers pick up a love of history along the way, all the better. I’d like to share an email from a sixteen-year-old reader of my historical novels – sent, of course, via a text message on her iPhone:

Dear Susan,
I just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books!!! They are some of the best books that I have ever read and you have opened my eyes to a whole new part of history for me, I'm going to college next year and I'm hoping to major in history and I hope that there is a class on Restoration England :) because I would sign up for it in 2 seconds! Well, I love your books and I hope you keep writing more like them! (especially about Nelly [Gwyn], she's my favorite :p)

Many thanks, Dear Young Reader. I’d say the past will be in good hands in the future!


Having read Susan's thought-provoking post, I hope you'll comment with your own ideas on the subject.  Have you noticed that historical fiction about royal women is finding a new audience among younger people?  Did you read historical novels as a teenager?  My own experience isn't dissimilar from one of Susan's examples -- my historical novel reading began with Laura Ingalls Wilder and proceeded through Jean Plaidy, by way of The Mists of Avalon and other female-centered fantasy novels.  I don't recall there being much in the way of royal fiction when I was in high school (instead, I alternated between epic fantasy and Sweet Dreams teenage romances - anyone remember those?) but if the offerings were as plentiful as they are today, chances are I'd have been reading them!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book review: What Is Left the Daughter, by Howard Norman

Addressing a lengthy letter to the beloved daughter who's long been absent from his life, Wyatt Hillyer reveals his very personal story of wartime discrimination, murder, and passions requited and unfulfilled.

After he is orphaned in bizarre fashion following his parents' suicides – his mother and father were having separate affairs with the same attractive neighbor – 17-year-old Wyatt leaves his family’s home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to live with his Uncle Donald and Aunt Constance in the small town of Middle Economy. There he becomes an apprentice to his uncle, a crafter of sleds and toboggans, and falls headlong for his adopted cousin Tilda, a striking young woman with an unusual capacity for empathy. The year is 1941, and war penetrates Middle Economy predominantly by way of the media. As his wife worries about his state of mind, Donald papers the walls of his work shed with newspaper clippings of U-boat sinkings of Canadian ships and listens, with ever-increasing obsessiveness, to radio reports about the war.

Despite his overwhelming attraction to Tilda, something that his understanding Aunt Constance picks up on readily enough, Wyatt steps aside with only minor sarcastic grumblings when Tilda falls in love with Hans Mohring, a German university student. This "enemy" presence in Middle Economy is met with placid acceptance by some and less charitable reactions by others.

A quiet sort of tale about a quiet sort of place, one might think. Indeed, after the dramatic opening sequence, the story unfolds in methodical fashion for the first little while. The daily happenings along Canada’s eastern seaboard are laid out in pitch-perfect prose and with an abundance of homespun detail: eating cranberry scones at the local bakery, listening to Beethoven records on the gramophone, and watching the churning sea from the safety of the wharf. And so it's almost with a shock that, nearly a third of the way in, the pacing quickens, as does the novel's strong historical sense. The war hits very close to home, making us realize that it’s been overshadowing the story all along.

Howard Norman is an American writer, but elements of his novels mesh more closely with classic elements of Canadian literature. The characters’ wry sense of humor helps them take the edge off serious situations, and their open-minded outlook on the world sits comfortably with their appreciation for small-town living. However, in the heightened atmosphere of wartime, prejudicial attitudes come to the forefront, and all it takes is one pointed act of violence to tear up the fabric of one's existence.

Wyatt’s honest and forthright narration lets us envision simultaneously the young man he was in the ‘40s, with all of his bewildered romantic yearnings, and the older, resigned man he has become two decades later. Norman’s quirky characters can’t help but capture our interest, and his compact style requires only a few well-chosen scenes to illustrate their personalities. Moreover, thanks to his protagonist, who tenaciously forges ahead despite everything, this novel about a life and family marked by tragedy never succumbs to melancholy itself.

What Is Left the Daughter was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July at $25.00 (hb, 243pp).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Blog readers' favorite medieval novels, and the giveaway winners

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway for two copies of Elizabeth Chadwick's For the King's Favor by commenting with your favorite medieval novels.  If you haven't read back through the comment trail on Elizabeth's post, please take a look for more medieval fiction recommendations.  By far, the top author named was Sharon Kay Penman (ten mentions), and Anya Seton's Katherine was second with three mentions.  Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters was named twice, as were Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin and Sharan Newman.

And the two copies will be going to... Katherine of Historical Fiction Notebook and Marie B!  Congratulations, and I'll be in touch to obtain your addresses.  I hope you enjoy the books!  Thanks again to Sourcebooks for sponsoring the contest, and to Elizabeth Chadwick for her great post.  There are two other chances to win: visit Elizabeth's own blog and Passages to the Past in order to enter.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Book review: Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter

Toward the beginning of Daphne Kalotay’s wonderful debut novel, a secondary character makes a perceptive observation. “You have that past buried inside you that most people can’t see,” says Zoltan Romhany, a Hungarian poet and refugee, to Grigori Solodin, his colleague and good friend. This is a theme carried through the entire book. When we first meet them, the three protagonists of Russian Winter are struggling to deal with traumatic events from their pasts. They’ve all experienced heartbreak which they haven’t quite overcome, and each has a personal connection to Soviet Russia. Their shared background becomes the drawstring that pulls them all together in a fascinating mystery with historical significance.

In the present day, Nina Revskaya, a former prima ballerina of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, lives alone in her Commonwealth Avenue apartment in Boston, with her feisty West Indian nurse her only real company. Nearly eighty, and confined to a wheelchair, Nina decides to free herself of emotional pain by auctioning off her extraordinary jewelry collection.

Taking charge of the details is Drew Brooks, a confident but lonely young divorcée who works as an associate director at the Beller auction house. One-quarter Russian, Drew has never fully investigated her ancestry. And for Grigori, the Foreign Languages department chair at a local university, Nina’s decisive action brings unsettling feelings. Since childhood, he has owned a large amber pendant that forms a matching set with two of Nina’s own pieces. He knows it can’t be coincidence, yet she’s always rebuffed his attempts to connect with her.

When Drew encourages Nina to reveal how some of the jewels were brought out of Soviet Russia, as back story for the auction house’s brochure, she runs into resistance; the details are too troubling for Nina to revisit. “People think I fled Russia to escape communism. Really I was escaping my mother-in-law,” she tells Drew. There’s some truth to this, but Kalotay gently uncovers the underlying tale by alternating perspectives and time periods. Without jarring transitions or any loss of reader interest, the novel shifts between postwar Russia and contemporary Boston, and among the viewpoints of Grigori, Nina, and Drew. The historical parts are recounted with present-tense verbs, and the modern-day bits are told in past tense, cleverly establishing that this is a single interconnected story unfolding as we go.

Nina’s tale begins in the 1940s, when as a nine-year-old child she tries out for ballet school – a privilege granted to ordinary girls thanks to "Uncle Stalin" – and continues through her marriage to poet Viktor Elsin and her rise to stardom at the Bolshoi. In addition to depicting the emotional highs of her performances, Kalotay also captures the tangible reality of Nina’s life as a dancer, from the grueling hours at the barre to the constant reinforcing of her toe shoes. Ambitious and career-driven, Nina remains focused on dance, her closest friends other artists – in particular Vera Borodina, a dark-haired ballerina, and Vera's lover, Gersh, a Jewish composer who dares challenge the status quo.

In clearly written language, Kalotay brings readers into the little-known world endured by dancers under the Soviet regime, the glamour of elegant receptions with high-ranking Party members contrasting with the deprivations of their lives at home. While in the company of her fellow artists, Nina’s eyes open to life’s uncomfortable reality: how carefully one must maneuver in a country where everyone knows someone who was taken away in the night; and what it takes to survive in a place where one’s fate can turn on perceived anti-patriotic activity, unconscious betrayals, or random bad luck. Without being didactic, the novel poses questions on the complex interplay between repressive government and the creation of art. Despite the hardships she endures, Nina’s love for Russia and its people remains, even long after her defection in 1952.

Kalotay describes the modern-day Boston art world as vividly as she does a glittery, snow-covered St. Basil’s Cathedral. Those who hunt out symbolism in their fiction will find it aplenty, and others, Russophiles especially, can sit back and enjoy a richly evocative multi-period story about love, art, and the power they have to transform one’s world. Her characters’ plight is evoked in thoughtful phrasing, and she simultaneously gives us the pleasure of a completely engrossing story. A true literary page-turner, Russian Winter also offers a heartfelt tribute to those whose lives were lost behind the Iron Curtain, and the legacies they left for us to discover.


Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter was published on September 7th by Harper at $25.99 (hb, 466pp).  Arrow will publish it in the UK next February. Since the title fits, I'm also calling this my entry for the letter R in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Bits and pieces

The cross-cultural differences in publishing fascinate me:

At left is the forthcoming US edition (Little, Brown, November) of Kathleen Kent's second novel, a prequel to her award-winning The Heretic's Daughter. The UK edition (Macmillan, January 2011) is at right. Isn't it interesting how the titles reflect the history of their country of publication?

"The Wolves of Andover" — as a New England native, I love that title — emphasizes the wilds of colonial Massachusetts and its dark past. "The Traitor's Wife" harks back to the English Civil War, whose legacy haunts one of the main characters. I have an ARC of the former and am eager to get to it. Thanks to my fellow HNR editor Gordon for telling me about the UK edition, as I wouldn't have known about it otherwise. The Traitor's Wife, of course, is the title of Susan Higginbotham's debut novel, so it makes sense the US publisher wouldn't want to reuse it.

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced today, and there are three historicals on it: Andrea Levy's The Long Song (19th-c Jamaica), Tom McCarthy's C (early 20th-c Europe), and Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America (19th-c United States). What's not on it: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is a real shame. I say this without having read the others yet, but it was an amazing novel. My review from Booklist is the 4th down under Editorial Reviews on the Amazon page.

I'm so glad that Quercus (UK) will be publishing Lian Hearn's new novel, Blossoms and Shadows, a historical epic set in 19th-c Japan. Details from The Bookseller. After being enthralled by her Otori trilogy set in a quasi-feudal Japan, as well as the prequel and sequel, I was going to acquire this novel anyway, even if I had to pay postage from Australia to do it. Now I won't have to, although I will have to be a little patient. Publication in the UK is next May, but for those in Australia, the release date is October 1st. The Australian cover is at left ($34.99, from Hachette Australia).

And for a little BSP: thanks to readers' advisory experts Rebecca and Karen at Shelf Renewal for choosing this site as their "web crush of the week" for 8/27, to Becky at RA For All for highlighting it last week, and to Amy from Passages to the Past for nominating it as September's Historical Blog of the Month at Nan Hawthorne's Historical Blogs: Fiction & Fact. I appreciate it!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Guest post: Elizabeth Chadwick's favorite medieval novels

Today Elizabeth Chadwick is stopping by Reading the Past to discuss her favorite medieval novels. She has some wonderful recommendations I've read many of these books myself and you may want to have a notepad handy, as I have a feeling you'll be adding them to your wish lists. Thanks to Sourcebooks, publisher of her latest US release For the King's Favor, I have a giveaway opportunity as well... details at the end of this post.

Welcome, Elizabeth!


Thank you for inviting me to talk on your blog Sarah.

I thought since you are a librarian, it might be on topic to talk about my favourite novels set in the medieval period, both in the past and some more recent reads, now, because in a way they trace the path of my growing up and my career.

I didn't actually come to the Medieval period until my mid teens when I fell in love with a knight in a TV series. The tall, dark, handsome man with a sword and a fast horse, was what initially sparked my interest in the life and times of the period between 1066 and 1300. Prior to that I'd had no particular affiliation to medieval fiction or indeed to historical fiction of any kind.

My first foray into that world was a novel I bought with my pocket money titled The Burnished Blade by Lawrence Schoonover. It had first been published in 1948 but was a re-issue with a handsome blond man on the front and a scantily clad young lady reclining on cushions. I read and thoroughly enjoyed it and immediately set out to find other authors in this genre. At first I had a penchant for the big romances that have come to be known as ‘bodice rippers’ and I am not ashamed to say so. I would think nearly every woman of my age (and some men) have at least one of these on the shelf. They were an important part of growing up and I absolutely lost myself in their world when I was a teenager. The one I remember best is The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss – an adventurous tale of ravished women and rampant alpha males in 1066 England. I don't think I could read it now, but in my teens I was hooked. It was also in my late teens that I discovered the works of Roberta Gellis. Her historical romances were more grounded in serious medieval history and since I had begun to write my own novels, I was in awe of her research and the way her characters came to life and were of their time. I fell hook, line and sinker for Ian de Vipont, star of the second novel in her Roselynde Chronicles, Alinor. He was tall, dark and handsome (I am starting to see a pattern emerging!) but he was also his own man and with such a strong, well-rounded character, that he walked off the page and into the room. No cardboard cutout here. Around this time, I started to venture into the realms of more serious historical fiction and discovered the incomparable Sharon Kay Penman when I read her magnificent novel about Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour. This set me of on a Richard III quest and I must have read every novel about him that was available. I became a lifelong fan of Sharon's writing; I own every novel she has ever written and am fortunate enough these days to count her as a personal online friend. My very favorite novel of Sharon's is Here Be Dragons, the story of Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales and his marriage to Joanna, illegitimate daughter of King John. I am also very fond of her medieval mysteries, especially Dragon's Lair and Prince of Darkness.

Entering my twenties, another medieval discovery for me was the great Dorothy Dunnett and her series of novels about Scottish adventurer Francis Crawford of Lymond. His story ran to six thick volumes. It wasn't the easiest fiction to get into and I had three tries before I really understood the magic of Dunnett, but once the key turned in the lock, I became an ardent reader. To keep a mystery going over the course of six books is some feat. During my twenties, I also became a fan of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael novels. She put the historical mystery on the map. I remember reading a book club edition of One Corpse Too Many and being blown away. I also fell deeply for Hugh Berenger (small dark and handsome this time!), who played Watson to Brother Cadfael's Holmes. I ended up buying the entire series, waiting each year for the next one to come out and I have a full set. Another author I particularly enjoyed was Cecelia Holland and an especial favourite of mine was Great Maria, loosely based on the story of the Normans in Sicily. Great Maria has recently been re-issued by Sourcebooks and I was able to read an advance review copy. Has it stood the test of time since its first publication in 1974? It most definitely has and I loved it all over again.

Becoming a writer of Medieval fiction as well as a reader has its downside in that one tends to become very difficult to please when it comes to finding novels that have not only a gripping story, but also that feel of authenticity. The more research one conducts, the harder it becomes. However, there are still gems out there waiting to be read. Some of my fairly recent favourites have included: The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies. I love his use of language and his exploration of the ways in which we communicate. Flint – an elegant little novel by Margaret Redfern that tells the story of two medieval characters forced into becoming ditch diggers for the castle at Flint, built by Edward I. In its own way, it’s like an offshoot of the Mabinogion series of traditional Welsh folk tales. I also very much enjoyed Jan Guillou’s Road To Jerusalem about Arn, a young Swede, undergoing training as a Templar. The setting is different, and the story well grounded in the attitudes of the time. It’s that bit different, and while I love historical fiction of all kinds, some of my favourites are the kind that stray outside of the box…although I do continue to admit a weakness for tall, dark and handsome in the window dressing!


A bittersweet tale of love, loss, and the power of royalty…

A captivating story of a mother’s love stretched to breaking and a knight determined to rebuild his life with the royal mistress, For the King’s Favor is Elizabeth Chadwick at her best. Based on a true story never before told and impeccably researched, this is a testament to the power of sacrifice and the strength of love. When Roger Bigod, heir to the powerful earldom of Norfolk, arrives at court to settle an inheritance, he meets Ida de Tosney, young mistress to King Henry II. In Roger, Ida sees a chance for lasting love, but their decision to marry carries an agonizing price. It’s a breathtaking novel of making choices, not giving up, and coping with the terrible shifting whims of the king.


Elizabeth Chadwick lives near Nottingham with her husband and two sons. She is the author of 18 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, Lords of the White Castle, Shadows and Strongholds, The Winter Mantle, and The Falcons of Montabard, four of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Awards. Much of her research is carried out as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval re-enactment society with the emphasis on accurately re-creating the past. She won a Betty Trask Award for The Wild Hunt, her first novel. For more information, please visit

And now for a giveaway... thanks to Sourcebooks, we have two copies of For the King's Favor up for grabs. I read it last year from the UK edition (titled The Time of Singing) and highly recommend it. To enter: leave a comment on this post with a recommendation of your own favorite medieval novel. Deadline Friday, September 10th. This offer is for US and Canadian residents only. Good luck to all the entrants!