History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 March 2009

Beyond the Bar Sinister

The subconscious mind is a very strange place. Sometimes, I think of mine as a large props room, littered with detritus from different historical stage sets. There’s a lot of red velvet tufted furniture from a Victorian drawing room, Augustan busts for those Queen Anne scenes, and the odd doublet left by a passing Elizabethan. Beau Brummel is frowning at his reflection in a mirror while John Knox is preaching hellfire and tugging at his beard stage left.

This historical detritus, this furniture of the mind, has been piling up in there for a while. I’d like to claim that I went about acquiring it in a logical and responsible way, textbook by textbook. In fact, most of the jumble was acquired far earlier, from a far more haphazard source: historical fiction. Whether I like it or not, most of my images of what various historical periods feel, smell, or sound like were acquired well before I set foot in any history class. They came from Margaret Mitchell, from Anya Seton, from M.M. Kaye, and a host of other authors, in their crackly plastic library bindings. Whether historians acknowledge it or not, scholarly history’s illegitimate cousin, the historical novel, plays a profound role in shaping widely held conceptions of historical realities.

I can just picture various academic friends of mine shuddering at that, and shaking their heads over the misconceptions undoubtedly being perpetrated by these works of—gasp!—fiction. There are certainly overt abuses in the fictional canon. My favorite example comes from a work of fiction… mocking other fiction. In one of Rumpole of the Bailey’s cases, Rumpole pokes holes in an author’s probity by pointing out that she wrote a so-called “historical” novel by jumping over the Interregnum entirely, going straight from Charles I to Charles II with her heroine aging only a year or two in between. Most novelists aren’t quite so bold as to ignore the difference between 1649 and 1660 like that, but we all take liberties, some deliberate, some accidental. More insidious than the overt anachronisms are the unconscious ones, such as the use of modern slang (I was struck recently by how much Georgette Heyer’s Regency bucks sound like the men about town in her contemporary mystery novels) or the antedating of rituals such as afternoon tea, unwitting transpositions of the modern consciousness into the historical world.

On the other hand, scholarly history is prey to the same weaknesses. Novelist or scholar, we all view the past refracted through the lens of our own time and experiences. Geoffrey Elton, the grand old man of Tudor studies, brought to the field his experience of totalitarian Europe, creating a narrative of centralization and power. A whole generation of English scholars, educated in the height of Communist chic at Cambridge, did their very best to explain the English Civil Wars as a narrative of class struggle in the Marxist paradigm, a theory that has since been extensively refuted. Academic “certainties” come and go, leaving their mark on both scholarship and historical fiction. Don’t get me started on Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood.

In an age where history is often taught in a haphazard fashion, historical fiction can provide the fundamental historical literacy that was once the province of textbooks. I had a friend at Yale who had no idea who Henry VIII was. Thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl, hundreds of thousands fewer people will suffer from that handicap. Historical fiction also has the power to serve as a corrective to scholarly history, showcasing details, people, and events that fall between the academic cracks. Although scholars like Laurel Ulrich have brought material culture into academic view, for a long time those physical details of furniture and costume that are a novelist’s bread and butter—and that can tell one so much about the mores and economics of a period—were largely beyond the scholarly pale. The female players in history have also shown to much better advantage in fiction than in the classroom; Anya Seton’s Katherine put Katherine Beaufort on the map for a whole generation of readers, while Jean Plaidy’s Queens of England series shone the spotlight on everyone from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Caroline of Ansbach, narrating the distaff side of the historical narrative. Forgotten events and intrigues also come back into view. Susanna Kearsley’s recent novel, The Winter Sea, showcases the little known Jacobite rising of 1708, while Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly makes splendid use of the South Sea Bubble.

In a little over a week, I’m delivering a paper at the Popular Culture Association on the tangled relationship between historical fiction and the practice of history. What are your feelings about the interplay between scholarship and fiction? Does historical fiction have a role to play in the shaping and teaching of history? On the other side of it, what responsibility do we, as fiction writers, have to the historical narrative? Any and all thoughts, ideas, or advice much appreciated….

27 March 2009

Why Mr. Knightley Only Has One Tenant (and another brief announcement)

Once more, my perennial apologia: Although I love the material specifics of history, I don't have much of a gift for it. Too many primary sources and I'm gobsmacked by the messiness, ditzed and dizzied by real life's overabundance of detail.

And though old documents are thrilling, there's all that handwriting to get through.

So I get most of my history from novelists, who have to employ some principles of selection. From good novelists -- when I can, from the great ones, the women of the nineteenth century, who so fully and so movingly comprehended a world of property -- landed and intellectual both -- in which they weren't full citizens.

Like Jane Austen's "acquisitive, high bourgeois society... interlocking with an agrarian capitalism... mediated by inherited titles and the making of family names." The literary historian Raymond Williams, in The Country and the City, continues that Austen's "eye for a house, for timber, for the details of improvement, is quick, accurate, monetary."

I love seeing through that quick, accurate eye.

And I trust it, even when I find myself a little surprised by what it sees.

As in Emma, a book it feels that I've been reading front to back and front to back again for at least the past three years -- ever since I realized that I needed to understand the material relationships between an English country village and the big estate adjoining it, in The Slightest Provocation. I used a lot of Highbury for Grefford, and some of Donwell Abbey for the Rowan estate (though -- now it can be told! -- I... shall we say... paid homage to Austen by naming the family estate in The Edge of Impropriety Wheldon Priory).

But one thing that always rather befuddled me was the fact that Mr. Knightley only has one tenant farmer, Robert Martin.

I mean, don't you think of "tenants" in the plural? As when Elizabeth Bennet tours Pemberley and Darcy's housekeeper tells her that, "there is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name." Or think of Middlemarch's earnest Dorothea Brooke cherishing her plans for improving the tenant cottages on Sir James Chettam's estate.

Only one tenant at Donwell? And that tenant hardly lives in a cottage. In Harriet Smith's breathless reporting, Mr. Martin and his mother and sisters have "two parlours, two very good parlours... and an upper maid," not to speak of "a very handsome summer-house in their garden, where some day next year they were all to drink tea: -- a very handsome summer-house, large enough to hold a dozen people."

It's a pity to cut and paste Jane Austen, even (or especially) to dip in and out of the always consequential chatter of the "minor" characters in Emma -- which, though it's the only of Austen's novels to be named for its heroine, is (imo and the critic Lionel Trilling's as well) a book first and foremost about a community, and one that is delineated in exquisite precise detail.

But I hope you can see from what I kept that Austen is hardly slipshod or lacking in her delineation of Mr. Knightley's tenant farmer. And try as I might to uncover another tenant, I could not. Which leaves the question, as to why, if Donwell Abbey (in Emma's view and Austen's as well) is "just what it ought to be," a source of "honest pride and complacency," an ideal and very English estate -- why, when it comes to tenants, is Mr. Knightley different from all other knightly landowners (or at least noteworthy among them)?

(Because although in real life any instance of a general condition may be atypical, but in a novel, where every instance counts, there's got to be a reason for an atypical or noteworthy situation.)

And so there is a reason for Mr. Knightley's single tenant -- as I finally learned from a superb book of social/literary history, Superintending the Poor: Charitable Ladies and Paternal Landlords in British Fiction, 1770-1860 by Beth Fowkes Tobin.

The reason Mr. Knightley only has one tenant is because -- although his unpretentious, "rambling and irregular" estate was never "improved" by a Repton or a Capability Brown, never landscaped into artsy, inviting, artificially-engineered views or prospects -- Donwell Abbey, with its "abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up" is indeed atypical, in that it's a highly advanced instance of the most modernizing agricultural practices available during its time: enclosure and engrossment.

I already knew about the Enclosure Acts:

A series of laws passed in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries [...which...] led to the enclosure or fencing-off of farms. Where land had previously been shared in a community or divided into small lots, farms were now redistributed and enclosed. Those who had many land holdings could combine them into large farms, where the new production methods could be profitably implemented. These were more efficient and were also safe from scavenging, a previously accepted practice wherein the peasants had the right to take food left behind on landlords' fields.

(So that's why Mr. Knightley is so unfailingly fascinated by fences and drains. While for enclosures, click here for more detail)

But I hadn't thought about the other side of the process: engrossment, whereby fewer tenants, farming more efficiently, would be a better deal for the landlord as well.

We might call it downsizing. And we might, if we paid too much attention, not like every aspect of it any more than we do corporate downsizing in our day.

And why I'm grateful to have this safe space of hoydendom to consider the complexities of history and historical writing, the pleasures and perils of remembering that our escapist past was somebody's dynamic, challenging, vexing and inescapable present...

Once again, how do you readers and writers deal with this? Does it improve your understanding of a novel written in past times to see it in this sort of context? Is it possible (or even advisable) to create this level of context in a historical romance novel?

While as for the the brief announcement: because I'm not so selflessly engaged in these weighty considerations not to share that my most recent historical romance novel, The Edge of Impropriety, is a finalist for Romance Writers of America's RITA award in the Historical Romance Category.

Check out the killer list of finalists I'm part of. And bid me good luck in my own efforts at enclosure of the spread of my upper arms and engrossment, particularly of my triceps.
Come say hi if you're at the awards ceremony or the party afterwards -- I'll be the smallish lady of a certain age, wearing something shiny and sleeveless.

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25 March 2009

War Heroes, Relatively Speaking

My uncle Irving Heymont, retired U.S. Army colonel, WWII hero, and stern patriarch with a sense of humor you needed special genes to locate, passed away last Tuesday evening at the age of 90. I mentioned him when I replied to Mary’s post the other week about her ancestor, Major General Lord Blayney.

Irving Heymont, with my husband Scott and me, at the celebration of Irving's 90th birthday. Taken April 6, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC

We write about war (and other) heroes and heroines and how character shapes their actions and actions shape their character. What I learned from even the briefest research on my uncle is that this was very much the truth. And yet, sometimes it isn't until someone passes away and the mourners take a trip down Memory Lane and revisit the life and achievements of the deceased, that long-held myths are exploded. As a child I always thought he was “very Jewish”—as in more strictly religious than the rest of the family. And yet, I was wrong in some ways, in that he wasn’t always that way.
Among my uncle's many accomplishments is his stewardship of a Germany postwar displacement camp for Holocaust survivors. Rather than distill events and reminisces from this time in Irving Heymont’s life, I will let the witnesses and survivors speak for themselves.

Even professional Jewish soldiers recognized how powerfully the revelations of the camps influenced their own behavior. Irving Heymont of the Third US Army was placed in charge of the Landsberg displaced persons camp in September 1945. In his first speech before the inmates, the 27-year-old major articulated his identification with the Jews forced to live there. “As I speak to you tonight, I can also be called a sort of DP,” he told his audience. “We know what you suffered in the Nazi concentration camps—and not just through newspaper reports. My Regiment liberated a concentration camp.” Many years later Heymont concluded that “the few months I spent at Landsberg had a greater impact on my outlook on life than any other experience in my career, including infantry combat in both World War II and the Korean War.” Though he was unaware of it at the time, Heymont subsequently reflected that “Landsberg made me a conscious Jew again--not a religious Jew, seeking the ways of the Lord—but an affirmed member of the Jewish people.” [From an article titled: “When Jews Were GIs: World War II and the Remaking of American Jewry.”
At http://www.fathom.com/course/21701756/session4.html.]

Below are excerpts from two condolence letters from Survivors sent to Irving’s daughter, my cousin Laurie:

I could not have been happier than when I was with him and we spoke of Landsberg and the world into which I was born. His letters to your mother, of blessed memory, will have an enduring effect on the history of the Jewish Displaced Persons' camps and that period of Jewish history.

But it was more than the letters, it was your father's sense of justice and the fact that he believed that the Holocaust survivors needed to take their future into their own hands, to reestablish identities that had been taken away from them during the Holocaust years.

His few months in the Landsberg DP camp were, I believe, a turning point in Jewish history. It allowed the survivors in Landsberg, which became the spiritual and intellectual center of the concept of the “Survivng Remnant,” as they called themselves, to develop a philosophy and a vision that has finally been realized, I think, with the impact of the Holocaust on our nation and our world.

But, of course, Dad was not satisfied to sit back and accept such accolades. He then turned his attention to the generation of Germans that inherited the terrible crimes of their parents and grandparents. Dad did not judge, did not condemn, instead he asked the children and grandchildren of Landsberg to accept the responsibility of uncovering the truth of the what had happened in their town during the Holocaust years, and what they could do to make certain that it would not happen again.

Imagine, your father influenced a generation of German teachers and students to say and do “Never Again.” He was a beloved figure in Landsberg and had the respect and admiration of all.

As you know, there is a street in the former Jewish DP camp named for your father. I walked in the camp, now a vibrant apartment community . . . Your dad would not have recognized the place, except for the headquarters building where he had his office. That is still very much the same building and I know his spirit will remain a part of it.

My parents . . . arrived in Landsberg on August 22, 1945. Your dad arrived there a few weeks later. My parents remembered your father well. Because Dad was a “by the book” soldier, he sought to run the camp with a firm but fair hand. One of his beliefs was that it would be difficult to maintain control if the survivors knew he was Jewish. So he never let it be known that he was.

My father remembered your father as the “non-Jewish officer with a Jewish heart.” And it was that Jewish heart that identified your Dad and will forever be a part of his legacy.

Abraham J. Peck
Director, Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian, Jewish and Islamic Studies; University of Southern Maine


. . . Your father . . .played such an important part in of our destiny after our liberation by the US forces at the end of World War Two. We were children of the Holocaust who were told by the Nazis that we were sub human vermin. Our self esteem as Jews was non existant. Then we met your father who was in charge of our camp in Landsberg. He was the first Jewish American officer [it was not until a speech my uncle made to some of the Landsberg camp survivors decades later that he admitted his Judaism] and we thought of him as someone who came down from Olympus. Especially of what the Nazis kept telling us how worthless we are.

Your father's appearance lifted us out from the abyss of Nazi hell and began restoring our lost dignity as human beings and Jews. Besides taking care of our material needs in the camp, he gave us a spiritual lift up that we will remember as long as we live. During the post war years and later in Israel we reestablished contact with him and met several times here in Israel and in Washington DC. He became such a good friend not only because he was such a “Mensch,” but because we always remembered him as the symbol of the Jewish men and women who served in the allied armies to defeat the “fiend-Hitler.”

We remember him at Landsberg tall, impeccably dressed in an American army officer's uniform. He held an emotional address [years later] which brought tears to our eyes. “As I speak to you tonight, I can also be called a sort of DP.,Landsberg made me a conscious Jew again—not a religious Jew, seeking the ways of the Lord—but an affirmed member of the Jewish people,.” he said.

Most of us DP’s left Landsberg for Israel where we fought in the War of Independence restoring not only our dignity but our ancient homeland, and helped building it up from a pauper state to what it is today, a proud strong state. We achieved what no other country ever achieved. From a tiny country without any natural resources, with barely 600,000 inhabitants we managed to absorb millions of penniless Jewish refugees from around the world and build up the country to what it is today and that despite five brutal wars in which the combined Arab armies tried to destroy us. We, Holocaust survivors formed an important part of that restoration and we, our children and grand children are part of the back bone of the country.

It was your father who showed us the way and we thank him for it. We shall never forget him.

Solly Ganor

Uncle Irving would be both shocked and pleased that alibris is selling a copy of his Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1945: the Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, for $300! I have to confess that I’ve never read them, but my understanding is that they contain numerous letters to my aunt Joan, Irving’s wife—and in many ways the letters tell a love story between the two of them as much as they illustrate the glimmer of light at the end of one of history’s darkest tunnels.

Who are your personal heroes among your ancestors or nearer relations? Who among them has caused you to look deeper at and/or be prouder of your identity? Whose innate character and/or actions have influenced or catalyzed your own?

24 March 2009

What did the simple folk do?

I’m a history nut, I admit it. Lately I’ve been reading ancient history (Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Persian Empire, etc.). For thousands of years in the Middle East, ever since the Sumerians settled between the Tigris and Euphrates river and ancient Egypt recognized a need to protect trade routes and control the Fertile Crescent, armies have been invading the flat, invitingly fertile lands of what is now Egypt, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Israel.

Such conquering forces were seeking a better life and they attained it by force. The Semitic Assyrians overran the peaceful non-Semitic Sumerian civilization, which fell to the Babylonians, which succumbed to the Assyrians... and on and on until by the 14th century B.C. three empires controlled the area now termed the Middle East: Egypt, the Hittites (Syria), and the Assyrians. Ever since then, the maps of the Middle East have been constantly redrawn as various kings jockeyed for power.

Every nation wanted to survive, and war was the path. That meant constant relocation of peoples – or worse, subjection by force or annihilation as their leaders struggled to protect themselves economically and militarily.

But the other day I was admiring a miniature gold sculpture (Persian, 4th C. B.C.) of a chariot and four horses when I suddenly wondered: in the midst of the destruction of armies and cities, what did the “little guys” do when they were caught in the middle of rampaging armies?

Mostly they were slaughtered or enslaved.

One great conqueror, the Persian Cyrus the Great, thought about this as well. When he conquered the Babylonian Empire (and almost everything else from Afghanistan to Libya), he developed the world’s first charter of civil rights. This was a series of decrees incised on a round clay cylinder, now known as the Cyrus Cylinder. (The original resides in the British Museum; a copy is displayed at the United Nations.)

The Cyrus Cylinder (note the date--539 B.C.!) has three main premises: (1) establishment of racial, linguistic, and religious equality among the peoples of the Empire; (2) directing that slaves and all deported peoples (particularly the Jews) be allowed to return to their homeland rather than be massacred or treated as slaves or second-class citizens; and (3) restoration of all destroyed temples of the various religions.

The following day a news article on the killing of civilians in Gaza sparked my interest; this article included a quotation from what is now termed Modern International Law, which reads in part: “International humanitarian law places no prohibition of fighting in urban, but requires parties to take care to spare the civilian populace.”

It has been 2,500 years since the Cyrus charter of human rights was written.

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23 March 2009

Stories that Cry Out for Discussion

My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I spent a wonderful afternoon Saturday at a party of Dorothy Dunnett readers (that's Penny and me left in Edinburgh, on a trip where we went to a Dunnett-related conference). Dunnett readers tend to be a fun, well-read, and extraordinarily nice group of people. Over tea and wine and a delicious array of food Saturday we talked about books by Dunnett and others as well as favorite television series.

There’s something about Dunnett’s books that particularly lends them to discussion and analysis. They’re so complex and multi-layered. The books aren’t mysteries, but there are mysteries running through both the Lymond Chronicle and the House of Niccoló which provide endless food for debate and speculation. Even now both series are finished, plenty of unresolved questions remain. Add to that vivid historical context, rich literary allusions, and a fascinating cast of characters, and it’s hard to read Dunnett and not want to talk about the books. As we discussed at the party Saturday, in the dark ages before the internet, we all had long lists of questions we wanted to pour over with other Dunnett readers. For a long time, the only other Dunnett reader I knew was my mom. We would discuss and debate the books all the time. Penny and I first became friends because we both loved Dunnett books. We’d spend long lunches talking over the Lymond Chronicle and debating what might happen next in the House of Niccoló.

Through my Dunnett friends, I’m also involved in a discussion group of Dunnett readers who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’d be amazed at the parallels :-) ). Leaving the party Saturday, I found myself pondering what it is about certain stories that seem to particularly lend themselves to discussion. Ongoing story arcs are a big part of it, so book and television series both lend themselves to reader and viewer discussions, online and in person. Dunnett's series and BVTS both have complicated, ongoing stories, with plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what, who will end up with whom, how characters may have been related to other characters in the past, and a host of other mysteries. Not to mention books, episodes, and seasons that end with nerve-wracking cliff hangers.

Another important element is characters one comes to care about and root for. Sometimes, particularly when there are romantic triangles, the rival merits of the characters becomes a topic of discussion. I recall a number of debates over Gelis verus Kathi in the House of Niccoló or Angel versus Spike on BVTS.

The X-Files and Alias also lend themselves to discussion , as does Lost (I’m watching last week’s episode as I write this and will probably have to rewatch it to make sure I didn’t miss a vital clue). I think the more a series, television or book, has an going mytharc (to use an X-Files term), with story and character development that extends from episode to episode or book to book, the more it becomes something one doesn't watch/read and enjoy but something one wants to talk about and explore. The mystery series I talk about the most with fellow readers may wrap up the central mystery within a book but the continuing characters have plenty of ongoing issues that stretch from book to book. Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series all come to mind. When I finish one of the books, I inevitably want to talk about it (particularly the in the case of the recent George and Harris books which left lots of unresolved questions). Though they aren’t mysteries, but the same is true of Lauren's Pink Carnation series. There are always questions that linger at the end book, whether it’s about the identity of villains, Colin and Eloise, or the Pink Carnation herself.

Another thing all these series have in common is vivid, richly-detailed world-building, whether it’s Dunnett's 15th and the 16th century Europe and beyond, suburban Sunnydale, Mulder & Scully’s conspiracy-rife FBI, Sydney Bristow’s CIA and the Alliance, an island that moves back and forth in time (and goodness knows what else), Lynley & Havers’s Scotland Yard, Holmes & Russell’s 20s Britain and beyond filled with puzzles and adventures, Sebastian St. Cyr’s dark Regency London, or the Pink Carnation's adventure-filled Napoleonic Europe. They’re all worlds I enjoy visiting, filled with characters I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have favorite series, whether literary or on television, that lend themselves particularly to discussion? Do you seek out friends to talk them over with? What elements in series do you find particularly good topics for analysis?

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21 March 2009

The Romance of the Canopy Bed: Well, sorta

Surfing again, researching life in the 1500's for a new WIP and I came across this interesting bit on canopy beds. I've always wanted one...so much for the romance. ;-)


In the middle ages and earlier, there was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

Canopy beds actually date back to 13th century Europe. In most castles and manor houses and in some town dwellings, materials such as wood, clay tiles and stone were used for roofing. All served even better than thatch to "stop things from falling into the house." Poor peasant folk, who were the most likely to suffer the annoyances brought about by an ill-kept thatch roof, commonly slept on straw pallets on the floor or in a loft. They did not have canopy beds to keep out falling dead wasps and rat droppings.

Wealthier people didn't need canopies to keep out things that dropped from the roof; yet wealthy people such as noble lords and ladies or prosperous burghers did have beds with canopies and curtains. Why? Because the canopy beds used in medieval England and Europe have their origins in an entirely different domestic situation.

In the earliest days of the European castle, the lord and his family slept in the great hall, along with all their servants. The noble family's sleeping area was usually at one end of the hall and was separated from the rest by simple curtains. In time, castle builders constructed separate chambers for the nobility, but though lords and ladies had their bed(s) to themselves, attendants might share the room for convenience and security. For the sake of warmth as well as privacy, the lord's bed was curtained, and his attendants slept on simple pallets on the floor, on trundle beds, or on benches.

A knight or lady's bed was large and wood-framed, and its "springs" were interlaced ropes or leather strips upon which a feather mattress would rest. It had sheets, fur coverlets, quilts and pillows, and it could be fairly easily dismantled and transported to other castles when the lord made a tour of his holdings. Originally, curtains were hung from the ceiling, but as the bed evolved, a frame was added to support a canopy, or "tester," from which the curtains hung.
Similar beds were welcome additions to town homes, which weren't necessarily warmer than castles. And, as in matters of manners and dress, prosperous town-folk emulated the nobility in the style of furnishings used in their homes."

I still want a canopy bed, though. Never had one when I was a little girl and now....well, it's still on my wish list, decades later. Who else out there had one/has one?

Where this info came from and more, see:

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19 March 2009

Tolpuddle Martyrs

God is our guide! from field, from wave, From plough, from anvil, and from loom; We come, our country's rights to save, And speak a tyrant faction's doom: We raise the watch-word liberty; We will, we will,we will be free!
After the amazing posts of the past few weeks--inspiration from movies, exotic family stories and the rest--I'm bringing us back down to earth with a solid thump.

Today's the anniversary of the day in 1834 when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to seven years transportation for daring to form a trade union. And, no, I didn't make that name up--it's a village in Dorset, about seven miles from Dorchester, which is justly proud of the Martyrs, whose sentencing, pardon and return (well, most of them returned) is considered the founding of the English trade union movement. There's a museum in the village dedicated to them and a yearly festival in their honor.

The irony of the Toldpuddle martyrs is that what they were doing--the formation of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers--wasn't even illegal at this date. The Combination Act had been repealed in 1825. And god knows they had a desperate need to protect themselves, bringing home a starvation wage of nine shillings a week in 1830, lowered over the next four years to seven shillings with a further reduction to six shillings in the future. The rapidly-growing organization stated they wanted ten shillings a week. Just to give you an idea of the extreme poverty of these laborers, it was estimated that the average rural household spent nine shillings a week on bread, the staple food of the working poor.

The nervous Whig gentry drew upon an obscure law of 1797 originally created to prevent mutiny in the navy, making the swearing of pledges of loyalty illegal, and the six men were brought to trial at the Dorchester Assizes. There they were sentenced to transportation, blatantly as an example to others, and became popular heroes.

In 1836, with the support of a new Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, and in response to public pressure, they were pardoned, and four of them returned to England. Only one of the six, James Hammett, went back to Tolpuddle, where he died in 1891. Three others emigrated to London, Ontario, where their descendants still live.

The tree pictured in the engraving above, and beneath which the first meeting of the Martyrs took place, still stands--according to a fascinating page of the National Trust site dedicated to historic trees, it's a sycamore that is over four hundred years old.

Extraordinarily, these men--or some of them--were literate. You can read their first hand accounts of their arrests, trial, and life in Australia at tolpuddlemartyrs.online-today.co.uk.

I find so much about the story heroic and touching, not the least of which is the power of words and language--the stanza at the beginning of the post was scribbled on a scrap of paper by George Loveless shortly after they were sentenced. I'm reminded of how much about Georgian-Regency England, beyond the glitter and fabulous clothes and elegance, was so heart-breaking and hard and pitiless.

I guess my rule when I'm writing is always to keep it in mind, if not on the actual page. How do you handle it? Does it worry you?

And I'm over at the Riskies today, or later today, talking about ... something possibly related to this. Or not.

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18 March 2009

Love in Subtext

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way a post and the attendant discussion can inspire another post and create a rich conversation among readers and writers. My post about The Privileged Class Enjoying Its Privileges was inspired by a wonderful post of Pam's. Pam’s post a couple of weeks ago took off on the 1930s romantic comedies I’d mentioned in my post and as she said social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.

My thoughts also drifted to The Philadelphia Story after some wonderful follow up comments on my post. I got out my video and watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It’s been one of my favorites since I first saw it at the age of ten. Even before that, I’d read and loved the Philip Barry play on which it is based. What struck me watching this time is how, in a movie that says a great deal about love and types of love and in which who will end up with whom is an open question, Tracy and Dexter’s love story is almost entirely in subtext. They talk about their past, but they don’t talk about their present feelings until the very end of the movie, when he proposes. And even that is indirect. Tracy is announcing to the assembled wedding guests that she and her fiancé have called off the wedding. She asks Dexter what to say next, and he feeds her the lines a speech saying that two years ago I did you out of wedding in this house and I hope to make it up to you by going through with it now as originally planned. Even their brief exchange afterwards doesn’t contain any “I’ve always loved yous”, but the words they do use (”Are you sure?” “Not in the least; but I’ll risk it–will you?” “Oh–I’ll be yare now–I’ll promise to be yare!” “Be whatever you like, you’re my Redhead.”) are somehow more meaningful.

One of my favorite Georgette Heyers, The Grand Sophy, is similar in that hero’s and heroine’s feelings are not expressed either in dialogue or, this being a novel, in inner monologue. Sophy and Charles spar from their first meeting. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles’s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then neither says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung!

I first read The Grand Sophy at about the same age I first saw The Philadelphia Story. I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions (just as I would look for clues to Tracy’s and Dexter’s feelings whenever I saw The Philadelphia Story). Much as I love Heyers like Venetia and Frederica, in which there is much more exploration of the characters’ feelings, there’s something fascinating about a story in which so much is unexpressed.

Writing this blog, I tried to think of other stories in which the romance develops without the feelings being verbalized. Mulder and Scully’s love story unfolds without the words being spoken and without the viewer even being quite sure what is happening when. Yet the clues are there when you rewatch the episodes (one of the things I love about rewatching Seasons 6 and 7 in particular). Mulder’s I don’t want to risk–losing you in Requiem (the Season 7 finale) is much more powerful than a more explicit declaration of feeling.

Thinking back to my Declarations, Resolutions, & Other Heart-Stopping Moments post, Gil and Ingold in Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy don’t express their feelings until that last scene where Gil asks Ingold if he wants her to stay with him. Their feelings for each other are more palpable than Charles’s and Sophy’s but expressed in gestures and often as much in what is not said as in what is said. The same is true of Holmes and Russell in Laurie King's Mary Russell books. The books are first person, so the reader is privy to more of Russell’s feelings than in some of other stories mentioned. But Russell and Holmes never express those feelings to each other. And Holmes finds a way to propose without putting any of it into words (You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is? I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you’re aware of how difficult I can be). Neither has said “I love you” to the other through the eight books of the series thus far. Though Holmes’s behavior in those books perhaps contradicts his claim that he would give Russell “little affection and a great deal of irritation.” In fact, to me one of the most romantic lines in the series was in Locked Rooms in which he says (don’t have my copy in front of me so I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t think the the sun rising in the west would cause his heart to stop but The sight of my wife going over the rail of a ship might have done the trick however.

My own Charles and Mélanie don’t often verbalize their feelings (in fact one reader on my website asked if I ever intended to dramatize the moment where they first say "I love you" to each other). Neither says “I love you" in Beneath a Silent Moon, including in the final scene. Charles instead tells Mel he “needs her” which somehow seemed a stronger declaration to me in that moment. They do say “I love you” in the first chapter of Secrets of a Lady (before their happy jewel box life completely falls apart) but even then it’s with the slightly embarrassed acknowledgment that the words can seem a cliché (Will it sounds hopelessly redundant if I say I love you too?). Charles tells Mel he loves her again, late in the book, but the words are clipped, almost harsh, wrung out of him by extreme emotion (as is his first declaration of love in a vignette I posted recently on my website). Charles and Mélanie talk in code more than verbalizing their feelings directly. In that, I suspect I was influenced by many of the stories discussed in this post.

What do you think of love stories in which the romance is expressed in subtext? Do you like them or do you prefer more explicit declarations? Writers, do you find characters who only admit their feelings in code easier or more difficult to write than characters who express their feelings more freely?

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13 March 2009

Song of My (groan) Self

What makes me weep
And tear my hair?
Gnash my teeth
And scream and swear?

What is the cause
Of such a mess--
Of feeling dumb
And worse distress?

Deliver me from wimpy verbs,
Fragments and elaborate puns.
Save my spirit and my brain

Are any of you cursed with this?

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10 March 2009

Harvesting the Family Tree

Inspired by Mary's brilliant post about her ancestor by marriage, Major General Lord Blayney, I decided to take two leaves out of her book and share a family story of my own in the form of a post I previously published on another blog. The difference is that while Mary's family story was meticulously backed by research, mine falls into the realm of pure legend, passed down from generation to generation via the ever reliable means of bedtime stories.

These weren’t your common garden variety “when I was your age I had to walk twenty miles to school while milking a herd of maddened cows” sorts of stories. My ancestors had a flair for drama and a notable dearth of common sense. They were constantly doing harebrained things like running off to America with nothing but a suit of dress clothes and a gold-headed cane. (That would be my great-grandfather, who got into a tiff with his father and decided to go off and sulk several thousand miles away, but neglected to pack or do any of those other things one generally does before transatlantic voyages. He just booked a first class cabin and hopped aboard in the clothes he was wearing at the time.) But my absolute favorite is my great-great-great-grandfather, Herman Karl Ludwig Maximilian von Willig. As my brother would say, lots of names, not a lot of smarts.

Picture it: 1848. The Austrian Empire seethes with incipient rebellion. Young Herman Karl Ludwig Maximilian, an incredibly unimportant officer in His Imperial Majesty’s army, is stationed just outside of Milan, happily eating his weight in pasta and admiring the pretty brass sheen on his buttons, when the Italian city explodes into anti-Austrian rebellion. A sensible man would have ridden hell for leather back to the Austrian border, which is what the rest of the regiment was doing. Not being the brightest bratwurst in the bunch, Herman decided to go the other way. He rode into Milan, right into the heart of the insurrection. With his Croatian batman trotting along behind him, he limped up and down the streets of Milan, knocking on doors, saying, “Hello. I’m an Austrian officer. Would you please take me in?” This did not make him popular. Unsurprisingly, someone shot him. Did this daunt Herman? Nein! Dripping blood, he kept on going door to door, only this time his line was, “Hello, I’m a wounded Austrian officer. Would you please take me in?” You have to give him points for perseverance.

Fortunately for Herman (and me), at the next house he tried, the door was opened by the daughter of the family, a Hungarian countess with a taste for romantic fiction and about as much common sense as Herman. Her father might be one of the instigators of the rebellion (he was a hard-boiled Hungarian nationalist, committed to the downfall of the Austrian imperial regime), but Sofia-Elisabeth took one look at the handsome Austrian officer drooping becomingly on her doorstep and thought, “Hmm, kind of cute.” Smuggling him up to her boudoir with the aid of a devoted servant (there’s always a devoted servant in these stories), she secreted him beneath a pile of petticoats. According to one of my great-aunts, that’s not all that happened beneath those petticoats. About nine months later, the happy couple (by then husband and wife, with the blessing of the Emperor, who cheerfully executed Sofia’s treasonous father and, in a nice touch, bestowed the Count’s estates upon her new husband. One can only hope that father and daughter had never been close) were delivered of a little bundle of joy. They named him Arturo, in honor of their Italian adventure. And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, sort of. Herman, being Herman, managed to run the estates into the ground, and wound up mortgaging anything that could be mortgaged. As for Arturo, he grew up to rival the magnificent foolishness of his father. But stories always sound much better with a happily ever after at the end— and I like to think that they were happy, at least for a while. Isn’t that as much as anyone can hope for?

Some of this has documentary evidence behind it, but the juicier bits are all pure legend and speculation. Since one of the traits that has reliably remained in the family is a marked lack of sense of direction, I can easily believe that Herman rode the wrong way. As for the rest of it... as bedtime stories go, it sure beat counting sheep.

What are your most improbable family stories?

A Narrative of a Forced Journey

Thomas Edward Blayney, who led the 89th Regiment of Foot, "Blayaneys Bloodhounds" was captured by the enemy after a battle of little note in southern Spain. According to Blayney the scouts brought back iaccurate information and the stronghold was fiercely protected by a larger force than anticiapted. The battle ended when Blayney's horse was shot from under him and he was captured by a Polish contingent that bullied him and "attemtped to pull off his epalets [sic]" (I don't think he wanted readers to laugh at that but this reader did)

Immediately after his release in 1814, Major General Lord Blayney
wrote a two volume (Blessedly double spaced)book about his time as a prisoner of war. The title "Narrative of a Forced Journey Throught Spain and France from 1810-1814" recounts his experiecne from Spain all the way to Paris where he was eventually imprisoned.

For years, I have been trying to find a copy of this book and finally located one at the New York Public Library where I spent the better part of a day reading bits and pieces of it. Now, I am delighted to report, that it is in my Google Book Library. You can complain all you want about certain aspects of Google but I am absolutely delighted to be able to read this book at my convenience and in its entirety. To take this tangent on step further, I see that there are now copies for sale, and I expect someday we will own one.

From what I have read I consider the book readable and moderatly entertaining. Blayney focuses on his travels on parole, that is on his honor not to escape, from Spain to Pairs in the company of various senior ranking enemy officers who would pass him on to the next soldier heading north.

Two bits stand out in my memory. First he talks about some soldier he first met in Itlay while visiting Lord Nelson and William Hamilton. No mention of Emma Hamilton. There are surprising moments of humor in the book as well. One morning Blayney mentions leaving a city and saying farewell to the bedbugs he had come to know so well.

In my Google adaventure I came accross a review of the book in The Quarterly Review, London 1816 which begins with the following sentence "We heartily wish that Lord Blayney had not published this book.....he is undoubtedly one of the worst travelers we have ever known." The Quarterly Review goes on for six pages (single sapced)detailing Blayney's failings, his obsession with food and his lack of interest in the cultural attractions of the area he is passing through. They describe him as angry when he is not received properly and not grateful when he is.

Should I count it as a relief that I am not the only Blayney to receive a bad review?

It's in the plans to read the book fully and compare it more carefully to the review, so you may hear from me on this subject again. In the meantime both are available on Google Books if you want to read for yourself.

09 March 2009

Major General Lord Blayney

Andrew Thomas Blayney, the 11th Baron Blayney was a Major General and commander of the 89th Regiment of Foot, ‘Blayney’s Bloodhounds’ a troop that fought with distinction against Napoleon.

Research turns up such interesting tidbits. My husband’s family is Irish. Anyone with that middle ‘y’ in Blayney is related to him (and me by marriage). Imagine our pleased surprise when my online research uncovered the Major General.

According to the Blayney family genealogy, a book written and published privately by Chester Blayney, Andrew Thomas, Lord Blayney was born in 1770 and entered the army in 1789. The portrait shown here is dated 1802. His military service continued through 1814. That may account for the fact that in his later years he enjoyed "an evening with friends and a bottle (or five) of wine rather than the company of women." He did marry, in 1796 , a neighbor, Mabella Caledon, the daughter of the first Earl of Caledon. She is described as “a most excellent woman and much beloved.” They had at least one child, a son, who inherited the title in 1832 and was the last Baron Blayney

While in the Army, Blayney served in Malta, Majorca, Egypt, the Cape of Good Hope and Buenos Aires, all before his regiment was sent to Malaga where he was taken prisoner in 1810. He remained a prisoner until 1814 when the war ended. He worked with equal zeal on his responsibilities as a baron, both before and after the war, doing his best to improve the town of CastleBlayney as well as taking an active interest in politics.

He was a colorful character, considered “an original thinker.” Writing about his visit to Lord Blayney at Blayney Castle, John Burges says of a visit in 1825. “I could fill pages with …pleasant days and night I spend with this dear man.”

In another section he writes. “He was very much put out of sorts by bores and whenever one arrived, he immediately desired the servant to say he had gone to Belfast.This Belfast was a most picturesque cottage on the bank of a lake where he repaired to.

"On this occasion as we sat charmed with the scene around us, the dash of oars assailed our ears. Says I , ‘O! Lord Blayney. They have found us out.’ ‘No Jack’ says he, ‘All’s right’. When in a moment appeared the boat and the maiter d’hotel bringing with him everything useful to dress a good dinner..”

Lord Blayney was fond of "dressing a good dinner" as you will see when I post again and tell you about the book he wrote describing his four years as prisoner of war. The title is "Narrative of a Forced Journey through Spain and France as a Prisoner of War in the Years 1810 to 1814" and I'll have some details from a review of the book that is as entertaining as anything Blayney wrote.

All except the last paragraph of this post is a repeat. It was first posted November, 2006. My next post is the long ago promised follow-up

In the meantime does anyone want to share some interesting branches in their family tree?

06 March 2009

I Lost it at the Movies: The Hollywood Remarriage Comedy

As so often happens, I find myself bouncing off what other hoydens have been saying.

This time I’m inspired by what Tracy’s thoughts, in a recent post, about social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.

And since others of us have referred to this one as a favorite, for its complex take on the very stuff of romance fiction — men and women; morality, autonomy, and desire — let me share some observations about certain movies of this period, from a remarkable book called Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, by the philosophy professor Stanley Cavell.

Comedy of Remarriage?

Before reading Cavell, I hadn’t even considered that such a category existed. But think of The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve — all of them about married couples so fabulously, visibly, physically, and verbally right for each other that the screen glows with the black-and-white heat of it.

And in each case the couple is on the brink of divorce or already divorced with the wife on the brink of marrying someone absolutely wrong for her — until a wonderfully talky comic script brings the original couple back together.

For that physical heat: at the beginning of this YouTube clip from His Girl Friday, check out the edgy intimacy with which the divorced couple, Walter and Hildy (Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell), pace around each other in the chaotic space of Walter's office.

And also watch the final scene on the clip (about 6 minutes in), when Walter takes Hildy and Bruce, her sweet-decent-but-wrong-for-her fiance (Ralph Bellamy) out to lunch. Walter’s desperately ironic and angry, Hildy’s embarrassed but rather enjoying it, Bruce is simply struggling to keep up. Cavell gets as close to the heart of my romance-writer sensibility as any philosopher could, when he says that:

…the pair communicate […] in a lingo and tempo, and about events present and past [...]. They simply appreciate each other more than either of them appreciates anyone else, and they would rather be appreciated by one another, more than by anyone else.

They are, as I wrote about Mary and Kit, the couple in my own remarriage comedy, The Slightest Provocation, onto each other, wise to each other's smarts and wit and audacity, and wicked smart about the accompanying need and weaknesses and wounded pride. Every bit as much as the fast-talking lovers in another hoyden favorite, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Fast-talking... boy, do they ever talk fast in these remarriage comedy movies. Cavell points out that this spate of films had its beginnings less than a decade after the movies even got sound; one can almost hear the glee of trying to cram as many words as possible onto the sound-strip on the celluloid.

But the acrobatics of fast talking are also as much a part of the dance of desire and need as the ongoing war for screen space; note (beginning about 3 minutes and 36 seconds into the clip) the wonderful physical byplay between Hildy and Walter about who leads and who follows — and what leading and following might mean — as they walk down (yes) the aisle of the newsroom where Walter is editor.

Cavell’s writing is witty but also weighty (I had to blow off a lot of the sentences that hinge on Kant or Wittgenstein). And they make big claims for the importance of a set of lighter-than-air entertainments — this notion of marriage being not a solution but a problem to be revisited, revised, and gotten right only in struggle is, according to Cavell, the major female cultural achievement of the period between the Suffrage movement and the advent of 1960s second wave feminism.

Fans of Rosie the Riveter may beg to differ.

And yet, as a woman who got so much of my romantic sensibility from the movies (I fell in love with the Regency while breathlessly watching the 1955 Beau Brummell, with Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor), I know how powerful screen images of contested love can be, and I also know how deeply even a nine-year-old can feel the rough strife of love and wit and words and ego (even if the nine-year-old didn't know that no one wore powdered wigs during the Regency). While my husband, who's been onto me from the beginning, sealed the contract between us, we joke, on our first date, when he took me to see the swooningly romantic 1945 French historical drama, Les Enfants du Paradis.

And as a feminist writer in a popular genre that’s consistently, ignorantly, and unfairly maligned as anti-feminist, I can only applaud Cavell for the serious smarts he devotes to another sub-sub entertainment genre, a set of “parables,” as he puts it,

of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for the reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man, a study of the conditions under which this fight for recognition […] is a struggle for mutual freedom, especially of the views each holds of the other. [….] They harbor a vision which they know cannot fully be domesticated, inhabited, in the world we know. They are romances.

We won’t all be able to talk so fast, or move so nimbly.

But we can try. Write on, hoydens all.

And readers, writers and viewers among you, tell me what parts of yourself you’ve found at the movies.

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04 March 2009

Did they or didn't they? The brief marriage of Katherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales

“Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.”

~Arthur, Prince of Wales, to his steward on the morning of November 15, 1501.

“. . . as intact and uncorrupt as when [she] emerged from [her] mother’s womb.”
~Katherine of Aragon’s assertion regarding the non-consummation of her marriage to Arthur

After two years of negotiations, by the treaty of Medina del Campo, ratified by Henry VII on September 23, 1490, his four-year-old son Arthur, the Prince of Wales and heir to England’s throne (1486-1502) was contracted in marriage to Catalina, or Katherine (1485-1536), the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536)

Finally, on May 14, 1499, Arthur married Katherine by proxy at Tickhill Manor. But further international wrangling over Katherine’s dowry delayed her departure for England, and she did not arrive there until October 2, 1501.

On November 14, Katherine and Arthur, clad all in white, were united at St. Paul’s Cathedral in a three-hour ceremony, which followed the reading of the appropriate papal dispensations and the formal terms of the marriage, as well as the exchange of the first installment of Katherine’s dowry.

A raised, six-hundred-foot runway, covered in red cloth trimmed with gilt nails had been erected from the west doors of the church all the way to the chancel, where the nuptial mass was conducted on a raised stage. The musicians were stationed in the soaring vaults, which gave the illusion that their resounding melodies emanated from on high.

The bride was considered a beauty, blessed with abundant auburn hair, gray eyes, dainty hands and feet, and the damasked pink-and-white complexion that was so prized in England. But the English had never seen an ensemble quite like her wedding attire. With her skirts stretched over her Spanish farthingale—a horizontal cage tied about her hips—Katherine resembled a ship of state as she sailed along the walkway, high above the crowd. Her white silk veil, or mantilla, fluttered to her waist, weighed down by a jeweled border two fingers’ wide.

Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502)

Outside the cathedral the wine flowed freely from a conduit—royal largesse to the cheering throngs—as the bells of London pealed. After the ceremony the teenage newlyweds, “both lusty and amorous,” were conveyed to Baynard’s castle in a grand procession where a sumptuous feast awaited them, as did a public, though strictly ceremonial, bridal bed.

Preparing the actual bed of state was a production number involving several participants who were honored to get the assignment, including the yeoman of the guard whose job it was to roll “up and down” the litter of straw that formed the bed’s base layer. This brave soul was not merely matting the rushes; he was searching for hidden weapons.

After what amounted to a stag night, replete with bawdy songs to get the groom in the proper frame of mind to perform his conjugal duty, Arthur was escorted to the great bed where Katherine was already waiting for him. The bishops blessed the couple and wished them many years of fruitful life together, then departed and left the newlywed teens to nature.

Or not—depending on whom you asked. And depending on the circumstances in which you asked and how many days, weeks, or years it was from the wedding night itself.

Arthur’s steward recalled his fifteen-year-old master boasting of his sexual prowess on the morning after the wedding night, “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.” Other witnesses heard this remark as well as Arthur’s exhortation, “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.” It could have been no more than macho swagger—but why? Those who saw the young couple together noticed a genuine attraction between them.

And Katherine had a rock-solid sense of duty. Her marriage negotiations had been long in the making; now that she was wed to the future king of England, her job was only half-accomplished. To permanently cement Spain’s alliance with England and fulfill her parents’ diplomatic aims, she had to get pregnant and deliver an heir. Katherine spent the day after the wedding in solitude, receiving only the king’s messenger who delivered the sovereign’s heartiest felicitations—on the consummation of the union, one assumes. And the following day, she went to St. Paul’s to see her husband and father-in-law give thanks to God “that so prosperously His Goodness had suffered everything of this laudable [marriage] to be brought to its most laudable conclusion [the getting of children].” True, she could have just been playing along, knowing it was expected of her, and if there had been a problem in the bedroom she dared not disclose a word of it.

Katherine’s duenna Doña Elvira, a woman with her own political agenda, insisted—and Katherine reiterated as much years later—that the conjugal visits remained chaste. However, it’s also possible that everything went just fine in the boudoir. William Thomas, Arthur’s Groom of the Privy Chamber and one of his most intimate body servants, was in charge of preparing the prince for his visits to the marriage bed. Thomas “made [Arthur] ready to bed . . . and conducted him clad in his night gown unto the Princess’s bedchamber door often and sundry times . . . and that at the morning he received him at the said doors . . . and waited upon him to his own privy chamber.”

And at the end of November Arthur wrote to his in-laws, informing them that “he had never felt such joy in his life as when he beheld the sweet face of his bride. No woman in the world could be more agreeable to him. [He] promises to be a good husband.”

Yet the royal wedding still didn’t mean that all was settled between Spain and England. Initially, Henry had not been keen to have the young couple set up their household and assume full marital relations. Doña Elvira, Katherine’s duenna, agreed with him. But for Katherine, who had inherited her mother’s iron will, time was of the essence and it was she who had managed to change the king’s mind. Additionally, Katherine’s tutor and confessor Alessandro Geraldini persuaded Henry that “on no condition in the world should [he] separate them, but send her with her husband.” Otherwise, Isabella and Ferdinand would be highly displeased and Katherine herself “would be in despair.” So Arthur and Katherine set off for Ludlow, arriving on December 21, 1501.

In the spring of 1502 Arthur became ill, his ailment described by a herald as “the most pitiful disease and sickness that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven, in the singular parts of him inward, [so] that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish and overcome the pure and friendful blood.” Many modern historians believe that the herald refers to the Sweating Sickness that was sweeping the West Country, or else to a bronchial or pulmonary infection, such as pneumonia or consumption. However, the phrase “the singular parts of him inward” may allude to testicular cancer.

An unknown witness recalled hearing one of Arthur’s servants dating the onset of his illness to Shrovetide, February 8, 1502: “He had lain with the Lady Katherine, and was never so lusty in body and courage until his death, which [he] said was because he lay with the Lady Katherine.” Arthur died on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1502.

The servants’ accounts suggest that the Waleses enjoyed frequent conjugal visits. Katherine’s confessor and tutor, Alessandro Geraldini—who was recalled to Spain not too long after Arthur’s death—concurred. But according to Katherine, between their arrival in Ludlow and Arthur’s death, the newlyweds had spent only seven nights together. Nearly thirty years later, during the hearings regarding the validity of her marriage to Henry VIII the same contradiction would emerge. Arthur’s steward repeated his young master’s boast on the morning after his wedding, to the effect that he “had spent the night in Spain,” although Katherine would testify that she had remained “as intact and uncorrupt as when she emerged from her mother’s womb.”
Arthur’s body lay in state for three weeks before it was buried at Worcester Cathedral. Katherine, sixteen years old, nearly alone and friendless in a foreign kingdom, would remain in England for the next seven years in a state of political limbo. She was retired to Durham House to await whatever fate Henry VII and her parents decided for her. Her debts mounted and when she had to pawn her jewels and plate—a contested element of her dowry—to pay her retinue, she was accused of spending Henry VII’s property.

Henry VII (1457-1509)

Eventually, a marriage was brokered between Katherine and Henry’s surviving son, the future Henry VIII, but her marriage to Arthur and the issue of its consummation would remain the elephant in the parlor—rearing its trunk and smashing breakables—for years. It was the subject of the papal dispensations required for her union with young Henry—a brief and a bull that either contradict or complement each other, depending on one’s interpretation of the wording. The argument over whether Katherine’s union with Arthur was a “true” marriage would be fought again when Henry chose to put her aside in order to wed Anne Boleyn. Katherine continued to insist that she had come to Henry’s bed a twenty-three-year-old virgin. But by the time Henry’s Great Matter was under debate in the late 1520s, Katherine’s keen understanding of dynasty and diplomacy had made her more than a loving wife and devoted mother. She was Spain to Henry’s England, an alliance that possibly overrode any qualms of conscience.

Perhaps Arthur had spent his wedding “night in the midst of Spain” after all.
Do you think the marriage between Katherine and Arthur was consummated? Why or why not?

02 March 2009

Got Snow?

It is snowing in Southern Maryland. Woooee. After waiting all winter and beginning to think about spring, a storm roared up the coast and we are in for eight to ten inches. To the right is the 8 AM view off our front porch.

It’s not a friendly storm. The wind is fiendish. All night, snow clots fell on the roof, blown down from the trees. It sounded like a violent snowball fight, but we prefer it to trees laden with ice and snow. Everyone here still talks about the ice storm in the 90’s when they were without power for ten days.

Listening to the thumps last night, I thought about the role weather and climate plays in my books. In the early regencies (written for Kensington) I virtually ignore the fact that it rains so much in England. In thinking back over the five novels I wrote under the Zebra imprint, the weather was not a factor in any of the stories. As a matter of fact in my last book for Kensington, THE CAPTAIN’S MERMAID, my Jamaican born and raised heroine loved to swim in the lake that separated her brother’s estate from the hero’s.

That was my ‘aha’ moment. Even putting my heroine’s home in the warmest spot in England, it is likely that only the most eccentric woman would swim regularly even in the summer. As the title shows, her love of swimming was an essential part of the story so it stayed and not one reader or reviewer complained.

Now, before I dive too deep into writing a book, I research significant weather events. I've learned about the Frost Fair of 1814 and the Year Without a Summer, 1816. That’s Mt. Pinatubo below. Following a massive eruption the ash from Pinatubo spread worldwide and is thought to have caused the colder than usual summer in 1816. That’s a subject I covered in another blog post.

I thought about books and movies set in England during the Regency and considered whether climate or weather played a significant part in the story. More movies came to mind than books, probably because of the visual element in movies.

In the London scenes of the movie AMAZING GRACE it rains. It more than rains. Rain floods out of the sky. London is wet and miserable all the time. The rain dose not so much advance the plot as it creates a mood. IN MASTER AND COMMANDER sun, rain and wind are such a fundamental part of life at sea that weather is like a character.

In the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I do not recall rain in any scene except the one where Jane is going to Mr. Bingley’s. In the Keira Knightley P&P rain is used as a cliched plot device.

Tell me, how’s your weather been this winter? How aware are you of the importance of weather or climate in your books? Are they a significant background element or used to further the story? I will check back frequently today but a neighbor just called to say they lost power so if you don’t hear from me, you know why.

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