Friday, August 27, 2010

Q is for Quito

Rather than choose a biographical novel about a famous European queen for the letter Q in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge, I thought I'd write about a real-life heroine from Quito, Ecuador. South American settings don't figure much in English-language historical fiction, which is exactly why Jaime Manrique's Our Lives Are the Rivers first caught my attention. That, and the cover model's unique hairstyle.

History recognizes Manuela Sáenz, mistress of the brilliant revolutionary and Colombian president Simón Bolívar, as one of South America’s earliest feminists and greatest patriots. She earned the nickname “La Libertadora del Libertador” – the liberator of the liberator – for helping her lover escape an assassination attempt in 1828. In his bold and lyrical fourth novel, Manrique vividly portrays the passionate woman whose love affairs with one man and his vision were inseparable in the end.

“I was born a rich bastard and died a poor one,” Manuela tells us, beginning her tale with her childhood schooling at a convent in Quito. The nuns’ cruel treatment of Manuela, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy criolla by a Spanish nobleman, turns her against Catholicism for life. In her eyes, the Spanish remain a symbol of repression and slavery, and she grows up intensely admiring Bolívar and his ideals. Although her father recognizes her at last, he forces her to marry a wealthy Englishman; this cements her negative opinion of his countrymen. Manuela’s all-too-brief relationship with the legendary Bolívar, the great love of her life, is the culmination of her dream to unite with the revolutionary cause.

In alternating between the viewpoints of Manuela and her African slaves, Jonotás and Natán, Manrique gives us further insight into Manuela’s character. His prose is direct yet evocative, full of the vibrant color of colonial South America – its flowering plants, its wild fauna, its horrible, bloody violence. Romantic and tragic in equal measure, Our Lives Are the Rivers is well worth reading by anyone familiar with South American history, and especially by those who aren’t.

Our Lives Are the Rivers was published by HarperCollins/Rayo in 2006, and the paperback is still in print ($13.95, 384pp). The original Spanish title is Nuestros Vidas Son Los Rios (same publisher and price). Parts of this post appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer

In July, Sourcebooks reissued Susan Kay's Legacy, a classic work which had been out of print for years and which many readers and authors have called their favorite novel about Elizabeth I. On the cover, Sharon Kay Penman's blurb reads: "Legacy is by far the best novel I've read about Elizabeth Tudor."

The publisher's website mentions that Legacy won both the Betty Trask Award and the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize. The Betty Trask Award, given by the Society of Authors to first novelists under 35, is still in existence — winners include Elizabeth Chadwick, Sarah Waters, Nino Ricci, and Stephanie Merritt (aka S.J. Parris) — but the Georgette Heyer Prize was a fairly short-lived honor, and one of the only prizes for historical novels until very recently. I kept running across mention of it while compiling Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, but tracking down a list of winners proved elusive. The sponsoring publisher, The Bodley Head, no longer exists in the same form it used to (it was sold in the 1980s, became a children's imprint for a time, and was relaunched as a nonfiction imprint of Random House UK in '08).

Since I wasn't able to find an authoritative winners' list, I decided to re-create it as best I could, based on mentions on book covers and in reviews, library catalog searches, and other snippets of information I found online and offline. This is as complete a list as I was able to make (reprinted from Appendix A of Historical Fiction, with annotations added today). Please leave a comment if you have corrections/further details.

As with most literary awards, a few of the winners are still well known, while others have fallen into obscurity. Only Legacy is still in print.

In sum: the Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer, a British contest for discovering new talent in historical fiction writing, was sponsored by The Bodley Head and Corgi Books from 1978 through 1989. Rhona Martin's Gallows Wedding was the inaugural winner. Though the award was named for famed Regency novelist Georgette Heyer, the awardees didn't necessarily emulate her style. Most have American editions.

1989 - A Fallen Land, Janet Broomfield.
A regional saga set in 1860s Edinburgh, in which a high-society family crosses paths with the family of a teenage girl from the slums.

1988 - Trust and Treason, Margaret Birkhead.
A gritty historical novel of treason and family loyalty in Elizabethan England; the author's only novel.

1987 - I Am England, Patricia Wright.
A Micheneresque epic set in the village of Furnace Green on the Sussex Weald, spanning five linked episodes from 70 AD through 1589. More from eNotes. That Near and Distant Place is the sequel.

1986 - The Cage, Michael Weston.
A grisly discovery in an 1880s tin mining community in Cornwall leads to the unraveling of a years-old murder mystery.

1985 - Legacy, Susan Kay.
Epic biographical fiction of Elizabeth I, her glorious reign, and the three men who loved her.

1984 - The Terioki Crossing, Alan Fisher. US title: The Three Passions of Countess Natalya.
Drama and historical adventure set on the ice of the Terioki Crossing in Russia in 1916.

1983 - Queen of the Lightning, Kathleen Herbert.
In 7th-century England, Riemmelth of Cumbria sets aside her romantic dreams in order to marry Oswy, Prince of Northumbria.

1982 - No award.

1981 - Zemindar, Valerie Fitzgerald.
This 800-page romantic epic, written in the style of The Far Pavilions, unfolds against the dangerous and exotic backdrop of 1850s India. Regrettably, this was Fitzgerald's only novel, and it's a prime candidate for reissue.

1980 - Children of Hachiman, Lynn Guest.
Dramatizes the life of 12th-century Samurai warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune, a renowned hero from Japanese history.

1979 - The Day of the Butterfly, Norah Lofts.
A Regency-era novel featuring unlikely heroine Daisy Holt, a country girl whose path to fortune begins in a London brothel. Submitted under a pseudonym; by 1979, Lofts was a well-known novelist!

1978 - Gallows Wedding, Rhona Martin.
A dark novel of witchcraft and forbidden love set against the backdrop of religious upheaval in Henry VIII's times.

Have you read any of these? Wouldn't it be nice if another publisher followed suit, setting up an award for unpublished historical novel manuscripts?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bits and pieces

Happy Friday the 13th! Here's my irregular round-up of historical fiction news from various sources...

Speaker proposals are being accepted for the 4th North American Historical Novel Society conference, taking place in San Diego on June 17-19, 2011. The proposal deadline is September 30th, and registration will open in November. Author guests of honor will be Cecelia Holland and Harry Turtledove.

There have been a couple of relevant pieces in the British press in the past few days. In The Independent, Saul David writes about historians - others such as himself - who have turned to writing historical fiction. He cites Alison Weir as the first successful author of this type, with her 2006 novel Innocent Traitor. Her book may have made the biggest splash, but I'm curious if there are earlier examples. Carolly Erickson is one; her Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette is from '05, though the article takes a British viewpoint, and Erickson's novel wasn't published overseas.

Regarding this statement from the essay: "This, perhaps, is the main reason why books by historians-turned-novelists are selling so well. Many readers of historical fiction like to be entertained and educated, and the only authors they can entirely trust to do both are historians."

As a reader, I wouldn't say the last part is true at all; perhaps that's wishful thinking on his part? While historians can offer readers a sense of authority, the proof is in the actual writing, not an academic degree or other credential, and some of the novelists whose word I trust the most are not professional historians. Aside from this one questionable remark, the essay has a good take on its subject, especially for insights on how the writing process differs for history and fiction - and the pitfalls that historians can potentially fall into when crafting their storylines.

In today's Financial Times, A.N. Wilson looks at why historical fiction is so popular with readers, analyzing Wolf Hall , mostly, and some more recent examples of Tudormania. James Forrester's Sacred Treason and Peter Walker's The Courier's Tale (both UK) are also recommended... and the article gets into a history-vs-fiction discussion similar to the Independent piece. I did like this comment:

"The fantasist who uses history is perhaps distorting truth. But so is the scholar who thinks that the men and women of the past can be recreated by learning alone, without the alchemy of empathy. In any case, the historical purist who eschews fiction and only wants to read 'proper history' is possibly under the delusion that such a thing as objective historical analysis exists."

The concluding essay on the page is by James Forrester (aka historian Dr Ian Mortimer), on the difficult transition from history to fiction, and the different types of "truth" that can be revealed by each.

Lastly, the Wall Street Journal's latest "Dear Book Lover" column looks at historical novels set in Africa... well, a few of them, anyway. There are some nonfiction recommendations, too.

This weekend I'm curling up with Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter, one of my BEA finds. Review forthcoming in a few weeks.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

P is for Performers

P is also for Paddington, the beginning of the title of book 3 in Claire Rayner's 12-volume series The Performers, which traces the rich, dramatic history of two London families from the early 19th century through World War II and after.

I picked up books 1-4 of The Performers when we were visiting my aunt and uncle up in Cadillac, Michigan, a few weeks ago. The Book Nook, a huge used bookstore in the center of town, has been around for decades, and visiting there is always a highlight of the trip. It contains rows and rows of shelves filled with older, out-of-print paperbacks you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else besides online. The Performers series has been reprinted a few times since the original publication dates (1973-88) and is currently in print from the UK publisher House of Stratus (who have reprinted a number of older UK historicals; see their website for details). The covers here come from the new editions, though mine are the Fawcett Crest paperbacks from the '70s.

The series follows the Lacklands and the Lucases as they rise from rags to respectability and end up solidly amid the middle classes. Their story begins, in Gower Street, when Jesse Constam, a former street urchin turned wealthy gentleman, decides to adopt a dirty ragamuffin of a boy whose daring and high spirits he admires. An orphan who never knew his real name, the boy is given the name Abel Lackland and grows up in the Constams' household on proper Gower Street alongside Jesse's nervous and eager-to-please stepdaughter, Dorothea. Abel's heart, however, belongs to Lil Burnell, a beautiful young girl from the slums who wants to become a great actress. She uses all she's got to achieve her ambition, reinventing herself as Lilith Lucas, an undisputed star on the London stage known for her wit, charm, and irresistible attractiveness to men.

The next two books, The Haymarket and Paddington Green, continue the saga over the next two generations. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, and the family trees at the beginning of each book reveal only as much as you need to know. There are flawed and full-blooded characters aplenty, and their interpersonal dramas play out against a skillfully rendered backdrop of London's vibrant theatre scene and growing medical community. Through his friendship with Lil, young Abel gets trapped into making secret nighttime jaunts to graveyards in the company of resurrectionists - described with enough creepy gruesomeness to be realistic - which piques his curiosity about human anatomy.

Rayner's dialogue is especially good, conveying the social background of each character through dialect and artfully chosen slang. Expect your vocabulary of colorful expressions and creative insults to increase in the most delightful of ways.

The Performers books are great fun, and even though I've been reluctant to start new series (one of these days I will make it to v.2 of Poldark), I've already read the first three volumes and am looking forward to the next nine. Here's a bibliography, repeated from Fantastic Fiction:

The Performers
1. Gower Street
2. The Haymarket
3. Paddington Green
4. Soho Square
5. Bedford Row
6. Long Acre
7. Charing Cross
8. The Strand
9. Chelsea Reach
10. Shaftsbury Avenue
11. Piccadilly
12. Seven Dials

This marks an entry for the letter P in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.

Monday, August 02, 2010

An interview with Cecelia Holland, author of The Secret Eleanor

I'm happy to present this interview with Cecelia Holland, one of America's foremost historical novelists. Her newest novel The Secret Eleanor, which takes place during one landmark year in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, is published on August 3rd by Berkley/Penguin.

Many authors have published their own takes on this noted queen's life and times, yet Cecelia's interpretation stands apart by showing Eleanor from a refreshingly new perspective. The Secret Eleanor focuses on her relationship with her younger sister, Petronilla, the woman who knew her best. Petronilla shares Eleanor's gorgeous looks but lacks her ambition and self-confidence, and she's destined to remain forever in the shadow of her royal sibling... or is she?

The Secret Eleanor weaves an engaging tale of deception, ambition, romance, and shifting loyalties, all told in a spare narrative style that brings mid-12th century France to brilliant life. The characters' dialogue, sharp and memorable, readily conveys all the intelligence and wit one would expect in a novel about one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages.

I last conducted an interview with Cecelia in 2002, a more comprehensive piece done following the appearance of The Soul Thief, first in her Corban Loosestrife sequence of Viking-era novels. That series wrapped up this July with the sixth entry, Kings of the North, set during the reign of England's King Ethelred II. Also appearing this summer from Sourcebooks is a reissue of her Great Maria, one of my favorite historical novels, about a strong woman carving a life for herself and her family amid the troubled politics of 11th-century southern Italy. Not only is 2010 an excellent year for Eleanor of Aquitaine enthusiasts, but for fans of Cecelia Holland's work as well.

Eleanor of Aquitaine's life story is one that many readers know, or rather think they know. You mention in your author's note that all that's really known about her are "scraps and pieces." Were you surprised to discover her life wasn't as well documented as believed?

Not really. The documentation on anything that long ago is always pretty scrappy. What fills in the spaces are the writer's preconceptions and biases, and in the case of Eleanor, these were marked. The male writers of her time were either totally snowed by her beauty (these were troubadours and poets) or utterly disapproving of her active life and her refusal to submit even to a husband. So strip that away, and there is a tantalizing chain of events you can interpret in a variety of ways.

One thing that interested me very much was how her marriage to Henry came about, given they had only met once. A great many historians assume the arrangement was all his idea, which is flat out contradicted by the evidence — she sent for him, she proposed to him, in fact. If they laid the groundwork for this somehow in the brief meeting the previous summer, only she was in a position to discuss a marriage, since she was still married to Louis, and there's some evidence his father did not approve. If they did not set things up in August, then it's all on her when she proposes to him the next April. Either way, she was the instigator. As you would expect, she being 30 and he 19.

Eleanor's character was denigrated by her male contemporaries, and Bernard of Clairvaux, who was especially critical, is shown rather harshly. At the same time, her sexuality isn't ignored in the novel; rather the opposite. How did you comb through all the rumors and innuendo to come up with your portrayal?

The shock, shock, I tell you, the male writers (then and now) display was enough. They couldn't get past that she behaved like a man, free and active as a man, and this to them meant she was a bad woman — women were supposed to sit quietly, do needlework, pray and have babies. What a bore. Eleanor obviously thought so too.

Petronilla of Aquitaine doesn't figure strongly either in biographies or novels about Eleanor, and I think many readers won't have realized that Eleanor even had a sister. What made you decide to make their relationship one of the novel's focal points?

I needed another point of view. Petronilla and Eleanor were very close, so she was an obvious choice. Nobody knowing much about her implied to me she was more retiring and inward than Eleanor, which made her anyway the perfect foil, and then as the plot developed and the relationship between them began to change and create real tension, it worked in unexpected ways.

Petronilla was a "good girl," doomed to the fate of the obedient and submissive medieval woman — ignored, treated as a object. The chronicles and histories don't expect a woman to be in a position of power so they don't see it when it happens, unless it's someone like Eleanor, who quite simply outshone the men. But Blanche of Castile gets almost no press — all she did was run France while Louis IX was off fighting his dumb crusade. She must have been as forceful and clear-headed as her grandmother, but nobody noticed because she didn't kick up her heels; she seems to have been a model wife.

One of the strong impressions I got while reading The Secret Eleanor was that people had a close relationship with their environment, much more so than we do now. The natural world has a tangible presence, even in scenes that don't take place outdoors. For example, even at the beginning, Louis VII's great hall sits on a "low, sandy island" and is described as a "low cave of stone at the center of the palace." I enjoyed seeing this emphasis carried through the novel. Why was this an important concept to get across?

Medieval people lived at the mercy of the natural world. (We do too but we're deluded, until an oil rig blows up or a hurricane crushes Miami, and then we're stunned.) Therefore they paid close attention to nature, and the natural world supplied them with endless teachings and symbols. All you have to do is look at a book of hours to see this. The world was intensely real to them, this is the centuries-long clash between realism and nominalism, and the roots of modern physics go back to that argument.

You've made it easy to envision the changes in scenery and mood when Eleanor finally returns home to Aquitaine. Did you end up visiting France in the course of your research and writing, and do you share Eleanor's love for Poitiers and its culture?

I spent some time in Poitiers, walking around, talking to people, trying to soak up the atmosphere,and I went around the area and tried to go to all the places Eleanor went. The big monastery is there still, with her lying on top of her sarcophagus. All of Poitou and Guyenne to the east Provence and the rest are wonderful, magical places, layer on layer of the past, from the dolmens up through old Roman stuff to the medieval to now. I love southern France. Those people know how to eat.

This is going way back, but in our previous interview, you mentioned that you found it easiest to devise your male characters. Among the major female characters in The Secret Eleanor Petronilla, Eleanor, Eleanor's lady-in-waiting Claire did you find any of them more challenging to depict than the others?

Claire, who is entirely fictional, was hardest, because I had to overcome my first feelings about her, a powerless, ignorant young person caught in a web of power and conflict, a greasy unpleasant kid I had no sympathy with. She refused to stay that way, and slowly she forced me to pay attention, and then she solved a big problem I was having anyway: the wandering Welsh lutenist Thomas, who was too wandering and anarchic and who was blundering around my plot not helping any at all.

I was very glad when Claire and Thomas developed their relationship through music, which didn't come to me until very late in the maturing of the plot (after two failed efforts at cooking them into a subplot), and she began to grow and change in ways I hadn't foreseen and liked very much, and whammo! Thomas got more human and more useful. That subplot is still one of my favorite parts of the book, possibly because I sweat blood over it.

Petronilla came almost automatically as a foil to Eleanor. With Eleanor, the big thing was to get past Katharine Hepburn, who has dominated the popular imagination since her splendid performance in The Lion in Winter, which meant, for me, making Eleanor really over the top, splendid and reckless and brilliant and beautiful, and very dangerous in the course of it. Petronilla has been in her shadow all along, which means she's carried the banner for gentleness and kindness, and when she's pushed into another role there's room for her to move. I love when a character grows and changes, but it's a mystery to me how that happens, frankly. All these women did it, for which I'm grateful.

Why does the medieval period call to you so much, in terms of choosing settings for your fiction?

The Middle Ages were the childhood of our own time. Much of our concerns now began then: modern physics, constitutional government, government-certified marriage, our current problems with the Arab world, just for starters. I feel very at home there, I'm not a visitor to something foreign, I'm just going to another part of the forest.

You have three novels being published this summer (which I think is wonderful)... is the timing coincidental? How did this come about?

It's a coincidence. Kings of the North is the 6th book of my Viking series The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife, and so a continuation of earlier work. I had been working on Eleanor for years, without a publisher, but I had a contract for Kings before I even began writing it and as a continuation, I already had the characters and most of the plot, and I wrote it in seven months. Then I got a new agent to handle Eleanor, and she sold Great Maria to Sourcebooks. I like the timing, because Maria and Eleanor both deal with women who break the mold, but Kings of the North is a totally different book. I don't even think it's fantasy, it's more what some people call slipstream — a slipstream historical fiction, which I find very satisfying to think about — with a lot of good history woven into a dreamy philosophical layer, a figure of speech made actual.


Novelist Christy English has a short guest post from Cecelia Holland up on her blog today as well. The Secret Eleanor is out tomorrow in trade paperback ($15.00, 361pp).