Friday, July 31, 2009
A review and giveaway of Philippa Gregory's latest historical fiction novel about Elizabeth Woodville
An interview with Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan
A review of Vanora Bennett's new historical novel about Catharine de Valois.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson
And in September, Scandalous Women of the Ancient World, Hapshepsut, Zenobia, Jezebel, among others.
So I hope that you will keep reading.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Dukes were, for the most part rich, and they had fabulous estates. Think of Blenheim Palace, Floors Castles in Scotland (where Prince Andrew proposed to Fergie), and Goodwood House (home of the Duke of Richmond, Gordon and Lennox). Some English Dukes owned huge tracts of land in London, like the Duke of Devonshire (who still owns huge parts of Mayfair, including the land that the American Embassy sits on). Becoming a Duchess meant that one would live one's life on display, being addressed as 'Your Grace,' it was as close to being royalty asone could get without marrying a prince. It took a strong stomach, and loads of strength to be married to an English Duke. But every woman worth her salt wanted to be a Duchess.
So one can imagine the match-making mamas salivating whenever an heir to a Dukedom or a Duke himself was available on the marriage-mart. And there was no more ambitious mama in the 18th century than Jane, Duchess of Gordon. After all, plain Jane Maxwell as she once was, the daughter of a lowly baronet, had managed to snag the wealthy and handsome Alexander, Duke of Gordon for herself. And despite the bitter pill of her marriage, Jane was determined that her five daughters would manage to snare Dukes themselves.
If there was such a thing as a school for Duchesses, Jane, Duchess of Gordon ran it. She raised all five of her daughters to be witty, charming, able to flatter without being swarmy, intelligent (but not bluestockings) and unafraid to say whatever they thought. Her daughters were able to converse with the lowliest peasant on the estate as well as with princes. None of them were snobs, they treated everyone exactly the same. In short, she raised them as mirror images of her.
In the end, 3 out of 5 daughters managed to marry Dukes. After dangling her eldest Charlotte in front of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, who didn't take the bait, Jane managed to marry her off to the Duke of Richmond and Lennox. Her second daughter Susan was soon married off to the Duke of Manchester. Out of the other two daughters, one married the Marquis of Cornwallis, and the other a plain baronet, but it was the youngest and prettiest daughter, Georgiana (born June 23, 1781) or Georgy, who managed to snare the affections of the 6th Duke of Bedford, who owned vast tracks of Convent Garden, Russell and Bedford square in London, as well as the magnificent Woburn Abbey.
But before Georgiana ended up his radar, her mother tried to snag his older brother, Francis, the 5th Duke of Bedford for Georgina (her political rival Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was also trying to snag him for her daughter). Despite the fact that the Russell family were unrepentant Whigs and the Gordons were staunch Tories, Jane wasn't about to let a little thing like political differences getting in the way of marital ambition. Francis was a bit of a libertine, now in his thirties, most of his mistresses had been older women. Georgiana seemed to be winning over his heart but he inconveniently died of peritonitis in 1802 before the engagement could be announced. Still, Jane dressed Georgy in mourning clothes and told everyone who could listen that the two were engaged. However, the new Duke wasn't willing to acknowledge Jane's claim to an engagement.
Smarting from the embarassment, Jane took Georgy off to France where she tried to marry Georgy off to Napoleon's step-son, Eugene de Beauharnais. Napoleon, however, had more ambitious plans for his step-son. Still, Jane remained an ardent admirer of Napoleon for the rest of her life. But Jane's luck was about to change. The new Duke of Bedford, who had been widowed two years before, arrived in Paris. Georgy expressed sympathy for his dual loss of wife and brother in such a short amount of time. The Duke was soon won over by her vivacious personality, and beauty, which was so different from his own. He was a shy, quiet man, who liked fishing, hunting, the country and books. He'd been a Whig MP until he inherited the Dukedom from his brother, and was a strong supporter of Charles James Fox (the Duke and Georgy even named one of their sons Charles James Fox Russell).
The couple were soon engaged, and they were married in 1803. Although the Duke and Duchess learned to love each other deeply, the marriage wasn't a love match. The Duke had married his first wife, Georgiana Byng, at the age of 19. They were passionately in love, but Georgiana suffered from ill-health after giving birth to three sons, and the couple soon grew apart. She wrote apologetic letters to him, feeling that she was letting him down. Georgy's personality complimented the Duke's. He adored her, deferred to her, and allowed her to dominate their marital life.
In 1806, Georgy and the Duke moved to Ireland, where the Duke was posted as Lord Lieutenant. They were a huge hit, the Duke was sympathetic towards the idea of Catholic emancipation, and Georgy proved to be a just as astute a political hostess as her mother with her warmth, charm and energy. However, the Duke's political ideas about reform were not welcome in London, and he resigned as Lord Lieutenant after a year, much to the dismay of the Irish people. Disillusioned, it was the end of his political ambitions (his third son by his first wife later became Prime Minister).
Over the next twenty years, Georgy busied herself with giving birth to a large family (she eventually had 12 children, 10 who lived to adulthood), managing their estates, including Endsleigh House (now a hotel) which they built in 1812 as a more of a family home, compared to the grandeur of Woburn Abbey. The couple entertained often and lavishly. Like her mother, Georgiana introduced Scottish reels and music at her parties, there were amateur theatricals and charades, as well as the usual country pursuits. Invitations to Woburn were much sought after. Only good friends were ever invited down to Endsleigh. The couple also bought a house near their good friends Lord and Lady Holland in Kensington. Like her mother, and many other Scandalous Women, Georgy preferred the company of men to women, although she was close to her sisters, and Lady Holland.
The Duchess and her lover spent several months of the year together in Scotland. Georgiana rented a love nest called Doune, where they could be alone, without causing too much suspicion. Of course, they weren't really alone, because the children also were there. Georgiana was a devoted mother, who breastfed all her children, her rooms at Endsleigh House were close to the nursery so that she could keep an eye on them. The Duke became friendly with Landseer, whatever made Georgiana happy, made him happy. He had his own flirtations with Lady Holland, among others, but Georgiana was always his first priority. Still, the gossip was rife about the relationship between the Duchess and her much younger lover.
In 2008, romance novelist Virginia Henly published a novel called The Decadent Duke, about Georgy, Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, and John, 6th Duke of Bedford. Although I have enjoyed novels by this author before, I cannot recommend this novel. Not only does she get the name of John's first wife wrong, his personality is changed into Mr. Darcy, the typical brooding, alpha male Duke. There's also an incredible amount of unnecessary information dumping that slows down the novel.
Rachel Trethewey's 2002 biography of Georgiana, Mistress of the Arts: The Passionate Life of Georgina, Duchess of Bedford, is worth ordering from Amazon.co.uk. She gives the reader a remarkable portrait of the woman who should be as well known as the other Duchess named Georgiana.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Join her and her familyto walk the red carpet on the night of the Pope Joan movie premiere!
... Includes two tickets to the movie premiere, plus round trip airfare for two from any location in the continental United States or Canada, and one night hotel accommodation for you to share with your guest.
Simply buy a new, Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishing paperback edition of Pope Joan by August 9 and send me the original receipt. In August, she'll pick randomly from the pile of receipts to select someone and their guest to join me at the U.S. movie premiere in the fall (exact date still to be determined).
For more information go to her web-site: http://www.popejoan.com/ for information on how to enter.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
The reason for their crime? The elder sister Christine (1905-1937) claimed that while ironing, the fuses blew, it was the second that week that it had occurred, which set off a confrontation between Christine and Madame Lancelin. The two sisters were arrested and marched off to the police station, still in their kimonos, despite the February weather. The crime shocked and stunned the town of Le Mans. The two sisters had worked for the Lancelin family for six years since 1926 when Christine was 21 and Lea fifteen. The sisters had a reputation for being good workers, quiet, who kept to themselves. They had no outside friends that anyone knew off. Their work references described them as honest, industrious and proper. They had no criminal record, appeared to have no vices and were regular church-goers. Yet suddenly, and without the slightest warning, these two quiet maids had turned into monsters. The citizens of Le Mans didn't rest easy in their beds, probably wondering which one of them, might be the next victims of their servants.
Overnight, the two sisters became infamous in France. It was the crime of the century according to the French press. Janet Flanner, under her pen name, Genet, wrote about the case for The New Yorker, spreading the sisters infamy across the Atlantic. There was speculation that the two sisters were lovers because they were found in bed together. Suddenly the names of Christine and Lea Papin were known throughout the land. The case piqued the interest of intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau, and Jean-Paul Satre, who believed that the crime was evidence of a class struggle, the working class rising up against the bourgeoisie. The two women routinely worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, with only a half-day off a week. At the trial, it was revealed that Madame Lancelin routinely wore white gloves to test that the furniture had been dusted to her expectations, that she commented on Christine's cooking by having formal notes delivered to the kitchen by her youngest daughter Genevieve who still lived at home. Madame had also once forced Lea to get down on her knees to retrieve a piece of paper she had forgotten while cleaning. Madame also allowed them to have heat in their attic bedroom (how kind!), and gave them enough to eat although Christine did not know if her employer was kind because she had never spoken to them in six years of service.
While in prison, Christine exhibited extreme behavior. According to witnesses, she had extreme visions and unholy reactions. She also kept calling for her sister Lea, who had been seperated from her in the prison environment. When the two sisters were reunited, Christine's behavior was inappropriately sexual towards her sister. In July of 1933, Christine experienced some kind of episode, where she tried to gouge her own eyes out, leading her to be restrained in a straight-jacket. After the episode, she recanted her statement to police, telling them that she had had a similar episode the day of the murder, and insisting that she alone had committed the crimes, not her sister. The judge dismissed her statement as a way of trying get her sister off, and the jury at the trial treated it with the same contempt. Also, Lea insisted that she had taken part in the murders.
Eight months after their arrest, the sisters were finally tried for their crime in September of 1933. The trial was a national event, attended by vast numbers of the public and the press. Police had to be called in to control the crowds outside the packed courthouse. The sisters denied having had a sexual relationship, but never made any attempt to deny the murders. Despite the evidence that insanity ran in their family, (their paternal grandfather had been given to violent attacks of temper and epileptic fits, and some relatives had died in asylums or committed suicide), the two women were convicted of the crime. Christine received the harshest sentence, death by guillotine, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. Lea, received a lighter sentence, of ten years hard labor, because the jury felt that she had been so dominated by her sister.
Christine and Lea Papin had grown up in villages south of Le Mans. They had another sister, Emilia, who became a nun. Christine and Emilia had lived in an orphanage at Le Mans for several years. Lea had been looked after by an uncle until he had died, then she too had been placed in an orphanage until she was old enough to work. As they grew older, Christine and Lea worked as maids in various Le Mans homes, preferring, whenever possible, to work together. Later on, their mother revealed that Emilia had been raped by their father, who was a drunk, when she was only 9 years old. Their mother had visited the two sisters regularly but there was always a certain degree of friction between her and Christine. Two years before the murders, there was a complete rift between the girls and their mother, apparently caused by disagreements over money. Their mother wrote to them on occasion after this rift, but was ignored.
While in prison, Christine's condition deteriorated rapidly. Profoundly depressed over being separated from Lea, she refused to eat, becoming progressively worse. Transferred to an asylum in Rennes, she never showed the slightest sign of improvement and died in 1937. Lea was released from prison in 1941, her sentence being reduced for good behavior. She went to live with her mother in Nantes, where she got a job as a maid in a hotel under a false name. No one knows exactly when she died. Some people say 1982, but a documentary filmmaker named Claud Ventura claimed that he discovered Lea was still alive and living in a hospice in 2000, when he was working on a documentary about the sisters. This woman died in 2001, but the jury is still out on whether or not he was correct.
Christine Papin appears to have suffered from paranoid schizophrena which usually manifests itself in one's late teens or early twenties. However, in the 1930s there was no real treatment for the disorder. Now she would be treated with a cocktail of various drugs, which would have given her some quality of life. Lea, on the other hand, never showed signs of mental illness. She appears to have been very shy, anxious and prone to panic attacks when under stress. During the trial, doctors testified that Lea's personality seemed to have disappeared completely into Christine's personality. Their employers never had a bad word to say about Lea, whereas Christine had a "difficult" personality and had been dismissed for insolence on more than one occasion. Lea's tragedy was that she was so dominated by her sister. One employer had, in fact, suggested to Lea's mother that she should place the girls in separate jobs because Christine was a bad influence on Lea.
The two sisters seemed to suffer from what is called shared paranoid disorder. This condition tends to occur in small groups or pairs who become isolated from the world. They often lead an intense, inward-looking existence with a paranoid view of the outside world. It is also typical in shared paranoid disorder that one partner dominates the other, and the Papin sisters seem to be a perfect example of this.
Jean Genet was so taken by the case, that he loosely based his most famous play Les Bonnes or The Maids on it. In his play, the two women (or women played by men) role play the part of Mistress while the real mistress is out of the house. The crime has continued to fascinate writers and filmmakers in France as well as other countries. Ruth Rendall has written a novel based on the crime as have several others. Two films were released in the last ten years, an English film called Sister, My Sister, starring Joely Redgrave and Jodhi May, based on a play by the American playwright Wendy Kesselman, and a french film, Les Blessures Assassines (called Murderous Maids in English) by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Denis. Having seen both films, they deal with the relationship between the two sisters differently, particularly in regards to alleged sexual nature of the relationship. In Les Blessure Assassines, Lea looks to Christine as her protector/savior and is a willing participant in the relationsip. In Sister, My Sister, Lea seems more aware that what she is doing with Christine is very wrong. Both films are definitely worth watching, and the violence is wisely kept to a minimum or off-screen.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Pamela Digby didn’t set out to be a courtesan. The daughter of the 11th Baron Digby, she was born on March 20, 1920. Her life was meant to be one of marriage to another aristocrat, and time spent in the country hunting and shooting, with spring and summer spent into town doing the season. Dull and conventional. But Pamela knew from childhood that she wanted a different kind of life. She was fascinated with the story of her great-great Aunt, Jane Digby who left her husband the Earl of Ellenborough in search of true love and adventure. It was a search that would take her from the court of Ludwig I of Bavaria all the way to the desert of as the wife of a Bedouin sheik.
The Digby’s had a long aristocratic lineage but very little money. At one point in her childhood, they lived in Australia to save money. Pamela was raised by governesses and taught the basics. When she was seventeen, she was packed off to the continent for ‘finishing off’ spending time in France and Germany to perfect her language skills before returning to England to do the season which was financed by her father’s win through a lucky bet on the Grand National. Pamela wasn’t a success in her first season. Red-headed and chubby, she was also seen as snobbish and arrogant, the product of her mother’s firm belief that she was the most beautiful, talented child around. Unfortunately her mother was the only one who thought so. Pamela found herself a wallflower at many of the balls and cocktails parties during the ‘deb’ season.
At 19, Pamela was fortunate enough to go on a blind-date with Winston Churchill’s son Randolph. He proposed to her on the night they met, and Pamela said yes. She wasn’t about to lose her chance at becoming the daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill, despite the fact that her future husband had a habit of asking women to marry him. His record was three women in one night! Apparently Randolph was afraid he was going to die in the war and wanted to sew up having an heir before his death.They were married a few months later and Pamela found herself pregnant shortly afterward. The marriage to Randolph was a disaster, he was an alcoholic womanizing wastrel, who although gifted as a writer, was also lazy and focused. He suffered from ‘son of a great man’ syndrome. However, Pamela got on like a house on fire with her in-laws. Her mother-in-law Clementine had devoted her life to her husband, basically neglecting her children, and she advised Pam to do the same. It was advice that Pamela took to heart, just not with her husband.
After giving birth to her only child, Winston, Pamela parked him in the country and spent all her time in London where the action was, even though there was a war on. She spent weekends with the Churchills’ at the Prime Minster’s country home, Checquers. At the age of 21, she met Averell Harriman, a wealthy American railway heir (Union Pacific) and intimate of FDR who was 29 years her senior, through his daughter Kathleen, who she had befriended. The two were soon having an affair, despite the fact that they were both married, using Kathleen as a beard. Pamela proved her usefulness to Averell by introducing him to a host of important people including Lord Beaverbrook. But Averell wasn’t about to divorce his wife and marry Pamela. He’d already gone through one divorce from his first wife. However, he paid for Pamela’s Grosvenor Square flat in London, as well as established a yearly allowance for her.
Harriman was not the only wealthy and powerful American that Pamela had set her sights on. She also enjoyed romances with Jock Whitney and William S. Paley who called her the courtesan of the century. When Averell had to go back to the States, Pamela moved on to Edward R. Murrow, famous for his broadcasts from London. Murrow fell madly in love with Pam and her with him. But there was one little snag; while Harriman’s wife had been safely back in the States, Murrow’s wife was with him in London and Janet was not about to give up her husband without a fight. When Janet became pregnant, Murrow broke off the relationship with Pam.
In 1945, Pamela and Randolph Churchill were divorced. Pamela’s relationships with wealthy married men were well-known in English society, so she decided to head to Paris for a fresh start. Leaving her son Winston behind in the country, she settled down in Paris. She soon met the young Gianni Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune, who was intrigued by this woman who had so many powerful men at her beck and call. Although Pamela was received an annuity from both Jock Whitney and Averell Harriman, she desperately wanted to get married again. She even converted to Catholicism, hoping that Agnelli would pop the question. However, Agnelli had no desire to marry his mistress, not even when Pamela tried to make him jealous by having flings with Aly Khan and Stavros Niarchos. His sisters also didn’t like Pamela.
Pamela then moved on to Baron Elie de Rothschild of the famous banking family, who liked to call Pamela his “European Geisha.” Married to his cousin, with three children, Elie wasn’t about to divorce his wife and marry Pamela either. He found it amusing to have as a mistress a woman who had slept with so many powerful men. His wife, Liliane didn’t find it so amusing, she once bashed her car into Pam’s Bentley. Although like Agnelli, he to supported Pamela in the style to which she had rapidly become accustomed too. Pamela held the men in her life by taking up their interests, molding herself to their culture and by focusing her attention of them completely to the exclusion of everything else. With Agnelli, she even developed an Italian accent; answering the phone ‘Pronto Pam.’ Once she had moved on to Rothschild, it became ‘Ici Pam.’ She also made herself useful to them, by providing them with contacts in business, politics, and society. Smart as a whip, although not an intellectual, she managed to stay friends with all her former lovers, except for Rothschild, doing them little favors. For instance, she helped Jock Whitney buy jewelry for his wife.
By the end of the 50’s, Pamela knew that her days were numbered as a mistress. She was fast approaching forty. She needed to get married. Her days in Paris over, and feeling out of place in England, there was only one place that Pam could go and that was the land of opportunity, America.
She set her sights on Broadway producer and legendary agent Leland Hayward. So what if he was married, Pamela could see that his wife Slim Hayward was neglecting him. Hayward was dazzled by her attentiveness and quickly made her his fourth and last wife, much to Slim’s chagrin. Unfortunately for Pamela, she met Hayward at the peak of his career with the production of The Sound of Music. As soon as he married Pam, his career took a nose-dive and he started drinking heavily. Still Pamela made the best of it, for a brief time she ran a shop on Madison Avenue that specialized in expensive tchotchkes. Leland still had money, and Pamela spent it like water, buying a country house and an expensive apartment on Fifth Avenue. She also managed to alienate his three children.
After 11 years of marriage, Hayward passed away, leaving Pamela a widow. After the shock of his death, Pamela received another shock when his will was read. Under the terms of his divorce from his second wife Margaret Sullavan, Hayward was required to leave half of his estate, which totaled $400,000 to his surviving two children Brooke and Bill. Pamela now found herself at the age of 51, right back where she started but not for long. The good fortune fairy must have smiled on Pamela when she was born because within months, Pam had hooked up again with Averell Harriman, her war-time lover, who was now a widower. Six months after Leland Hayward’s death, she and Harriman were married.
The final chapter in Pamela’s life saw her becoming one half of a political power couple in Washington DC. Harriman was a life-long Democrat and now Pamela became one too as well as an American citizen. She established her own political action committee, PamPac, giving money to all the rising Democratic politicians including Al Gore, Jay Rockefeller and Bill Clinton. In her marriage to Harriman, despite her new interest in politics, she still made sure not to neglect her hubby. She partly learned her lesson from her marriage to Hayward, this time she didn’t alienate Harriman’s children, just his step-children. As Harriman grew older, he became more deaf and crotchety and he often took out his anger on Pamela. She took it in her stride, making sure that when she traveled, Harriman always had friends and family to come and look in on him.
She also cracked open the purse strings that Harriman had held tightly during his first eighty years. They bought a private plane, an estate in Virginia, and another in Barbados. Pamela also managed to remove any traces of Harriman’s late wife Marie from all the homes, including the art collection that Marie had lovely put together over the years, donating it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. When Harriman finally died at the age of almost 96 in 1986, Pamela even made sure that Harriman wasn’t buried anywhere near his late wife.
Pamela inherited his entire $115 million fortunate at his death, and used the money to position herself as power-broker in Washington. For the first time in her life, she didn’t need a powerful man on her arm, she was the power. She immersed herself in foreign policy issues, making speeches around the country, reveling in the publicity that named her one of the foremost hostesses in DC. She worked hard for Bill Clinton’s election as President and was reward with her appointment as Ambassador to France. Pamela threw herself into her role as Ambassador, studying briefs like she was about to take an exam, giving speeches in French, which she spoke fluently if not well. This time she was arriving back in Paris in triumphant.
While her public life was going great gang-busters, her personal life was going to hell. Her relationship with her son Winston was often strained. He’d been raised mainly by both sets of grandparents and only saw his mother when she needed an escort to a function. Despite bearing the same name as his illustrious grandfather, Winston’s career never equaled his grandfather’s success. He managed to screw up his career in Parliament, by opposing sanctions against Rhodesia and having an affair with the ex-wife of arms dealer Adnan Khasshoghi, and eventually lost his seat. Pamela found him an extreme disappointment. Her relationship with Harriman’s children and grandchildren also took a blow when they accused her of mismanaging the family trust funds after his death. The family sued her, she finally settled with them for $11 million dollars, after selling several art works by Renoir, Picasso and Matisse that had been earmarked for donation to the National Gallery after her death.
She also had to contend with an unflattering biography by Christopher Ogden. Ogden had actually been hired to help her write her autobiography, but Pamela balked when she realized the publisher Random House wanted her to be more candid then she had intended. After canceling the contract, she asked for the hours of tape back that she had made with Ogden. He refused unless he was paid for all the work he had done as her collaborator. She refused to pay him; although he did return the tapes (he’d made copies). Ogden then turned around and wrote his own biography of Pamela called “Life of the Party.”
Pamela Harriman died on February 5, 1997 at the age of 76, after suffering a stroke while swimming in the pool at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, a place of great significance in her life. She’d enjoyed a clandestine rendezvous with her second husband Leland Hayward there, and celebrated the liberation of Paris with her lover Edward R. Murrow at the bar.
Like her great-great aunt, Pamela refused to be hemmed in by the judgments of others. She never apologized for her series of affairs with married men, nor did she object when her name appeared in gossip columns. “I would rather have bad things written about me than be forgotten.” After her death, Jacques Chirac, the President of France, called her ‘probably one of the best ambassadors since Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson.” In the end, Pamela finally got everything she had ever wanted, fame, money, admiration and finally in the end respect.
Life of the Party - Christopher Ogden
Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman - Sally Bedell Smith
The Fortune Hunters - Charlotte Hays
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Here is a brief description to whet your appetite:
The daughter of a poor nobleman, Louise leaves the French countryside for the court of King Louis XIV, where she must not only please the tastes of the jaded king, but serve as a spy for France. With few friends, many rivals, and ever-shifting loyalties, Louise learns the perils of her new role. Yet she is too ambitious to be a pawn in the intrigues of others. With the promise of riches, power, and even the love of a king, Louise creates her own destiny in a dance of intrigue between two monarchs—and two countries.
Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background, and how long have you been writing before you were published?
I graduated from Brown University with a degree in art history. It was at Brown that I learned the magic of working with primary sources, of being able to reach back through centuries of opinions to squirrel out the truth about the past. I loved art history and still do, but didn’t want to make a career of it, and so I went into graphic design and public relations. Public relations proved to be a wonderful background for fiction writing.
You started out writing historical romance, what was the impetus that made you decide to write historical fiction, and in particular about real-life historical figures?
I wrote over thirty historical romances as Miranda Jarrett. When I first began, the market was for big, sprawling stories with lots of history behind the central love story. I wrote books set in colonial America, in 18th century London and Naples, even north Africa during the Barbary Wars. But in the last years, the historical romance market has narrowed its focus considerably. The books are much shorter (most are now in the 75,000-90,000 word range), there’s less and less history, and the overwhelming majority of the books are set in Regency England.
Fortunately for me, historical fiction has grown in the last decade, and it was an easy choice for me to make the switch. It was very freeing, too. I could dig deep in my research, and create a much richer story that encompassed more characters and more history. I’ve really enjoyed writing about historical figures whose untraditional lives wouldn’t have made them suitable heroes or heroines in an historical romance, but they’re considerably more interesting for it.
This is the third book that you have written set during the reign of Charles II, what is it about his reign that you find so fascinating?
Coming after the a horrific Civil War and a repressive Commonwealth led by Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration has much in common with other permissive eras that follow a repressive period, such as the Roaring 20s and the Swinging 60s. (All it’s missing is a snappy modifying gerund.) An entire generation of aristocratic children with royalist sympathies grew into adulthood without the stability of homes, families, or an expected position in society. In the most extreme cases, like Charles II himself, they had led impoverished, gypsy-like existences in exile on the Continent. As a result, many who would once again form a "ruling class" with the Restoration were rootless and wild, and often undereducated as well.
Traditional morality went out the window. Charles hoped England would be a country tolerant of all kinds of people and beliefs. There was a great deal of experimentation, not only in sexual behavior, but also in theatre, science, art, and music, even in fashion. But like all such times, the high spirits of the Restoration couldn’t last: by Charles’s death, society was exhausted by so much freedom, and the pendulum swung back to a more conservative era under the sterner, more restrictive reigns of James II, William and Mary, and Anne. It’s a fascinating time in which to set stories, looking forward to the humanist themes of the coming Age of Enlightenment, but still medieval enough for traitors to be hung, drawn, and quartered, their severed heads finally stuck on pikes on London Bridge as cheery warnings.
How do you start researching your historical fiction? Primary sources?
I try to rely as much as is possible on primary sources: diaries, letters, journals and newspapers of the times. While I’m writing, my I-tunes playlist even includes dance and court music and songs of the time. (The research for The French Mistress offered some special challenges since many of the sources were in 17th century French.) Since my historical novels are written in first person, it’s important to develop a “voice” for each character that’s historically accurate. The best way to do this is to immerse myself as much as possible in their time, and try to get inside their heads as much as I can. The trick, of course, is not to become so caught up in historical accuracy that one forgets to make a story and characters that are accessible to modern readers. We’ve all stumbled through those historical novels where the plot and dialogue have been overwhelmed by the author’s well-intentioned research; my favorite term for this was coined by a reviewer: “gadzookery.”
Louise de Keroualle seems to be the least well-known of Charles’s mistresses. She didn’t seem to have an oversize personality like some of his other mistresses. Was there anything that you discovered that you hadn’t known before you started researching? And did your impression of Louise change at all?
I’d known something of Louise after writing my previous two books about her rival-mistresses (Barbara Palmer in Royal Harlot and Nell Gwyn in The King’s Favorite), and though some of Nell’s witty attacks had made me feel a little sorry for Louise, it wasn’t until I’d begun researching her background in France that I developed an empathy with her. I hadn’t realized how she spent her life as a constant outsider. She had a difficult relationship with her parents, she never quite fit in at Louis XIV’s court, and she made virtually no true friends at the English court. The only one whom she seemed to trust was Charles. Learning that Louise never married nor became romantically linked to any other man, remaining constant to Charles’s memory for the remainder of her long life –– she outlived Charles by fifty years! –– seems especially poignant.
Louise saw no shame in her position as a royal mistress. Do you think this was because of the material wealth she amassed, the power she acquired, her ability to help her native France, or simply because of the love she felt for Charles?
My guess would be all of those.
Charles’s mistresses were constantly faulted for their greed, and Louise was regarded as the most avaricious of them all, which is interesting considering Barbara Castlemaine’s greed. Do you think she was in fact greedy, or merely making the most of a brief and unpredictable opportunity to provide for herself and her children?
There’s no doubt that Louise had expensive tastes, and that she expected Charles to indulge her. She made such a haul for herself that when she returned to France after Charles’s death, several ships were necessary to carry away all her loot. And like everyone else at Court, she loved to gamble, and wasn’t very good at it, often losing heavily. But Louise was much more savvy in her acquisitons than either Barbara or Nell. Where those two begged prettily for this house or that jewel (and usually got them), Louise asked for more lasting prizes to pass along to her only child with Charles, the Duke of Richmond. Her best one had to be the royalty on coal dues. Every load of coal that came from Newcastle added to the fortunes of not only her son, but all future Dukes of Richmond, and helped make the dukedom one of the richest in Britain to this day.
Louise was almost universally hated by the people of England. Do you think it was solely due to Anti-Catholic prejudice? Or was there something about Louise that caused her to be so unpopular?
Louise really was did represent the triple-whammy where the English people were concerned. She was Catholic, she was French, and she seemed to have an unnatural hold on their king’s affections. She had few allies or friends to defend her at Court or in the press, and her uneasy English often made her seem haughty and aloof. For the most part, Charles was enormously popular with his people, and when occasionally he made an unpopular decision, it was much easier for those same people to find a scapegoat -- and Louise made the best public scapegoat of all.
What made Charles’s relationship with Louise so different from his relationships with Nell Gwynn and Barbara Castlemaine? Derek Wilson believes that Louise modeled herself after Madame de Montespan, that she had learned not to outshine Queen Catherine, unlike Barbara Castlemaine.
Historian and biographer Antonia Fraser suggests that Charles’s three most prominent mistresses each offered different things to Charles at different times in his life. Barbara was the uninhibited wild-child of his early reign, appealing to him as a sexual adventuress. Nell’s saucy wit made her a kind of court fool, delighting Charles as she dared to skewer the stuffier members of his court even as she was his “country lass”, happily fishing and skinny-dipping with him at Windsor. Louise became the perfect bonne femme of his later years, representing not only the hospitality but also the French opulence and elegance that he’d always envied in his cousin Louis’s court.
Charles II had always been surrounded by strong women, his mother Henrietta Maria, his grandmother Marie de Medici, his sister Minette. He seemed to really enjoy the company of women and treated them as equals. Some of his courtiers felt that Charles was too influenced by the women in his life. Do you agree?
You’re right: Charles did love the company of women. In a way that’s appealingly modern, he enjoyed them as companions rather than simply as bedroom conquests, and the fact that his favorite women were clever as well as beautiful made him different from many of his more libertine contemporaries. But though Charles often used Louise as a sounding-board, there’s no real proof that she was able to influence towards France in any tangible way. He seemed to have remained his own man in matters of state.
Can you tell us what you might be working on next?
My next heroine has already made her appearance here as a Scandalous Woman: Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester. The only daughter and heiress to one of the wildest of Charles II’s courtiers, Catherine grew up into a pretty wild lady in her own right, blessed with a brilliant wit and sense of humor to compensate for her lack of beauty. Though her fortune and family made her much-sought-after as a wife, she refused to marry and let any man take control of her life. Instead she blazed a scandalous course of independence that included being a mistress to a king and a wife to a general, and a career at court that spanned nearly forty years. Look for Catherine’s adventurous life in The Countess and the King next summer.
And thank you again, Elizabeth, for inviting me here today!
Thank you Susan for stopping by. The French Mistress is officially on sale starting July 7th but you might be able to find copies at Borders! Or leave a comment and you might just win a copy!