Happy Beltane, everyone! I’m so excited to have Jacqueline Friedland as my guest here today. As her post below makes clear, she’s a soul-sister of mine in her love for strong women. Her post really got me thinking about how our early experiences with reading shape who we are later on as writers. I think I may do a follow up post on that with my own thoughts. But this post is about her, not about me. Take it away, Jacqueline!
Photo: Rebecca Weiss Photography
Did you ever try to figure out why certain novels make you fall in love and others make you fall asleep? Perhaps you’ve wondered if there is a common thread, a specific literary ingredient that draws you so deeply into certain stories? Maybe if you could identify a trend in the books that invariably keep you reading late into the night, that knowledge might allow you to better hone in on other books that would provide you with equal delight.
As a voracious reader and an author, it has been important to me to pinpoint the devices and themes embedded in the books I most adore. Not only can such knowledge save me from muddling through books that don’t speak to me, but it can also help me to create written work of my own that feels appropriate and substantive in all the right ways. Over the past several years, I have identified several characteristics that lead me to gravitate towards a novel. I like a fast-pace, a strong plot, accessible prose, maybe some romance, perhaps some humor. Nothing scary, gory, or overly experimental. But there is something more elusive that has made certain books stay with me for years.
When my mother read aloud to me during my early childhood, we loved The Little Engine that Could, The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie. As I grew older, I was drawn to books like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club and Anne of Green Gables. Then there were the books that shot to the top of my list as I reached adulthood: Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre and The Bronze Horseman. What these books all have in common are strong female characters (and if you weren’t aware, Watty Piper’s plucky little engine is indeed female). These works of fiction portray girls and women who have grit, the will and determination to continue striving until they reach their goals.
There is an additional commonality between these characters though, which is that these females are not only strong, but kind. In today’s world, there is so much discussion of women needing to be strong, but not enough emphasis on the fact that in appropriate circumstances, kindness should be perceived as a type of strength. The ability to think about others and see past one’s own experience in interacting with people requires a special kind of fortitude.
In creating my debut novel, Trouble the Water, I felt it was imperative to include positive messages about feminine power and decision making. The manner in which my characters approach the circumstances fate deals them is what I believe defines their spirits and ethos. I wanted to portray characters who could make the best of difficult circumstances while also being brave enough to reject conformity. I created women who took the lemons life handed them and decided to use those lemons as paperweights. After all, not everyone likes lemonade.
The central female characters in Trouble the Water are each willing to think outside the Victorian or antebellum box, despite the constraints of the 1840s. The women are courageous enough to make their own choices and to shout until they are heard. Abigail Milton, the story’s protagonist, has worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire England, receiving a pittance in recompense since she was eleven years old. When her parents ask her to travel to America so that she may live off the charity of their old friend in Charleston, and thereby lighten the financial burden on her family, she agrees to set off on her own, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean with little more than a stale bread crust and unwavering determination to make a better life for herself.
As the story unfolds and Abby discovers that her new home is rife with clandestine efforts to free local slaves, she is excited, energized, and eager to participate in the abolitionist effort. Rather than judging the high-risk and profoundly illegal activity of her patron, Douglas Elling, Abby wants to jump directly into the trenches of abolition with him. It’s a whole different kind of #metoo.
Throughout the story, Abby repeatedly resists being corralled into any of the stereotypical gender molds of the day. From her penchant for physical exercise to her continued rejection of assistance from men, even those who simply offer to carry her bundles, Abby is her own person. She is desperate to create meaning in her life, which she believes can be achieved through teaching and helping others. When she develops romantic feelings for another character, she struggles greatly over how to reconcile those feelings with her burning desire for independence.
In addition to Abby, the other women featured in the novel are full of conviction and tenacity. Cora Rae Cunningham, a beautiful, spicy, nineteen-year-old who has rejected one marriage proposal after another will not be seduced by wealth nor forced into an arrangement that is not to her romantic satisfaction, much to the dismay of her plantation-owning, socially conforming parents. Clover, a house slave impregnated by her master, refuses to birth her baby into a life of bondage, and in the ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice, takes her chances on running North.
Creating a realistic historical novel that depicts female characters who are ahead of their time, models for women in any time period, is a challenge that I was glad to undertake. I felt it was incumbent on me to portray women who were progressive for their time, active players in their life stories, rather than passive guests, living out the scripts that had been handed to them by other forces. My characters have strong backbones, as well as moments of unexpected kindness and generosity. They are just the type of women who would keep me reading deep into the night.
Sounds like your characters and mine would get along great! Thank you so much, Jacqueline! I know I can’t wait to read her book! If you have any questions for Jacqueline, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll make sure she sees them.
Please welcome my special guest today, historical fiction author Steve Wiegenstein. He’s a good friend, fellow Missourian and a fun drinking partner! I love this essay. I hope you do too.
Photo credit: Kaci Smart
In an earlier post on this blog, Nicole writes about the challenges of portraying strong women in proper historical context, responding to some recent articles and speeches by Hilary Mantel and others. I’d like to echo some of her thoughts and add my own perspective.
Perhaps the greatest gift I have been given in my writing life was to have been raised by and among strong, intelligent women. My mother, aunts, grandmother, and “neighbor ladies,” (to use the regional generic) were people with clear opinions, broad knowledge, and a profound sense of right and wrong.
Only from the perspective of later life have I come to understand the obstacles they dealt with. When my mother was born, the Nineteenth Amendment was less than three years old, marital rape was still an unheard-of legal concept, and women made up only about one-fifth of the workforce. A “strong woman,” pretty much by definition, was trouble.
The farther back in history we look, the more dispiriting the story becomes. From witch-burnings to marriage laws to the simple daily grind of being seen by those in power as something less than human, the lives of women through the ages were characterized by disempowerment and oppression.
And yet . . .
As a novelist, the prospect of writing story after story about disempowerment and oppression is so dreary. So it’s understandable that writers look for that prototypical “strong female lead character” that publishers, agents, and readers prize. There are a lot of legitimate ways to do this, none of which are wrong.
We look for the exceptional women who have gained historical fame—Elizabeth I, Madame de Stael, Catherine the Great. We search out the exceptional women who deserved more fame than they received in their time, like Sophie Scholl, Mary Katharine Goddard or Nicole’s own Victoria Woodhull. Or we step into the realm of the mythical and semi-mythical, to the Amazons, Valkyries, or other women of legend.
But there’s another tack I’d recommend, and it’s the one I have chosen in my work. Rather than look among the famous or near-famous, I think there’s plenty of drama in the everyday struggle itself. When I think of great American characters, Jo March certainly comes to mind, and although she is not a character in a historical novel (the events of Little Women are nearly contemporaneous with its publication), I think she points the way for us.
What do we remember about Jo? For me, it’s her wide range of emotions, the vividness of her portrayal, and the determination with which she deals with the challenges of life as they confront her. In other words, she is a character with whom we can “relate.” Before Jo is the model of a strong female lead, she is a vibrant human being trying to find her way in a world that underestimates and sometimes thwarts her. Characters like her can be found throughout history and in our own family stories, women who strove to accomplish their goals, whether great or small. As we search for ways to bring those strong female characters into our fiction without violating the realities of history, a good place to start is in the diaries and journals, the stories and jokes, of ordinary people who are anything but ordinary.
Steve Wiegenstein’s most recent novel is THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press).
Note from Nicole: Steve’s new book came out September 26. You can order it here.
Many of you know that I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nut. I have a deep love for his comedies and I’m a Marlovian. (Yes, you will be getting a Shakespeare-was-really-Christopher-Marlowe novel from me sometime in the future.) So when I was asked if Charlene could do a guest post on her book about one of the most enduring mysteries surrounding Shakespeare – the identity of the Dark Lady in his sonnets – I jumped at the chance. So without further ado (or should that be “Much Ado?”) please welcome scholar and fellow feminist Charlene Ball!
Author Charlene Ball
I was in the auditorium at the University of Georgia listening to a short, dapper English historian explain his theory that Emilia Bassano Lanyer was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was around 1975. I was fascinated. Imagine my excitement to learn that someone had discovered a woman who not only might have been close to Shakespeare, but who was a poet in her own right—and, moreover, was an early feminist!
Up until then, my feminism and my love of Renaissance literature were kept in separate areas of my world. Feminism was about marches and demonstrations for the Equal Rights Amendment and Take Back the Night, reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Our Bodies Our Selves, and Sinister Wisdom; listening to talks by popular feminists like Gloria Steinem; reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde; and talking with our very own resident radical feminist, Julia Penelope Stanley, who taught linguistics in the UGA English Department and whose mother ran a cool bookstore called The Hairy Hobbit.
Feminism was also about living with my woman lover, identifying as a lesbian, going to softball games to cheer on our lesbian friends who played on a softball team called—what else?—The Hairy Hobbits (the bookstore sponsored the team).
My coursework for my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, on the other hand, involved attending classes and writing papers on Medieval Narrative, Shakespeare, European Romanticism, French Classical Drama, and Renaissance Narrative Poetry.
I loved it all. But there was a disconnect. My coursework did not overlap at all with my life.
So when I heard A.L. Rowse say that not only was Emilia Lanyer the lover of Shakespeare, but also an early feminist who roundly condemned men for slandering women and called for women’s equality, I could not contain my excitement. I was already fascinated by Christopher Marlowe, or the myth of him as an early gay poet, and I wrote a play about him. I also wrote a play about Shakespeare and Emilia Lanyer.
This was about the time that feminist scholars were beginning to write about early women writers. The decades that followed brought my graduation, my search for academic employment, and the changes in the world and in my life. I taught English composition and literature, and, in between part-time teaching gigs, I took temp jobs. I put Emilia on the back burner. My life changed. My relationship ended. I found a position as an office administrator in a Women’s Studies department. I researched and wrote about feminist utopias and Audre Lorde. I began to write fiction.
When I returned to the literature I first loved, no longer called the Renaissance, but the Early Modern Period, I found that feminist scholars had discovered Emilia (or Aemilia) Bassano Lanyer and had written a great deal about her. But from a very different point of view.
What I had found most troubling about Rowse’s description of Emilia in his talk, the introduction to his edition of her poems, and his books about Shakespeare was that he took an unquestioningly misogynistic view of her, calling her “a bad lot” and “no better than she should be.” Other scholars agreed, including the historians who chronicled the Bassano family of musicians, David Lasocki and Roger Pryor. Pryor assumed she was “a well known whore.”
So I was delighted to discover Susanne Woods’s biography and edition of Lanyer’s poems. Woods makes it clear that there is no evidence at all to believe that Emilia was promiscuous, and even if she were, what would it matter anyway?
The feminist Aemilia was not the same as Rowse’s Emilia. There seemed to be no way to see them as the same person.
Yet—why couldn’t they be? There was no reason I could see that a vehement defender of women could not also have been the lover of, not only Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, but of William Shakespeare as well. And those sonnets of Shakespeare’s that are clearly addressed to a woman are far from flattering. Most of them are angry, mocking, and disparaging. Might not a woman who read them and realized they were about her be offended? Might she not want to answer back in her own defense, in the defense of all women?
So I wanted to write about Emilia (I kept to the spelling of her name that I had first learned) as a woman of her time, assuming just as a “what if” that she was Shakespeare’s lover AND a talented poet. I wanted to portray her as she might have been, doing all the things we know she probably did based on Rowse’s research, but not accepting his easy misogyny and stereotyped thinking. For no scholars deny the basics of Rowse’s research; they just don’t accept his conclusions that she must have known Shakespeare and must have been the woman in the Sonnets.
My Emilia, then, is the daughter of a Court musician and member of the large extended family of Bassanos who came from Venice to London at the invitation of Henry VIII. She is the one whose father died when she was young, who was fostered by Suzan Bertie, Countess of Kent, who became the mistress of Lord Hunsdon at a young age, who married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer when she became pregnant, and who visited the astrologer Simon Forman and endured and may have encouraged his sexual advances. My Emilia is also the mother of two children, one of whom died in infancy. My Emilia is the friend of literary women and a poet herself. She is the woman who published a book of poetry in 1611 and who dedicated it to nine of these women, thus becoming one of the first women in England to publish her work and the first to seek patronage as male authors did.
So—shameless plug!—my novel, Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, brings together my feminism and my love of this fascinating time in history called the Early Modern Period, the time of the incredible burgeoning of drama and poetry by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Phillip Sidney, and so many other men. And now we know about some of the women: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; Lady Arbella Stuart; Isabella Whitney; Mary Wroth; Anne Vaughan Locke Prowse. And Emilia Bassano Lanyer.
Books for Further Reading:
David Lasocki with Roger Prior, The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665 (Scolar, 1995).
A.L. Rowse, The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Lanier (Clarkston N. Potter, 1979).
Susanne Woods, ed., The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Oxford UP, 1993).
____________, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet (Oxford UP, 1999).
Thank you, Charlene! I, for one, can’t wait to read your book! If you have questions for Charlotte, please put them in the comments. I’ll let her know and she’s be around to respond.
Some of you may remember my friend, author and fellow Arthurian nut Tyler Tichelaar, from his 2012 guest post where he talked about a trip he took to Turkey and the Arthurian connections he found there. Well, now he’s back, talking about the fifth and final book in his Children of Arthur series about King Arthur and his descendants.
Tyler is an author of Arthurian nonfiction and historical fantasy and an enthusiast for, if not expert on, modern Arthurian fiction. His nonfiction book King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, which I reviewed here, was published by Modern History Press in 2011. It explores various traditions concerning King Arthur’s children in Welsh and medieval sources, the possible historical descendants of King Arthur, and more recent creations of descendants for King Arthur in modern fiction. (It’s a great book, one that has been a resource for more than one of my novels and non-fiction books.)
Tyler began writing King Arthur’s Children as his master’s thesis in 1994 and as research so he could write his first King Arthur novel, which eventually became the five-book Children of Arthur series, consisting of Arthur’s Legacy (2014), Melusine’s Gift (2015), Ogier’s Prayer (2016),Lilith’s Love (2016), and the newly released Arthur’s Bosom (2017).
I’m thrilled to have him here today to talk about the publication of his fifth novel in the series, Arthur’s Bosom.
Without giving too much away, can you give us an overview of the series for readers not familiar with it?
Tyler: Sure, Nicole, and thank you for having me here. The premise of the series revolves around the idea that King Arthur had descendants. Most people are not aware that he had any children other than Mordred, and depending on which version of the story you read, Mordred is often just Arthur’s nephew. However, there are ancient Welsh traditions that Arthur had several other sons—namely Gwydre, Llacheu, and Amr. There are also traditions that Mordred had children. Furthermore, several families over the centuries have tried to claim descent from King Arthur, including the Scottish Clan Campbell, and the Welsh Tudor family, which, of course, means the current British royal family can claim descent from King Arthur. Whether any of this is true is open to speculation. Many people are very interested in determining the historicity of King Arthur, but to me, the magic has always existed in the legend’s flexibility to recreate itself for each new century and even decade. My premise then is that King Arthur did have descendants, they are living among us today, and considering the fifteen hundred years separating King Arthur’s time period from our own, most of us are King Arthur’s descendants.
Wow. That would be really cool to be a descendant of King Arthur. (I have always thought I was a queen…) So will you tell us a little about what King Arthur’s descendants do in your novels?
Tyler: In the first novel, Arthur’s Legacy, the story starts in 1994. The main character, Adam, has been raised by his grandparents. His mother gave birth to him outside wedlock and then basically abandoned him. He doesn’t know who his father is. I don’t want to give too much away, but eventually at age twenty-two, he starts to get answers, which lead him to finding his father in England and also meeting a strange professor named Merle (you can guess who that is). Eventually, Merle arranges for Adam to fall into a deep sleep and dream the true story of Camelot. In that dream, we learn that Mordred had descendants who survived the fall of Camelot. We also learn that Mordred was one of the good guys, and instead, other villains brought about the fall of Camelot. In the successive volumes, Mordred’s descendants battle the evil ones who destroyed Camelot and who continue to try to destroy them over the centuries, including during the time of Charlemagne, during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and during World War I.
Is it giving too much away to ask who these villains are who were really responsible for the fall of Camelot?
Tyler: No, you learn that right in the opening pages of Arthur’s Legacy. There are two of them, but they are not the usual suspects, although I believe they are the most likely ones when you dig a bit deeper into the legend. First of all, we understand today that history is written from the conqueror’s perspective, so think about who ends up ruling Britain after Arthur—it’s Constantine of Cornwall. It’s never clear why he is chosen as Arthur’s heir; he seems to be some shirttail relative. However, in the sixth century book De Excidio et Conquestu Brittainiae, written by Arthur’s contemporary Gildas, there is reference to a king named Constantine who murdered two royal youths. I believe these youths are Mordred’s sons. In Arthur’s Legacy, one of those sons, Meleon, has a child before he dies, and that child carries on Arthur’s bloodline. The other villain is Gwenhwyvach, whom I imagine most readers have never heard of. However, there is a statement in the Welsh triads that one of the causes of the Battle of Camlann was the blow Guinevere struck to her half-sister Gwenhwyvach. There is a later tradition in the Prose Lancelot that Guinevere’s half-sister, Gwenhwyvach, tried to pass herself off as Guinevere on Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding night. The trick was discovered and Gwenhwyvach, known as the False Guinevere in the Prose Lancelot, was imprisoned in Hengist’s Tower. So it is Gwenhwyvach and Constantine who bring about Camelot’s fall.
I’ve learned a lot about Gwenhwyvach in my non-fiction research. What you say makes perfect sense. I love this theory. But I’m confused; how can they continue to pursue and try to kill Arthur’s descendants in successive centuries? Is it reincarnation?
Tyler: Not exactly. Constantine can’t since he’s just human, but Gwenhwyvach can in my novels because she is a witch, and even more than that, she is an ancient sorceress who is able to reincarnate and has for many centuries since the beginning of time—the title of the fourth book in the series, Lilith’s Love, gives away her real identity. You see, Lilith was Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden. Tradition says she refused to let Adam be on top (a sign of submission) when they had sexual intercourse; consequently, she was derided in Jewish folklore as a monster (a totally sexist attitude), and in my series she acts that way.
Interesting. Tell me about the other women in your novels. You know I’m all about the girl power.
Tyler: One thing I absolutely wanted to avoid was just another story of good vs. evil. Lilith/Gwenhwyvach does many evil things in the novels, but she is a complicated character, and in Lilith’s Love, she gets a chance to explain her own side of things. There are lots of gray areas in my novels—nothing is black and white or exactly as it seems at first. One thing I refused to do was just follow the traditional storylines of various medieval legends that I used. I wanted to turn everything on its head, showing that these stories I use are not necessarily what we have been taught. I did that first by retelling the Camelot story.
I also turn everything on its head in the second novel, Melusine’s Gift, where the French fairy Melusine is the strong female protagonist. Traditionally, Melusine was raised in Avalon, so it only made sense to me that Melusine must have grown up knowing King Arthur, who was there recovering from his wound. Melusine marries one of Arthur’s descendants and uses her fairy powers to try to bring about good. However, in tradition, Melusine made her husband promise she could always hide herself away on Saturday and not be seen by him. Eventually, he broke his promise and discovered she took on a mermaid or serpent form (depending on which version of the legend you read) on Saturdays. At first, he kept her secret, but later in a fit of anger, he called her a serpent in front of his court and she flew away. She is treated as an evil character in tradition, but I am much more kind to her. She is the strength of her family and also works to bring about good, though others cannot accept her because she is different.
Another strong female character throughout the series is Morgan le Fay. Since she shows up in the Charlemagne legends, I thought she obviously must be immortal and live beyond Arthur’s time, so throughout the series, she intercedes as needed to help Arthur’s descendants (and her own since she is Mordred’s mother in my novels).
People know know you through King Arthur’s Children (both the blog and the book) may not know that you have another blog where you write about Gothic literature. Can you explain what that influence is on your Arthurian novels?
Tyler: Yes, one of the main influences that carries through all five novels is the Gothic format of using stories within stories to move forward the plot. It was used in such classic Gothic novels as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). All five novels in the Children of Arthur series use this format. By inserting stories within stories, I am able to peel back the layers of the onion—to reveal the secrets about the characters and secrets lost to time that King Arthur’s modern descendants must learn in order to succeed in their goals.
I also use Gothic elements particularly in Lilith’s Love, which includes in it the story of Quincey Harker, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, who defeat Dracula in Bram Stoker’s classic novel. Because Mina drank Dracula’s blood, I imagined that Quincey, who is born at the end of Dracula, must have some of Dracula’s blood in him, which gives him some superhuman powers. In his quest to understand his vampiric origins, Quincey has several Gothic experiences that make up bulk of the novel, which you might call a sequel to Dracula really.
And what about your latest novel, Arthur’s Bosom? When does it take place and how does it bring the series to an end?
Tyler: I wrote Arthur’s Bosom for two reasons. The first is because I wanted to bring the series full circle since the first novel largely takes place during Arthur’s time but the three novels after that take place in different centuries, so this novel returns the storyline back to the time of Camelot. In the novel, Arthur’s modern-day descendants, Lance and Tristan Delaney, travel back in time to sixth century Britain.
The second reason I wrote this novel as the series finale is because in the first book of the series, Merlin tells Adam that he and his family (Lance and Tristan are Adam’s grown sons) will be responsible for helping to bring about King Arthur’s return. I’ve been sorely disappointed by the few novels that have tried to depict Arthur’s return, so I set about to write my own version of what Arthur’s return would be like, and hopefully, I pulled it off in a way that will surprise and satisfy readers. So far, the response I’ve received has been positive.
Why did you pick the title Arthur’s Bosom?
Tyler: It’s actually from a line in Shakespeare’s Henry V where Falstaff is said to have gone to Arthur’s Bosom. Shakespeare was playing on the biblical phrase of Abraham’s Bosom. I used the term to refer to a type of Arthurian heaven. I must admit I have no desire to sit around on a cloud and play a harp all day. I think I’d much rather go to a heaven that resembles King Arthur’s Britain as depicted in Malory, so in the novel, Arthur’s Bosom is used to refer to the Arthurian version of heaven where Arthur’s true believers go when they die.
What do you hope readers will come away with after they read the series?
Tyler: The theme of this series is “Imagination is the salvation of mankind.” I am a firm believer in the Law of Attraction and that our thoughts create our world. I want people to use their imaginations to think outside the box, to question the past we believe we know to find new truths in it, and also to imagine new and positive possibilities for our future. Through imagination, we have the power to shape our world. We don’t have to believe in a doomed world where global warming and the possibility of nuclear war make us think humanity’s best days are past. The future is still ours to write, and through the power of our thoughts, we can make it into a glorious one. I even think it possible we could change the past if we concentrated hard enough upon it. Why can’t the King Arthur and Camelot we dream of have been real? Why can’t we make it real in the future, even if it is in the past? What would it mean to us if we learned we were descended from King Arthur? Would it make us want to live those ideals of Camelot? So, ultimately, I hope that in the Children of Arthur series, I have used legends—that of King Arthur, but also Charlemagne, Prester John, Ogier the Dane, the Wandering Jew, Dracula, etc.—as inspiration and encouragement for all of us to want to create a better world for our future.
Wow, that’s a lofty but worthwhile goal. Before we go, where can readers purchase your books?
Tyler: The books are for sale at my website www.ChildrenofArthur.com. They are also at the major online booksellers—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, etc. They are available in paperback and ebook formats. At my website there is also more information about the Arthurian legend and I have a blog where I regularly write about Arthurian modern fiction and other related topics.
Your blog really is a great resource. I’ve been reading some of your old posts lately. So everyone, go check it out. Thanks again, Tyler for being here today. It’s been a pleasure having you. I wish you all the best with your series.
Tyler: Thanks, Nicole. I’ll be looking forward to reading your own last Guinevere novel when it comes out.
Do you have questions for Tyler? If so, please leave them in the comments. He’ll be stopping by to answer them.
Article author Rebecca Now (center) with me and a friend at the re-enactment of the election of 1872.
My friend Rebecca Now recently wrote an article on Victoria Woodhull for a local women’s paper and then posted it on her blog. Yes, it does mention my book. I’m thrilled to be able to reproduce it here with her permission. Rebecca has a kind of connection to Victoria in that she frequently portrays Elizabeth Cady Stanton at historical/educational events. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Elizabeth and Victoria were dear friends for many years. As such, I find it highly appropriate that she and I became friends this past summer. Take it away, Rebecca!
She was the first woman to run for president of the United States.
Was your first thought about the candidate running in 2016? Wrong. The first American woman to run for President was Victoria C. Woodhull, in 1872.
This little-known figure was but a footnote in the history books, but she was certainly ahead of her time, had great courage and conviction, and changed the trajectory of the women’s suffrage movement.
Many history books on the 72 year-long movement for American women’s suffrage leave Woodhull out entirely, and yet, she was the first women to address a joint committee of congress in 1871, arguing that women, as citizens of the nation, had a right to vote based on the 14th amendment to the constitution.
Born in Ohio in a poor and abusive family of n’ere do wells that would make the Beverly Hillbillies look like aristocrats, her family was once run out of town with a collection taken up by the townsfolk.
She married at 15 to escape her family life, only to find her charming husband become a drunk who visited brothels. Woodhull was a “spiritualist” who could communicate with spirits for guidance. She advised numerous women in post Civil War society who had suffered from abuse and violence from men.
Woodhull felt the spirits were calling her to a “become a ruler of her people.”
Now, a fascinating historical fiction novel about Victoria Woodhull has been published, Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina.
Evelina credits a post on social media as inspiring her to write the book. She saw a black and white photo of a woman from the 19th century, and the caption read “Known by her detractors as “Mrs. Satan,” Victoria Claflin Woodhull, born in 1838, married at age 15 to an alcoholic and womanizer. She became the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street and played an active role in the woman’s suffrage movement. She became the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872. Her name is largely lost in history. Few recognize her name and accomplishments.”
The book is a powerful good read. It opens a window into the disparity in social freedom between men and women in late 19th century America. Woodhull, as the heroine of the novel, is not really a sympathetic character, yet she is without doubt a most unique and colorful character, and clearly a ‘self-made’ woman who blazed new trails. The book has already won recognition. The 2015 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction gave the book first place in the Women’s US History category for 2015, even before the book was formally published.
The twelve pages of author notes at the end of the book are fascinating, and clearly layout what is fiction and what really happened, according to written records. After doing her research, remarked Evelina, “So much of her family’s antics and Victoria’s own actions are more grandiose than I could ever invent.”
History books, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – A Friendship that Changed the World by Penny Colman paint Victoria C. Woodhull as a scandal that tainted the woman’s suffrage movement by the association with a “Free Love” doctrine.
Susan B Anthony first learned of Woodhull when she read a newspaper announcement that Woodhull would be addressing a joint committee of congress, on the same day that the National Woman Suffrage Convention was to convene in Washington, D.C. Both Cady-Stanton and Anthony attended the session and were impressed by Woodhull. They asked her to speak at the convention that evening. As Colman relates in her book,
“Thrilled by Victoria’s fiery rhetoric, Elizabeth declared that she was ‘a grand, brave woman, radical alike in political, religious, and social principles.’ Susan, however, was becoming wary of Victoria. She suspected that Victoria had attached herself to the suffrage movement in order to advance a personal ambition that she had recently revealed – to run for president of the United States.”
Woodhull did run for president, and lost. She later was accused of sending obscene materials in the mail, and spent time in prison before being acquitted. She moved to England, and married her third husband, a wealthy banker.
While Elizabeth Cady Stanton was visiting her daughter in London in 1891, she met with Woodhull.
Victoria had endured “great suffering,” Elizabeth wrote in her diary. “May the good angels watch and guard her.”
Let’s Celebrate Our History!
My thanks to Rebecca for being my guest and for providing those interesting tidbits about Victoria’s association with these historic women. And if you ever need someone to portray Elizabeth Cady Stanton, you know who to call!
I am thrilled to have with us for the second time, historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy. The third book in her The Cross and The Crown series, The King’s Sisters, is out now. Today, she’s going to give us insight into what it was like to visit Wales while researching the trilogy. Take it away, Sarah!
The principality of Wales, to the west of England, has long been a site of contention, and many Tudor enthusiasts know of it through Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, which feature the prince Owen Glendower, or through reading about the Welsh heritage of Henry VIII and his children. The history of struggle over Wales, though, goes back much further. The Normans occupied it, then the Anglo-Norman English, while the native princes of this beautiful and lush place tried valiantly to hold on to their power—and their homes. A friend and I recently took a short road trip from Cardiff to Aberystwyth, wending our way north and then circling down the coast, stopping to see some of the historical sites that remain to mark the efforts of Welsh leaders to keep Wales out of the hands of their neighbors. I’ve always been interested in the history of this small principality, and since a Welsh man plays an important role in my new and upcoming novels, The King’s Sisters and Queen of Blood, I was happy to see this beautiful place again.
The Tudor monarchs, during whose reigns my novels are set, were Welsh, but once they gained the throne of England, they, like monarchs before them, thought of Wales as part of England. I want, in my novels, to highlight the tensions that existed between these two cultures, even during the long Tudor century. Despite the fact that the red dragon of Wales appeared on naval emblems during Henry VIII’s reign, and Elizabeth I continued that tradition, Henry and his children are revered as English monarchs.
My friend and I were interested, of course, in the medieval Welsh castles that made up Edward I’s famous “ring of iron,” a series of fortifications erected by the king to subdue the Welsh and ward off invaders from the sea. These are Anglo-Norman castles, and the Welsh princes often fought for control of them. Among them is the great Caerphilly Castle, which was blown up from the inside during the English Civil War. One of the great corner towers leans at a precipitous angle from the explosion.
We also visited Harlech Castle, which sits on the coast of the sea and provides breathtaking views.
These Norman castles are grand tourist destinations—but they’re not Welsh. They were built by English kings to protect English interests. We also wanted to visit some of these “more Welsh” sites, and wandered through the countryside until we came to Dolforwyn—a castle, as the small interpretive plaque informs visitors, “designed in Wales.”
This castle, which is difficult to find without careful attention to tiny roadside signs, was erected during the late thirteenth century. The surrounding hills are now sheep fields, and visitors are asked to close the gates behind them as they walk up. It’s a grand site, with views across the fields to the east, and though ruinous, Dolforwyn still shows what a castle (rather cozy in its dimensions) built by the Welsh for a Welsh prince looked like. It has the typical D-shaped tower (called an aspidal), living quarters, cooking and storage facilities. A town grew up around its base, protected by (and providing support to) the castle. The builders, however, had neglected to sink a well inside the protective walls, and when attacked, the castle was easily taken by Edward I, who gave it to his ally Roger Mortimer (that’s my friend, Terry Southerington, peering over the edge!).
Many of these “designed in Wales” castles still exist in the Welsh interior. They are often open to the air and neglected—and few visitors ever see them. Most tourists prefer the great Edwardian castles.
Military fortifications were not the only great structures built in Wales during the Middle Ages, however. This country was also home to many abbeys, most of which now lie, like the later-built castles, in ruins. Tintern Abbey, made famous by William Wordsworth, is of course a popular tourist destination, but we made for the lesser-known, smaller sites, where monks lived and worked until the Reformation under Henry VIII.
Talley Abbey—or what’s left of it—lies at the end of a winding narrow road. This little abbey was the only place where Premonstratensians (or “White Canons”) lived in Wales. There’s not much left, but what is there testifies to a brief time of peace between the Welsh and the English, which allowed it to be built. Sadly, the Cisterians considered the Premonstratensians to be dangerous rivals, and a lawsuit broke out which prevented the abbey from ever being completed according to the original plan.
The Cisterians, of course, fared no better under Henry VIII than did the White Canons, and abbey of Cymer is almost as ruined as Talley. It sits behind a holiday park, part of a farm (visitors park at the farmhouse, which is just across the driveway from the abbey), but the remaining walls suggest a site once thriving, at least for the few monks who lived there. They were horse-breeders, providing stud-service for Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, and though they, like other abbeys, suffered economically during the thirteenth-century wars between the Welsh and the English, their downfall only occurred—yes, you guessed it—when Henry dissolved the order and confiscated the building and its contents.
By the time of the Tudor monarchs, the great castles were out-of-date as military fortifications, and Henry VIII centralized power when he seized the church’s property. Much of that property was in Wales. The small, prosperous abbeys were closed, as were the English ones, by Henry, left to be scavenged by locals for building materials. The Welsh Tudors have, in history, become more English than the English, and, perhaps ironically, many of the old castles’ occupants stood with the English monarchy during the later Civil War. And, yet, the complex and rich history of Wales that gave rise to their power remains—in its stunningly beautiful landscapes, its living language, and its many architectural ruins, both small and large, both Welsh and English, that still dot its hills and valleys and shores.
Do you have a question or comment for Sarah? If so, please leave it below. She’ll be checking them and answering as she can. Don’t forget, you can order The King’s Sisters at all major retailers.
Growing up, I liked to read books about ordinary girls doing things like fighting with or forgiving their sisters, but set in the past. Cooking in pots over fires or slogging through snow to reach wells or cold horses seemed thrilling. I started with an orange-covered series called “Childhoods of Famous Americans,” which were then shelved with biographies, though their use of dialogue and other fictional elements have convinced some librarians to put them elsewhere. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about Little Houses in woods or on prairies, another series that has made a similar shift to the fiction sections. I’m happy to browse for what I want, which remains books based on real girls and women who are full of dreams.
I found such a girl in one of the first fat books I cracked open. Many years ago, Little Women’s Jo March — huddled in a chilly garret penning plays and stories — gave me my first inkling that a girl could grow up to be a writer. My curiosity about other women writers stuck and carried me through college. I was unsatisfied with most reading lists, but scanned the stacks for books by women who’d been forgotten. I wrote some papers about them, and while I kept a scholarly tone, felt as if I were playing dress-up, again immersed in history.
The challenges and triumphs of women who came before me kept me good company as I wrote some stories that were published and two novels that weren’t. After I became a mom and read to my daughter, I found myself happily back with once-cherished books and the mother of the co-president of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Fan Club. The girls made posters (“Laura rocks! Ma rules!”) and wore old dresses to bake cornbread. Reminded of how life-changing children’s books can be, I put away my novels about angsty adults to write books for the young. I published picture books about paleontologist Mary Anning and religious reformer Anne Hutchinson, and collections about women explorers and pioneers in air and space.
No one should write history who doesn’t love doing research, and some of that is rereading books you once adored. I came back to Little Women, but what got inside me most this time was the half-hidden story of the youngest sister. In the novel, Amy March gives up art when she realizes she might not become great. In real life, May Alcott stuck with her paints.
I believed this real person who tried to balance art and love deserved more attention. Children and teens are a wonderful audience, but I wanted the girl I first met in Little Women to step out as fully adult, finding her way through or around traps and temptations and reveling in romance, too. For Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I circled back to writing for adults who may find May’s struggles familiar, though they took place more than 150 years ago. Could May find a true love, in a period, after the Civil War, when eligible men seemed scarce? Could she keep making art in a time when women painters were rarely taken seriously? I loved exploring those questions, and finding a way to let another woman step out from the shadows of the past.
To learn more about Jeannine Atkins’s books about girls and women in history, please visit her website at www.Jeannineatkins.com.
Do you have any questions or comments for Jeannine? She’ll be around checking out the comments.
I’m thrilled to have as my guest today author Begona Echeverria, whose book, The Hammer of Witches, is one of my favorites I’ve reviewed this year. To give you some context, here is my review, which originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Historical Novels Review:
The Hammer of Witches is the story of two very different, but connected characters in a small Basque town during the witch hunt of 1610: Maria, a young girl grieving the death of her mother and struggling to assume the role of woman of the house while secretly learning to read, and Father Salvador Zabaleta, who was once in love with Maria’s mother before becoming a priest and who is now charged with guarding her safety amid an increasingly suspicious environment. As the hysteria over witches grips the village, both fall under the shadow of suspicion of the Inquisition and find their faith tested in very different ways.
This book is a gripping, pager turner of horrific historical events. While the beginning and end may seem slow in comparison to the lightning -paced middle, the entire novel is a strong portrayal of a time period in which superstition and blind faith in the edicts of the Catholic Church reigned over logic, reason and humanity. This is the first book I’ve ever read that made me feel what it must have been like to be a victim of unfounded suspicion, forced to rely on personal faith or recant all one holds true. It also shows the other side of the story, what it is like to be faced with judging guilt or innocence when the expectation of superiors and neighbors is clear.
In addition to being a riveting story, this book is important as a cultural resource in that it preserves many of the traditional stories of the Basque people about witches. It also serves as a reminder that such blind hatred is possible even today if we allow ourselves to be swayed to anger without deep thought and consideration for the humanity of all involved. Highly recommended.
Begonia is here with us today to talk about the historical and familial ties that led her to write this harrowing tale:
I am an NPR junkie. One of my favorite shows is Ira Glass’ “This American Life,” which (to quote its website) has a theme each week and tells “a variety of stories on that theme.” Many years ago, the theme was “Reenactments,” one of which focused on the Underground Railroad: people paid to pretend to be escaped slaves who encountered actors pretending to be either slave-catchers or engineers on the Underground Railroad. The trick for the “escaped slaves” was to figure out whom to trust and from whom to flee. When interviewed before the re-enactment, participants were all bluster and bravado—they would brook no ill treatment, fight recapture, lead a “slave rebellion.” But when the “slave-catchers” ordered them to drop and give them ten push-ups to punish them for escaping (as they could not inflict any real harm) they dropped and gave them ten.
Yet, afterwards, they insisted that had the situation been real, they would have been brave: they would have brooked no ill treatment, fought recapture, led a slave rebellion.
This episode made me ponder questions that eventually led to my historical novel, The Hammer of Witches, based loosely on the persecution of Basque “witches” in 1610. That is the event in my family history most likely to have called for my bravery. On November 8, eleven Basque “witches” were burned at the stake — six alive, five in effigy – in front of 30,000 people. Another eighteen were “reconciled” with the Church after confessing to being witches but showing penitence and receiving their penance. But the confessions they made were false, as were the charges against those who burned; they included “crimes” such as concocting poisons against their enemies, participating in cannibalistic feasts and engaging in sexual escapades with the devil. While the burning itself took place in Logroño, Spain, the “witches” came from the Valley of Baztan, five miles from the French border, from which my family hails. The farmhouse where my mother grew up is within walking distance from the cave where the witches allegedly held their satanic rituals.
Yet somehow I knew almost nothing about these events. Chances are that my ancestors were involved one way or another, as victims or accomplices – or both. For my surnames are eerily similar to those on the Inquisitors’ ledgers. One infamous “witch family” was named “Arburu” – add an “a” at the end and that’s my grandmother’s surname. A priest and a monk from that family only escaped the stake at Logroño because they denied charges of witchcraft even under torture – the only proof the Spanish Inquisition would accept of innocence. After the trial was over, vigilantes forced suspected witches who had escaped the Inquisition’s clutches to “walk the ladder” in the dead of night: they were tied between the rungs of a long ladder and forced to drag it behind them; the trailing end would be lifted up and slammed down, hurling the accused on their faces. Holding torches aloft, a crowd would parade their victims through the town, calling those they awakened to their windows to throw things on their heads.
Two of the women tortured this way were named Echeverria.
I have no way of knowing for certain if these Arburus and Echeverrias were my own ancestors; I have not been able to trace my genealogy back that far. And both surnames are quite common—Arburu means “top part of a rock or stone” and Echeverria means “new house.” But the possibility makes me wonder: what would I have done had I been among the accused? I would like to believe that I would have been brave, that I would have been able to stand up to the Inquisition and prevail. At the very least, I would like to believe that my ancestors were on the right side of this history, if they were indeed involved.
But the converse is equally possible — that “my” people were the accusers, the cowards, the torturers. Or merely the falsely accused unable to keep up the fight. For it was almost impossible to win. The “witches” were never told the names of their accusers so they did not know whom to trust. Their choices were to risk the stake by speaking the truth that they were not witches, or to make false confessions and “only” have their property confiscated and hope to be left alone. In the historical case, some of the “witches” walked over a hundred miles from the Baztan Valley to Logroño to recant their false confessions, explaining that they were procured through violence and threats. But the Inquisitors took this as a sign that the devil was at work and threw them into prison for months. The eleven who maintained their innocence were burned that day in Logroño, either alive or in effigy.
A high price to pay for telling the truth. Who among us is willing to pay it?
Today, my special guest is Tima Z. Newman, whose new book, Elaine of Corbenic, is new take on an often overlooked character in Arthurian legend. I personally love the character of Elaine and can’t wait to read Tima’s book. Take it away, Tima!
He opened the door.
A woman stood looking out the window, her back to him. She was clothed in blue and azure interfaced with rose, her black hair tumbling loose. It was not Guinevere.
She turned at the sound of the door opening.
“I had thought to find the queen here,” Launcelot began.
“No.” Elaine’s lips trembled as she spoke the single word. She wore no jewelry. The open neckline revealed the young throat he had once glimpsed wet in the stream from a distance. A quality like the moistness of dew lay upon her, yet in that moment he saw that she whom he had thought child was also woman….
Elaine of Corbenic is an Arthurian character that is often eclipsed in the shadow of Elaine of Astolat, immortalized by Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” and John Waterhouse’s and Rosetti’s art, as well as overshadowed by the legendary passionate love of Launcelot and Queen Guinevere. Elaine of Corbenic only briefly appears in Malory’s account of the Arthurian saga. Yet she is the one who bears Launcelot’s son. And unlike Elaine of Astolat, Elaine of Corbenic does not pine away for Launcelot, to be carried down a barge, but goes to King Arthur’s court to fight for recognition by Launcelot, and when two years later he is discovered in his madness, it is the Grail of which Elaine was once bearer which brings Launcelot healing.
I found myself drawn to her character when I came across the tale some many years ago, and began writing her story – and my book has just now been released by Savant Books. Based on Malory’s account in Le Morte d’Arthur of the three brief encounters of Launcelot and the Fisher King’s daughter, my ELAINE OF CORBENIC is the chronicle of their poignant romance—and of Elaine’s journey through abandonment and despair to the finding of inner strength and deepening wisdom.
I have taken poetic liberties with Malory’s account, telling it from Elaine’s point of view, and leaning at times toward a metaphoric and symbolic interpretation. For instance, in Malory’s account Launcelot lay with Elaine thinking all the while she was Guinevere, both times drugged by a potent potion of Lady Breusen’s. It seemed clear to me that while the more magical an enchantment Launcelot might claim, the more efficacious an excuse it might have been, any such enchantment in reality was more like due to the close presence of the young Elaine than to any potion or brew.
Offering the poetry of medieval legend, for me the tale speaks to contemporary themes of love, betrayal, abandonment and the finding of identity—and also the deep longings of the spirit, the quest for the sacred, and the search for meaning in the mystery threading through our lives. My rendition approaches the grail legend in a way that reflects an evolving relationship to the mystery of the grail embodied in life itself. In the heart of the heroic Arthurian legend, it offers a deeply feminine spirituality, threading through the pain and joys of a young girl’s heart, a single mother’s hopes and broken dreams, and a fierce determination to find the grail’s meaning.
The novel wrote itself over the course of a few months the spring of the year of my arrival in the Bay Area, its first paragraphs emerging as I climbed among the gorse covered hills, my own young son in tow….
Corbenic’s valley lay hidden, in a corner of Lystenoys close by the sea, and it was not wholly by chance that any man found his way there, including Launcelot.
It was spring when he came; the hills of the valley were verdant, and the evening mists fragrant. Spring was short in that part of the country, except in the valley where the castle lay, where the mists rolled in from the sea, and a stream from the hill flowed into the river which bordered the castle’s south wall. The rains were meager and often did not come, so that the land surrounding the valley was barren and wasted, the tufts of grass dry and sparse over the rocky soil. What green did come from the winter snow quickly browned and withered in the summer sun. That week though, in the rocky barren seacoast land of Lystenoys, spring was in the air, the sky was blue and the gorse blooming yellow
She was not looking for love that day. It is true she had not passed through her youth without hearing minstrels’ songs and dreaming girls’ dreams of some noble prince bearing her away….. Though her father lacked wealth, and his land was no great lure, her blood was royal, and her face fair. There was, true, a strangeness about her family, the strain of mystery that hung about their lineage. Lystenoys lay sequestered far from the main thoroughfares of Britain, and Corbenic’s valley was hidden. However, that the strangers were few who came through was of little import, for there were worthy enough lords in the court of Corbenic itself.
Yet in the end, she had no thought for the knights of her father’s court. The aura of the grail that haunted her dreams was fullness enough for her. She was Elaine, daughter of the fisher king and of the lineage of the grail keepers, and the mystery of the grail, the sacred cup that lay within Corbenic’s walls, was in her very blood. Nothing else could find space in her heart. Until Launcelot came.
Zoe Newman, MFT, is a psychotherapist in Berkeley, California
Tima Z. Newman has written as far back as she can remember, and has always loved medieval times, fairy tales and legends, and brings an attunedness to myth, symbol and archetypal fairy tale motifs in listening to the narrations of those she work with. Originally from Minnesota, she currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she practices as a psychotherapist and dream group leader. She has written several children’s books, as well as the adult nonfiction Lucid Waking: Using Dreamwork Principles to Transform Your Waking Life, which explores approaching our everyday life as a waking dream, similarly as we might work with our night dreams, to find in it the same opportunity for guidance, insight and creative possibilities.
If you have any questions or comments for Tima, please leave them in the comments. She’ll be monitoring them and will respond as she can. Hope you enjoyed hearing from her and are interested in her book.