Sunday, September 30, 2007

Coming Soon! (With Even a Reappearance by Queen Isabella)

One of the reasons I've been somewhat quiet in blogdom lately is that I've been completing my second novel, Hugh and Bess, which follows the marriage of Hugh, the eldest son of Eleanor from The Traitor's Wife, to Elizabeth de Montacute, daughter of the Earl of Salisbury. I'm in the proofreading stage now, and if everything goes well and I figure out the formatting, it should be available online, probably through Lulu, within a few weeks. (That's a rough version of the cover you see.) It's quite different from The Traitor's Wife, being much shorter (the sigh of relief you hear is coming from my mother) and more of a love story than anything else. In the meantime, here's an excerpt featuring a familiar face. It takes place in early 1344, following a ladies-only banquet at Windsor Castle at which Elizabeth and her sister-in-law Joan of Kent enjoyed the king's wine a bit too much:

The ornate entrance to Queen Isabella's apartments was so different from the simple one to hers and Hugh's that no sober person could have mistaken the two. A page showed her in, and Bess sank to a curtsey, though every bone she had resisted. She spoke the words that she had been rehearsing since Hugh had given her the news. "Your grace, I beg your pardon for my inexcusable and disgraceful behavior last night. I assure you it shall never happen again."

"Inexcusable and disgraceful? Ridiculous will do, Lady Despenser." The queen waved her to a stool. "Sit there. You brought some needlework with you, I see? Show it to me."

"It is for our portable altar, your grace."

"Very pretty. You work very nicely. Don't look so frightened, child. I didn't call you here to upbraid you. So you are wondering, no doubt, what did I call you here for?"

"My head aches so badly, your grace, I could hardly figure it out if I tried."

Isabella laughed. "Well, it's no mystery, Lady Despenser. You are the eldest daughter of my son's favorite earl and wife to one of the wealthiest men in England. It would be remiss of me not to take some notice of you." She settled back with her own work. "I gather you haven't been to court much."

"No, your grace. I have mostly stayed on my father's lands and now my husband's."

"And you have visited your husband's aunt, Lady Elizabeth de Burgh. She is an old friend of mine. She has spoken very highly of you."

"There were no opportunities for me to make a fool out of myself when I visited her. I suppose that is why."

Isabella chuckled. "She said you were a clever girl. So was I, at your age. I noticed you and your pretty sister-in-law looking at me quite intently last night."

Bess blushed. "We did not mean to be rude. It is just that your grace is so handsome, and the king's mother, and so seldom seen, and—"

"A wicked woman, I am sure you have been told. I suppose if I were a young lady again I would stare at me too." She paused. "Don't fear, Lady Despenser. I won't force you to turn confessor. I have a perfectly good one of my own."

Relieved and disappointed at the same time, Bess concentrated on her needlework. To break the silence, she said, "If it is not being impertinent, is it strange being back at court after all this time?"

"Why should a girl who embraces her king in front of a hall of people worry about being impertinent? I miss very little, you see."

"Your grace—"

"Oh, I blame my son entirely. He shouldn't have filled the hall with ladies, half of them who have never been outside their little shires before, brought out his best wines, and not expected half of them to make fools of themselves. My husband had the right idea. He discouraged women from being at court, unless they were among my ladies and damsels."

She spoke of her husband as if she were an ordinary widow, Bess noted with fascination.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What Is It About Katherine Swynford?

Like most lovers of historical fiction, I've read Anya Seton's novel Katherine, about John of Gaunt's mistress, and enjoyed it thoroughly, though in retrospect, I'm inclined to think it romanticized its hero and heroine quite a bit.

The historical Katherine is an enormously popular figure in some circles, and I confess I'm at a bit of loss to understand why. If the chroniclers can be believed, she and John conducted their adulterous relationship in a blatant manner calculated to humiliate Constance of Castile, John's wife. John supposedly ended the relationship with Katherine after the Peasants' Revolt, or at least put it on a more discreet footing, but after his quest for the throne of Castile ended, he took Katherine back into his household and took little interest in Constance, who lived her remaining years separately from John. The best thing that can be said of John's conduct was that when Constance conveniently died in 1394, he gave her a lavish funeral and upon his own death provided for a chantry for her. As the beneficiary, financial and otherwise, of John's blatant neglect of his wife, Katherine surely must be regarded as complicit in the matter.

In 1396, as readers of Katherine know, Gaunt married Katherine, who as his new duchess and the mother of his newly legitimated children conducted herself with credit. It would have hardly been to her advantage to conduct herself in any other fashion, however. She does seem to have been on good terms with the children of John's first wife, Blanche, but it was not, of course, their mother who had been publicly slighted by John and Katherine.

All in all, then, I can't see much in the historical Katherine to love or even to admire. Perhaps it's the idealized picture painted by Anya Seton that appeals to so many people? Or perhaps I'm just a hopeless unromantic? Anyway, I'm eager to see what Alison Weir will make of Katherine in her soon-to-be-released biography of her.

On an entirely different note, I was thrilled to see that the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., is performing Marlowe's Edward II this season! It's the first time, as far as I know, that the play has been produced within driving distance of me, so I've bought my ticket and am eagerly waiting for the end of November to hurry up and get here. Ed rules!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Edward II at Berkeley Castle

I couldn't let poor Edward II's death anniversary (September 21, 1327) pass without comment (especially with Alianore on blog holiday), but I'm too lazy today to write a special post for the occasion. So here's how I handle it in The Traitor's Wife:

“According to Lord Mortimer’s lieutenant, William of Shalford, men in Wales, South Wales and North Wales alike, are plotting to release the old king,” said Sir Thomas Gurney, who along with William Ogle had hurriedly arrived at Berkeley Castle on the evening of September 20. “They are led by Rhys ap Gruffydd. Shalford says that if this plot succeeds it could be the undoing of Mortimer.” He looked toward the direction of the guardhouse and smiled. “Lords Berkeley and Maltravers, you are to acquaint yourself with the contents of this letter and find a suitable remedy to avoid the peril. Well. It’s pretty damned obvious what they have in mind.” Gurney passed the letter to Berkeley and Maltravers, who read it silently.

Maltravers laughed when he finished reading, but Berkeley said, “I’ll have nothing to do with this, nothing.”

“Nothing! The man’s been living in your castle since April, except when you let him escape,” said Gurney.

“I did not let him escape,” snapped Berkeley. “I underestimated the determination of his friends, that is all. Be that as it may, I’ll still have nothing to do with this.” He turned and left the room.

“Well?” said Maltravers. “How?”

“Mortimer says it will have to leave no mark, as people will be expecting to view the body.”

“So chopping his head off is out of the question,” said Ogle cheerfully. “Well, there’s poison.”

“We’d have to find someone to make it up for us,” objected Gurney.


“Strong as he is? He’d have to be knocked cold, and that would leave a bruise.
Bruises around his neck, too.”


“I suppose that’s the only real choice,” admitted Gurney. He shivered and looked at the fire, which was dying. “Can’t Berkeley’s servants make a decent fire?” He took a poker and began prodding the logs with it. He poked too hard, and he had to pull it out of a log with some difficulty. Then he began laughing.

“Are you daft, man?”

“No,” said Gurney, laughing all the harder. “I’ve an idea. A most fitting idea.”


Edward, comfortable and warm on the feather bed Berkeley had so kindly brought him several days before, raised up on his elbow and stared as he heard his cell door being unlocked. He watched as Maltravers, the Gurney fellow who had just arrived at Berkeley, and a number of men he did not know filed in, smiling most peculiarly at him and not bothering to invent any excuse for their being there in the middle of the night. So he had been right; he would soon be free, free with Piers and Hugh and Hugh’s dear old father. His favorite sister, Joan. Adam and Lucy. His mother, his stepmother, his father… His mouth almost crinkled into a smile. No, his father probably wouldn’t be pleased to see him, under the circumstances.

In the torchlight he could now see that the men were carrying some rather
incongruous items. A drinking horn? A table? A cooking spit, glowing red hot? He frowned. Were they going to feed him first? But before he could make any inquiries, he was seized and pushed over on his belly and felt the table, legs in the air, being pressed against his back as someone ripped off his drawers. Then the drinking horn was shoved into his body, then the spit through the horn, and Edward’s screams were echoing through Berkeley Castle. Just as Thomas de Berkeley, lying in his chamber weeping, thought he could not bear to hear them any longer, they died.


Eleanor’s screams that same night of September 21, 1327, woke not only her family, but the guards dozing outside the Beauchamp Tower. Their sleepy fumblings at the door, combined with the howling of Lizzie and John and the barking of the dog, only caused her to scream the harder. It was not until Tom, in the kindliest manner possible, resorted to slapping her briskly across the face that she calmed enough to sit in a chair and sip the wine Gladys carefully gave her.

“Another nightmare about Hugh, my lady?”

“No.” Eleanor took a shuddering breath and stared at Gladys in bewilderment.

“My uncle.”

Monday, September 17, 2007

Get Out the Popcorn

I'm coming up for air after a jag of book reviewing for the Historical Novels Review, so this will be a short post. Over the weekend, however, I did get a chuckle out of this video by iBookwatch entitled "Wife Themed Books." (No, not those type of books--books that contain the word "wife" in the title.) I saw a number of familiar books in the video!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Two Reviews

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that they allow me to read books that are outside my usual zone. Here are some reviews that I did for the August 2007 issue of the Historical Novels Review:

In the Company of Secrets
Judith Miller, Bethany House, 2007, $13.99 pb, 384pp, 0764202766

After kitchen maid Olivia Mott, employed by the Earl and Countess of Lanshire, is sexually menaced by the famed Chef Mallard, she suddenly finds herself bound for Pullman, Illinois, in the company of Lady Charlotte, her employers' spoiled daughter. Charlotte has her own urgent reasons for wanting to travel to America, where she supplies Olivia with a forged recommendation that allows Olivia to find work as an assistant chef at the grand Pullman Hotel—and that threatens to ensnare Olivia in a web of lies.

Olivia, the competing suitors she soon finds, and her other new acquaintances are well drawn, convincingly flawed characters. I did, however, find it jarring that fresh from her lowly position at Lanshire Hall, Olivia is every bit as well spoken as Lady Charlotte. Moreover, she would surely not use words like "missive" and "plethora" in ordinary conversation.

This aside, Miller paints an interesting picture of an 1890's "company town" where spies abound and few secrets are safe. This book is the first of a planned series set in Pullman; I'm looking forward to seeing how Olivia and her fellow characters develop.

Jacob's Run
Bob Zeller and John Beshears, Whittler's Bench Press, 2007, $24.95 pb, 371pp, 097852652X

In 1860 in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, newspaper reporter Coleman Blue makes an insistent new acquaintance: Ira Spears, an investigator for an insurance company that issues slave life insurance policies. Spears suspects fraud—and he wants a highly reluctant Blue to help him uncover the truth. What results will awaken Blue to the evil of slavery and take his life in an entirely new direction—if he lives to tell about it.

Jacob's Run is narrated by Blue, whose wry, very distinct voice, capable of handling both high comedy and high tragedy by turns, makes this novel an immense pleasure to read. His Wilmington is populated by a host of memorable characters: the depraved Tarleton family; the freedman—and slave owner—Solomon Politte and his college-educated daughter; and Blue himself, plucked from an orphanage to be raised by the proprietor of the Wilmington Standard. Secrets and unsuspected connections between characters abound. The authors vividly depict Wilmington, a city I've spent time in; reading this novel made me want to go back to look around some more.

The authors, whose joint effort has produced a cohesive narrative voice, provide a short but illuminating historical afterword. Sadly enough, the slave insurance policies that are key to the plot are not a figment of the authors' imagination; the back cover has a reproduction of a real one.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

House Hunting, Plantagenet Style

Overseas readers may not be aware of this, but American subdivision developers would be lost without England. That's because so many subdivisions have English-inspired names (my town has one called Buckingham, for example) and corresponding house models. Today's newspaper, for instance, has a full-page ad featuring house models called Exeter, Essex, Victoria, and Windsor, and there's even a model called Chaucer, though with a "French Country Styled Exterior" that seems incongruous for the father of English literature. (The Chaucer doesn't come cheap; it's $674,900, which means that most people who would get a kick out of buying a house called the Chaucer couldn't afford it.)

So what if there were a development named "Plantagenet Estates"? Here's a few prospective models:

The King Edward II:

Do you like to leave your work at the office? If so, your house hunting is over! This homebody's delight features a home theater, a workshop, and an oversized recreation/exercise room. We've left the landscaping to you!

The Gaveston:

Fit for a royal favorite, this luxurious model features extra-large walk-in closets and a built-in jewelry chest! And you'll always be sure you're looking your best thanks to our oversized mirrors.

The Despenser:

This beauty comes only on our largest lots and features a unique floor plan that allows for easy future expansion! Perfect if you're thinking of adding some extra acreage down the line.

The Mortimer:

Are there two very special people in your life? Is discretion a must? Designed for the busy man of action, this handsome house sports dual staircases, dual kitchens, and dual owner's suites.

The Isabella:

This elegant home, using top-of-the-line material and assembled by the finest craftsmen, is truly fit for a queen. Why settle for less when you can afford the best? YOU DESERVE IT!

The King Edward III:

This deluxe model, offered to only a handful of customers, features an underground parking area with an interior entrance so that your important guests can come and go away from the eyes of prying neighbors. Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Goldilocks

From Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a “goldilocks” when it comes to reading–she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you–are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?

Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?

Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital–as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?

Great question! I can and do read almost everywhere, though I find it difficult to do so when there's a live conversation going on next to me (e.g., in a waiting room). When you have children, you have to seize your reading opportunities while you can!

All in Moderation

I've turned moderation on for the time being, because yesterday some lunatic left a very long, rambling, racist comment on the blog, and I'm concerned that he might show up again. But don't worry, I still love to get comments of the non-racist-lunatic variety!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Ten Rules for Writing Ricardian Historical Fiction

As it's been quiet in my part of the blogsphere, I'm double posting this one on my Richard III blog.

Some time ago (I never was accused of being au courant), rules for writing various sorts of historical fiction were circulated in blogdom. Astonishingly, as far as I know, no one provided any for the aspiring Ricardian novelist. So here's my attempt to fill this gaping void:

1. Anne Beauchamp, Richard's mother-in-law, must be tearfully grateful when Richard III takes her to live with him and Anne, and must not under any circumstances allude to the fact that Richard and Clarence together have stripped her of all of her lands. The means by which Richard acquired the lands of George Neville and the Countess of Oxford should also be disregarded; if the matter of land must be mentioned at all, the reader should be allowed to assume that it came to Richard via the Land Fairy.

2. Anne Neville must be frail, in order to make Richard's love for her all the more noble and to get maximum pathos from her stay at the cookshop. The emotional power of a Ricardian novel can be measured roughly by the number of times Anne faints.

3. Anything bad that happens in England during the Wars of the Roses is the fault of either (a) Margaret of Anjou, (b) anyone named Woodville, (c) Margaret Beaufort, (d) the Stanleys, (e) Buckingham (except when he's allied with Richard III), or (f) Henry Tudor. Special points go to any Ricardian novelist who can make the Woodvilles responsible for global warming.

4. Anything good that happens in England during the Wars of the Roses is due to Richard, Duke of York, Edward IV (except when it's something Richard doesn't like), or Richard III.

5. Anne and Richard must have been childhood sweethearts whose lifelong wish to marry is thwarted by Warwick. The phrase "sold into marriage" should be used at least once when Anne marries Edward of Lancaster. Under no circumstances should Anne and Edward have even slightly positive feelings for each other.

6. Richard III's extramarital liaisons are the product of either his merry bachelor high jinks, a passionate premarital love affair with a woman of lower rank, or (preferably) his desperate need to find comfort in the absence of his childhood sweetheart Anne. Anyone else's extramarital liaisons are the product of lechery and depravity. Yes, that means you, William Hastings.

7. In the afterword, the conscientious Ricardian novelist will take a swipe at all accounts unfavorable to Richard, dismissing them as Tudor propaganda. The very same accounts, however, must be followed slavishly when they are unfavorable to Richard's enemies.

8. William Collingbourne's hanging, drawing, and quartering on Richard III's orders must not be depicted, as it would be a violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which Richard would have followed to the letter if only it'd been written at the time.

9. Richard must not kill the Princes. Nor can he make a loaded remark such as, "Will no one rid me of those pesky Princes?" or "Sure would be a lot more to go around if we didn't have those two extra mouths in the Tower to feed." (But c'mon—you knew that rule.)

10. When in doubt, blame Elizabeth Woodville.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Senior Citizen and the Sea

As part of my day job, I'm often called upon to recast gender-specific language into gender-neutral language. (Hey, it's not my idea.) This got me to thinking this Labor Day weekend, which I plan to spend throwing words like "he" or "she" around with mad abandon, what if book titles for historical fiction had to be converted accordingly?

The Traitor's Spouse by you-know-who

The Monarch's Pleasure by Norah Lofts

Youngster With a Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier

The Borgia Newlywed by Jeanne Kalogridis

The Other Boleyn Kid by Philippa Gregory

The Constant Offspring of a Ruler by Philippa Gregory

In the Company of the Member of the Demi-Monde by Sarah Dunant

The Bronze Horseperson by Paullina Simons

The Perfect Royal Main Squeeze by Diane Haeger

But if you want to see some strange titles that library patrons come up with, head over to Sarah's blog!