Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Interview with Kathleen B. Jones, author of Cities of Women, her multi-period debut about women's creativity and medieval art

In this first of two interviews this week, I'm speaking with Kathleen B. Jones about her debut novel, Cities of Women, which interweaves two stories, centuries apart.  In 2018, history professor Verity Frazier shifts the course of her research to focus on the manuscripts of 14th/15th-century writer Christine de Pizan, with the goal of proving that the beautiful illuminations accompanying the text were painted by a woman named Anastasia.

Alongside Verity's pursuit, the long-forgotten life story and career of a medieval artist named Béatrice (later called Anastasia) are revealed. The novel is itself vividly detailed, with reflections on women's determined pursuits throughout the ages and a well-researched atmosphere of medieval France.  And as a researcher myself, I enjoyed following where Verity's discoveries led her, both academically and emotionally, as she begins a new relationship with a woman whose scholarly interests in the Middle Ages intersect with hers. Thanks to Kathy for her responses to my questions! Cities of Women is published today by Keylight Books/Turner Publishing.

What inspired you to begin writing historical fiction? Had it been an interest of yours during your academic career, or did the subject pique your attention afterward?

Academic historians often begin their academic essays and books with a story. That style of writing has been less prominent in my academic field—political theory. During the decades I taught about women’s political movements, I learned students connected with the past much more and saw its relevance to the present when I brought historical conflicts into focus through narratives, stories filled with flawed though relatable characters struggling against the odds to achieve personal and political change. I began to experiment with a different kind of writing in my own academic publications and finally moved into creative nonfiction and then fiction to be able to fully express the complexity of what I wanted to say about the human condition.

I’ve always been a reader of fiction and gravitated toward writing historical fiction because it satisfied two loves of mine at once—doing deep research and letting one’s imagination visit and try to understand unfamiliar times, people and places. In this regard, the political theorist Hannah Arendt has been a major influence in all my writing. Storytelling was a key element in her work.

So, for me, there’s been a kind of parallel trajectory between the progression of my academic writing and the urgency I’ve felt to write fiction set in the past that still resonates with the present.

I hadn’t been familiar with Anastasia, the historical manuscript illuminator about whom little is known, and appreciated the narrative you created for her. She seems to have been very well known in artistic circles in her time. How did you get into the mindset of a female artist from medieval times?

I’m excited you found the medieval Anastasia both a convincing and intriguing character because we don’t really know whether she actually existed or was merely someone Christine de Pizan invented to call attention to the work of female artists in the Middle Ages.

With no more of a clue than a name found in Christine’s Book of the City of Ladies, I invented the character of Béatrice/Anastasia and the entirety of her storyline. Since Christine had written City of Ladies as a defense of women’s worldly contributions and was known to oversee very closely the production of her books, I speculated she would have chosen a woman artist to illuminate images of her imagined city. Research into the medieval Parisian book trade identified the existence of women artists of the book, giving me a factual basis for my speculation, though only in the most general sense. I gave this speculation to Verity, in the modern timeline, to drive forward her quest to document Anastasia’s role in Christine’s work.

Kouky Fianu, a Canadian historian who researched medieval book production in Paris, pointed me in the direction of a GIS map of medieval Paris available online that located the ateliers of various artists, including women who illuminated manuscripts. That visual, combined with all the books and articles I read about medieval women’s lives, helped me imagine what it might have been like for a young woman in fourteenth-century France who’d been exposed to art as a girl and then had experienced her family’s life and livelihood being decimated by the plague, become driven to become an artist. Her determination to create something luminous in the face of looming disaster drives her to overcome all odds and make it to Paris.

How did you decide on the parallel narrative structure for the book, with both medieval and contemporary timelines?

I wanted to generate a plot illuminating linkages between past and present. As Faulkner once wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

On the deepest level, I wanted the novel to explore the human experience of time, how we mortals live in a world that persists beyond our life span. But, because we can produce things—stories, both written and oral, works of art, etc.—we leave behind traces of who we were and what we did. Remembrance gives us a kind of immortality.

Verity’s effort to document Anastasia’s work as an artist memorializes her. Her quest transforms Verity in the present as much as it dignifies Anastasia’s life in the past.

Related to the human experience of time is how we understand history, whether on a grand scale or at the level of an individual life. In my novel, historical events, both personal and political, appear to drive the plot of Christine’s story. Yet, Verity’s quest intersects the story of Anastasia, a fictional character, with the story of Christine, a factual character, and changes what we think we know about the past. If there was an artist named Anastasia with whom Christine worked on her manuscripts, how does that relationship affect each woman’s life, how we make sense of their lives, and how we understand the broader history in which these women lived?

I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the illuminated manuscripts and the process by which they were created. In the acknowledgments, you credit the assistance of librarians in the British Library’s manuscript reading room, and in the novel, Verity strives to see the manuscripts of Christine de Pizan’s work in person. Were you able to view any original manuscripts, and if so, what did you take away from the experience?

I wasn’t able to view “in person” Harley 4431, the collection of Christine’s writings known as The Queen’s Book that features so prominently in the novel. The entire manuscript is available online. Like Verity, I spent hours and hours staring at its folios. But I was able to touch several other copies of Christine’s books, which are held in the Manuscript Reading Room of the British library. I also attended a workshop on manuscript making at the Morgan Library in New York, similar to the one in the novel that Verity takes part in. In that workshop, I learned about parchment making, about medieval inks, and the work of scribes and illuminators. I also got to touch several rare manuscripts held in the Morgan’s collection, which were on display during the workshop. That tactile experience deeply affected my writing about the creation of those amazing illuminated manuscripts. I actually wrote an essay about this for LitHub.

What were some of the most memorable parts of the research or writing process for you?

Besides wandering the streets of medieval Paris via the GPS maps I mentioned earlier, some of the most memorable parts of the research never made it into the novel! I cut three chapters I’d written about fourteenth-century Venice, where Christine was born when he father worked as advisor to the Doge. In the course of researching that period of Venetian history, I came across information about prostitution in Venice that surprised me: because there had been so much corruption when men ran the brothels, the leaders of the city changed the law and put women in charge of the trade.

I might go back to that research and resurrect those characters and their stories for another novel. For the moment, though, I’m halfway through my second novel, stimulated by what I learned about another medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours the Nazis stole during World War II from the collection of the Parisian Rothschilds. The book was later recovered under mysterious circumstances and donated to the Bibliotheque Nationale.

As for the writing process, most memorable was becoming so deeply immersed in the story that by the time I finished writing I wasn’t exactly sure any more where the boundary was between what I had invented and what was historical fact.

One remark made by Béatrice/Anastasia in the novel, in relation to her paintings, struck me as especially poignant with regard to writing as well: “How far would my imagination be allowed to stretch composition to reveal things not yet known about women’s lives?” How do you see the role of historical fiction as it relates to the hidden history of women?

That’s such a great question, Sarah! Archives and artifacts can tell us a lot about women’s lives that traditional history has kept hidden or distorted. Tiya Miles’s All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, is a remarkable example of the hidden history that one artifact can reveal. Miles writes how that sack, now displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, “filters a light of remembrance on the viewer’s own familial bonds, leading any one of us to ask what things our own families possess that connect us to our past and wonder what we might gain from contemplation of that connection.”

I think fiction set in the past filters a similar “light of remembrance” but amplified by the powers of imagination. Fiction can take the reader on a more embodied and emotionally resonant journey into the history of yet unknown or lesser-documented experiences. Nonfiction tells us about the past; fiction—at least the kind I’m writing— invites us to experience the textures, smells, tastes, sounds of the past more viscerally by empathizing with characters’ conflicts, whether those characters, likeable or not, are human or non-human or even inanimate objects or historical events in women’s history.


Born and educated in New York City, Kathleen B. Jones taught feminist theory for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. In addition to many scholarly books, she penned two memoirs: Living Between Danger and Love (Rutgers University Press, 2000) and the award-winning Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt (Thinking Women Books, 2015). Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Fiction International, Humanities Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Among numerous awards, she received multiple grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, writers’ grants to the Vermont Studio Center, an honorary doctorate from Örebro University, Sweden, and a distinguished alumni award from CUNY Graduate Center. She lives in Stonington, Connecticut. Visit her website at https://www.kbjoneswrites.com.


  1. Thank you for the review of a unusual book

  2. Thanks for reading the interview and commenting - glad you found it of interest!