Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Refreshing Look at a King's Favorite

I finished The Lord of Misrule by Eve Trevaskis today, about Edward II and Piers Gaveston, told in the third person mainly from the viewpoint of Gaveston. I can't add much to Sarah Johnson's recent review of it except to point out that I found it historically accurate and carefully researched, the more so because Trevaskis wrote the book in 1972 and did not have the advantage of consulting the studies of Gaveston by Pierre Chaplais and J. S. Hamilton that appeared subsequently.

It's hard to get a handle on Edward II's character from this book; neither the author nor even Gaveston appears to know quite what to think of him. Gaveston, however, is well drawn as a person with conflicting impulses who sometimes stirs up trouble despite his better judgment. In too many novels, he's caricatured as a monster of greedy opportunism and as a fop; here he's depicted as witty, brave, loyal, and loving. His relationship with his young wife, Margaret, though not portrayed in depth, is particularly refreshing. Too often, Margaret is a pathetic figure in novels about Edward II, a bone tossed to Gaveston whom Gaveston treats with just as little respect. Here she's a lively girl with a backbone who gradually develops a sexual attraction to (and for) Gaveston; the chapter where she and Gaveston finally consummate their marriage is well done.

As Sarah Johnson pointed out, the politics behind the goings-on here remain very much in the background, which will likely be confusing to those readers who aren't familiar with Edward II's reign. The ending, foreshadowing the future, was interestingly handled; it's a pity that Trevaskis' next novel, King's Wake, jumps over the latter part of Edward II's reign to begin with the events following his deposition.

All in all, this is a sympathetic portrayal of a historical character who's often been depicted one-dimensionally by novelists. (For another view of the king's favorite, narrated by the king himself, try Chris Hunt's novel Gaveston, reviewed on Alianor's blog.) Meanwhile, I'm off to see what Betty King makes of another controversial figure, Margaret of Anjou.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Three (Give or Take a Few) Strikes and You're Out

Today I settled down for my lunchtime reading with Sweet Passion’s Pain by Karen Harper. Because it’s about Joan “the Fair Maid of Kent,” wife to the Black Prince and mother of Richard II, it interested me, despite the cheesy title. (Published in the 1980’s, the book’s being reissued this year with the title The First Princess of Wales.)

In the opening scene, young, unmarried Joan is getting ready to leave her childhood home at Liddell Manor to go to the court of Edward III. We know she’s unmarried because she tells her nurse, spirited girl that she is, that she has “no intention of wedding for years and years yet.” Two pages later, we find out the date this scene is taking place: May 1344.

Big problem. Joan of Kent was married to William de Montacute in 1340/41; before that, she might well have been married to Thomas Holland, who convinced the Pope of that when he got the Montacute marriage annulled in 1349. In any case, Joan certainly wasn’t single in 1344.

So I turn a few pages, heart sinking, and meet Edmund, Joan’s bossy twenty-three-year-old brother. Joan did have a brother named Edmund, but he died in 1331, as a young child. As this hasn’t been billed as a ghost story, this is not promising either. I skip back a page, where an astrologer has been droning on about Joan’s birth date, and notice that he says that Joan was born “the summer her father died.” Well, a posthumous child was born to the executed Edmund, Earl of Kent, but it wasn’t Joan but her younger brother John. Little Joan, in fact, is said to have been one of the sponsors at his baptism because the family was in prison at the time and no adults were able to fill the role. (Lest you be wondering, I’ve picked up these details in doing research for my own novel-in-progress. Joan is the sister-in-law of my heroine, Elizabeth de Montacute.)

OK, time to skim ahead a little in Sweet Passion’s Pain. Joan of Kent’s mother, Margaret, was in poor health when mother and daughter parted, and sure enough, five months later Joan is summoned to Margaret’s deathbed. It’s a moving scene, but a tad early: We’re still in 1344, it seems, and the historical Margaret didn’t die until 1349.

Finally, it’s 1347, and Joan is at last getting married to William de Montacute, the man whom history indicates she had married in 1341.

Check, please.

Now, I’m not unpityingly picky in terms of historical accuracy. I’ve made mistakes in that area myself, for one thing. And if someone’s eating the wrong food, wearing the wrong armor, dancing the wrong dance, or donning the wrong headdress, it doesn’t bother me, unless the novel contains just one anachronism after another. But I do like to have people in a novel be born, marry, and die on the same dates that history says they did, if history gives definite dates and they’re accessible to a researcher who’s not a professional historian. When the people in question are minor characters, I can go on reading if the crucial dates are wrong, though not with much pleasure; when they’re major characters, I simply can’t—unless the novel is so bad in other respects that it’s perversely fun to read.

So, blog readers, would this be a deal breaker for you? Or would you slog on anyway? What type of inaccuracies make you slam a historical novel shut?

While you’re pondering this, I’m off to find another novel. (In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading about Joan of Kent, you might try Juliet Dymoke’s Lady of the Garter, published in 1979, a few years before the Harper novel was published. Not only does an aging, overweight Queen Isabella make a few appearances in it, Dymoke gets Joan of Kent’s dates straight.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My Mailbox Runneth Over

My mailbox has been full of historical fiction lately, putting me in the pleasant position of having too many books to choose from. One of the first I chose to read was Wendy J. Dunn's Dear Heart, How Like You This?, a novel about Anne Boleyn told by poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt.

I've been thinking of reading this for quite a while, but something kept scaring me off--perhaps the Amazon reviewer who noted Wyatt's habit of using "Verily" to start his sentences. Verily, Wyatt does say "Verily" quite a bit, but this isn't particularly bothersome once one gets into the rhythm of the book.

Dear Heart tells the very familiar story of Anne Boleyn's rise and fall through the eyes of Wyatt, her devoted childhood companion who loves Anne hopelessly. Wyatt nonetheless takes a fairly clear-eyed, albeit partisan, view of her character and her situation, and he's sensitive enough to feel compassion for Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary as well. He's a likable narrator, whose lovesickness doesn't stop him from making pointed observations from time to time, and for all his poetic sensitivity he has his hard edges--at one point he beats his unfaithful wife, though of course he feels guilty about it. I was disappointed, in fact, that the novel ended shortly after the death of Anne Boleyn, having wanted to spend more time in Wyatt's company. The scenes between him and his aging father--evidently a very interesting character in his own day--are quite moving.

So what about Anne? In Dunn's version of events, Anne, determined to take revenge for the forced parting of herself and Henry Percy, sets out to break the king's heart, only to find herself unable to break away from the king without risking her own life and those of her family. That's all quite credible, and Anne, recognizing the role that her own folly has played in her fate, courageously accepts it. Unfortunately, in Wyatt's sympathetic company Anne tends to become lachrymose and hysterical, and too prone to reminiscing about her childhood. Though we see glimpses of the considerable charm and wit that she must have possessed, those qualities are somewhat muted here.

All in all, though, this is one of the most enjoyable novels about Anne Boleyn I've read. I was sorry to see it end.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Some Thoughts from William Styron

One of my fondest college memories is hearing William Styron speak about his then-recent historical novel, Sophie's Choice, and having my copy autographed later that same night. Anyway, while Googling tonight I ran into this post by blogger Erika Dreifus on a talk by Geraldine Brooks, which in turn led me to an interesting 1992 article by Styron in American Heritage in which he discusses the controversy that erupted around his early novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Styron has several interesting observations to make, especially this one: "While it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations." He goes on to point out that even historians have had a difficult time arriving at the historical truth about Nat Turner, whom he terms "a fascinating subject for speculation." One could parallel his case with those figures so often speculated about by historical novelists: Richard III and Anne Boleyn--with the difference being that Styron wrote his novel about Nat Turner during the racially tense days of the 1960's, whereas the author who chooses a medieval monarch for his subject generally risks little more than the possibility of a few snide Amazon reviews.

Anyway, Stryon's article is well worth a read. I'll shut up for the night and let you get on with it.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Quiz Day

Yesterday, I went to a used bookstore and returned with a copy of Fatal Majesty by Reay Tannahil. I'm kicking myself today for not buying The Marriage of Meggotta by Edith Pargeter, but have just remedied that situation through my faithful pickpocket Amazon. When I came home, a copy of Sweet Passion's Pain by Karen Harper was waiting patiently in my mailbox for me, with a 1980's cover as silly as promised in Sarah Johnson's blog. (It's about Joan "the Fair Maid of Kent," and from my skim last night appears to be fairly good, though with more about Joan's nipples than I really need to know.)

More historical novels are on the way, so I'll have lots to blog about in days to come.

In the meantime, having seen the link on Stephanie's blog, I took this "Which Jane Austen character Are You?" quiz courtesy of Quiz Farm. I scored, just as every intelligent young woman should, as Elizabeth Bennet. (Actually, I've always thought of myself more as Anne Elliot, but she wasn't on the quiz that I could tell.)

This is the second online quiz of this sort I've taken. On the last one, concerning people from Edward II's reign, I scored as the Earl of Kent. Sadly, the quiz no longer seems to be available online, but you can read more about the ill-fated earl on Alianor's blog.

Being in the quiz mood now (and, let's face it, at an obvious loss for something else to post about today), I took the Which Wife of Henry VIII Are You? quiz (link in the sidebar) and came out as Katherine Parr. Not a huge surprise there, and at least I get to keep my head, which I didn't as the Earl of Kent.

I then finished off my quizzing journey by taking the What Dickens Character Are You? quiz. (No sidebar link because my attempt to post it got Blogger mad at me.) Rather to my surprise, I turned out as Walter Gay, which was rather depressing, because he marries Florence Dombey, and I've never liked Florence Dombey. She's one of the few Dickens characters I don't like, as a matter of fact. Bummer.

Obviously, Mrs. Jellyby wasn't among the possible text results.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The First, and Possibly Last, Post in Which I Mention a Hedgehog

Like my new blog colors? I thought the old ones were a bit hard on the eyes.

Over the weekend, my daughter watched the movie Mean Girls, about high school cliques, and we adults were allowed to join in. It's a funny movie. Anyway, one of the clique leaders had a habit of saying "Shut up!" to express incredulity.

So as I'm doing yet another post on Jean Plaidy, I'll pause to allow the blog reader a moment in which to say, "Shut up!" and I'll assume that he or she couldn't possibly mean it literally.


This Plaidy novel is called The Third George. Like some of Plaidy's works about the Plantagenets, it doesn't focus so much on the title character as on the goings-on of his reign, at home and nationwide. There's a lot of such goings-on here-—political infighting, family scandals, the American Revolution, the Gordon riots, George's declining mental health, the Prince Regent's predilection for actresses—-but especially toward the end of the novel, all of the episodes feel strung together, without a unifying theme. This approach is echoed in the novel's point of view, which jumps around madly in all directions. We spend time inside the heads of Charlotte, George, Sarah Lenox, assorted politicians, George's mother and siblings, and even Fanny Burney, but just when we're getting to know a character and to take an interest in him or her, it's time for a new point of view.

The dialogue is mostly expository. "'I fear,' said George, 'that this scandal of the Grosvenors and Caroline Matilda's tragedy has upset you far more than anything ever has before, eh?'" is a typical example. The liveliest dialogue, as a matter of fact, is not an actual dialogue at all but an episode where Sarah Lenox tells her troubles to her pet hedgehog, Sukey. I would have liked to have seen more of Sarah and Sukey, actually, but Sukey makes only the one appearance and Sarah only a couple of others. Pity.

So should you read this historical novel? Well, it's interesting enough if, like me, you don't know much about George III's family—it got me Googling to find out more, at least. For the Prince Regent, however, I think I'd just stick to Blackadder.

And no more Plaidy reviews for a while. I promise.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Writer's Promo and The Queen's Confession

Promotional bit first: My first book signing will be at Brightleaf Books in Smithfield, North Carolina, on Friday, June 23! (Time to be arranged.) This gives me two months to perfect a signature that actually looks like “Susan Higginbotham” instead of the mark of a highly dysfunctional two-year-old, so please come to admire my handiwork. If you don’t happen to live near Smithfield, North Carolina, don’t let that deter you—you’ve two months to make your arrangements, and Smithfield is on the way to North Carolina’s beaches, which are sandy (as opposed to rocky), clean, and WARM (a big incentive for you folks from colder climates). So start planning, ladies and gentlemen of the blogsphere.

I myself went to the beach this weekend and succeeded both in sunburning my feet and in finishing The Queen’s Confession, Victoria Holt’s novel about Marie Antoinette. I was very impressed by this one. It’s written in the first person by the queen, who bluntly acknowledges her failings and records her regrets about what she might have done differently.

One of the most well written episodes in the novel is that in which Marie Antoinette attempts to escape France incognito in a lavishly equipped, outsized vehicle known as a berlin. We share the queen’s frustration and regret that she chose such a conspicuous, high-status vehicle, especially when she tells us that her brother-in-law picked a shabby carriage for his own (ultimately successful) escape. Our frustration mounts as the party of escapees makes blunder after blunder, such as missing connections and stopping to let the royal children stretch their legs. At the same time, though, even as we readers know the attempt is doomed, we find ourselves hoping, against all logic, that it succeeds after all.

My only real dissatisfaction with this novel came from the limitations the first-person narration imposed. (One of these days, when I’m feeling more ruminative, I’ll post about first-person narration versus third-person narration in historical fiction. Comments welcome in the meantime.) I would have liked to have read more about what was going on outside Marie Antoinette’s chambers, to learn more of what was taking place in the minds of the people around her. All in all, though, this is a historical novel well worth reading.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Another Paperback Historical Fiction Treasure

This beauty will soon be in my hands, God and Amazon willing, but I thought I'd leave it with you for the Easter holiday to feast your eyes upon (better than an Easter ham). It's called Ride East! Ride West! by Anne Powers and is set during the Hundred Years' War, evidently a time when material for women's clothing was in short supply if the cover is to be believed.

Powers also wrote a historical novel called Royal Bondage, the cover of which I have not seen but the design possibilities of which will supply me with hours of pleasant speculation on the way to the beach.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Out of Print and In My Hands

I’m in the middle of The Queen’s Confession, a novel about Marie Antoinette that’s narrated in the first person by the queen, as the title indicates. It’s by Victoria Holt, who of course is also Jean Plaidy, who is also Philippa Carr. Most of the Holt and Carr books fall under the category of romantic suspense, as far as I can tell, which isn’t my thing at all, but The Queen’s Confession is mainstream historical fiction, more like Jean Plaidy’s novels. So far, it’s very good, with much more in-depth characterization than Carolly Erickson used in her recent Marie Antoinette novel, The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. I found the latter readable but lacking in depth, which surprised me because I enjoyed Erickson’s biography of the queen, To the Scaffold.

I’ll post more on the Holt book when I’ve finished it, but this seemed a good time to note that as readers of this blog may have figured out by now, when I read historical fiction, I’m more likely to pick up something that’s old or out-of-print than current fiction. This is mainly because I choose historical fiction based on my own idiosyncratic criteria: generally, it has to be about historical figures I’m interested in, these figures have to play a major part in the novel, and it has to be “straight” historical fiction rather than historical romance, though I’ve been known to read the latter if the historical element is sufficiently strong and the main characters more than beautiful puppets. If a novel meets those criteria, I’m likely to read it, though I have my limits. If Eleanor of Aquitaine sounds like Erica Jong, that’s a deal-breaker for me.

There are a number of current writers who meet my criteria, which I emphasize are purely a matter of personal taste. Unfortunately, they can write only so fast, so, as I said before, I find myself gravitating toward older books, many of which are no longer available except as used books or in public libraries. This is a shame, because although some of these older books are written in a mannered style that hasn’t aged well, many of them, like the novels of Margaret Campbell Barnes, are as good as anything being written today, and in some cases better. Perhaps publishers will recognize this, as they have in the case of some of Jean Plaidy’s books, and begin reissuing them.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Short Post Re: Short Words in a Long Book

Not having gotten far enough in anything I’m reading to post about it, I thought I’d direct your attention to a very strange 1898 book, History of England in Words of One Syllable, which I saw in a flea market some time ago and had to buy for its sheer dottiness. It is by Mrs. Helen W. Pierson, and Mrs. Pierson’s ghost would probably be very upset if I omitted the “Mrs.” on subsequent references to her, so I won’t.

This was part of a series entitled “Burt’s One Syllable Histories,” of which Mrs. Pierson was but one of several authors. There were volumes on the United States, Germany, Russia, Ireland, and Japan, among others. “Each Volume Profusely Illustrated,” the publisher promised.

Now, Mrs. Pierson was allowed a little leeway by her publisher. As she could hardly write a history without using any proper nouns of more than one syllable, they do appear in the book, broken down like this: “Now Rich-ard, Duke of Glou-ces-ter, of whom you have heard . . .” But except for proper nouns, and the words “History” and “Syllable” in the title, Mrs. Pierson heroically follows her editorial guidelines for 243 pages, from the Druids to the death of William Gladstone. For instance, she disposes of Cath-a-rine How-ard thusly: “In a few months the king found out that she was not so good as he had thought, and he made short work with her—-her head was cut off.” Even innocuous prepositions like “about” or “without” are ruthlessly omitted.

This book must have been hell, sheer hell to write. I would not want to have to do what Mrs. Pier-son did for long at all. It would drive me mad. Just think—each word a short one but for names and places. And I do not know who was meant to read this book. Folks who could not read well? Tots? But if a child was of the age to read or hear of things that took place in Eng-land, would he not know many words of more than one part?

Just to write this has made me weak. I must go to bed now.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Philip Lindsay's "Royal Scandal"

I finished Royal Scandal today, the priceless cover of which I posted on my previous blog (“The most reckless love in the wickedest court in history!” we are promised). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective), the novel doesn’t live up to its sensational cover.

Originally published in 1933 with the clunky title of Here Comes the King, this historical novel by Philip Lindsay covers the familiar story of Katherine Howard’s disastrous marriage to Henry VIII. Unlike most novels dealing with Katherine Howard, this doesn’t begin with Katherine’s childhood and her youthful romantic escapades, but starts with her marriage to Henry VIII. The central character is Thomas Culpeper, here a Sydney Carton–like figure who’s shattered when Katherine marries the king. Culpeper is much better drawn here than in other novels in which he appears. His rape of a young woman, which is usually ignored or glossed over by other novelists, plays an important role here, though Culpeper is redeemed in the reader’s eyes by the guilt he feels over the episode.

The other male characters here are well drawn as well. Francis Dereham, who turns up about halfway through the novel and aids the young lovers despite his realization that doing so will doom all three, is vividly rendered, along with his sidekick Damport. Will Sommers, the jester who gloomily watches the trio destroy themselves, has an almost Shakespearean quality, and his jests are actually funny. His interplay with Henry VIII is often quite moving. Henry VIII himself is not the terrifying monster he is in many novels, but a sad, lonely man.

The women aren’t quite as convincing. Katherine’s abrupt change from indifference toward Culpeper to heedless infatuation isn’t sufficiently explained. Though her sultry, come-hither pose graces the cover, all in all, she’s a wan character whose main attraction, physical beauty, doesn’t seem enough to justify the risks Culpeper and Dereham take for her. Her confidant Jane Rochford is also disappointingly rendered. She of all the people in the novel should know the risks she takes in aiding and abetting the lovers, but she’s never given a clear motive—revenge, living vicariously, general mischief-making, or what have you—for getting so fatally involved in their affair.

This novel is not for someone who expects things to move quickly. Most of the action takes place over a short period, the king’s northward progress, and at times the slow pace, as the author describes the scenery and unpacks the king’s luggage, can be maddening. Will Sommers’ Greek-chorus-like appearances may also be annoying to some readers. All in all, though, this is a well-structured, character-driven novel that surpasses most others I’ve read about Katherine Howard.

Monday, April 03, 2006

35 Cents of Fun

As everyone who has picked up a new historical novel in the last few years has noticed, the cover-art trend is to depict a person, most often a woman, in such a way that her face is partially or fully obscured or her head missing altogether.* These “headless woman” covers look classy, so much so that as blogger Sarah Johnson points out, they’ve made it onto a classic: the new translation of War and Peace. The alternative these days is to use an image from an art gallery. These covers look even more classy; the only drawback being, as Sarah Johnson has also pointed out, that the same painting often ends up gracing several historical novels.

But classy and pretty as these covers are, they have one huge drawback as far as I’m concerned. They’re no fun. This cover is.

I don’t know what I like about this "Avon Red and Gold Edition" best--Katherine Howard’s permanent wave (Henry VIII did spoil the girl), the caption “(Here Comes the King)” (evidently the novel's original title, but here looking like an admonition to the recumbent Katherine), the fact that Katherine looks about twice as old as she was, her teasingly exposed bosom, or the 35-cent cover price. All I know is that when I saw this gem on eBay, I knew that I had to have it and that anyone who tried to snipe it away from me would have to look to God for forgiveness, not to me.

I've been too busy admiring my new acquisition to read it (and the typeface inside is woefully tiny), but the novel itself looks quite decent, as well researched and well written as anything I've seen recently on Katherine Howard. It doesn't quite live up, though, to the delirious copy on the back jacket: "Her mouth was a kissing mouth, the upper lip drawn in a trifle, demurely, the lower lip heavy, full-blooded: the mouth of a lover . . . soft as a petal, trembling . . ." But then, what could?

Now if I could just get hold of the novels advertised in the back of Royal Scandal, especially Queen's Caprice, a novel that promises to tell in its "untamed splendor . . . the story of the fabulous, lush and amorous Mary, Queen of Scots, who ruled a nation of half-wild clansmen from a throne of passion."

*Promotional footnote: The Traitor’s Wife, in case a dog-eared copy does not grace your nightstand already, does not have a cover featuring a headless woman. It does, however, feature a lot of beheadings. Maybe even a throne of passion.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

I Become a Full-Time Historical Fiction Writer

I’m still reeling from the news that I hit it big in the North Carolina State Lottery. Now, of course, I will be able to achieve my longtime goal of writing full-time, not to mention having an office with real walls to do so in. While I’m waiting for the contractors to show up to take some measurements, here’s a list of just some of the upcoming historical novels I’m planning. Agents: contact me by e-mail only, please.

Braveheart: The Sequel

Humiliated by her and her lover Roger Mortimer’s fall from power, Queen Isabella is stunned to receive a disguised visitor at Castle Rising—her first and only real love, William Wallace, who explains that another man offered to be hung, drawn, and quartered in his place so that Wallace could be reunited with Isabella. Isabella snaps, “Took you long enough, Kilt Boy,” but forgives him for his delay after a session of passionate lovemaking. They live happily for the rest of their lives, passing the days by making fun of Edward II’s loss at Bannockburn and marveling at how well their son Edward III turned out.

Where the Sun in Splendour Doesn’t Shine

Recognizing his suppressed homoerotic feelings for Edward IV only after his friend’s untimely death, William Hastings summons the Duke of Buckingham to London and begins a torrid love affair with him. When Hastings abruptly decides he likes Jane Shore better after all, Buckingham persuades Richard III to have Hastings executed. Later, when Richard III refuses Buckingham’s own advances, Buckingham rebels. The Princes in the Tower, meanwhile, escape and begin new lives as traveling players. They begin to write their own plays, which years later find their way into the hands of a rustic from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Secret Dairy of Anne Boleyn

Fed up with the artificiality of court life, Anne establishes a little farm where she can retreat in times of stress and milk her cows. When she invites a group of muscular male courtiers to join her, Henry VIII mishears the phrase “bring in the hay” as “roll in the hay.” Disaster ensues.

I do believe I hear the contractors at the door now.