Tuesday, December 27, 2022

How Come We Can’t Get Away From Anne Boleyn? A guest post by Jeri Westerson

Today I'd like to welcome Jeri Westerson back to the blog.  I've greatly enjoyed her Crispin Guest medieval mysteries (and had posted an interview with her at the conclusion of the series last year).  The first volume of her brand new King's Fool Mystery series, Courting Dragons, set in the popular Tudor era at the court of Henry VIII, debuts on January 3rd.  She details the background to her new series below.


How Come We Can’t Get Away From Anne Boleyn?
by Jeri Westerson

Courting Dragons book cover
I think whenever anyone hears the name “Tudor” we think of three things: Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn.

Anne, Anne, Anne. Why is she so important to the story of Henry VIII (who had four more wives after her)? And why is she important to my newly released novel Courting Dragons: A King’s Fool Mystery?

Let’s back up a bit to Prince Arthur Tudor. He was the elder brother to Henry VIII, slated to be King Arthur. Way back in 1497 he was betrothed—by proxy—to one Catherine of Aragon of Spain. The reason it was by proxy was because he and his betrothed were too young, but a treaty between England and Spain was desired by monarchs of both countries and so the kids were connected early on. They even had a wedding by proxy because they didn’t meet until October of 1501 when it was deemed they were finally old enough to get married in the flesh.

The deed was done and not long thereafter, Arthur fell ill. In fact, he died short of his sixteenth birthday.

Now enter the young Henry. Suddenly, he’s heir to the throne. And elder King Henry didn’t want all that dowry money to go back to Spain so he insisted on young Henry marrying his sister-in-law. But when Henry turned 14 he said no!

Henry VIII image

In 1509 at the ripe old age of eighteen, Henry succeeded to the throne of England. And he looked at his accounting books and decided that thousands of pounds worth of dowry was probably a good thing to have when starting a reign, not to mention keeping the Spanish treaties intact. But this was his brother’s widow. Didn’t he need papal dispensation to marry her? It’s just a little bit incesty. But the pope said no problem. You only need a dispensation if the marriage was consummated, and Catherine swore devoutly that it was not. She and Arthur were 15 years old and married for twenty weeks but didn’t consummate their legal marriage. Well...

“There is no more lovely, friendly and charming a relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.”
–Martin Luther, 1569

Henry and Catherine were happy in the beginning. It turned sour some twenty years later. She gave birth to a stillborn girl, then she gave birth to a boy, Henry, but he died after seven weeks. Then she gave birth to the Princess Mary (who was to become Queen Mary I, otherwise known as “Bloody Mary”). During this time, Henry was catting around with all sorts of women. But he was also a devout* Catholic (*can you really be devout when you’re constantly breaking one of the Ten Commandments?) So much so that in 1521 he wrote his “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” a direct argument against the protestant reforms of Martin Luther. Pope Leo X named Henry “Defender of the Faith” for that bestseller.

But by 1525, Henry was getting impatient for a legitimate male heir and certain courtiers were beginning to whisper in his ear—courtiers like Cardinal Wolsey and his secretary the commoner Thomas Cromwell. Leviticus 20:21 says that “if a man shall take his brother’s wife it is an unclean thing: they shall be childless.” Though Henry was far from childless, he preferred to interpret the text to mean “sonless” (though he had several illegitimate sons too). On this basis, Wolsey sought an annulment. The pope said nope.

Image of the English Tudor era

Henry was getting all excited that this would work, that he could divorce his wife and marry—wait for it—Anne Boleyn, with whom he had been carrying on a chaste affair after having a not-so-chaste affair with Anne’s sister Mary (talk about incesty) who gave birth to yet another dead child, but possibly another not dead child that Henry would never acknowledge. He got pretty pissed off with Wolsey, trumped up some charges, had him arrested, even though Wolsey—as a bribe—handed over his just-finished manor house estate (that became Hampton Court) and was ready to put him on trial when he had the decency to die before that. Now Cromwell moved up and still had the king’s ear.

“The less prudent the prince the more his deeds oppress.” –Proverbs 28:16

Will Somers, detail
Will Somers, close-up detail
Cromwell’s plan was to reform the Church, and since the pope wasn’t cooperating with Henry’s need for this divorce, why not break away from the Church of old and reform it into the Church of England? And who but the monarch—anointed by God—was fit to rule that? Henry then gave himself a divorce (with the new Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s support), declared his daughter a bastard, and first secretly married Anne Boleyn then publicly married her (obviously pregnant by then), who, after all that, didn’t give him the son he wanted, but another princess, Elizabeth.

Henry’s taking over the province of the Church in England meant that he could get rid of all those corrupted and wealthy monasteries where all that expensive land was just sitting there when instead it could be sold and the revenue could fill his coffers. And so that’s what he did. Cromwell was in charge of collecting officers with the cover story that they were inspecting the monasteries to root out corruption…but while they were there, they took an inventory of all the goods, too. Ya know, just to keep an inventory.

So why is it that Anne’s story endures over the other five wives?

Anne’s end is tragic. True, she was quite the coquette as an up-and-comer in court. She was affianced at least twice, carried on with a married man, but was still chaste for the marriage bed, or so it was said. But by 1536, with only three years of marriage to her, Henry wanted out of the marriage that wasn’t giving him sons, and so Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s old assistant, devised her downfall, not giving her merely ONE paramour, but several, including her brother, just to add that last nail to the coffin. And this is what makes her endure. It was very clear to the people of the time—despite the fact that she usurped a very well-liked queen—that she was not guilty. Lancelot de Carles, French poet, wrote in 1536, “No one to look at her would have thought her guilty” as she “protested she had never misconducted herself towards the King.” “The queen exhibited such constancy, patience, and faith towards God that all the spectators, even her enemies, and those persons who previously had rejoiced at her misfortunes…testified and proclaimed her innocence and chastity.”

Wrongly accused, wrongly executed, Anne lives on as the ultimate sacrifice to Henry’s frenzied need for a male heir.

And, of course, she gave birth to England’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I.

Henry VIII at left, with Will Somers and dog
Posthumous portrait of Henry VIII with Queen Mary,
with Will Somers and dog in center

And that’s how Anne Boleyn becomes a part of my story, the background of Will Somers’s story, jester to King Henry, and investigating some pesky murders.


King's Fool Mysteries banner

Jeri Westerson is the author of the new King’s Fool Mysteries with the reluctant sleuth Will Somers, Henry VIII’s real court jester, solving mysteries and murder at the Tudor court. She is also the author of the upcoming Sherlockian series An Irregular Detective Mystery, the multi-award-nominated Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, paranormal books, including a gaslamp-steampunk fantasy the Enchanter Chronicles Trilogy, standalone historicals, and an LGBTQ rom/com mystery series. See it all at JeriWesterson.com.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Review of Mimi Matthews' A Holiday by Gaslight, a historically rich Victorian romance

When the high temperature is -5º F and there’s a winter storm raging outside, the only thing to do is hunker down indoors and be glad your house hasn’t lost power. It helps if you have a Kindle loaded up with ebooks. So yesterday I decided to get in the holiday spirit by reading a novella by Mimi Matthews that I’d purchased last year.

A Holiday by Gaslight is a lovely and gently heartwarming story set in Victorian London and at a Christmas house party in remote Derbyshire.

It’s November 1861, and after two months of courtship, Miss Sophia “Sophie” Appersett decides she and Edward Sharpe don’t suit. She asks him to meet her in Hyde Park, where she breaks things off, with mutual agreement. Sophie is a baronet’s daughter who needs to marry into money. A draper's son who made his fortune in manufacturing, Ned is eminently eligible at 31 – darkly handsome, unmarried, and successful – but he has no idea how to court someone of Sophie’s class. He relies on the Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette to guide him, and it gives him bad advice. To Sophie, he appears silent and disinterested; in reality, he admires her greatly but doesn’t show it. The problem is they don’t know each other at all and have only had superficial conversations.

Within a few days, Sophie – a young woman of integrity and thoughtfulness – feels regretful and makes a surprise appearance at Ned’s offices with a proposition: that they be honest with one another, and that he visit the family home in Derbyshire at Christmas as planned to see if they can make it work. Ned also learns more about her family finances: Sophie has no dowry because her father, Sir William, spent all of it installing gaslight on his estate.

The holiday preparations at Appersett House are delightful: heading into the woods to gather greenery, decorating the house with ribbons and tinsel from the attic, finding and bringing in the Yule log. As Ned and Sophie’s relationship thaws and blossoms, the interactions among the family and guests add color and dashes of the unexpected. Sophie’s immature younger sister, Emily, flirts with Ned’s business partner; one guest talks incessantly about Prince Albert and his sad recent demise.  Ned’s mother does little but express disapproval of everything, but we don’t know if it’s her nature or something more.

I especially enjoy romances with a historical backdrop that’s more than window-dressing, and this story delivers. Appersett House has a vast library, and Sophie and Ned acknowledge how their personal reading influenced their views. Sophie ponders whether Mr. Darwin’s theories can apply to societal and technological progress, while Ned realizes how the etiquette book led him astray. The gaslight at Appersett House lends the atmosphere a soft romantic glow, but – as the author illustrates – it comes at a high monetary and emotional cost to the family.

Above all, A Holiday by Gaslight is a love story, and the protagonists’ happy ending feels authentic and well-earned.

My best wishes to all of this blog’s readers for the holiday season!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Amanda Dykes' All the Lost Places tells a haunting, multi-period story of discovery in historical Venice

Plan for sufficient time if you decide to pick up Amanda Dykes’ All the Lost Places, because the novel deserves it. A deeply immersive read set in Venice during two periods few authors have visited via fiction – 1807 and nearly a century later – the story is told through language rich in description and metaphor as it explores the journeys of two young men seeking answers to mysteries – and discovering meaning, love, and hope in the process.

In 1904 San Francisco, Daniel Goodman, having served time in jail, makes restitution to the parties he stole from during his years of thievery. Unable to face his mother, who he feels he has irreparably shamed, Daniel still suffers the aftereffects of an injury. He has lost his ability to visualize images in his mind and draw from memory, although he’s still able to create art.

To help his mother out financially, he takes an unexpected job offer: to travel to his mother’s home city of Venice, locate artifacts, sketch images of local sights, and procure and translate books for the library of a proposed “Venice of America” cultural center. One of the books on his list is a title Daniel has owned from childhood: The Book of Waters, an unfinished fairy tale. It’s a rare volume, and Daniel wonders if any other editions will tell the rest of the story. When he reaches Venice, he meets a curious bookseller named Vittoria who shows him the city and helps with his search.
author Amanda Dykes

As Daniel proceeds with his translation of The Book of Waters, that book’s story unfolds. In 1807, the former Republic of Venice is under French control following conflict with Napoleonic France and Austria, and the abdication of the last Doge. A small baby found floating alone in a basket – much like Moses – within a gondola is rescued and then raised, in shared fashion, by five individuals from different walks of life. A note with the child says his name is Sebastien, and he is given the last name of Trovato,“found.” Sebastien grows up surrounded by his foster parents’ professions – glassmaking, printing, lace-making, gardening, piloting a gondola – and is greatly loved yet always wonders about his true identity.

The majesty and history of the islands and waterways of Venice permeate the novel’s pages as it explores both protagonists’ quests for belonging.

And always, in the distance or all around him, the city rose from the sea in a hundred and more fragmented pieces, cobbled together with bridges and boats.
I am like you, Venice seemed to say. A patchwork life, whole and yet broken.

The novel’s pacing is unhurried, proceeding much like a gondola as it wends its way through Venice’s storied canals and lagoons. Amanda Dykes is an expert at shaping words into moods, and her writing expresses the oft-cited theme of chiaroscuro – the interplay of light and shadow, both in art and in life. While some of the symbolism will have additional meaning for Christian readers, All the Lost Places doesn’t require a religious background to be appreciated as a haunting and emotionally fulfilling read.

All the Lost Places is published by Bethany House this month; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the author's blog tour.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Circus Train explores a young woman's coming of age in a 1930s traveling circus and during WWII

One expects circus-themed novels to be escapist entertainment filled with interesting characters. Parikh’s debut, a Canadian bestseller, satisfies on that score, and it also thoughtfully explores two young people’s connection and quests for belonging.

In the 1930s, Lena Papadopoulos, whose overprotective father Theo is a brilliant illusionist, spends her childhood traveling across Europe with the World of Wonders. But as a polio survivor using a wheelchair, Lena doesn’t fit in, and her self-esteem suffers.

At nine, she rescues an older Jewish boy, Alexandre, who becomes Theo’s apprentice. Alexandre and Lena become close friends, but secrets reside within both their families. As Europe grows darker, terrible circumstances force them apart and leave Lena to forge her path alone.

The circus train is the novel’s backdrop, not the starring attraction, and much about its operation goes unexplained; at times, the story feels light on descriptive details. Incorporating research into medical treatments for polio and the Theresienstadt camp’s role in Nazi propaganda, Parikh creates storytelling magic in her absorbing tale of a young woman discovering her own capabilities.

This novel is also recommended for YAs: Teens who enjoy coming-of-age journeys will be drawn to Lena’s story and the intriguing traveling-circus setting. 

Amita Parikh's The Circus Train was published by Putnam in the US this past week, and I'd written this review for Booklist's November 2022 issue.  In Canada, the novel was published by HarperCollins back in March. It's being promoted as "Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus." It was also a #1 LibraryReads pick.

I'd be interested in hearing thoughts from other historical fiction readers on this book. Re: my comments that it was light on descriptions, I also found this to be true when it came to WWII and the Holocaust; in particular, the horrors of Theresienstadt are left underexplored. The story works well as a coming-of-age story, but historical fiction readers may yearn for more details and depth.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

'Tis the season for compilations of the year's best historical fiction

The Sleeping Car Porter, Trust, Shrines of Gaiety, Haven

Many conversations I've had in the last week have begun with "Can you believe it's December already?" I haven't read as many books as I'd planned to in 2022, and all of the end-of-year compilations of the best historical fiction aren't helping to keep my TBR to a manageable size.  (Realistically, that battle was lost long ago...)

Here are the lists and sites I've found so far.

For the New York Times, Alida Becker, who reviews the genre regularly, includes ten favorites which she calls "sturdy time machines" with enduring appeal. Three are from Nobel laureates, and Suzette Mayr's The Sleeping Car Porter, the recent Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, is also on the list.  I'm a NYT subscriber and created the link as a gift article, so you should be able to read it without hitting a paywall.  See also Becker's latest roundup of historical fiction, from Dec. 2.

NPR's annual Books We Love feature (formerly called Book Concierge) presents a visual array of 35 books in their Historical Fiction category, each of which links to a short review.  You can also read their historical fiction selections as a list. What I like about NPR is how they proudly include entries from a variety of subgenres and age categories: literary fiction, thrillers, romance, dark fantasy, young adult historicals, and more. Historical graphic novels are in the mix as well (this isn't a subgenre, but a format). The settings and eras are notably diverse.

The CBC has a piece on "24 Canadian books to get the historical fiction fan." I especially enjoy seeing lists from outside the US since they introduce me to titles I haven't come across before. Many were published only in Canada. There are some favorites of mine from 2022 here also, including Eva Stachniak's The School of Mirrors and Natalie Jenner's Bloomsbury Girls.  Settings, overall, range from South Asia and Rome in ancient times to Canada in the '70s and '80s.

The Goodreads Choice Awards for 2022 are now in their last day of voting for the final round (by the time you see this, voting may have ended).  There are two novels set in the mid-1990s on the list of finalists, and while they wouldn't fit as historical fiction in my view, different platforms have different definitions for the genre.

Writing for The Times (London), critics Antonia Senior and Nick Rennison offer 14 best historical fiction books for 2022. You can read a limited number of articles per month with a free account, if you don't subscribe, and I recommend getting one, if only so you can read their ongoing reviews and roundups!  Novels mentioned here which appear in other such lists include Robert Harris's Act of Oblivion (17th c England and America), Emma Donoghue's Haven (monks on a remote Irish island, 7th century), and Anthony Marra's Mercury Pictures Presents (1940s Hollywood).

Cosmopolitan's 17 best historical fiction books of 2022 is predominantly female-focused, with the latest novels by Isabel Allende, Chanel Cleeton, and Heather Webb, among others, but also includes Marra's novel, above, as well as Hernan Diaz's Trust, which was high on my 2022 list as well.

You'll also find many historical novels on the Guardian's list of best fiction for 2022, though they aren't separated out by category as in the other lists above.

I'll update this post if I spot any more favorites lists from 2022, and please let me know about others in the comments.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

In Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business, two enterprising women unravel crimes in Gold Rush-era California

In Smiley’s short but impactful latest, two sex workers get caught up in a crime-novel scenario, one calling to mind the Edgar Allan Poe stories they devour, and decide to solve the murders before they become victims themselves.

In 1852, the small town of Monterey, California, bubbles with prosperity and secrets. New arrivals pour in, seeking fortunes or a new start; people depart just as frequently.

Eliza Ripple, a young widow from Kalamazoo who doesn’t miss her abusive husband one whit, has settled in at her job at Mrs. Parks’s brothel. She makes a good living, and the proprietress looks out for her health and safety. Then the first girl disappears, prompting Mrs. Parks to hire a bouncer, Carlos, a kind Mexican immigrant.

The community, which relies on informal (vigilante) justice since they don’t have constables, decides the missing-person crime isn’t worth the bother. Other disappearances follow, bodies are found, and Eliza and her best friend, Jean—a fellow prostitute working at an establishment serving other women—grow concerned. How would Poe’s hero Dupin (or DuPANN, as Eliza calls him) handle this?

Rich in wit and human observation, Smiley’s telling is as matter-of-fact as Eliza’s approach to her profession. While Eliza is skilled, her encounters aren’t erotic and illustrate much about all the characters. Among her clients are farmers, a shy teenager, many sailors, and older men, all with their own preferences. With a killer still at large, Eliza analyzes each man carefully, wondering if he’s guilty.

“Being a woman is a dangerous business,” Mrs. Parks tells her, accurately, and Eliza grows annoyed at having to uncover the truth because nobody else cares. As heroic, self-reliant young women who accomplish what needs doing, she and Jean make great partners in a town where a supportive female network is the key to success and survival.

Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business is published on December 6th by Knopf.  In the UK, it will be published by Abacus in January 2023. I'd reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review. I believe this is my first time reading one of the author's novels since The Greenlanders, a literary epic set in the 14th century (fascinating and grim, as I recall).