Castles, Customs, and Kings…

I may have the reputation of being a walking encyclopaedia, but I can assure you, there are shed-loads of things about which I know nothing.

Quantum physics for example.  Well, I can spell it.  But that’s about it.  And alchemy at the court of James VI and I.  I don’t know anything about that — and in the main I don’t wish to find out.  Not a fan of old James, me.  The fellow gives me the creeps.  I mean, think about it, all that drool…Blech.

But I do know about a lot of other stuff — otherwise refered to by my nearest and dearest as ‘little known facts of doubtful value…’

The only thing is…well, allegedly the detritus which litters my tiny grey cells does in fact have a value.  (I know!  Whoever would have thought it?)

But it’s true.  For this condition which has over the years been the source of much amusement, has now apparently made me the ideal choice as an editor for the soon-to-be published compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings — which is a ‘best of’ collection of the first year’s worth of blogs on the increasingly popular English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a website on which, each day, an historical novelist (Barbara Kyle, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau, and Judith Arnopp among them…) writes a bit about some of their research or historical events and people which interest them.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddIt hits the shelves on the 23rd September 2013, this tome does, courtesy of Madison Street Publishing.

And I’ll tell you an interesting thing.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed editing it.  I’ve truly enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the various periods of English and British history which are not my specialisms and with which I had sort of lost touch.

I’ve loved reading about mediaeval bathing and banqueting.  I’ve loved learning about different unknown to the world places in England and Wales.  I’ve been fascinated by the various individuals who have peopled this English stage over the centuries and I’ve loved how the authors have brought them to life for me.

(And yes, I am a contributing author of several essays as well as editor…)

Anyway.

The sections range from Roman Britain all the way up to World War II…yes, there are gaps, I suppose.

But whether your eye is fixed on the rival queens of Wars of the Roses or Jane Austen’s London or the languid Lady Mary of Downton Abbey — whether you just enjoy history or revel in historical fiction, this book, well…what I would hope is that readers would enjoy dipping in and out of the various periods of history by means of these essays, as much as I have.

Because these many authors have written engaging looks at the periods and places and people which drew them into the web of writing historical fiction in the first place, and they bring to their work a love and an enthusiasm which is just infectious and winning…and it’s all just made me appreciate more than I ever could have imagined this wonderful country in which I live, “this sceptre’d Isle, this England…”

Below is one of the first reviews we’ve received on Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy, and I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that our collective work has been so well received.

“Full disclosure: I received an advance copy and am writing this about 2/3 of the way through (I will update when I finish the book). I am also not a fan of historical fiction. I rarely read anything on the fiction shelf and even less of books that do not relate to royalty and the daily lives of their subjects across all eras and continents.

“I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without “trained” experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.

“The book is divided into diverse subjects or historical periods. Each author has taken a topic and in a few pages given a succinct, well sourced overview. I find myself adding books to my wish list with every chapter. 

“The book itself first appears daunting in length. The short topic ‘chapters’ make it eady for on-the-go readers to read in small portions or even skip topics. The editors did a great job with transitions and order for each topic. Despite the length, there is no encyclopedia feel and each author’s voice is well preserved.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.indd“This book is a scholarly treasure trove with a wide appeal. It covers everything from the first English word to the food (and recipes) served at a Tudor feast. If you are interested in nonfiction works on England, history, and/or royalty you will find a book that you will return to. Fans of historical fiction and England will find the book rich in supplemental information to complement their reading with an introduction to authors of works they might enjoy.”

So, the short and the long — I hope you’ll have a look at the new book, and I hope very much that you’ll enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together for you.

So there you go.  Looking for something to read?  This may just be the book for you.  Castles, Customs, and Kings…

Slainte!

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The inimitable Georgette Heyer…

It would seem I’ve been procrastinating…but that’s not actually the case.

What is the case is that I’ve got so much on my plate that any multi-tasking capabilities I may have possessed have run for the proverbial hills, leaving me with about three half-written blogs, piles of reading on Russian foreign policy circa 1812, half a sonnet frollicking about in my head, and too many characters from the next books standing in the wings, tapping their feet, waiting for their cue to come on.

[And the answer to “Ha ha, how do you sleep well at night?” is “Not very well really…I wake up at about four and…”]

Anyway.

Recently, I was reminded by a friend’s complaints about the cheesiness of much of today’s literary marketing of a letter I received from a literary agent, a female of the species.  Which actually, in retrospect, amused me.

blokeI had sent this individual the opening chapters for my novel, Of Honest Fame, you see, along with the usual charming, banterful letter and a synopsis.

Then, after the obligatory wait of several months, said agent had returned the sample chapters along with a rejection letter in which she compared the work to the novels of Georgette Heyer–novels for which, she assured me, there was no market.

From this fatuous comparison, I deduced she had either been drinking…and/or was terminally stupid…and most assuredly had never read any of Heyer’s work.  [Even since her death in 1974, Heyer’s works have NEVER been out of print.]

Hence after my incredulous, “What?” you will understand that my uppermost emotion was relief at the lucky save!

[Exactly what about a boy setting a corpse alight and later getting the basting of a lifetime could possibly remind anyone of a novel by Georgette Heyer still eludes me.  But then, I fear I am too literal in my understanding of these things.

What I’m guessing this creature was dim-wittedly trying to say was that the novel was set in the early 19th century, quite possibly the Regency, and therefore something or other…And I confess, one longed to meet the dotty female and say, “Yes, dear, the novel is set in the early 19th century.  And so is War and Peace.  Or can you not spell that?”]

But lately, you know, I’ve been seeing Miss Heyer’s name splashed about a fair bit–usually on the cover of some allegedly Regency novel  [just like Georgette Heyer, the endorsement gushes] a term which was coined to describe some, though not all of her work–and this has actually made me want to spit teeth.

1812_greatcoatFor this comparison can only be based on the crudest and most simple-minded assessment of Heyer’s work–although, interestingly enough, in Heyer’s lifetime, critics of her work dismissed it with the words, “another Georgette Heyer.”

And perhaps this is the problem.  And it’s an ongoing one.

Because both of those statements about Heyer reveal how little the author/reviewer knows or understands of Heyer’s work, whilst at the same time committing  the absolute bimbonic folly of fancying that a novel’s quality can be deduced from what the characters are wearing and where/when the thing is set..

To imagine that a novel is nothing more than a plotline, a time period and a few stock characters–thus anyone who writes a thing set in the early 19th century must of necessity be writing like Miss Heyer–is to wholly underestimate and undervalue the extra-ordinary talent, apparently effortless prose style, and wit of this quintessentially British author.  It’s like saying all bars of soap are the same.

Or put another way, it is to be criminally stupid and terminally, intellectually myopic.  Ehem.

(Just as when I see contemporary authors comparing their own works to hers, I mark them down as delusional.)

Because Georgette Heyer is inimitable.

There is no one like her.

Just as no one is like P.G. Wodehouse.

Heyer was a one-off, an original, a woman of tremendous talent who backed up every book with oodles of hard work and endless research, at a time when the historical novel–light, dark or in-between–hardly existed.

She was a pioneer.

Both Wodehouse and Heyer were authors of a certain era, who because of the tremendous ease with which they created their fictional worlds, their prodigeous talent for making prose flow like rippling, streams of wit, dominated the literary scene for more than five decades of the 20th century, without equal.

Like Wodehouse, her sentence and paragraph construction are peerless.

Highgate Tunnel Mail coachAnd like Wodehouse and the world of Blandings Castle, Heyer created a parallel Regency London and initially Sussex (where she grew up)–one without politics, the nastiness of war or assassination or Napoleon, one where the West End and Mayfair were clean and bright and rarely raining [we wish!] and most people rubbed along tolerably well.  And it is against this delicious confection of a backdrop that she set her tales, many of which were plays on the traditional favourite, the Cinderella story.

You know the drill, poor female requires handsome rich prince to see through the tatters of her shyness and the ashes of her genteel poverty, her lower position in society, and recognising her true merit, her lovely laughter and wit, sweep her off to a happy, rich, life…Yadda yadda yadda…

And certainly given that during the early 19th century and indeed looking honestly at the career opportunities for women in the early 20th century, the Cinderella story is a fitting one–without a man, particularly a rich one to provide, life didn’t offer many choices, and even fewer bonuses.

Equally, unlike in real life, in Heyer’s world, the aristocracy and gentry were plentiful; the male of the species were witty, urbane, amused, well-dressed and loaded–all alpha males with a sublime sense of humour, great shoulders and a starched cravat.

But this, my friends and companions, is where Heyer gets interesting.  Because she is not writing the standard Cinderella story in as many permutations as she can manage.  Rather she is subverting the genre even as she is creating it.

Georgette Heyer was born in 1902, in Wimbledon.  She lived through and remembered all her life that period of turmoil when women got the vote, when at last they were allowed into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, when a certain equality with males appeared possible.  For women, the world in which Heyer grew up was one of new, untried and unexplored horizons.  And Heyer, rather than writing the same old same old took that standard formulaic romance, broke the mold and turned it upside down, bless her.

If, as the Arab saying has it, “stories teach people how to live”, then Heyer was writing the template for the new millenia’s women.

Indeed, from the outset, Heyer’s females were not the simpering, swooning simpletons beloved by her fellow pioneers of historical fiction, Baroness D’Orzy and Raphael Sabatini.  [Recall, Heyer’s first published work, The Black Moth, came out in 1921.]  Instead, she started as she meant to go on and in her works, it was all to play for.

tea on the lawn-sandbyThe Masqueraders, published in 1928, gave the female protagonist the lead male’s role and gave to her brother the role of pantomime princess, beautifully dressed and undetected in female garb.  And whilst this may have been a play on the history of the Scottish uprising of 1745 and the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped from Scotland dressed as a servant woman, and equally, the British stage has a long tradition of males in female roles, I cannot begin to imagine how this played in 1950’s America.  If it played at all.

The Corinthian, published in 1940, took the Cinderella lead and gave it to the rich hero.  Sir Richard Wyndham is rescued (he says it himself) from the onerous duties and ties of family and financial expectation by the young rebel, Pen Creed–the ashes of his wealth and the tatters of his fine clothes seen through by this rebel-child of a girl with decided opinions, a wicked sense of humour and wearing boy’s clothing, thus ensuring Richard’s future happiness.

The Grand Sophy (1950) takes matters even further.  Sophy isn’t just masterful, she masters the whole family–who admittedly need it.  But there is nothing shrinking or feeble or swooning about her.  She’s about as far from the Victorian virgin-ideal as one could hope to get.  And reading her, I have no doubt, empowered a whole generation of young women, engendering in them the belief that they could surmount any and all obstacles, even as it encouraged them to be amusing, wise and formidable, and still be lovable.

(Since girls of the 1950s were still being encouraged to laugh at a bloke’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny, to shut up and listen and hide their own intelligence, this is probably a great deal more subversive than we might today think.)

tomkinsVenetia (1958), Frederica (1965), A Lady of Quality [Annis Wychwood] (1972), all provide further proof of her talent for upending convention.  None of these main female characters are blushing debutantes.  They are all older, wiser, savvier, pragmatic, with good, sound heads on their shoulders, shouldering burdens that the men in their lives have shied from.  They are vibrant, confident, self-assured, the intellectual equal if not superior of their male counterparts, with a self-knowledge to rival that of a seasoned philosopher.

And none of them want rescuing.  Indeed, often it is they who are more likely to mount the white charger and ride to the aid of their men…

But while Heyer may be mounting a subterfuge of a campaign on behalf of capable women everywhere, she does so with such finesse, such charming irony and delicious wit, that what might be a provocative storyline of female empowerment is couched in a flow of easily digested, apparently innocuous delight.

And yet, what an ironic wit she had.  Her authorial voice was unique.  Delicate, graceful, laced with genial good-humour, and without the cruelty of some of Austen’s observations, Heyer poked fun without poking anyone in the eye.

Listen to this:  “Fashion was not kind to George…”  Or she will write of a lady “enjoying ill-health”–how much more tolerant than Austen’s descriptions of Lady Bertram?  That lightness of touch has more in common with Wodehouse, surely.

And she is, I will be honest, quite possibly greatest though when she writes of sisters, aunts and mothers.  She captured these relationships with all their  invisible, manipulative, endearing and powerful strings attached as no one before her or since.  She writes them all honestly, graciously, humorously, with her tongue firmly fixed in her right cheek…

Her prose is as smooth and effortlessly elegant as the unfurling of silk pennants in the breeze–like “drowning in honey, stingless”–and is unmatchable and unrivalled.

And behind of and in back of all this was the strength of her unending research, her notebooks filled with slang, with details of dress, of society, family, invention and history.

Interestingly too, unlike the current craze for implausible aristocratic titles that one may encounter between the pages of contemporary historical romances, as she grew older, Heyer came more and more to favour stories of the gentry and professional classes.  

Almacks CruikshankBlack Sheep, A Lady of Quality, Frederica, Charity Girl, The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella, The Toll-gate…whether she was playing to the new ideal of meritocracy and equality in the 20th century or whether she was sidestepping the Labour-inspired class warfare issues, I cannot tell you.  But these novels are most assuredly not filled with scenes at Almack’s, tales of the ton, or tired witticisms allegedly spoken by George Brummell–the cliche-ridden world of so-called Regency romances.

If Heyer has a failing at all, it is in her male protagonists–too many of them read exactly the same and might be carbon copies of one another:  bored, well-dressed, sporty, self-indulgent.  And they become invariably soppy at the end–which I personally find sick-making.  But that’s just me.

Still…when I recounted the sorry tale of my rejection to a friend, an Oxford don (male), his reaction was as far from mine as could be.  “She compared you to Georgette Heyer?” he said.  “No one has ever paid me a compliment like that.  If they had, it would have been the greatest compliment of my life!  I would give anything to be compared to her…Wow!”

Which also makes me laugh.  For truth is, I know how hard she worked and I respect her too much to even dream of aspiring to be her equal…

The Chalice…

One of great shifts in historical perspective that has occurred over the past couple of decades has been in the manner in which we examine the past.  Or put another way, how our historical focus has moved away from a recitation of names and dates and kings and instead (or as well) sought to examine the lives of the greater population during a given period, learning what they ate, how they lived, about their businesses and trades and what those once-important dates meant to them.

But this trend of spreading our historical net out to encompass more than just the names and brief biographies of court celebrities isn’t one which seems to have penetrated the land of historical fiction–at least not when we’re confronted with the perennial publishing about that epoch of Dynasty in doublets, aka Tudor-ville.  If anything, it’s quite the opposite there.

HenryVIII-cIn the magical land of Tudor, the fictional microscope is perpetually locked on that priapic giant of 16th century majesty, Henry VIII, and his manifold happy and unhappy and/or dead women-folk.

I mean it’s great stuff, isn’t it–this linenfold court where we wallow in wimples and Pantene tresses clad in jewel-encrusted velvet?  Never has falling in love been so fatal! Nor being a noblewoman so unhealthy.

(And I’m not talking about the diet–though as anyone who has toured the kitchens at Hampton Court will tell you, that too presented its challenges).

And if there is anyone else visible in this overflowing Tudor petri dish, it’s someone or other from a half a dozen or so noble families–Howard or Boleyn or Seymour–all of whom were related to each other it seems (gene pool of four, I’m telling you!  It explains SO MUCH…) even as they did their level best to eliminate each other…

Yes, absolutely, Hilary Mantel has expanded our Tudor brief to include Thomas Cromwell and his ginormous land-grab, aka the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and perhaps through her work, the general public has seen beneath the facade of religious fervour to recognise that for Tudor princes and pawns, religion was just another name for a kind of savage political power-playing such as the world had scarcely known.

But still,  the focus remains squarely on Henry and his swaggering and sly-eyed henchmen and no one seems to ever see beyond the walls of Richmond Palace or Whitehall with their perpetual cast of about fifty courtiers, schemers and consorts.

Yet here’s the thing.  In 1540, the population of England stood roughly at three million.  So what about the other 2,999,950 people in the realm at the time?  What did they make of it all?  What happened to them?

The Dissolution of the Monasteries, the King’s divorce, his engagement with Reformist ideology, all of these things made the gravest impact on the lives of those 2,999,950.  The rulebook for life as they’d known it for a millennium had been torn up and thrown in the fire.

And then consider that in most places, the convents or monasteries were responsible were some 75% of the local economy.  So while the Dissolution may have been dandy for the King’s coffers, for the local populations…well, not so much.

But it’s not just a period of economic hardship and a loss of religious identity and purpose (plus all the pillage and burning of libraries and destruction of holy art), because for far too many thousands of English men and women, Henry put a wrecking ball through their hopes of a better life in the next world too, their hope of heaven–Hell on earth followed by an eternity of Hellfire.  It’s no wonder that far from the jewel-encrusted court with its marzipan monstrosities, people believed the days of the Apocalypse were surely upon them, and in many places a micro-industry of occult seers, prophets and mystic quacks grew up.

UKCoverThe ChaliceAnd this, this Tudor-totalitarian nightmare, is the world that Nancy Bilyeau conjures up in her latest novel, The Chalice.

Continuing with her story of Sister Joanna Stafford, once novice of the Dominican Order at the Dartford Priory, now just plain Joanna Stafford, The Chalice opens with Joanna now living modestly in Dartford, attempting to raise a young male relative, bent on starting her own tapestry business.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries had seen the destruction of her world and all that she held dear and she must needs start again–wonderfully, this might be a portrait of any of the thousands of dislodged and emotionally dislocated clergy trying to start life again in an increasingly hostile and riven world.

But Joanna’s familial relationship to many of those noble and ambitious clans (like the Howards) draws her back into the paths of royal plot and counter-plot with conspiracy lurking in every London corner and corridor.  Though she longs to return to the quiet-ish backwater of provincial Kent, she is caught up in a riptide of deceit, heresy, blackmail, and, ultimately, treason.  Eventually travelling to the Low Countries, Joanna encounters a maelstrom of political upheaval and bloody retribution which will forever mark her.

Tho. Howard, Duke of Norfolk by Holbein.  Contemporaries described him as "short and scrawny".

Tho. Howard, Duke of Norfolk by Holbein. Contemporaries described him as “short and scrawny”.

As ever, Bilyeau excels at drawing the characters of doubtful morals and duplicitous nature:  the self-serving, self-aggrandising Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the perfidious and avaricious Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, the conniving Austrian diplomat Chapuys and his cutthroat underlings, even the townsfolk of Dartford who see their embrace of the Reformed religion as an opportunity for political and financial advancement…

The Tudor world as depicted by Bilyeau is nothing less than a seething viper’s nest of skin-crawling greed and corruption and a lust for power that borders on madness.

The narrator, Joanna Stafford, has deepened and matured too.  And although the challenges and emotional conflicts she faces are ever more severe, she brings to them a temperence of character–as in the tempering of steel.

Still narrated in first person, as in Bilyeau’s earlier novel, The Crown (which was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Dagger Award), the writing is more confident and secure, the historical detail better, while the occasional drop-ins of description add deliciously to the novel’s lowering, tense atmosphere:  “Her skin was alabaster white; gleaming, yes, but devoid of any depth or subtlety to its glow, like an egg kept overlong in the cupboard.”

Or “…a barren forest, the snow clinging to naked branches like bandage strips on withered limbs.”  (Nice!)

Author Nancy Bilyeau

Author Nancy Bilyeau

A first novel is hard to write.  A second novel is infinitely harder–probably because one is meant to substantially improve on the first, in plot, in style and content and character.  Bilyeau passes these tests with her colours aloft, even as she weaves a vivid tapestry of those caught up in the ruptures and repercussions of Tudor England, explaining the era’s complex international relations with ease.

Her Chalice offers us skullduggery with depth, a tale tinged with a impermeable sadness over the lost lives of devotion, and a riveting read of a historical thriller.

~~~~~~~~~~~

UKCoverThe ChaliceThe Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau.  Orion Books, London.  438 pps.  28 February 2013.  £20.00/£12.99.

The Lion at Bay…

Let’s be totally clear here.  I am an absolute fool for beautiful language.

Actually, I go well beyond “fool”.  Indeed, it might be more accurate to describe me as careering into abject devotion territory.

I know, you thought that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 57, which begins, Being your slave, what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire…was written for some female or other who might or might not have been called The Dark Lady.

But that’s where you’re wrong.  Because, in fact, it’s about me.

Yes, that’s right.  Shakespeare was writing about me, and my starry-eyed breathlessness and utter self-abnegating devotion to the sheer blissfulness of his poetry and language…

He was also writing about me and my relationship with John Donne–also on account of his poetry and language.  Ehem.

And he was writing about me and Gerard Manley Hopkins…and me and Sir Christopher Fry…and Sir Tom Stoppard…and Pierre de Ronsard…and Homer (the Iliad recited in Homeric Greek is one of the most resplendent works ever to be heard, I promise you)…and Sorley Maclean…and now, the historical novelist, Robert Low.

(Yes, I know he looks like Father Christmas…he might well be Father Christmas for all I know…this writing lark could be his day job, you never know…)

Let’s be clear about another thing, shall we?

I don’t–that is DO NOT–read novels set in the Middle Ages.  I just don’t.

And it’s not that they’re outside my comfort zone or something, it’s that they’re well within it because a long time ago, when camels ruled the earth and all that, I was a mediaevalist and spent my time studying things like the mediaeval European Economics and Anglo-Saxon open field farming and the rise of the guilds and the demographic changes wrought by the Black Death…that is, until I hit sensory and intellectual overload and said, “Nope.  Can’t stick this.  Not at any price.”

lionatbay2For Rob, however, I make an exception.  Because of the immaculate and exquisite artistry he brings to writing in the English language.  I can’t help myself.  I say this having just finished reading his superlative novel, The Lion at Bay–second in his sequence of historical novels about Robert the Bruce, entitled simply The Kingdom.

This is the third paragraph of the new work.  Listen to it.  Feel it.  See it.

The riders were dripping and miserable as old mud, the horses standing with their heads down, hipshot in a sea of tawny bracken and the clawed black roots of heather and furze, only the moss splashed a dazzle of green into the mirr.

Right, that’s it.  I’m his.  Wholly and unconditionally.  And I can no more walk away from this book or these visions of a Scotland, beautiful and rain-swept, riven by conflict–both personal and national–than I can walk away from an eclair au chocolat.  It is not going to happen.

(And if it didn’t make you swoon with the wonder and beauty and wet of it, well, you’re a heartless, soulless, poetryless, anti-literary  nincompetantpoop, and there is nothing I can do for you…)

But that was only the opening.  And that’s what gets me about this guy!  Because every page has at least one paragraph–usually two or three–where I have to stop and read it again, savour it in my mouth, hold it there, breathing through it, allowing its flavours to seep into my head like the finest old wine–I mean, honestly?  This is Chateau Lafite 1929 for the mind.

How about this for literary gorgeousness?

Steam from horses and riders blended with the fine gruel of churned up mud and snow in a sluggish mist that will filled with shouts and grunts and clashes of steel so that the men behind Bruce shifted their horses…Beyond the mud-frothed field loomed the great, dark snow-patched bulk of the castle, where ladies of the court watched from the comfort of a high tower, surrounded by charcoal braziers, swaddled in comforting furs and gloved, so that their applause would sound like the pat of mouse feet…

How beautiful is that in imagery?  In its cadences?  In invention?  In evoking the sounds?  The smells?  The atmosphere?

And so deliciously expressive in its use of language!  Fine gruel of churned up mud and snow in a sluggish mist…?  Mud-frothed field…?  How wondrous is that?

roberthebruceAnd yet, despite the marvel of his language, his artistry in depicting the people and the canvas that was mediaeval Scotland at its most ravaged and clan-torn, this is not lavender kid-glove historical fiction, to be peered at, refinedly, through one’s mother-of-pearl encrusted lorgnette.  For The Lion at Bay charts the period from 1304, between Robert Bruce’s tentative peace with Edward Longshanks–which temporarily halted the English ruination of Scotland–through the saddening decline of William Wallace’s band and his execution, Bruce’s hasty coronation and onto the death (whew!) of Longshanks himself.

It was a dark, terrible and savage time, and Low makes no excuses for depicting the reality of that period which forged the Scots nation and character.

Through a handful of fictional characters with whom one has bonded in quite a personal way in the previous novel, through them–Hal of Herdmanston, Dog-boy (my favourite!), Sim Craw, Kirkpatrick–Low enables the reader to see what they must have seen, to hear and to know, to experience their fears, their grim war-fatigue, their despairing longings for peace, their ruthlessness and vindictive  rage–against the English, against themselves, against their fellow Scots.

I will admit–at one point, I just had to stop reading for a bit.  The level of destruction wrought by the Scots upon each other as they sought to redress imagined and real slights to their honour and loyalties, was so relentless and hate-filled, that I, like Low’s characters, experienced a level of sinking battle-fatigue and loss.  That is fine story-telling!

Low’s depiction of the Bruce–surely the central character around whom all others revolved at this period of history–is masterful.  At once cunning and courageous, physically flawed, driven by doubt, by hubris, by rage, by honour, by glory.  Bruce is no Hollywood hero, but a fracturing and real individual, one whose longing for the crown and his determination to wear it has cost him (and his compatriots) more than he ever knew existed.   Truthfully, he takes my breath away.

As ever, Low’s attention to detail is a wonder–his knowledge of weaponry and warfare (and horses and people) an inspiration.  He is articulate and precise without ever being heavy-handed or pedantic.  Then too, I particularly appreciate his innate understanding of how vital religion and the religious controversies and politics of the day were to everyone.  He never ducks the issue for the sake of squirming by the political correctness brigade.

RobertLowTo the mediaeval Christian mind, especially to those who were bound by their vows as knights, there was no doubt in the truth or the sanctity of the Church’s teachings–doctrines which permeated the very landscape of the inner selves–their daily rituals, their thoughts, their speech defined in detail by the Church–even down to how they might or might not kill their enemy on the jousting field in God’s tourney.  And whilst, again, Low is not heavy-handed, he expertly fashion this world in which the Church was integral and powerful and the common expression of approbation, “Christ be praised!” was always followed by the response, “Forever and ever.”

But as ever, it is the glory of his language that rejoices the heart:  He heard distant laughter, a burst on the breeze, saw the red-flower flutter of flames and shrank away from it, crabbing towards the wall of the garth until the stones nudged his back…

Though Low writes of the barbarity and horror of civil war, of decency and devotion among the ashes and stones, the keening loss of the Scots for their lands and children, all of it, every last morsel of it is written with the pen of a lover and poet, transforming this most bitter of conflicts into a raw and savage beauty.

(Even if he does look like Father Christmas…in the event that Father Christmas wears beads in his beard.)

~~~~~~~

The Lion at Bay by Robert Low.  Harper Collins, London, 2012.  422 pps.  £14.99.

Turn of the Tide…

Today, I have a bit of a treat for you.  An interview with someone I’ve known for a while–Scottish author Margaret Skea.
 
Now the thing is, Margaret and I should have crossed paths when we were both students at the University of St. Andrews.  But we didn’t.  Mainly, I suspect, because Margaret was the very sensible kind of person who attended lectures and wrote her essays and did her work and was in all ways exemplary and charming, while I was…er…not. 
 
That is to say, I was more an idler and a shirker and a feckless scapegrace…
 
[Margaret has since confessed that she wasn’t swotting all the time–she was on the putting green.  The things one finds out…]
 
Ahem. 
 
And whilst she might have run into me inadvertently in Mrs. Whibley’s or in Pepita’s (fine establishments known for their excellent fudge gateau…) I am more than a little certain that had she known me or known of me at all, it would undoubtedly be as the owner of the rather spiffing little classic dark red 1967 Triumph (with a cherrywood dash and red leather seats–utter yum!) in which I zoomed about town…and out of town…and down to Edinburgh for luncheon and a wander in the National Gallery…
 
(What in heaven’s name ever possessed me to sell that car?  What was I thinking?  Honestly!)
 
But I digress.  Back to my rather superb guest today.  Because she is quite superb and she’s written a rather superb book in my humble estimation. 
 
MargaretSkeaI read it sometime ago and I’ll be honest, after twenty years as a book critic, I don’t genuinely like very much, but I liked Margaret’s book, then known as Munro’s Choice.  I enjoyed it.  Her prose was stark and spare and raw which suited the subject matter, conveying the whole mood of the work.  And very much I enjoyed the reality of the Scotland about which she wrote, which was the Scotland I knew and lived in, buffeted by the winds off the North Sea, fierce and beautiful and honest…with not a Disneyfied kilt-a-thon in sight.
 
Not only that, but I genuinely liked her protagonist, Munro.  I can’t really say what it is about him, but he just got under my skin and stayed with me.  And I truly appreciated the very real difficulties in which he was caught up and his efforts to do the right thing and remain true to himself and still protect his family…He’s just a really well-drawn character.  And I loved that about this book.  Just loved it. 
 
TurnoftheTideAnyway, many permutations and rewrites later (ha ha–don’t we all know that story) Turn of the Tide, as it was to be renamed, was Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins /Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition 2011.  And now, it’s just out, courtesy of Capercaillie Publishers…
 
So without further ado, here’s Margaret answering a few of my impertinent questions.
 
 First off, can you tell us a little about the novel?
 
“Turn of the Tide–described as a cinematic blend of fact and fiction set in 16th century Scotland–is essentially the story of a fictional family trapped in a real-life vendetta, which at the time the novel opens has been running for 140 years.
 
“It is about the difficulties and dilemmas of living with an ever-present danger, and the problems posed by divided loyalties and their impact on family, on relationships, and on personal integrity.

“Munro’s family have owed allegiance to the Cunninghames for more than 100 years and in 1586 he is commanded to lead the ambush and slaughter of a group of Montgomeries.  Though he escapes the bloody aftermath, he cannot escape his wife’s disdain or his own internal conflict, struggling with his conscience, with divided loyalties and, most dangerous of all, a growing friendship with the opposing faction.

“The action moves between the domestic setting of a minor laird and the court of James VI, peopled by characters across the spectrum of society – from a snotty-nosed urchin to the King himself.

The period of Scottish history in the novel may not be one readers are familiar with.  I mean, there are scads of books about Robert the Bruce, and heaps about the ’15 and ’45 Rebellions, but very little has been written about Scotland in the 16th century (with the exception of Dorothy Dunnett, of course), so can you tell us a bit about the political and social life of the times, give us a sense of what was going on in Scotland at the time?
 
FalklandPalace“The late 16th century is a fascinating period in Scotland’s history when every aspect of life–social, economic, political and religious, is on the cusp of change.  In some ways life then wasn’t so very different from our own.  Parliamentary records from the mid 16th century deal with issues such as binge drinking on the streets of Edinburgh, a credit crunch and pressures on Scottish trade.
 
JamesVI“But the years of James VI’s minority were characterized by lawlessness and the escalation of many of the centuries old feuds between clans and families.  In the Lowlands ‘reiving’–raiding a neighbour’s property, driving off all their livestock and burning their homes–was a seasonal pastime.

“The distinction between England and Scotland is illustrated by the domestic architecture of the day.  While wealthy Elizabethans are building elegant manor houses, with large, mullioned windows, surrounded by parkland, the socially equivalent Scots are still living in tower houses built in inaccessible places, and for protection rather than comfort, with gun loops, narrow windows, and secondary defensive iron grid doors.

 “James set out to subdue the earls, to raise up a ‘professional’ aristocracy from among the lairds and to promote a more settled and stable society.”

And what about this period intrigues you and keeps drawing you in?  Because let’s face it, writing a novel about a particular era requires that one is wholly engaged and almost mesmerised by it–it’s what keeps you going over the years of research and rewriting…

“This period of history intrigues me partly at least because it is my own story, as I am (or at least I think I am) a descendant of Scottish ‘planters’ who settled in Ulster in the early 17th century.  And partly because growing up in Ulster during the worst of the ‘Troubles’ I understand a little of living with ever-present danger–not expecting violent death, but knowing it might happen at any time.”

  
I’ll be honest, when I first read Turn of the Tide, many drafts ago, one of my favourite things–and I still love this and it’s stayed with me–is how genuine and real your main character, Munro was.  There is nothing false or cliché or stereotypical about him.  He’s just this real guy–okay, yes, a little bit macho–caught up in this political mess.  (I love that!)  How did you come by him?  Did he evolve for you?  Was he always there, just nagging to be written about? What?
 
“In my first draft the historical character Hugh Montgomery was the main character and Munro was merely a two-bit messenger boy, making a ‘cameo’ appearance at the beginning of Chapter 3, charged by the Earl of Glencairn with setting up an ambush.  70,000 words into the draft, James Long (Ferney / The Plot against Pepys) suggested that he would make a fantastic main character.   The following morning I ditched the 70,000 words and the two pages that remained became the opening of Turn of the Tide.

“It was hugely liberating to have a fictional rather than historic main character–one who could move between factions and provide a commentary on both.

“Of course it is a very different story from my original intention, but (I think) a better one.”

Outside of Scotland, there can be this generic view of Scottish history–my Scots son-in-law calls it MacScottish history–and they all talk with a MacScottish accent and there’s this image of castles and glens which is the Highlands or even the Western Isles…you know what I mean.  But it’s hardly the whole picture.  And you’re writing about the Lowlands too–so how was that different in the period of the novel?  And did writing about a Scotland which people think they know, but don’t really know, did that present any unusual challenges?
 
HallibarTower“There are no kilts and claymores here, so not the stereotypical Scots.  Their clothing and their weaponry, unlike the architecture, was closer to that of the north of England than to the Highlands, which made the process of research the more interesting.  Most of the minor castles which feature in this story no longer exist, but it was important to visit similar tower houses and experience at first hand what it would have been like to live there, summer and winter including small details, as, for example, what it felt like to run up a narrow spiral staircase, and just how much ‘puff’ that required.

“Research is an insidious thing–endlessly fascinating–the difficulty is to stop researching and start writing.  And sometimes you stumble across something that you know you just have to include in the story.  In my case that was a 16th century sketch of a ‘walking-stool’–virtually identical to the baby-walker I had for my children–except that it was made of wood and linen, rather than metal and plastic.”

 Without giving away any spoilers–what was your very favourite part of the novel?  What did you write and say about–if only to yourself, “That’s fantastic!  That’s good stuff.”  Equally, what was the hardest part of the writing for you?  The violence?  The ‘trying to keep the clan loyalties straight’ for the reader?  

“I can’t single out any one part of the novel either hardest or easiest to write, but I am proud of the sections dealing with horses and horse riding, for not being a rider myself, nor having had the courage to try, it was encouraging not to be shouted down for inaccuracies by those who do.

“And the most fulfilling moment?  Perhaps the one where what I was writing made me cry.”

And finally, can you quote a passage for us, one that you just feel is your work at its best–maybe a bit of setting or character building–the whet our appetites?

“On the Alan Titchmarsh Show we were given the task of choosing a 30 second extract to provide a flavour of the novel. Here is mine – introducing in 77 words, both hero and villain.

William Cunninghame turned, dark eyes sparking. He made no offer of his hand to Munro, not any attempt at ordinary courtesy.

“What kept you? The job is done?”

There was only one suitable answer. “She will provide the signal.”

“As she should. And willingly, I hope.”

Silence.

“She can be trusted?”

“Oh yes…” Munro thought of the last look with which Lady Margaret had dismissed him. “Your father is a dangerous man to cross. She understands that.”

The novel, Turn of the Tide, is now available from Amazon, from the Book Depository which offers free worldwide p&p, or check out the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/TurnoftheTide.Novel

And many thanks to Margaret for joining me today.  Slainte!

The Chymical Wedding

The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke.  Jonathan Cape, London 1989.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1989.  $19.95.  536 pps.

The intent of the ancient art of alchemy was the transmutation of base metal–lead–into purest gold.  An aberration of the gullible mediaeval mind, you say?  A quaintly arcane footnote to that ultimately superstitious chapter of history, the Middle Ages?  The Chymical Wedding bids one reconsider.

The alchemists maintained that even after ‘the Fall,’ a spark of the divine principle remained in humans; with diligent care and spiritual understanding that base metal–material man–could once again become spiritually whole and golden.  So powerful and transforming is Clarke’s novel that readers will find themselves venturing into the caverns of self-knowledge to rediscover that golden self.

And although Clarke refer to this work as a romance, which it is, The Chymical Wedding transcends the conventions of the genre.  It is at once historical fiction, a philosophical dialectic, a searing commentary on our nuclear age, and a novel of suspense, all of which the author spins out like the best mystery writer in the business.

Fleeing the morass of his crumbled marriage, poet Alex Darken seeks refuge and solace on the quiet depths of rural Norfolk, England.  There, he meets the acerbic, aging poet–Edward Nesbit, the inspiration of his youth–and the poet’s young American companion, Laura.  Intrigued by Laura, enraged and entranced by Nesbit, Darken is drawn from his cocoon of solitude.  He joins the couple in their research on the lives and lost secrets of a Victorian alchemist-poet, Sir Henry Agnew, and his daughter, Louisa Ann.

Paralleling this narrative, Clarke weaves a second in which he related the daily lives of Louisa Ann and her father–the very subject of Nesbit’s investigation.  Both father and daughter are engaged in writing about the Hermetic art of transmutation as a universal panacea.

Like reflex images, the two tales of The Chymical Wedding mirror each other.  Each narrative features a triangle of characters, the contemporary trio mirroring the historical in near perfect symmetry.

Nesbit tells Darken, “Of course, you’re feeling dazed.  Why should you not?  You’ve been struck by lightning after all.  It takes time to recognise that it’s a privilege to be singled out by the gods that way.”

And while the author pursues the innovative and novel, he does not overlook the refinements of what can only be called ‘beautiful style.’  Clarke restores the English and literary to English literature.  His prose is so luminous, so lush with imagery, that he often seems more poet than novelist.  His sentences have a cadence laden with assonance and alliteration.  There is a music to them which begs to be read aloud, to savour phrases as they echo in the ear.

“For a time that young woman had been at her window watching the clouds ferry the October light across the sky as though they were carriers of urgent news.  Except for the rise and fall of her breath she was still…Her dress was of grey silk, its sheen answering to the tilt of the evening light, across the lake, so that she was now little more than a marble’s shadow among shadows.

“For three days, since the month had changed, an easterly had fretted among the trees and would not back, but now she sensed a veering in the air, a softness where things had been gritty and bitter before…The wind gusted to rain beyond the casement.  It was as though the night were throwing small stones at the glass.”

Not since The Name of the Rose has a novel wedded theme and style with such a morally charged punch.  The Chymical Wedding received Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award for 1989. 

May Clarke’s lightning strike a second time.

[This review was first published in The Christian Science Monitor in 1989.]

The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812…

This is a bit awkward. 

On the one hand, it’s fair to say that I would have done just about anything to have on hand the information that Andrew Lambert brings to light in the aforementioned tome when I was writing my May 1812

I would have sold…well, maybe not my soul, but quite probably any number of cakes and mousse au chocolat for the happiness of having all of these documents and accounts so clearly and beautifully laid out before me relating to the three-way trade wars between Napoleonic Europe, Great Britain and the young United States. 

Instead, I spent months piecing together the history of the various Napoleonic and British acts and the American reactions to them.  It was always a case of two lines in this history providing a little information, another small paragraph in another history…

But even if it’s too late for me to include some of the juicier elements in my work, Andrew Lambert has now, at last, most concisely and exhaustively pulled together all the various strands of this messy historic sampler.  And it makes for eye-popping reading. 

(It doesn’t leave many of the American leaders of the time on their pedestals though.  Nor does it paint a very edifying picture of the American press at the time.  Napoleon doesn’t come out very different though–though Lambert did make my day when he called him a ‘fraudster’.  That was a truly happy moment for self.)

But perhaps the greatest challenge to modern American readers will be that Lambert unequivocally proves that the United States did not win the War of 1812. 

They lost.  They achieved none of their alleged aims.  Neither did they attain any of their genuine goals.

What they did achieve was the destruction of New England’s economy, the bankruptcy of their federal government, the burning of the capital, Washington, mass unemployment, destitution and…and…and…

For those who don’t know, who haven’t heard me rant on the subject, the whole thing got started when Napoleon came up with the cunning plan to wage economic warfare on Great Britain.  This he believed would economically cripple Britain so that she could no longer subsidise Continental powers to fight against him, thus allowing him to take the place over.  Very clever, eh? 

So he issued these decrees known as the Berlin and Milan decrees of 1806 and 1807 which were his attempt to exclude all British goods as well as the British ships that carried those goods from any and all Continental ports and markets. 

This was great!  It was going to screw British maritime power to the wall.  They were going to crumble.  Super-dooper, bring me a trooper!  (Well, he may have said words to that effect…who knows?)

Yet strangely, the Brits didn’t think having their economy or their naval power ruined by an upstart Mushroom Corsican, as they liked to call him, was such a good idea.  Nor did Napoleon have a navy with which to enforce his little programme–he’d lost that (oops) at Trafalgar. 

So they retaliated.  With the Orders in Council.  Which declared that all goods carried to the Continent had to be carried in ships which held a license from Britain, etc.  And most importantly, they stepped up their maritime campaign of stopping neutral ships and searching for British seamen who’d decided it was safer to go AWOL than to serve in the Royal Navy.  Which, given that this was a time of war, was both desertion and treason. 

This then, ostensibly, was what the Americans got hepped up about.  And the battle cry rang out, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” Because it was mostly American ships they were stopping, which had, a hefty contingent of said British sailors…

And this is where Lambert’s work shines so brilliantly.  

For he demonstrates, beyond cavil, that this was really nothing but a political feint.  And it was a propaganda war from the get-go.  As he writes it, “Americans believed that large numbers of American-born sailors were being impressed.  In fact rather less than 10% of the American maritime workforce suffered this fate…A project to surrender all British sailors in American ships in return for the British ending the impressment of Americans was quietly dropped because half of all skilled seamen in American merchant ships were British.” 

President Jefferson was–he who headed off the American reaction to this economic war–as Lambert illustrates over and over again, fiercely Anglophobic and naively, determinedly Francophile.  He was putty in Napoleon’s Froggie hands.

He was also no economist.  He produced his response to the situation even before Congress had received notice of the British Orders in Council. 

And his cunning plan?  The Embargo Act which blocked the American export trade.  As Lambert says, “To punish Britain Jefferson made war on American merchants.  The results were disastrous:  economic hardship obliged American merchants and seafarers to smuggle…Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act would be a useful adjunct to Napoleon’s war against Britain, and that in return a grateful Emperor would give him the prize he really wanted, Spanish Florida.” 

But of course, the Emperor wasn’t playing. 

Yet as Lambert argues, “Jefferson’s futile Embargo had long antecedents:  in 1785 he had argued that America should follow the commercial policy of China ‘to practice neither commerce or navigation’.  He…never changed his view that American merchants were corrupt and corruptible.  He dreamt of an agricultural America…” 

And James Madison, his successor to the Presidency was just as blinkered. 

Though the Federal Government was kept afloat by the taxes and excise they collected from the New England states’ import/export businesses, to the tune of some 98%, in order to pursue their land-grab of Canada while Britain had all her troops otherwise occupied, they played into the hands of Napoleon, wrecked their own trade and economic viability and eventually were cozened into declaring war on Britain.

Lambert also puts on display the extreme bile Madison and his cronies pumped into a press too eager to play the jingoistic tunes of their politicians.  The accounts of the various naval actions–accounts which shew that British gunners were out-firing their American counterparts by 3-1–which actions were then twisted into triumphs…in a way, well, it makes for sickening reading. 

The lack of honesty or honour, the deceit on display is just…Truthfully, it’s a bit gutting.  I’d always thought that Jefferson was this visionary ‘liberty for all’ fellow, you know.  Brilliant with a quill.  With an eternally great way with words.  The most idealistic of the Enlightened thinkers.  An ingenious inventor. 

Professor Lambert has shown him to be the opposite–to be vindictive, vituperative, economically idiotic, predatory, and base.  Denying and lying about Napoleon’s tyrannical reign over Europe, sending gentle good men over to ‘negotiate’ with the monster, who obviously didn’t stick around to be negotiated with…

And the battles.  Holy wow! 

Of course, they’re written with all the verve and derring-do of a Patrick O’Brian clash at sea. 

But these were real men, and the actions pitted the professional seamen of the Royal Navy–men who drilled and drilled and worked hard at being the best in all weathers–against blaggarts and braggadocios, some brave, but too many who initiated actions against ships much, much smaller than themselves and then who crowed victory and lied about the disparity in size. 

And when they really were outgunned and outmanoeuvred and outfought, such as when the HMS Shannon took the USS Chesapeake in one of the bloodiest actions of any naval war on 1 June 1813–in 13 minutes, the American press invented scapegoats and declared it a victory anyway.

The whole unfoldment of action which led to the burning of the capital makes for pretty gob-smacking reading too.  There’s always been this prim, self-righteous shock and horror professed over those meanie Brits who came and burned (can you imagine anything so demonic, so savage?) the charming, innocent, delightful little American capital. 

(Forgive me if I’m sounding sarky here.) 

But hang on a minute, one wants to say to Madison and his mates.  This was war.  You declared it on Britain.  Did you think it’d be a picnic?  A riparian entertainment with sparklers? 

Did you miss the part about there being a world war on?  Did Jefferson, in his Francophile gushing, not notice that one of the methods of military engagement was the occupation [and destruction] of the enemy’s capital?  Such as Napoleon did to Berlin.  And Vienna.  And Madrid.  And Moscow.  Or did he fail to read those parts of the news bulletins?  

And what happened really? 

It had needed only 4000 troops to capture the American capital and torch the various public buildings, including the White House and the Navy Yard, as Lambert says, “revealing the unimaginable folly of a government that deliberately picked a fight with a global power, allegedly about questions of principle, without bothering to raise an army or navy capable of defending the country.  By 1814 the only effective American armies were attempting to conquer Canada.”     

The war whimpered to a close in 1814 with the American negotiators quietly dropping all the demands for which they’d allegedly gone to war.  They just wanted out.  They couldn’t afford any more of it.  And Napoleon hadn’t won in Russia as they’d hoped he would.  In fact, he’d lost all of his Empire and been forced to abdicate. (Ouch.)

So, they stopped whinging about British deserters being removed from American ships, etc.  They stopped sending troops up to take Canada–they changed their song from we’ll get Canada and land, land, land, to isn’t it great we haven’t lost any territory…that kind of thing. 

At this point, I’m probably just babbling. 

What can I tell you?  Lambert has simply blown me out of the water with his searing account of this disastrous American war which they’ve somehow blagged into an iconic victory over a 19th century superpower.   

And there are so many reasons for recommending this book that I can only gawp at the sheer number of them.  So all I can honestly say is:  Buy it.  Read it.  Wonder at it.  Andrew Lambert’s The Challenge.  It really is that good.