Friday, February 27, 2015

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"La force et violence sont plus de la beste que de l'homme. Le droit vient de la plus divine partie qui soit en nous, qui est la raison."

"Force and violence pertain more to animals than to man. Justice comes from the most divine part of ourselves, which is reason."

Michel de l'Hospital (1506-1573) 
Parlementarian, Superintendent of Finances, Chancellor of France
Traité de la Réformation de la Justice, seconde partie

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Poet and the Priory

The Prieré Saint-Cosme. Photo credit: sybarite48
As announced on the website, the Prieuré Saint-Cosme, home of the poet Pierre de Ronsard from 1565 to 1585, has reopened after several months of renovations and archeological work. Located near Tours, Saint-Cosme was founded in the eleventh century to receive pilgims en route to Saint James of Compostella in Spain. Suppressed in 1742, the priory's buildings were either partially dismantled or used for secular purposes. Aerial bombardments during World War II spared only the prior's residence, bits of the chapel, and the monks' refectory. The site came under government protection in 1951 and after renovation, reopened to the public. In the 1980's, over 200 species of roses were planted in nine gardens spread over more than five acres of the grounds, a special tribute to Ronsard and his famous poem to Cassandre:

Mignonne allons voir si la rose,
Qui ce matin avoit desclose
Sa robe de pourpre au Soleil,
A point perdu ceste vestrée
Les plis de sa robe pourprée,
Et sa teint au vostre pareil.

Pierre de Ronsard. Photo credit: Carcharoth
Premier poet of the French Renaissance, Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) joined the court of François I as a page at the age of twelve and spent the rest of his life in service to king and court. He received the tonsure of a cleric in 1543, which permitted him to benefit from prebends bestowed by his royal patrons. As a founding member of the group of poets known as the Pléïade, Ronsard worked to raise the esteem of the French language and its poetry to levels enjoyed by classical poets. His many works, among them the Odes (1550), Amours (1552), Hymnes (1555), and Elégies (1565), solidified the elegance of the vernacular tongue and established him as France's leading poet by midcentury. He was a particular favorite of King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Médicis, who granted him the benefice of the Prieuré Saint-Cosme in 1565. Ronsard spent much time at Saint-Cosme during the last two decades of his life and died there on December 27, 1585, after penning his Derniers vers. He is buried in the church.

The prior's house, in which Ronsard lived during his sojourns at Saint-Cosme, now houses a museum dedicated to the poet's life and works. The Prieuré Saint-Cosme and its gardens would a lovely and significant stop on any tour of the Loire Valley.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Winner of THE PRICE OF BLOOD: Amended

Linda, the original winner of THE PRICE OF BLOOD, has already won the book through another contest. She generously offered to allow me to select a different winner for this copy. This time around, the random number generator chose Alison Alexander. Congratulations!

Winners of THE PRICE OF BLOOD Giveaway

The winners of the random drawing for Patricia Bracewell's books have been chosen.

Linda has won a copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD.

Marsha Lambert has won SHADOW ON THE CROWN.

I will contact the winners by email to obtain mailing addresses for the publisher.

My apologies for the delay in announcing the winners. Thanks to Viking Books for sponsoring the contest and to all who entered. I hope you all find the opportunity to enjoy Patricia Bracewell's marvelous books.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Interview with Patricia Bracewell, Author of THE PRICE OF BLOOD

Today the second installment of Patricia Bracewell's Emma of Normandy Trilogy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, publishes from Viking Books. A gripping, richly textured continuation of the story that began with SHADOW ON THE CROWN (Viking, 2013), THE PRICE OF BLOOD dramatizes Queen Emma's efforts to protect England from the Viking armies ravaging the kingdom. Patricia has graciously offered to answer some questions about eleventh century history and the crafting of her novel.
1.  An excerpt from a twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, opens the book, describing how King Æthelred was “hounded by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood.” Had you located this quotation before you began writing the novel, or was it a later, fortuitous find? From what you can tell, was William of Malmesbury, who wrote 100 years after Æthelred’s death, the first to draw a link between Æthelred’s disastrous reign and his guilt over his brother’s murder, or was this curse, so to speak, acknowledged by Aethelred’s own contemporaries?

I found the Malmesbury quote early on in my research. It was what gave me the idea for a ghost that haunts the king. As to whether William of Malmesbury was the first person to equate Edward’s murder with the disastrous events in Æthelred’s reign, it’s difficult to say. Certainly the Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, Wulfstan, claimed in a sermon that “laws of the people have deteriorated entirely too greatly, since Edgar (Æthelred’s father) died… Edward was betrayed, and then killed, and after that burned…things have not prospered now for a long time…and the English have been entirely defeated…through the anger of God.” So there was definitely a connection drawn between great sin in the land and God’s punishing hand via the Viking raids, and certainly the unpunished murder of a king was one of those sins.

2. You structure THE PRICE OF BLOOD, as you did the first novel of the trilogy, by year, prefacing each section with a corresponding snippet taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. How did you go about fleshing out this rather sketchy record of battles and troop movements? Did the spareness of the account help or hinder your imagination?

The spareness of the account was sometimes frustrating, and I often wished for a lot more information. The Chronicle frequently tells us rather vaguely WHAT happened, but it rarely gives us adequate background. It never says HOW or WHY something occurred. My story, though, is not history; it’s fiction. It’s about people and their relationships with each other, what drives each of them, what they love and what they hate. It’s about jealousy, passion, tenderness, sorrow, regret – human emotions and human endeavors. That doesn’t exist anywhere in the chronicles, so filling in the blanks was really a matter of creating characters that I found believable based on what I knew of the history, putting them in conflict with each other, and taking that emotional journey with them.

3. What aspect of eleventh-century life has proven most difficult to research and how have you compensated for the lack of information?

Trying to discover what an average day in the life of an eleventh-century royal was like was not easy. How large was a royal household? Would the queen know everyone in it? What did she do in the course of a day? The thing is, an average day in anyone’s life is not all that compelling to read about. So a good story has to be about the days that are different, when people are sick, or someone has died, or word comes that a Viking army has invaded Canterbury. So I would highlight little things – women stitching an embroidery, a man stirring honey for mead, the king out hawking – but almost as soon as I described such an activity, I disrupted it with a disaster of some kind. The setting is important. The story is even more important.

4. This novel continues to pit two strong female characters, Queen Emma and Elgiva, daughter of a powerful northern nobleman, against each other, although this time from a distance. How did you strive to meet the challenge of nuancing Emma and Elgiva to prevent them from becoming simple “good girl/bad girl” foils? Was it difficult to keep Elgiva and her antics from overshadowing Emma, who finds herself sorely constrained by the king’s determination to sideline her?

Yes, it was difficult to keep Elgiva from taking over the book! Her scenes are all quite dramatic. One reason for that is because we know nothing about her in those years, so I had a much freer hand in inventing her story than I did with Emma. I also kind of like to torture Elgiva. But she’s tough! She can take it. The nuancing – and I’m thrilled by your description of that – comes from the fact that I’ve given both women back-stories and interior lives. At least, that’s what I’ve tried to do. And neither one of them is all good or all bad. Emma’s motives are purer than Elgiva’s, but she’s not perfect. She keeps secrets from the king, for example; she is at a loss as to how to control her step-daughters; and she sometimes puts her own needs before those of her children. Elgiva is more self-centered, but she’s adept at managing her property and her people, and she’s like a tigress when she wants something. She’s not shy about going after it. Emma is all about duty; Elgiva refuses to behave. They’re both strong women, but they react to adversity in different ways.

King Athelstan of England.
Earliest surviving portrait of an English king.
5. The rift between Æthelred and his son Athelstan continues to grow, especially as Athelstan finds himself supplanted by the king’s advisor Eadric. What aspect of Athelstan’s character intrigues you most? What would you consider to be his greatest flaw?

I suppose the thing that intrigues me the most about Athelstan is his unwillingness to seize his father’s throne. Historically, he did not rebel, although he clearly had strong ties to the northern lords who were dissatisfied with Æthelred’s rule. As a result, I had to come up with reasons why he didn’t make that move, and I explore those in the novel. As for Athelstan’s greatest flaw, I suppose it’s his habit of backing off when things don’t go the way he thinks they should. He doesn’t push his father hard enough or enlist the support necessary to sway the king around to his way of thinking. It sounds strange to say that this is a fault, but Athelstan is not devious enough. He’s too honest in a world where strategy, intrigue and ruthlessness are the keys to success.

6. Oftentimes an author will find herself writing a scene she never set out to write, a scene that flows almost effortlessly and winds up playing a key role in the development of the plot. Did you have such an experience while writing THE PRICE OF BLOOD? Which scene in the book was the most satisfying to write? Which one had you tearing out your hair in frustration?

Honestly, I don’t think I had any scene that flowed even close to effortlessly! One scene that comes to mind as one I didn’t set out to write occurs early on, when Elgiva and Alric are in a wattle and daub hut together. I had no idea what was going to happen there, or where they would go afterwards. They sort of worked it out between them, and I wrote it down. The scene that was the most satisfying to write was the scene in the hunting lodge at Corfe where there is a lot of interaction between the sons of the king. I especially enjoyed writing about Athelstan’s perceptions of his brothers and Edwig’s drunken, smart-ass comments. As for scenes that had me tearing my hair out, there were lots of those, but especially the scenes with the ghost. I wanted each spectral appearance to be similar to the others, yet unique in some way. It was a real challenge.

7. Can you believe you will soon be deep into the third book of the trilogy? What has meant the most to you on this journey?

What has moved me the most has been the response of my family – husband, sons, siblings – who have all loved the book and have been so proud of me. The reactions of readers have meant a lot, too. Many of them have become great fans of Emma of Normandy, and because my goal in writing this trilogy has been to resurrect Queen Emma’s name from the footnotes of history, the many readers who have “discovered” Emma have made me believe that I’m accomplishing what I set out to do.

Thank you, Patricia, for answering my questions, and congratulations on this exciting day! Readers might like to read my review of THE PRICE OF BLOOD. The drawing for a free copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD or SHADOW ON THE CROWN will be open until February 12, 2015. Enter in the comment stream following the review.


Patricia Bracewell grew up in California where she taught literature and composition before embarking upon her writing career. She has always been fascinated by English history, which led to her studying Anglo-Saxon history at Downing College, Cambridge University. She has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Oakland, California.

If you would like to learn more about Patricia and her books and view the list of her upcoming author appearances, please visit her website and her blog.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review and Giveaway: THE PRICE OF BLOOD by Patricia Bracewell

The second installment of Patricia Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy trilogy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD (Viking, February 5, 2015), expands and deepens the eleventh century world the author so convincingly recreated in 2013’s SHADOW ON THE CROWN. Using the sketchy summary events of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as her warp, Bracewell weaves a richly detailed, compelling tale of ambition, duty, and forbidden love. As does the best historical fiction, THE PRICE OF BLOOD immerses its reader in a milieu replete with particulars of time and place in order to better examine the essential constants of human nature. As well-researched and beautifully drawn as Bracewell’s Anglo-Saxon England is—the author deserves much praise for the deft assurance with which she evokes Britain’s far past—it is her deeply resonant, finely nuanced characterizations that capture the reader’s interest and heart.

The novel opens in 1006, with the kingdom of England in the direst of straits. Famine stalks the land; illness and accident strike down the king’s sons, one after the other; northern ealdormen, only tenuously loyal to their southern king, grumble and conspire against him. No longer satisfied with bribes, Danish Vikings raid and pillage far inland; full-scale invasion looms. Convinced he labors under a curse for having stolen his brother’s throne, uneasy King Aethelred defies anyone or anything that seeks to break his hold on the crown. Seconded by an upstart advisor as self-serving and ruthless as the Danes themselves, Aethelred shuns the advice, and even the presence, of his sons, his proven allies, and his politically astute Norman wife, Queen Emma. But try as Aethelred might to shunt her aside, Emma refuses to retire. Determined to preserve the kingdom intact for her young son, Aethelred's designated heir, she cultivates a coalition of sympathetic allies and earns the respect and devotion of the English people through her courage and compassion. And little though Aethelred will like it, Emma harbors a secret skill that just might prove the key to England’s salvation—though it could well cost her the trust of the man she loves, the king’s eldest son Athelstan.

Against the surging backdrop of imminent Danish doom, the four viewpoint characters—Emma, Athelstan, Aethelred, and Elgiva, the beautiful, conniving noblewoman set on supplanting Emma as queen—seek to order for themselves the demands of loyalty, ambition and love. Desperate to preserve his seat on the throne, Aethelred sows division among his nobles and sons, endangering the very existence of the kingdom he rules. Athelstan, urged by the king’s dismayed allies to wrest the throne for himself, struggles to define what he owes a father whose disastrous indecision all but assures Danish victory and who has repaid his allegiance by naming Emma’s son as heir. Athelstan’s love for Emma only compounds the cost of continued loyalty to his unstable father. Wily Elgiva, forced to fend for herself after Aethelred cruelly executes her father and brothers, turns to the Danes for help in landing a throne. Her determination to rise by whatever means necessary contrasts sharply with Emma’s devotion to her children, her kingdom, and her vows. But Emma’s selflessness comes at great personal cost, as she can only further her son’s future at the expense of Athelstan’s standing and happiness. With consummate skill, Bracewell stirs the reader’s sympathy for each of these characters and their conflicting desires. A delicious, compelling tension results, for the reader knows all four cannot succeed. Who will triumph and at what price?

Evoking the pagan mindset that persists alongside the kingdom’s official—and threatened—Christianity, themes of curse and prophecy inform the narrative. Aethelred suffers visions of his murdered brother’s wraith and believes his reign cursed to failure. Athelstan repeatedly seeks out a seeress for guidance, only to be told that fire and smoke will engulf England and calamity awaits the king’s sons. Wedded to a prophecy that foresaw her as queen, Elgiva embraces the enemy and the dark arts. Though restricted by her husband’s commands and the conventions of queenship, Emma alone operates unencumbered by preconceived notions of her fate. Relying on her faith and wits to guide her, she forges her own destiny, one that may well decide that of her adopted people. In the forthcoming third installment of the trilogy, we will discover how well she succeeds.

As for author Patricia Bracewell, she has nimbly avoided the curse of the mediocre middle book. One need not be a seeress to predict that THE PRICE OF BLOOD will grow her devoted and appreciative audience and establish her as a premier writer of historical fiction today.

Patricia Bracewell grew up in California where she taught literature and composition before embarking upon her writing career. She has always been fascinated by English history, which led to her studying Anglo-Saxon history at Downing College, Cambridge University. She has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Oakland, California.

If you would like to learn more about Patricia and her books and view the list of her upcoming author appearances, please visit her website and blog.

Viking Books has graciously offered one paperbound edition of SHADOW ON THE CROWN and one hardbound copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD for giveaway to readers with US shipping addresses (no P.O. boxes, please). A winner will be drawn at random for each book. If you would like to enter the drawings, please leave a comment below indicating which book you desire. If you would like to enter both drawings, please state so. Make sure your comment includes an email address at which you may be reached. Contest closes at 11 pm Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Winners will be announced here on Friday, February 13, 2015. Good luck!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Review and Giveaway: RODIN'S LOVER by Heather Webb

Written with a passion and conviction worthy of the sculptor herself, Heather Webb's new novel RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, January 2015) explores the tumultuous life, troubled psyche, and splendid achievements of Camille Claudel, student, protégée and rival of artist Auguste Rodin. Born in an era that expected bourgeoise women to reflect their husbands' glory, Camille determines instead to amplify her own. Gifted with the skills, vision and tenacity necessary to succeed as an artist, she confronts head-on the prejudices and condescension of the male artistic establishment, showing pieces in Salon exhibitions and even earning a civic commission. But Camille's success does not come without price--like a file on fine marble, the constant strife wears away at her mental and emotional stability, exacerbating paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies. Her romantic relationship with Rodin becomes both a crucible of creativity and the catalyst of the tortured artist's ultimate undoing.

Camille at work
Webb's Camille is as entrancing and rough-hewn as one of her statues. The novel opens with her tussling with her beloved brother, shirking lessons to gather clay in the woods, and vowing to a raven, under a full moon, to pursue her dreams. Once in Paris, she devours the sights, sounds and smells of the city with ravenous delight and watches, with endearing curiosity, a male model undress before the class on the first day of art school. She toys with the suitors her mother insists she meet, charming them into abandoning the hunt. She loses herself for hours in her quest to coax beauty from unformed lumps of earth and resistant rock. She pursues the best models and the finest teachers, her belief in herself and her devotion to her calling never wavering. Yet for all her passion and joie de vivre, Camille has an abrasive side, one that Webb never shirks from depicting. The seeds of Camille's mental illness sprout early, nourished by the critical waters of her mother's rejection. Ever fearful of abandonment, Camille refuses to allow others close, especially women. She rebuffs overtures of friendship and systematically destroys the few attachments that manage to take hold. Webb is careful to associate Camille's increasing alienation with descriptions of the physical symptoms that assail her (metallic tastes, vision problems, hallucinations, and an insidious Voice that ever murmurs suspicious suggestions in her ear), inspiring sympathy for rather than annoyance with the character. The reader experiences the unravelling of the artist's promise and very self in real time and marvels that Camille accomplishes all she does, given the panoply of internal and external obstacles arrayed against her.

Webb's Rodin pales in comparison to the vibrant, tormented Camille. Waging his own battle against the establishment, he yearns for acceptance by the state yet refuses to sculpt in the style that would earn him ready praise. His collaboration and liaison with Camille becomes the source of inspiration and passion he needs to lift his work to a level of genius that even the advocates of decency and civic virtue can't ignore. But just as Rodin can't shake his need for approval--though he might declare otherwise--he cannot abandon Rose, his lover of twenty years, despite his impassioned avowals of love for Camille. He supports Camille in every way he can, training her, introducing her to critics, buying supplies and renting studio space, treating her to holidays and dinners, yet he refuses to commit himself fully to her. Rodin's bourgeois hesitancy leads the reader to wonder whether Camille's accusations that Rodin steals her ideas and profits from her work are simply the ravings of a disturbed mind. In any case, Webb's depiction of the artists' affair reflects the nagging question of whether Camille would have achieved success without Rodin's help back onto the artist himself. Wedded to his tired housekeeper and bourgeois values, Rodin might never have surpassed the limits of circumstance if not coaxed beyond them by the passion and courage of Camille.

In this, her second novel, Heather Webb tackles weighty subjects: mental illness, envy, oppression, illicit love. That she does so in a way that preserves Camille's integrity and prevents her from becoming an object of pity testifies to Webb's skill as a writer. This novel of passion and power in Belle Époque France both satisfies and inspires, illuminating an artist who spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum and still, to this day, lingers in the shadow of man. Thanks to Webb, that shadow has become all the shorter.

Tender yet resolute, soulful but never dark, RODIN'S LOVER pulses with the sensuous tempo of a lover's waltz. Deeper and defter than Webb's debut, it promises even richer work to come.

Heather Webb is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, 2013) and RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, 2015), a freelance editor, and blogger. You may also find her contributing to award-winning writing sites including Writer Unboxed and Romance University. When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. Visit her website and her blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


This review is part of the RODIN'S LOVER book tour organized by France Book Tours. Please visit the France Book Tours website for additional information and to read other reviews of Heather's book. France Book Tours has organized a giveaway of two copies of the novel, open to readers in the USA and Canada. Fill out the form at the France Book Tours website and enter today!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview with Priya Parmar, Author of VANESSA AND HER SISTER

Priya Parmar discusses her just released novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine). The novel has been chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Authors Spring 2015 Pick and is receiving wonderful press reviews. You can read my own review here.

1. How did you become interested in the Bloomsbury group and what compelled you to write about them?

I was reading a selection of Vanessa Bell’s letters and came across a letter that she wrote rejecting Clive Bell’s marriage proposal. The letter was startlingly modern and her tone was so authentic and likeable. Her character stepped off the page right there.

2. You chose to explore the Stephen sisters’ relationship from Vanessa’s point of view in the form of her private diary. What advantages did this structure and perspective afford you? In what ways did it limit you?

I am always interested in looking at familiar history through unfamiliar lenses. Vanessa Bell was the absolute center of the group but her letters have never been widely published and she did not leave behind a diary. Her unfamiliar voice in the midst of these well-known characters was fascinating to me.

Lytton (1912) by Vanessa Bell
3. You cleverly insert postcards, snippets of letters, facsimile tickets, telegrams and other non-narrative items between Vanessa’s diary entries in order to introduce other viewpoints into the story. Were these actual historical documents or did you fabricate them to advance the storyline and themes? At what point during the writing process did you insert them and how did you decide they were needed?

Everything in the novel was fictional but the design team at Random House and I worked from original documentation to create the look of the ephemera. They were all created in the style of existing primary documents and they are all based on actual correspondence. Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf several times a week and Roger Fry wrote to his wife Helen from his posting in America.

4. In the novel, Vanessa’s culmination as an artist coincides with her estrangement from Virginia. How dependent do you feel Vanessa’s success was on her ability to free herself of Virginia’s emotional demands?

This is very much a novel. It is a guess, a hat tossed into the ring at the interior landscape of these historical figures. Vanessa stepped into prominence with Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition and it did coincide with the end of Virginia Woolf’s emotional entanglement with Clive Bell. That much is fact. My fictional Vanessa had to emancipate herself before she could fully step into her role as an artist.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell
5. You portray Virginia as brilliant yet fragile and emotionally manipulative of those she loves. Did you worry about portraying such a revered literary figure in a less-than-complimentary light? How would you respond to someone who took issue with your portrayal?

It was terrifying. But my portrayal was grounded in huge amounts of research and I cleared it with several Woolf experts and then showed it to Woolf’s descendants. Once the brilliant writer Virginia Nicholson (Woolf’s great niece and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter) read the novel and approved it, I felt much better!

6. How did writing from the viewpoint of a visual artist challenge you as a writer?

I have a dear friend who is an artist and I spoke to her about her relationship with her work. It helped enormously as it is such a very different creative process from writing.

7. The novel begins with Virginia’s plea for forgiveness and ends with Vanessa’s refusal to grant it. Did the sisters ever completely reconcile in real life?

We do not know for certain. Based upon Angelica Garnett’s writing, no, I do not think they ever completely healed the rift. But they loved each other fiercely for the remainder of their lives.

8. What strategies did you use to help manage the novel’s large cast of supporting characters?

I had an extraordinary editor! She helped me to clarify and simplify. The cast was originally much larger!

9. If you could write the story of the Bloomsbury group from the perspective of any character other than Vanessa or Virginia, whom would you choose and why?

Ottoline Morrell. Because she was underestimated and underestimated people are always surprising.

10. What is the best bit of advice about writing or the writing life you have to pass on to as-yet unpublished authors?

Write the story that is in your head. Even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Write it the way you hear it in your mind.

A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, EXIT THE ACTRESS. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London. You can find out more about Priya at her website.

Review: VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

You see, Nessa and I are more than just sisters. We are different--exceptional. 

So writes Virginia Woolf to a friend in Priya Parmar's captivating new novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine, 2014). Exceptional Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell certainly were--exceptional for their contributions to the world of art and letters, exceptional for their pivotal roles in the intellectual circle that gathered at their home, exceptional in the importance each held in the other's emotional life.

But whereas Virginia thrives on being more than "just sisters" with her sibling, the Vanessa Parmar presents in her novel would relish the more circumscribed role. Beneath the broader story Parmar paints with verve of the bohemian escapades and intellectual ebullience of the Bloomsbury intellectuals, the sisters' conflict--Virginia's determination to retain Vanessa's complete attention and Vanessa's desperation to escape this obsessive preoccupation--builds to an agonizing climax.

Vanessa Bell (1902) by George Beresford
Vanessa, an accomplished painter, narrates the novel as a private journal covering the period 1905 to 1912. Recently orphaned, the four young and wealthy Stephens siblings set up house in a past-its-prime neighborhood of London. Just as the neighborhood has shed the glory of its Victorian heyday, the group of artists, writers, students and critics that frequents the house eagerly dispenses with stuffy convention. They keep mixed company, drop in unannounced, refuse to dress for dinner, and call each other by their given names. Couples--both hetero- and homosexual--form and reform at will. Applying this unfettered enthusiasm to their various pursuits--Virginia, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey to literature; Vanessa, Duncan Grant, Robert Fry, and Clive Bell to visual art; John Maynard Keyes to economics--they make their mark in the more avant-garde fringes of their respective fields. The group feeds off the confrontation of ideas and personalities that occurs at the Stephens' drawing room. Vanessa, with straightforward level-headedness and unaffected frankness, anchors the group, while brilliant, fragile Virginia provides the animating spark--when the mood and inclination strikes her.

Virginia Woolf (1902) by George Beresford
Virginia's emotional fragility has long been Vanessa's prime worry. The writer has had previous nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa is ever wary of seeing her sister succumb yet again. Virginia thrives on being the center of attention and is particularly adept at manipulating her brothers, sister and friends so as to remain there. She wields an unhealthy hegemony over Vanessa, who recognizes the danger in her sister's constant need for more--more affection, more contact, more safety, more secrets--yet has had little reason, or willingness, to deny her. Things change when Vanessa falls in love with Clive Bell and contemplates marriage. The exclusivity she and Clive share necessitates distance from Virginia, but Virginia refuses to retreat. She fights abandonment the only way she knows--by claiming what Vanessa has for herself. Will Vanessa realize what is happening before it is too late? More importantly, will she risk her sister's mental stability in order to secure her own happiness?

With keen psychological insight, Parmar explores the sisters' interdependence and follows the trail of need and betrayal to its unfortunate end. In so doing, she finds an inviting entry into the densely populated and much examined world of Bloomsbury. The sisters' conflict mirrors the larger questions of the age, illustrating the clash of theory and practice in the arena of values--for all their eagerness to jettison conventional roles and traditional virtues during debate, the characters find little comfort in their bohemian free-spiritedness when it comes to the concreteness of their particular lives. Based on extensive research and thorough familiarity with the historical characters' private papers, VANESSA AND HER SISTER delves deep into the sisters' psyches to elucidate the cause of their estrangement. Beautifully executed and ever convincing, Parmar's novel found a ready place on my list of the year's best reads.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Étrennes: A New Year's Tradition

It has long been a tradition in France to give gifts on New Year's Day. The word étrennes (as opposed to the more generic cadeaux) refers specifically to these New Year's gifts, now usually bestowed as signs of appreciation to the doorman, the letter carrier, and others who provide service throughout the year.

In the sixteenth century, Christmas was observed as a religious  holiday, so gifts were given at the turn of the new year. So popular was the practice that it took on a poetic form. François I's court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544), sent short, epigrammatic poems to members of the court at the holiday. Although he wrote étrennes throughout his career, in 1541 Marot published a collection of forty-one of them addressed to the ladies of the court. In each poem, he presents a gift to the lady he names.

For example, to Queen Eléonore (François's second wife and sister of his enemy Charles V) he grants accord between her husband and brother:

Au ciel ma Dame je crye,
Et Dieu prie,
Vous faire veoir au printemps
Frere, & mary si contents
Que tout rye.

Madame, I cry to heaven,
And beg God,
That you may see by springtime
Your brother and husband so happy
That everyone laughs.

To the Dauphine, Catherine de Medici, barren for the first decade or so of her marriage, he grants a child:

A Ma Dame la Daulphine
Rien n'assigne:
Elle a ce, qu'il faut avoir,
Mais je la vouldroys bien veoir
En gesine.

To Madame la Daulphine
I prescribe nothing:
She has what she needs,
But I would really like to see her
On the point of giving birth.

To Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister, who was one of Marot's staunchest supporters:

A la noble Marguerite,
Fleur d'eslite,
Je luy donne aussi grand heur
Que sa grace, & sa grandeur
Le merite.

To the noble Marguerite,
Flower of the elite,
I give the good fortune
That her grace and greatness

And to Madame d'Etampes, the king's long-time mistress:

Sans prejudice à personne,
Je vous donne
La pomme d'or de beaulté,
Et de ferme loyaulté
La couronne.

Without wronging anyone,
I give to you
The golden apple of beauty
And the crown
Of firm loyalty.

In these brief and often mordant poems, Marot provides us a snapshot of the personalities and the concerns of the French court around 1539-- a literary version, if you will, of Jean Clouet's chalk portraits. One wonders if the courtiers played guessing games with the étrennes as they did with the sketches.

I'm no Marot, so I'll have to wish you all--in prose--a healthy, happy new year filled with good fortune of every kind!

[Marot's verse quoted from Gérard Defaux's edition, Classiques Garnier (1993). Translations mine.]
A version of this post originally appeared on Writing the Renaissance on January 1, 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Reads of 2014

Time for me to choose the best of the nearly thirty novels I read for pleasure in 2014. Many wonderful novels passed through my hands this year (see sidebar for the complete list); choosing the top eight proved to be quite a difficult task. The books that made the cut engaged me from the first page, sustained my interest throughout, and remained with me long after I closed the cover. They spoke to me through their lovely use of language, the uniqueness of their voice, the artfulness of their plot, and their depth of character and theme. Some were published this year, others years ago; several are outstanding debuts, others the work of more established authors. I thank these authors for the pleasurable hours I spent lost in the pages their wonderful, accomplished stories.

In alphabetical order:

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

The story of a blind French girl working for the Resistance and a young Nazi engineer whose lives become inextricably bound through the invisible power of radio waves, this marvelous literary novel caught the book world by surprise. Narrated in short chapters that alternate between the two character's perspectives, the novel explores love, patriotism, and the nature of goodness amid the deprivation and devastation of war.

by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2005)

I was late to the party on this one, but so glad I came! In a wry yet sympathetic voice that eschews melodrama, Death recounts the story of a German foster girl who survives the horrors of the Holocaust by stealing books and sharing them--with neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her cellar. The story illustrates the power of the written word to free the soul even as it bridges the chasms that separate us.

by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 2013)

A Nebula nominee and winner of numerous prestigious awards, this stunning debut novel blends history with fantasy as a mythical Jewish golem encounters a Syrian jinni in turn-of-the-century New York City. I knew little about either folklore when I started reading, but the novel's inventive premise, convincing setting, sympathetic characters, and intriguing conflicts grabbed hold of my imagination and didn't let go until the satisfying end. An unusual and truly glorious read.   

by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012)

This story appeals through both its unique setting and the depth of its moral conflict. Living alone as lighthouse keepers on a secluded island off the western coast of Australia, a young couple rescues a baby from a boat smashed against the rocks. Having lost several children to miscarriages, the wife begs to keep this child as their own. Against his better judgment, the husband agrees...until they return to the mainland and discover the devastation their decision has wrought upon the child's real mother. Can Tom right the wrong without tearing his family apart? A poignant reminder that actions can be wrong for all the right reasons...

by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2013)

Longbourn reimagines PRIDE AND PREJUDICE from the perspective of the estate's servants: the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, and her butler husband; two housemaids, Polly and Sarah; and the mysterious new footman, James. Torn between the attentions of James and the Bingleys' charismatic black footman, Ptolemy, romantic and ambitious Sarah struggles to define her future as unexpected secrets linking life above and below the stairs come to light. No need to be an Austen fan to appreciate Baker's finely crafted tale, one that never feels contrived or derivative.

by Jessie Burton (Ecco, 2014)

In rapacious, religiously oppressive seventeenth century Amsterdam, a young wife's polite but distant husband presents her with an elaborate doll-sized replica of their home as a wedding gift. The miniatures Nella purchases to furnish it begin to echo the family's life in unsettling ways. Is the mysterious miniaturist an agent working to hasten the family's destruction, or a savior attempting to guide Nella out of a labyrinth of dangerous secrets? Although the answer remains as elusive as the miniaturist, this suspenseful tale entertains with unforeseen twists and gratifying turns as it exposes the hypocrisy of a society that worships wealth above Christian charity.  

by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2014)

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Painter Vanessa Stephens Bell might not fear her brilliant sister, but she certainly has her hands full dealing with the manipulative, emotionally fragile author. Parmar's novel focuses on the two sisters at the center of the bohemian intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group. Amid the comings and goings and shifting pairings of the artists, writers and thinkers who frequent the Stephens' salon in early 20th century London, Vanessa struggles to protect herself, her husband, and her family from Virginia's obsessive need for her sister's undivided attention. Vanessa's narrative offers an engaging portrait of a visual artist struggling to stand her ground in a world of shifting words and discarded convention.

by Robert Hicks (Warner Books, 2005)

The commandeering of her home to serve as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers shakes Carrie McGavock out of the torpor she has suffered since the death of her young children. With the help of her black servant Mariah, she sets to work tending the soldiers sandwiched onto the floors of the plantation house. Refusing to allow Zechariah Cashwell, who wants nothing more than to die, this escape, she sends him to surgery. The pair finds mutual healing in the weeks that follow. Carrie spends the rest of her life caring for the graves of the thousands of soldiers buried on her property. A story of love and courage painted with curious particularity against a backdrop of epic proportions.

Here's to 2015 and another delightful year of reading!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Wishes


Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds
Bernardino Luini (1485-1532)
fresco, Musée du Louvre

May The Blessings of
Peace and Joy
Be Yours Today
and Throughout
the Coming Year!

Thank you for reading Writing the Renaissance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sixteenth Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

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In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

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By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:

At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2014

December 5: Death of a King

On this day in 1560, King François II died at the young age of sixteen. François was the eldest son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici (and therefore grandson of his namesake, François I). He had become king only the year before, when his father Henri died after a freak jousting accident that lodged a lance splinter in his eye and brain.

François had never been a robust child; small for his age, he suffered from eczema and a chronic ear infection that ultimately caused his death. In mid-November 1560, a large swelling appeared behind his left ear, indicating the inflammation was spreading to nearby bone and tissue. Fever and violent fits took hold; prescribed bleeding and purgations further weakened his body. The infection formed an abscess in his brain and, in the absence of antibiotics, nothing could be done to save him. François fell unconscious on December 5 and passed away by nightfall, a month short of his seventeenth birthday.

His wife of two years, Mary Queen of Scots, had nursed him tenderly throughout the ordeal. A year older than François, Mary had been raised at the French court with him since the age of five. The two shared a strong bond of friendship and love, although it remains uncertain whether François's underdeveloped physique had prevented them from actually consummating their marriage. Mary was devastated by François's death, which dramatically changed the course of her life. Although she could have remained in France with her estates and status intact until she found another royal husband, Mary chose to return home to her kingdom of Scotland. Little did she know that her choice would ultimately lead to her own death at the hand of Elizabeth I of England.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with Julie K. Rose, Author of OLEANNA

Today I'm happy to welcome author Julie K. Rose to discuss her novel, OLEANNA: A Novel of Norway in 1905 (2014). I reviewed OLEANNA here.

1. What drew you to write about Norway? Have you visited the places you write about in OLEANNA?

Since Norway is where Oleanna and Elisabeth actually lived, it was the natural place to set the book. But since three of my four grandparents were Norwegian, I've always had an affinity for the country. I recall trying to learn Norwegian with the help of my grandfather when I was a child (it didn't take, unfortunately), and I grew up with Norwegian flag garlands on the Christmas tree, favorite family recipes, syttende mai (Constitution Day), and the story of mom's visit to Norway with John to see Elisabeth and Oleanna in 1964.

I was lucky enough to travel to Norway in 2004, and it was even more beautiful and moving than I could have imagined. My husband and I visited Oslo, Bergen, and the Sognefjord region. Ten days wasn't close to being enough! We definitely long to go back.

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2. What traits do you admire most in each of the two sisters, Oleanna and Elisabeth? Which sister would have flourished as an immigrant to America?

I admire Elisabeth's wit and intelligence, and her yearning for adventure. She always made me laugh, and surprised me. I admire Oleanna's loyalty, and her depth of feeling. She also has a sense of adventure, but it's both external—seeing the world­—and internal.

I imagine Elisabeth might have enjoyed a city, perhaps Brooklyn, which became a center for Scandinavian immigrants. When she really puts her mind to something, she gets good results, and the excitement and variation in an urban environment would have energized her (at least for a time).

Oleanna would have done better out in the Great Plains (as did their brother John), but I don't know that she would have been happy. Her capacity for hard work would have stood her in good stead—though I think she (like many immigrants) would have longed for the magnificent vistas and beauty of Norway when she looked out across the broad, flat prairie.

3. I wanted to know more about Brita, Oleanna’s mother, especially after meeting her brother in the later chapters of the novel. Was Brita’s difficult marriage the source of her unhappiness, or did other factors contribute to her discontent?

The real Oleanna was the initial spark for the book, but the characters are my own invention, including Brita.

Brita was a parallel to Oleanna and Elisabeth, a cautionary tale in a way. She was in love with the land, and its inherent power, so I don't think that she would have ever considered leaving Jølster. Given the opportunity, Brita would have spent all of her time at the sæter, watching the clouds and learning the names of all of the plants and wildflowers. Instead, she married (which is what women in the country did at the time) and had six children with a man who became an alcoholic.

Brita did not have the opportunity to choose, like Oleanna did. When Oleanna went to Bergen and really understood her options, she chose her life back on the farm; it was not chosen for her. All of the natural independence and free spirit Brita had was subsumed by child bearing, child rearing, and indeed, a difficult marriage.

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4. Weaving and painting figure prominently in the novel. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of these crafts to Norwegian culture?

Norwegian folkways and folk art continued in a long, unbroken chain down through the years, well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because of the unique geography of the country, there wasn't a really strong culture of the elite, and that extended to art. There were Norwegians in the few urban centers (Oslo, Bergen for example) who created and enjoyed more "academic" art, both from within and without the country, but it wasn't the norm as it might be in, say, France. So the local (rural) traditions that had been built up over centuries endured.

Katherine Larson's excellent The Woven Coverlets of Norway (University of Washington Press, 2001) provides a great background on the development of weaving in Norway and the difference vis-à-vis development in the rest of Europe, which is also a great explanation of Norwegian folk culture in general:

Although much of western Europe witnessed the birth of the textile industry in the Middle Ages and the subsequent transformation of a home-oriented craft into a business run by professionals, in Norway the art of weaving remained firmly in the home. The challenging climate and difficult terrain of this rugged northern land fostered a hard life in which things of value were carefully preserved, and the natural conservatism of farming culture impeded the acceptance of new methods. Thus certain weaving tools and techniques that had largely disappeared centuries ago from homelife of France or England were still to be found in the early part of the twentieth century in Norway, preserved within the folk art of its farming community. (xiii)

And because Norway lost its independence in the Middle Ages (first to Denmark, then to Sweden), folk art was also a way to express identity – an idea which was made more fashionable in the urban centers during the romantic nationalist movement in the 19th century and run-up to independence in the early 20th century.

There are series of posts on my blog about the world of OLEANNA for folks who want to learn more about Norwegian folk life and the country in 1905.

5. Women’s suffrage becomes an important issue in OLEANNA. When did women achieve the vote in Norway? Was it a difficult struggle? How did the geography of Norway and the divide between city and country life complicate participation in the suffragette movement?

Women gained the vote in Norway in 1913 – six years after the events of OLEANNA. As with most things in Norway, the geography did have an impact. The movement for suffrage began with middle class women in the urban centers in the 1880s, but it took the monumental question of independence from Sweden in 1905 to really reach women in the lonely valleys and high lakesides in the rest of the country.

I was lucky enough to be invited to write about the movement in detail as part of the "Celebrating Women" series to mark Women's History Month in March.

6. Do you have a favorite scene in the novel? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

This is tough, because I have a lot of favorites, and quite a few were difficult to write – many because I was dealing with the grief of my mom's death, which happened a year before I started writing OLEANNA. Ultimately though, the most difficult were the final scenes in Bergen, when Oleanna is trying to decide whether to go to America, or go back to the farm. I wrote and rewrote those many times, and to be honest, she did not reveal her mind to me right away. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the right one for her.

Though it's terribly sad, I love the scenes of her mother's "funeral" and burial, but I think my favorite scenes are those between Oleanna and Anders, particularly their first tryst at the sæter. In a way, it's such a brave moment. They both have these deep wells of sadness and loss, but take the leap to trust and be vulnerable with each other anyway.

7. Have you read much Norwegian literature? Can you recommend any Norwegian authors?

I have not, unfortunately. Like generations of high school and college students, I've read plenty of Henrik Ibsen; I particularly admire A Doll's House. (I provided a quick overview of the literary scene at the time of OLEANNA, including Ibsen, over at my blog.)

But Sigrid Undset's books are my main window into Norwegian literature. I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy in my 20s, at the behest of my mom, and was hooked. I initially read the translation done at the time (1920s) and though most now see it as needlessly archaic, I found it charming. The 2005 translation by Tiina Nunnally is a more direct style, which I understand is more faithful to Undset's prose.

8. Do you have any advice for writers who wish to explore unfamiliar settings or historical events?

It feels a little bit like being an explorer; there aren't as many maps to follow, but on the other hand, you don't necessarily have to worry about who has gone before and what they've had to say. Rather than going over established ground in a new way, you can venture into new ground and put your own stake in it, so to speak.

Writing historical fiction necessarily means a lot of research anyway (yay!), but venturing off the path slightly means you may have fewer secondary source materials to draw from.

It may seem a bit daunting, but I'd say: do it! Not only are there are plenty of readers out there who yearn for something new, but it's an exciting way to go exploring as an author as well.

Thank you so much for these fantastic questions, and the opportunity to share a glimpse into OLEANNA and her world!

Thank you, Julie, for this fascinating interview. I've always had an interest in Norway ever since reading Undset's work myself, so I really appreciated your novel and the chance to learn more about that beautiful country.

You can learn more about Julie K. Rose and the world of OLEANNA at her website. Her book is available at major online outlets.