Guest Post: HF Author Sarah Kennedy Talks City of Ladies and Christine de Pizan

I am so excited to have as my guest today historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy, whose recent book, City of Ladies (second in the Cross and Crown series), was one of my favorites of 2014. (Here’s my review; still waiting for Historical Honey to post it. And here’s the related article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.)

Today Sarah talks about her book, as well as the real-life inspiration for its title and main themes. Thank you for being here, Sarah!

Cities of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy

When I began my second novel, City of Ladies, I didn’t have a title in mind.  I wanted to move my main character, Catherine Havens, forward in time:  get her married, put her in charge of a large household.  Catherine, however, is not the sort of person who would simply forget the convent that she grew up in, which was a community of women (despite the presence of a priest and the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church).  She would, of course, keep women around her.  She is comfortable with women.  She respects their ability to reason and work.

As the novel evolved, Catherine’s newly-formed household seemed to draw to it former nuns, and Catherine wanted to protect them.  The women have nowhere else to go—and yet they still have skills and knowledge that can help the girls and village women nearby.  What else would Catherine do besides take them in and shelter them?  This is part of her calling, as she sees it, even in a secular world, and it also becomes part of the problem of the plot, as the women begin to turn up dead.

At some point in the drafting, the original City of Ladies began to tug at my mind, both as a book that Catherine would have owned and as a metaphor for the world Catherine is trying to build under Henry VIII.  The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was written about a hundred and fifty years before my book’s time period, by a woman named Christine de Pizan.  Christine was Italian by birth but spent much of her life in Paris.  She was unusually well-educated for her time (like my Catherine), primarily because her father (like Catherine’s father) insisted upon it.

City of LadiesChristine was happily—and conventionally—married in her teens and bore three children.  Her husband, however, died, leaving Christine to raise her family alone.  This she did by writing, becoming the first woman in European history to earn her living as an author.  Other women did write—and some of them were widely known—but they were nuns, who had the leisure and the status to circulate their work.  Nuns didn’t have to make money, but Christine did.  And she succeeded.

The authorial tradition was heavily against her, and The Book of the City of Ladies takes on the cultural and theological arguments against women in general.  Christine writes in defense of women’s moral and intellectual worth, against the backdrop of “all manner of philosophers, poets and orators too numerous to mention, who all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice” (6).  As she becomes more and more despondent about being a member of such a flawed sex, she is visited by three ladies, who reveal themselves as Reason, Rectitude, and Justice.  These three ladies encourage and assist Christine in building her “City of Ladies.”

This city is metaphorical.  The book itself is the structure, and within it are the “lives” of many women, historical, biblical, and mythological, who have been exemplary or have done extraordinary things.  They are mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—and they show that women are resourceful, caring, intelligent, and moral.  The entire book becomes, as Rosalind Brown-Grant notes, an example of the “biographical catalogue,” and it seems designed more for visiting than for a beginning-to-end tour.  The three-part structure and multiple sub-headings and “arguments” within the text make for fruitful lucky-dipping.  Christine’s City of Ladies may be old-fashioned in its emphasis on moral virtue in women, but her goal is not to provide a defense of what women should do but rather a defense of what women are.

My own City of Ladies is a metaphor, as well, but it’s also the physical house where Catherine Havens lives.  She dreams of a world where women can read, write, think, and work.  My Catherine does want to go out into the world and use her knowledge.  She wants to hear her calling for herself—and then act to make the most of her gifts, which she believes are given to her by God.

And so Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies became the only choice when I sought out a title.  My Catherine began life in a convent, and the historical Christine went to live in one as an older woman.  In hindsight, it seems natural that Catherine claimed that book as one of her most prized possessions.  It gave her something that Christine herself didn’t have—a foremother who showed her in writing what a woman, even under a harsh king, could accomplish.

Brown-Grant, Rosalind, editor.  The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan.  London:    Penguin, 1999.

Do you have any questions or comments for Sarah? Please leave them below. She will be popping in and answering comments/questions as she can. And again, go read her books if you haven’t already!

Guest Post: Fiction: Making History

A proper woman may have sat quietly in her rocker, but many, like suffragist Alice Paul preferred to live life a little more loudly. (Image by Edmonston, Washington, D. C. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A proper woman may have sat quietly in her rocker, but many, like suffragist Alice Paul preferred to live life a little more loudly. (Image by Edmonston, Washington, D. C. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Please welcome today’s guest author, Lisa Borja. She is a woman after my own heart, who seeks out opportunities to restore women to their rightful place in history. Lisa, thank you for being here!

I’ve spent most of my life hating history. In my high school and college, history classes were all about the power of men. They filled every page, from “our founding fathers” in the U.S., to celebrated military generals, to brilliant scientists and inventors throughout the world. Women, meanwhile, were placed here and there in their bonnets and plain dresses, sewing flags, tending children, nursing soldiers, or standing behind their male counterparts.

So how does a post-Gloria-Steinem teenage girl relate? Years passed before I discovered history wasn’t all about men or only about women who were off (or seated quietly upon) their rockers. It wasn’t even entirely taught in school. I simply needed to look to different sources. The best source for me, and the most interesting by far, is historical fiction. I know these novels are rarely the most popular books out there. And I know, at first, it doesn’t sound like people can learn much history through fiction. Surely the truth has been sensationalized, amended, or stretched too far? And anyway, do I even want to learn when I’m reading for fun?

While it is true that some stories are not well-researched and that fiction readers mainly want to be entertained, not schooled, I stand by my creed that more people should read and write historical fiction – especially more women, specifically ABOUT women. Historical fiction books have done a great job overall in accentuating women’s roles in history as powerful and important. I actually read it for fun, but there’s more to it than that. When I read something, even a novel, I want it to make me think. All I could do while reading academic history was wonder how many talented women in the past could have “made history” if given the opportunity. The answer to that is something we can only guess. A better answer is: we should guess.

 “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I used to see this bumper sticker everywhere. Maybe it’s just me, but the notion that women had to misbehave to get noticed is not empowering. It’s not that there weren’t many successful women in the past. They were there, and not always clad in skirts below their ankles straightening men’s ties and raising perfect children. I learned in school about a few women who were outstanding female leaders like Cleopatra and Joan of Arc, activists like Harriet Tubman and Mother Theresa, outlaws like Calamity Jane, outspoken first ladies like Mary Todd Lincoln, and various other women writers and artists. But did you, like me, ever get the feeling these women were depicted as unusual rule-breakers who were probably a little crazy?

“We can do it.” Now there’s a slogan I can get behind! We can, in a way, go back and give women the opportunities – possibly even just a spotlight – they didn’t have or haven’t yet been given. As women who read and/or write it, we can give ourselves more to believe in. What makes us think our history books are full of accurate, unbiased truth anyway?  

I love to create a powerful female protagonist, so I gain more benefit from writing historical fiction than reading it. I have found no end to inspiration for creating her world from an already-existing cast of memorable historical characters (or character-types), mind-blowing challenges real people faced (not just women), and fascinating events that actually shaped our society. Through hours upon hours of ravenous study, I’ve also become somewhat of an expert in my research area of the Victorian and Spiritualist Eras. Well, if I’m not an expert, then at least friends tell me I’m a lot more fun at social gatherings and way more helpful on trivia night at the bar.

Prehistory. The love of historical fiction can start with something simple. For me, it started with books I didn’t even think of as historical fiction: namely The Clan of the Cavebear, by Jean M. Auel. This series is an excellent example, set in an era the author somehow researched exhaustively, despite its occurrence before recorded history. I loved Ayla, the heroine, who was depicted not only as influential and admirable but also as the inventor of some serious game-changers, from holistic medicine to domesticated animals to the use of soap for personal hygiene. No one really knows for sure where such ideas were first implemented, but doesn’t it just make sense that it would be a woman?

Art History. Another highly inspiring, similarly fictional character for me was Griet, otherwise known as The Girl With the Pearl Earring.Before I read Tracy Chevalier’s book, I didn’t even know I needed a different perspective on the male-dominated world of art history. No offense to former teachers, but my high school and college classes tended to celebrate visual art with very little attention to the often debatable accuracy of its social context. For example, if I had known Vermeer was probably kind of an ass, I’m certain I would have admired his work less. When I realized that some famous male artists may have had a talented woman like Griet assisting them, possibly even doing work for which they got all the credit, I was really depressed.

What got me over it was discovering the chance I had at rewriting history. Sort of. Okay, if not rewriting it, then at least reading what someone has written about our previous notions of what “really” happened, looking at some additional sources, and writing an alternative that could be just as believable. It is fun to read a fast-paced political thriller based on nothing in particular, or a romance or adventure that takes us to places we don’t get to be in daily life. But historical fiction can encompass all of those things, and add instant, real-world knowledge.

And the rest is . . . For me, reading historical fiction has been life-changing. Ultimately it’s because of the inspiration I’ve felt to write, but it’s also life-changing because I feel like I’ve gained a backstage pass to the roles and lives of women throughout history in events that have caused this world, and my life, truly to be changed for the better. If you’re like me, you just might like yourself and the world more if you choose a fun little read with a bit more research and unlimited inspiration from your very own, very real world.  You, too, could shout out more answers during Jeopardy. You, too, might have more to write about than you ever had before. You, too, can make history.


Lisa BorjaLisa Borja is a writer with a background in psychology that extends to parapsychology and exploration of psychic phenomena. A new historian of Victorian America and Spiritualism, member of the Society for Psychical Research, and explorer of the development of psychic ability, Borja recently left her own Midwestern roots and followed the many signs pointing her in the direction of the Pacific Northwest. She lives in Oregon with her husband, dogs, and 25-pound cat, and can be found writing on

If you have any questions/comments for Lisa, please leave them in the comments below and she will respond.