Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review and Giveaway: MADEMOISELLE CHANEL by C. W. Gortner

William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2015
384 pages
ISBN: 978-0062356406

What happens when an author known for his convincing, dramatically compelling depictions of the sixteenth century tries his hand at the twentieth? He does a superb job! C. W. Gortner, who has penned vivid fictional portraits of Juana la Loca, Catherine de Medici, Isabella of Castile, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, reconstructs the life and ambition of early twentieth century icon Coco Chanel in his latest novel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL. With the attention to detail and vigorous narrative drive readers of his early modern fiction have come to expect, Gortner recreates the unsettled glamor of wartime Europe and the woman who constructed both a self and a fashion empire amid grueling uncertainty and near constant upheaval.

Gortner’s novel attempts to answer the question Coco herself poses in the short prologue: “Who is Coco Chanel?” An enigmatic and intensely private woman, the historical Coco presented a carefully cultivated public persona that promoted the allure of her “look.” Yet was she as aloof and self-interested as she appeared? In his chronological exploration of her life, Gortner uncovers the psychological wounds that may have prompted Coco to withdraw behind protective defenses.

The opening chapters of the novel depict Coco's childhood as one of poverty and loss. Abandoned by her father after the death of her mother and raised in a convent orphanage, young Gabrielle has nothing but her skill with a needle, her fashion sense, and her determination with which to forge a better life. Though she dreams of opening a hat shop, with no ready capital she must supplement her meager sweatshop salary by singing in local cabarets under the sobriquet “Coco.” There, she attracts the attention of the Étienne Balsan, heir to one of the largest fortunes in France. Although she does not love him, Coco becomes his mistress. Balsan introduces her to a life of luxury, but one of industry, too. He indulges her “hat hobby” and Coco soon gains a large clientele among the socialites of Balsan’s circle. Through him she meets rich industrialist Arthur Capel, who becomes the love of her life. Capel finances her first shop in Paris (she eventually repays every penny, with interest) and slowly her business grows. By 1912 she is designing clothes as well as hats and opening far-flung boutiques. But unlike other women of her age, Coco has no desire for marriage or children. She is wedded to her work, to her success, and to her aesthetic.

As Coco's astounding career unfolds through two world wars, the reader cannot help but attribute her prickly self-reliance to an underlying fear of being abandoned yet again, of slipping back into the poverty and obscurity she only just managed to escape. This dread remains ever with her, defining her relationships with colleagues and employees, tainting her friendships, determining whom and when she will love. In probing Coco’s inner life, Gortner stirs the reader’s compassion for this controversial figure. His admiring yet candid assessment inspires respect for a complicated, resolute woman who was not above conspiring with Nazis if it might win her imprisoned nephew his freedom and her enterprise a measure of protection from the vicissitudes of war.

In his effort to understand and unveil his elusive subject, Gortner follows Chanel from backwater cabaret to busy atelier, from Parisian townhouse to elegant yacht, from occupied hotel dining room to German prison, never shirking the difficult or less than complimentary moments of her life. Who, ultimately, is Coco Chanel in Gortner’s eyes? A pragmatist. A visionary. A survivor. And like his indomitable heroine, C.W. Gortner displays, in this breakout book, an ability to rise to new challenges and succeed with admirable finesse--and good measure of panache.

C.W. Gortner is the international bestselling author of six historical novels, translated in over twenty-five languages to date. His new novel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, traces the tumultuous rise to fame of iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel. In 2016, Random House will publish his eighth novel, VATICAN PRINCESS, about Lucrezia Borgia. Raised in Spain and a long-time resident of the Bay Area, C.W. is dedicated to companion animal rescue from overcrowded shelters. Visit his website. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe to his newsletter. Buy the book: HarperCollins, IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

You can enter the giveaway here or on the book blogs participating in this tour. Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook; they are listed in the entry form below. Visit each blogger on the tour: tweeting about the giveaway every day of the tour will give you 5 extra entries each time! Just follow the directions on the entry form. Six winners: five printed copies + one beautiful, handcrafted beaded bracelet inspired by Coco's black and white signature colors and camellia design. Open to US readers only.

Mademoiselle Chanel bracelet

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interview with Nancy Bilyeau, Author of THE TAPESTRY

THE CROWN (2011) and THE CHALICE (2013) introduced readers to Joanna Stafford, a young novice forced out of her convent during the Dissolution and into dangerous plots threatening the reign of King Henry VIII. In the third book of the series, THE TAPESTRY, on sale March 24, Joanna must finally choose her fate: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Author Nancy Bilyeau discusses her research into this fascinating era.

In THE TAPESTRY, Joanna becomes Henry VIII’s Mistress of Tapestries, charged with purchasing, inventorying and caring for the king’s extensive tapestry collection. How did you research the Renaissance tapestry industry? Have you had the opportunity to view some of Henry’s tapestries in person?

There are several fantastic nonfiction books about Renaissance tapestries. The expert in this field is Thomas P. Campbell, now the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wrote Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence and Henry VIII and The Art of Majesty: Tapestries in the Tudor Court. I don’t know if many people realize what an incredible industry it was and how luxurious and intricate many of the tapestries could be, woven with gold and silver threads. Production of a set of six five-by-eight-yard tapestries would have required thirty weavers to work nonstop for over a year.

Many of Henry VIII’s tapestries are lost, but you can see some beautiful ones that have been preserved at Hampton Court. Since I live in New York City, I can’t run over to Hampton Court any time I like (unfortunately) but I can jump on a subway to the Cloisters Museum. The museum’s prize possession is seven individual hangings known as “the Unicorn Tapestries,” dated in the late 15th century. No one is sure who wove them or what they mean, but it’s wonderful fun to speculate.

Joanna is commissioned to weave the face of a certain character into a tapestry for the king. I was intrigued to read that such personalization was done after the entire tapestry had been woven. Can you explain how this was done? Was such personalization a common occurrence for commissioned tapestries?

It wasn’t common. Most tapestries were based, from beginning to end, on a detailed colored pattern known as the cartoon. That’s where the word originated from. They traced the pattern from the cartoon onto the loom. But in some cases the tapestries show recognizable faces of people who lived—patrons of the workshop or royals that they wanted to please. A tapestry was sold at Sotheby’s recently that depicted the meeting of Henry VIII and King Francis I in 1520, the Field of Cloth of Gold. You can see a real resemblance to Francis in the tapestry—yes, it’s his nose! We know that finer threads were often used in the weaves of the faces of people in these tapestries and that they were done at the end. Occasionally, there was some cheating, and someone would try to paint a face instead of weave it. In Brussels, the center of the tapestry industry, if someone was caught painting, the penalty was severe.

How did you strive to distinguish your characterization of Henry VIII from standard conceptions?

I’ve been reading about Henry VIII for many years, and what I tried to do was banish from my thoughts the depictions of the king from historical novels and movies and miniseries, and focus on the historical record. From that, I concluded he was intelligent, manipulative, talented, acquisitive, impatient, ruthless, self-indulgent, arrogant and yet charming with a dry wit. I based his appearance on descriptions in the contemporary documents. He looked nothing like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, that’s for sure!

Throughout your three novels, Joanna’s heart has been tugged between two men, Geoffrey Scovill and Edmund Sommerville. Avoiding spoilers, did you know from the beginning which of the two she would choose in the end? Could she have been happy with either man—or neither of them?

I knew from the beginning of writing THE TAPESTRY who Joanna would choose at the end. It wasn’t easy to make this decision, since I am very fond of both my “guys.” But in deciding, I thought long and hard about what Joanna’s feelings were and what Geoffrey’s and Edmund’s true feelings were too. I think both of the men have appealing and admirable qualities—along with some flaws. But in my heart, I think that Joanna also could have had a fulfilled life as a sister of the Dominican Order. I did not write her as a woman who wanted to be a nun by default—that she could not cope with being married. She had the piety, devotion, compassion and cerebral nature that would have made for an excellent nun.

Photo credit: Library of Congress Digital Collections
Did the fourth book on occult philosophy by the German theologian and alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, for which Joanna and Edmund search in order to put an end to a curse, actually exist? Are copies extant? How did you become interested in Agrippa?

If you spend any time at all reading about beliefs in mysticism and magic in the 16th century, Agrippa will pop up pretty quickly. He is the rock star of the Renaissance-era occult. LOL. The fourth book of Agrippa is controversial. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a scholar, a theologian and an astrologer—these three things often went together!—and in the early 1530s he published De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres, which is “Three Books of Occult Philosophy.” Then there is the infamous “fourth book,” which is better described as a grimoire, a book of magic spells. It puts into practice the philosophies and ideas of the first three volumes with invocations of good and evil spirits. Researchers today use the word “spurious” when Agrippa is listed as the author of the fourth book. It first surfaced in 1559, years after Agrippa’s death, but that alone does not rule out his authorship. As you can imagine, publishing books of occult instruction was not easy during this time, with the Inquisition in full force. It could have been held back.

The fourth book is still in circulation today. I first came upon it when browsing through a bookstore in downtown Toronto. The color of its cover is a strange dark red. Looking at it gave me a chill, to be honest with you. I later ordered one for my research—from Amazon.

I love that you broaden the confines of your Tudor setting to include Charles V’s empire and the Germanic states. What particular research challenges did this pose? How did knowing your book was destined for an American audience that might not be familiar with continental events of the era affect how you presented your material?

There were significant research challenges. Apart from the life of Martin Luther, there are not that many nonfiction books written in English that cover the history of Germany in the late medieval period. I had to dig and dig just to find a few! To me this is incredible, because what happened in the German states in the 16th century had a profound effect on the modern age, and not only by introducing religious reform. The Peasants War was very significant—Karl Marx and Frederick Engels certainly thought so and wrote about it three centuries later. Also, the tensions between the Holy Roman Emperors and the states and the deepening crises that spread across Germany led to the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in Western history. And it’s not just dry statistics and facts that are compelling here—daily life in Germany was so interesting in this time!

I didn’t worry about Americans’ lack of familiarity with what was going on in continental Europe. That is part of my personal “mission,” which is to open up the Tudor novel. My main character is fictional, and I set her in a real world of famous Tudor figures like Henry VIII and in actual settings, like the Palace of Whitehall and the town of Dartford. So it’s not a “marquee” historical novel that revolves solely around the royals. I invent “normal” people—I can’t call them “ordinary” because in my heart there is nothing ordinary about Sister Joanna Stafford, Geoffrey Scovill and Edmund Sommerville. I don’t take the standard point of view on the Reformation, which is that the Catholic Church was corrupt and faltering and would have died out even if Henry VIII hadn’t broken from Rome. The reason for it is not that I am a religious propagandist, but because after deciding to write the story of a Catholic novice I did years of research into late medieval spirituality and monastic life and Tudor politics. I came to my own conclusions about the English Reformation, and about the motives of Henry VIII in demolishing the abbeys. What’s exciting is that I am not alone—several authors and historians are questioning the conventional wisdom. It’s a time of true revisionism.

And then, yes, I take the action of the second and third novels out of England for a period. I haven’t had any negative feedback from readers—they are, as far as I can tell, happy to travel to new places. I mean, part of this is I am not just a historical novelist, I am a thriller writer. These are historical thrillers, and thrillers need to move. A great many historical novels contain chapters of people talking in rooms, which is fine, but in my work, I send my characters hurtling in many directions, whether it’s Joanna and Brother Edmund riding to Malmesbury Abbey in THE CROWN, Joanna in disguise making her way to Antwerp and beyond in THE CHALICE, or Joanna struggling to survive a very difficult journey through the German states in THE TAPESTRY.

Do you have a favorite scene from THE TAPESTRY? Which scene had you tearing at your hair?

I have several favorites. I loved writing the passage of Joanna arriving at Whitehall and the mounting suspense, beginning with her awe mixed with uneasiness when looking at the ornate Holbein’s Gate at the palace entrance. Her supper that evening with the Howards was fun to write, as was Joanna’s eventful meal with the king and queen. I was excited to write the Germany section. One of my readers said that part of the book read like a powerful and Impressionistic dream.

Hair tearing, there was plenty. I had a very hard time writing the pivotal Westminster Hall encounter with several main characters, including Henry VIII. It’s always challenging to write something where there are a lot of key characters to account for. I went through many drafts in a particular Joanna and Geoffrey scene, because there were so many emotional shifts.

What aspect of writing a trilogy proved most difficult? Knowing now what you didn’t know when you began, would you write a multi-book series again?

This may sound strange, but I found writing a series a natural thing to do. I came up with my ideas for the books at the beginning. If you have a strong main character, it makes it much easier, I think. But that’s the creative side. The business of writing a series is hard. In today’s publishing world, there is a lot of “wait and see” on the books. They don’t want to commit to a succeeding novel until it’s clear whether the first one did well, for example. But if an author did that, waited for the sales reports to come out before beginning the next one, the books would be spaced several years apart. Readers want the books in a series to come quickly, at least one book a year. You can’t do that with “wait and see.” Also, it’s hard to secure reviews for the books in a series after the first one, yet we need reviews to appear so people know the next book is out in the world. Despite all of this, I would absolutely write another series.

Can you give us a hint about what you are working on now? 

My agent has ordered me to keep my lips sealed! But I will tell you it is a historical novel, though not set in the 16th century.

Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY will be released in March 2015.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information or to sign up for Nancy’s Newsletter please visit her official website.
For a list of Nancy's other stops on this blog tour, please visit the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour website.
To enter to win one of three signed hardcover copies of THE TAPESTRY, please complete the giveaway form at


Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01am EST and ends at 11:59pm EST on April 3rd.
Giveaway is open to residents in North American and the UK.
You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.
Please email Amy @ with any questions.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: THE TAPESTRY by Nancy Bilyeau

Ever since her Dominican priory was closed by order of Henry VIII, Joanna Stafford has tried to live a quiet life weaving tapestries in the small town of Dartford. Yet fate refuses to allow her respite. In Nancy Bilyeau’s THE TAPESTRY (Touchstone, 2015), the third and final installment of a three-book series that includes THE CROWN (2012) and THE CHALICE (2013), King Henry summons Joanna to court to discuss a tapestry commission. Reluctant to serve a king she has twice tried to dethrone, yet desperate for an income that will allow her to raise her young nephew, Joanna obeys. Minutes after her arrival at Whitehall, a mysterious man attempts to murder her. Thrust into a web of international intrigue that pits her against an array of new and former nemeses, Joanna must rely on wits, courage and integrity to her protect herself and her friend Catherine Howard, the king’s latest favorite, from forces determined to alter England’s unprecedented course.

THE TAPESTRY vividly captures the unsettled, suspicious atmosphere of mid-sixteenth century England. The country is in a state of constant turmoil as it struggles to embrace the changes wrought by King Henry’s whims. In this new world where a common upstart like Thomas Cromwell can gain an earldom—and the king’s confidence—noblemen fret over the security of their positions; courtiers jockey for favor; ambitious wives and wards seek to catch the king’s roving eye. As defrocked priests and nuns struggle to support themselves outside the dismantled walls of their monasteries, the clerical hierarchy barter their souls for benefices. Rich and poor alike guard their tongues as opportunists seek to profit through denunciation. Against this backdrop of festering mistrust, putrid as King Henry’s infected leg, Bilyeau weaves an intricate plot that meshes the international the national, the personal with the political, the secular with the religious. As much as Joanna longs to escape the court and its machinations, her protective concern for Catherine’s fate compels her to stay. She soon uncovers a mysterious “covenant” dedicated to toppling Cromwell so as to restore the Catholic faith in England. The occult nature of this covenant and its effects reinforces the authenticity of the setting, for sixteenth-century culture professed a deep and abiding interest in the dark arts. Joanna’s unquestioning acceptance of the power of the covenant and her quest to locate an arcane text that might undo its effects prove her to be a true daughter of her time.

Rare is the Tudor novel that ventures beyond the confines of England; THE TAPESTRY opens vistas well beyond the usual realm of Tudor fiction. Imperial agents who, in THE CHALICE, coerce Joanna to cooperate in an attempt to assassinate the king, continue to dog her steps at the English court, complicating lives and politics. German artist Hans Holbein offers a continental perspective on events and becomes Joanna’s trusted friend and adviser. In a surprising development, Joanna exploits her appointment as Tapestry Mistress to quit England in search of her former fiancé, Edmund Sommerville. After brief stays in Paris and Flanders, she journeys deep into Germany, a dangerous region suffering from famine and revolt. The adventures that befall her there introduce the reader to aspects of Renaissance history not normally explored in historical fiction (the Diet of Regensburg, anyone?) and add an intriguing flavor to an already singular story.

But it is Joanna herself, more than the story’s rich setting or deft plot, who entrances the reader. Beset by troubles and surrounded by unscrupulous schemers, Joanna never compromises her integrity. Though she  mourns her lost life as a nun and resents her uncertain future, she refuses to despair. Loyal and courageous, she fights to protect Catherine from exploitation; generous and determined, she prays with the condemned as they lay their heads on the block. Though clever enough to outwit spies and assassins, Joanna cannot understand her own heart. Torn between her love for the absent Edmund, whom she almost married, and an undeniable attraction to constable Geoffrey Scoville, her constant shadow, she reveals a touching vulnerability and a confusion that only slowly, painfully, clears. It is Joanna’s admirable humanness that has turned so many of the trilogy’s readers into devoted fans.

In THE TAPESTRY, Nancy Bilyeau brings the adventures of her spirited heroine to a triumphant close. Mystery and romance, research and imagination, realism and magic combine in perfect proportion, immersing the reader in the past, enthralling her in the present, and leaving her in hope that Bilyeau will resurrect her intrepid ex-nun in the not-too-distant future.

Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY will be released in March 2015.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information or to sign up for Nancy’s Newsletter please visit her official website.
For a list of Nancy's other stops on this blog tour, please visit the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour website.
To enter to win one of three signed hardcover copies of THE TAPESTRY, please complete the giveaway form at

Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01am EST and ends at 11:59pm EST on April 3rd.
Giveaway is open to residents in North American and the UK.
You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.
Please email Amy @ with any questions.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran

Fictional accounts of India published in English usually take the perspective of a British transplant encountering a foreign culture for the first time: think E.M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA or M. M. Kaye’s THE FAR PAVILIONS. Michelle Moran’s REBEL QUEEN, just released from Touchstone, switches things up to marvelous effect. With the skill of an accomplished storyteller and the confidence of someone intimately familiar with Indian history and culture, Moran weaves a fascinating account of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 from the perspective of a vanquished people struggling to regain their sovereignty.

Though the title belongs to Rani Lakshmi, queen of the kingdom of Jhansi, it is Sita Bhopal, her most trusted confidante, who narrates the tale. Too poor to marry, Sita faces life as a temple prostitute unless she earns a spot in the Durga Dal, the queen’s elite group of female guards. Owing allegiance to no one but the rani and trained, like her, to ride horseback and wield sword, pistol, and bow, the ten Durgavasi live in the queen’s palace and provide her constant protection. Against all odds, Sita, instructed by a former soldier in the arts of war and fluent in English thanks to her father’s love of Shakespeare, fills the open spot in the corps. She leaves her poor village for the palace, dedicating her wages to building her younger sister’s dowry. At court, Sita must not only earn the trust of the queen, but navigate the ambition and envy of the other female guards. Secluded village life has little prepared her for the wiles of courtiers and the demands of international politics—or the attentions of the handsome head of the queen’s male guards, Arjun. Petty jealousies bloom into full-scale treachery as the British endeavor to wrest the kingdom from the widowed queen. Rebellion ensues as Lakshmi, with the help of Sita and other loyal guards, attempts to protect her country and her people.

The structure of the story seeks to bridge the cultural gap between Moran’s Indian characters and her American readers. Sixty years after the unfolding of the events, aged Sita writes a memoir based on diaries she has kept her entire life. The purpose of the memoir being to convince British occupiers of the importance of Indian traditions and to rehabilitate the Rani’s reputation in their eyes, Sita is able to—and frequently does—pause in her narrative to explain Hindu customs and contrast the changes that have marked India since the beginning of British rule. The conversational tone and direct address of the reader as “you” makes the insertion of such material expected and easy to digest. The memoir framework provides a view from within that acknowledges the intended audience’s “otherness” and unveils and animates Indian culture in ways that a straight narrative from an Indian perspective might not. Sita’s purpose and efforts mirror Moran’s; together, the two authors succeed in drawing the reader fully into an unfamiliar world and clarifying misconceptions about it.

The narrative itself builds slowly yet competently. The first half of the book focuses on Sita’s family conflicts and personal quest; once Sita moves to the palace and grows in her devotion to the queen, broader political events come to the forefront. Sita’s own insecurities and an overabundance of caution enable a palace treachery that precipitates the British offensive against Jhansi. Sita certainly pays for her hesitancy; the last quarter of the book recounts a spate of personal and national tragedies that left this reader breathless. Breathless, yes, yet pensive, too, and glad that Sita, like the Rani herself, does not shirk the task before her. With freedom yet to be won, Sita takes up of her pen and fires yet another salvo in the effort to liberate her people. With sensitivity to both her subject and the needs of the narrative, Michelle Moran demonstrates the power of story to touch minds and hearts as it exposes injustice and intolerance in the world.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"La force et violence sont plus de la beste que de l'homme. Le droit vient de la plus divine partie qui soit en nous, qui est la raison."

"Force and violence pertain more to animals than to man. Justice comes from the most divine part of ourselves, which is reason."

Michel de l'Hospital (1506-1573) 
Parlementarian, Superintendent of Finances, Chancellor of France
Traité de la Réformation de la Justice, seconde partie

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Poet and the Priory

The Prieré Saint-Cosme. Photo credit: sybarite48
As announced on the website, the Prieuré Saint-Cosme, home of the poet Pierre de Ronsard from 1565 to 1585, has reopened after several months of renovations and archeological work. Located near Tours, Saint-Cosme was founded in the eleventh century to receive pilgims en route to Saint James of Compostella in Spain. Suppressed in 1742, the priory's buildings were either partially dismantled or used for secular purposes. Aerial bombardments during World War II spared only the prior's residence, bits of the chapel, and the monks' refectory. The site came under government protection in 1951 and after renovation, reopened to the public. In the 1980's, over 200 species of roses were planted in nine gardens spread over more than five acres of the grounds, a special tribute to Ronsard and his famous poem to Cassandre:

Mignonne allons voir si la rose,
Qui ce matin avoit desclose
Sa robe de pourpre au Soleil,
A point perdu ceste vestrée
Les plis de sa robe pourprée,
Et sa teint au vostre pareil.

Pierre de Ronsard. Photo credit: Carcharoth
Premier poet of the French Renaissance, Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) joined the court of François I as a page at the age of twelve and spent the rest of his life in service to king and court. He received the tonsure of a cleric in 1543, which permitted him to benefit from prebends bestowed by his royal patrons. As a founding member of the group of poets known as the Pléïade, Ronsard worked to raise the esteem of the French language and its poetry to levels enjoyed by classical poets. His many works, among them the Odes (1550), Amours (1552), Hymnes (1555), and Elégies (1565), solidified the elegance of the vernacular tongue and established him as France's leading poet by midcentury. He was a particular favorite of King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Médicis, who granted him the benefice of the Prieuré Saint-Cosme in 1565. Ronsard spent much time at Saint-Cosme during the last two decades of his life and died there on December 27, 1585, after penning his Derniers vers. He is buried in the church.

The prior's house, in which Ronsard lived during his sojourns at Saint-Cosme, now houses a museum dedicated to the poet's life and works. The Prieuré Saint-Cosme and its gardens would a lovely and significant stop on any tour of the Loire Valley.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Winner of THE PRICE OF BLOOD: Amended

Linda, the original winner of THE PRICE OF BLOOD, has already won the book through another contest. She generously offered to allow me to select a different winner for this copy. This time around, the random number generator chose Alison Alexander. Congratulations!

Winners of THE PRICE OF BLOOD Giveaway

The winners of the random drawing for Patricia Bracewell's books have been chosen.

Linda has won a copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD.

Marsha Lambert has won SHADOW ON THE CROWN.

I will contact the winners by email to obtain mailing addresses for the publisher.

My apologies for the delay in announcing the winners. Thanks to Viking Books for sponsoring the contest and to all who entered. I hope you all find the opportunity to enjoy Patricia Bracewell's marvelous books.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Interview with Patricia Bracewell, Author of THE PRICE OF BLOOD

Today the second installment of Patricia Bracewell's Emma of Normandy Trilogy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, publishes from Viking Books. A gripping, richly textured continuation of the story that began with SHADOW ON THE CROWN (Viking, 2013), THE PRICE OF BLOOD dramatizes Queen Emma's efforts to protect England from the Viking armies ravaging the kingdom. Patricia has graciously offered to answer some questions about eleventh century history and the crafting of her novel.
1.  An excerpt from a twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, opens the book, describing how King Æthelred was “hounded by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood.” Had you located this quotation before you began writing the novel, or was it a later, fortuitous find? From what you can tell, was William of Malmesbury, who wrote 100 years after Æthelred’s death, the first to draw a link between Æthelred’s disastrous reign and his guilt over his brother’s murder, or was this curse, so to speak, acknowledged by Aethelred’s own contemporaries?

I found the Malmesbury quote early on in my research. It was what gave me the idea for a ghost that haunts the king. As to whether William of Malmesbury was the first person to equate Edward’s murder with the disastrous events in Æthelred’s reign, it’s difficult to say. Certainly the Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, Wulfstan, claimed in a sermon that “laws of the people have deteriorated entirely too greatly, since Edgar (Æthelred’s father) died… Edward was betrayed, and then killed, and after that burned…things have not prospered now for a long time…and the English have been entirely defeated…through the anger of God.” So there was definitely a connection drawn between great sin in the land and God’s punishing hand via the Viking raids, and certainly the unpunished murder of a king was one of those sins.

2. You structure THE PRICE OF BLOOD, as you did the first novel of the trilogy, by year, prefacing each section with a corresponding snippet taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. How did you go about fleshing out this rather sketchy record of battles and troop movements? Did the spareness of the account help or hinder your imagination?

The spareness of the account was sometimes frustrating, and I often wished for a lot more information. The Chronicle frequently tells us rather vaguely WHAT happened, but it rarely gives us adequate background. It never says HOW or WHY something occurred. My story, though, is not history; it’s fiction. It’s about people and their relationships with each other, what drives each of them, what they love and what they hate. It’s about jealousy, passion, tenderness, sorrow, regret – human emotions and human endeavors. That doesn’t exist anywhere in the chronicles, so filling in the blanks was really a matter of creating characters that I found believable based on what I knew of the history, putting them in conflict with each other, and taking that emotional journey with them.

3. What aspect of eleventh-century life has proven most difficult to research and how have you compensated for the lack of information?

Trying to discover what an average day in the life of an eleventh-century royal was like was not easy. How large was a royal household? Would the queen know everyone in it? What did she do in the course of a day? The thing is, an average day in anyone’s life is not all that compelling to read about. So a good story has to be about the days that are different, when people are sick, or someone has died, or word comes that a Viking army has invaded Canterbury. So I would highlight little things – women stitching an embroidery, a man stirring honey for mead, the king out hawking – but almost as soon as I described such an activity, I disrupted it with a disaster of some kind. The setting is important. The story is even more important.

4. This novel continues to pit two strong female characters, Queen Emma and Elgiva, daughter of a powerful northern nobleman, against each other, although this time from a distance. How did you strive to meet the challenge of nuancing Emma and Elgiva to prevent them from becoming simple “good girl/bad girl” foils? Was it difficult to keep Elgiva and her antics from overshadowing Emma, who finds herself sorely constrained by the king’s determination to sideline her?

Yes, it was difficult to keep Elgiva from taking over the book! Her scenes are all quite dramatic. One reason for that is because we know nothing about her in those years, so I had a much freer hand in inventing her story than I did with Emma. I also kind of like to torture Elgiva. But she’s tough! She can take it. The nuancing – and I’m thrilled by your description of that – comes from the fact that I’ve given both women back-stories and interior lives. At least, that’s what I’ve tried to do. And neither one of them is all good or all bad. Emma’s motives are purer than Elgiva’s, but she’s not perfect. She keeps secrets from the king, for example; she is at a loss as to how to control her step-daughters; and she sometimes puts her own needs before those of her children. Elgiva is more self-centered, but she’s adept at managing her property and her people, and she’s like a tigress when she wants something. She’s not shy about going after it. Emma is all about duty; Elgiva refuses to behave. They’re both strong women, but they react to adversity in different ways.

King Athelstan of England.
Earliest surviving portrait of an English king.
5. The rift between Æthelred and his son Athelstan continues to grow, especially as Athelstan finds himself supplanted by the king’s advisor Eadric. What aspect of Athelstan’s character intrigues you most? What would you consider to be his greatest flaw?

I suppose the thing that intrigues me the most about Athelstan is his unwillingness to seize his father’s throne. Historically, he did not rebel, although he clearly had strong ties to the northern lords who were dissatisfied with Æthelred’s rule. As a result, I had to come up with reasons why he didn’t make that move, and I explore those in the novel. As for Athelstan’s greatest flaw, I suppose it’s his habit of backing off when things don’t go the way he thinks they should. He doesn’t push his father hard enough or enlist the support necessary to sway the king around to his way of thinking. It sounds strange to say that this is a fault, but Athelstan is not devious enough. He’s too honest in a world where strategy, intrigue and ruthlessness are the keys to success.

6. Oftentimes an author will find herself writing a scene she never set out to write, a scene that flows almost effortlessly and winds up playing a key role in the development of the plot. Did you have such an experience while writing THE PRICE OF BLOOD? Which scene in the book was the most satisfying to write? Which one had you tearing out your hair in frustration?

Honestly, I don’t think I had any scene that flowed even close to effortlessly! One scene that comes to mind as one I didn’t set out to write occurs early on, when Elgiva and Alric are in a wattle and daub hut together. I had no idea what was going to happen there, or where they would go afterwards. They sort of worked it out between them, and I wrote it down. The scene that was the most satisfying to write was the scene in the hunting lodge at Corfe where there is a lot of interaction between the sons of the king. I especially enjoyed writing about Athelstan’s perceptions of his brothers and Edwig’s drunken, smart-ass comments. As for scenes that had me tearing my hair out, there were lots of those, but especially the scenes with the ghost. I wanted each spectral appearance to be similar to the others, yet unique in some way. It was a real challenge.

7. Can you believe you will soon be deep into the third book of the trilogy? What has meant the most to you on this journey?

What has moved me the most has been the response of my family – husband, sons, siblings – who have all loved the book and have been so proud of me. The reactions of readers have meant a lot, too. Many of them have become great fans of Emma of Normandy, and because my goal in writing this trilogy has been to resurrect Queen Emma’s name from the footnotes of history, the many readers who have “discovered” Emma have made me believe that I’m accomplishing what I set out to do.

Thank you, Patricia, for answering my questions, and congratulations on this exciting day! Readers might like to read my review of THE PRICE OF BLOOD. The drawing for a free copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD or SHADOW ON THE CROWN will be open until February 12, 2015. Enter in the comment stream following the review.


Patricia Bracewell grew up in California where she taught literature and composition before embarking upon her writing career. She has always been fascinated by English history, which led to her studying Anglo-Saxon history at Downing College, Cambridge University. She has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Oakland, California.

If you would like to learn more about Patricia and her books and view the list of her upcoming author appearances, please visit her website and her blog.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review and Giveaway: THE PRICE OF BLOOD by Patricia Bracewell

The second installment of Patricia Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy trilogy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD (Viking, February 5, 2015), expands and deepens the eleventh century world the author so convincingly recreated in 2013’s SHADOW ON THE CROWN. Using the sketchy summary events of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as her warp, Bracewell weaves a richly detailed, compelling tale of ambition, duty, and forbidden love. As does the best historical fiction, THE PRICE OF BLOOD immerses its reader in a milieu replete with particulars of time and place in order to better examine the essential constants of human nature. As well-researched and beautifully drawn as Bracewell’s Anglo-Saxon England is—the author deserves much praise for the deft assurance with which she evokes Britain’s far past—it is her deeply resonant, finely nuanced characterizations that capture the reader’s interest and heart.

The novel opens in 1006, with the kingdom of England in the direst of straits. Famine stalks the land; illness and accident strike down the king’s sons, one after the other; northern ealdormen, only tenuously loyal to their southern king, grumble and conspire against him. No longer satisfied with bribes, Danish Vikings raid and pillage far inland; full-scale invasion looms. Convinced he labors under a curse for having stolen his brother’s throne, uneasy King Aethelred defies anyone or anything that seeks to break his hold on the crown. Seconded by an upstart advisor as self-serving and ruthless as the Danes themselves, Aethelred shuns the advice, and even the presence, of his sons, his proven allies, and his politically astute Norman wife, Queen Emma. But try as Aethelred might to shunt her aside, Emma refuses to retire. Determined to preserve the kingdom intact for her young son, Aethelred's designated heir, she cultivates a coalition of sympathetic allies and earns the respect and devotion of the English people through her courage and compassion. And little though Aethelred will like it, Emma harbors a secret skill that just might prove the key to England’s salvation—though it could well cost her the trust of the man she loves, the king’s eldest son Athelstan.

Against the surging backdrop of imminent Danish doom, the four viewpoint characters—Emma, Athelstan, Aethelred, and Elgiva, the beautiful, conniving noblewoman set on supplanting Emma as queen—seek to order for themselves the demands of loyalty, ambition and love. Desperate to preserve his seat on the throne, Aethelred sows division among his nobles and sons, endangering the very existence of the kingdom he rules. Athelstan, urged by the king’s dismayed allies to wrest the throne for himself, struggles to define what he owes a father whose disastrous indecision all but assures Danish victory and who has repaid his allegiance by naming Emma’s son as heir. Athelstan’s love for Emma only compounds the cost of continued loyalty to his unstable father. Wily Elgiva, forced to fend for herself after Aethelred cruelly executes her father and brothers, turns to the Danes for help in landing a throne. Her determination to rise by whatever means necessary contrasts sharply with Emma’s devotion to her children, her kingdom, and her vows. But Emma’s selflessness comes at great personal cost, as she can only further her son’s future at the expense of Athelstan’s standing and happiness. With consummate skill, Bracewell stirs the reader’s sympathy for each of these characters and their conflicting desires. A delicious, compelling tension results, for the reader knows all four cannot succeed. Who will triumph and at what price?

Evoking the pagan mindset that persists alongside the kingdom’s official—and threatened—Christianity, themes of curse and prophecy inform the narrative. Aethelred suffers visions of his murdered brother’s wraith and believes his reign cursed to failure. Athelstan repeatedly seeks out a seeress for guidance, only to be told that fire and smoke will engulf England and calamity awaits the king’s sons. Wedded to a prophecy that foresaw her as queen, Elgiva embraces the enemy and the dark arts. Though restricted by her husband’s commands and the conventions of queenship, Emma alone operates unencumbered by preconceived notions of her fate. Relying on her faith and wits to guide her, she forges her own destiny, one that may well decide that of her adopted people. In the forthcoming third installment of the trilogy, we will discover how well she succeeds.

As for author Patricia Bracewell, she has nimbly avoided the curse of the mediocre middle book. One need not be a seeress to predict that THE PRICE OF BLOOD will grow her devoted and appreciative audience and establish her as a premier writer of historical fiction today.

Patricia Bracewell grew up in California where she taught literature and composition before embarking upon her writing career. She has always been fascinated by English history, which led to her studying Anglo-Saxon history at Downing College, Cambridge University. She has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Oakland, California.

If you would like to learn more about Patricia and her books and view the list of her upcoming author appearances, please visit her website and blog.

Viking Books has graciously offered one paperbound edition of SHADOW ON THE CROWN and one hardbound copy of THE PRICE OF BLOOD for giveaway to readers with US shipping addresses (no P.O. boxes, please). A winner will be drawn at random for each book. If you would like to enter the drawings, please leave a comment below indicating which book you desire. If you would like to enter both drawings, please state so. Make sure your comment includes an email address at which you may be reached. Contest closes at 11 pm Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Winners will be announced here on Friday, February 13, 2015. Good luck!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Review and Giveaway: RODIN'S LOVER by Heather Webb

Written with a passion and conviction worthy of the sculptor herself, Heather Webb's new novel RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, January 2015) explores the tumultuous life, troubled psyche, and splendid achievements of Camille Claudel, student, protégée and rival of artist Auguste Rodin. Born in an era that expected bourgeoise women to reflect their husbands' glory, Camille determines instead to amplify her own. Gifted with the skills, vision and tenacity necessary to succeed as an artist, she confronts head-on the prejudices and condescension of the male artistic establishment, showing pieces in Salon exhibitions and even earning a civic commission. But Camille's success does not come without price--like a file on fine marble, the constant strife wears away at her mental and emotional stability, exacerbating paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies. Her romantic relationship with Rodin becomes both a crucible of creativity and the catalyst of the tortured artist's ultimate undoing.

Camille at work
Webb's Camille is as entrancing and rough-hewn as one of her statues. The novel opens with her tussling with her beloved brother, shirking lessons to gather clay in the woods, and vowing to a raven, under a full moon, to pursue her dreams. Once in Paris, she devours the sights, sounds and smells of the city with ravenous delight and watches, with endearing curiosity, a male model undress before the class on the first day of art school. She toys with the suitors her mother insists she meet, charming them into abandoning the hunt. She loses herself for hours in her quest to coax beauty from unformed lumps of earth and resistant rock. She pursues the best models and the finest teachers, her belief in herself and her devotion to her calling never wavering. Yet for all her passion and joie de vivre, Camille has an abrasive side, one that Webb never shirks from depicting. The seeds of Camille's mental illness sprout early, nourished by the critical waters of her mother's rejection. Ever fearful of abandonment, Camille refuses to allow others close, especially women. She rebuffs overtures of friendship and systematically destroys the few attachments that manage to take hold. Webb is careful to associate Camille's increasing alienation with descriptions of the physical symptoms that assail her (metallic tastes, vision problems, hallucinations, and an insidious Voice that ever murmurs suspicious suggestions in her ear), inspiring sympathy for rather than annoyance with the character. The reader experiences the unravelling of the artist's promise and very self in real time and marvels that Camille accomplishes all she does, given the panoply of internal and external obstacles arrayed against her.

Webb's Rodin pales in comparison to the vibrant, tormented Camille. Waging his own battle against the establishment, he yearns for acceptance by the state yet refuses to sculpt in the style that would earn him ready praise. His collaboration and liaison with Camille becomes the source of inspiration and passion he needs to lift his work to a level of genius that even the advocates of decency and civic virtue can't ignore. But just as Rodin can't shake his need for approval--though he might declare otherwise--he cannot abandon Rose, his lover of twenty years, despite his impassioned avowals of love for Camille. He supports Camille in every way he can, training her, introducing her to critics, buying supplies and renting studio space, treating her to holidays and dinners, yet he refuses to commit himself fully to her. Rodin's bourgeois hesitancy leads the reader to wonder whether Camille's accusations that Rodin steals her ideas and profits from her work are simply the ravings of a disturbed mind. In any case, Webb's depiction of the artists' affair reflects the nagging question of whether Camille would have achieved success without Rodin's help back onto the artist himself. Wedded to his tired housekeeper and bourgeois values, Rodin might never have surpassed the limits of circumstance if not coaxed beyond them by the passion and courage of Camille.

In this, her second novel, Heather Webb tackles weighty subjects: mental illness, envy, oppression, illicit love. That she does so in a way that preserves Camille's integrity and prevents her from becoming an object of pity testifies to Webb's skill as a writer. This novel of passion and power in Belle Époque France both satisfies and inspires, illuminating an artist who spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum and still, to this day, lingers in the shadow of man. Thanks to Webb, that shadow has become all the shorter.

Tender yet resolute, soulful but never dark, RODIN'S LOVER pulses with the sensuous tempo of a lover's waltz. Deeper and defter than Webb's debut, it promises even richer work to come.

Heather Webb is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, 2013) and RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, 2015), a freelance editor, and blogger. You may also find her contributing to award-winning writing sites including Writer Unboxed and Romance University. When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. Visit her website and her blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


This review is part of the RODIN'S LOVER book tour organized by France Book Tours. Please visit the France Book Tours website for additional information and to read other reviews of Heather's book. France Book Tours has organized a giveaway of two copies of the novel, open to readers in the USA and Canada. Fill out the form at the France Book Tours website and enter today!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview with Priya Parmar, Author of VANESSA AND HER SISTER

Priya Parmar discusses her just released novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine). The novel has been chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Authors Spring 2015 Pick and is receiving wonderful press reviews. You can read my own review here.

1. How did you become interested in the Bloomsbury group and what compelled you to write about them?

I was reading a selection of Vanessa Bell’s letters and came across a letter that she wrote rejecting Clive Bell’s marriage proposal. The letter was startlingly modern and her tone was so authentic and likeable. Her character stepped off the page right there.

2. You chose to explore the Stephen sisters’ relationship from Vanessa’s point of view in the form of her private diary. What advantages did this structure and perspective afford you? In what ways did it limit you?

I am always interested in looking at familiar history through unfamiliar lenses. Vanessa Bell was the absolute center of the group but her letters have never been widely published and she did not leave behind a diary. Her unfamiliar voice in the midst of these well-known characters was fascinating to me.

Lytton (1912) by Vanessa Bell
3. You cleverly insert postcards, snippets of letters, facsimile tickets, telegrams and other non-narrative items between Vanessa’s diary entries in order to introduce other viewpoints into the story. Were these actual historical documents or did you fabricate them to advance the storyline and themes? At what point during the writing process did you insert them and how did you decide they were needed?

Everything in the novel was fictional but the design team at Random House and I worked from original documentation to create the look of the ephemera. They were all created in the style of existing primary documents and they are all based on actual correspondence. Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf several times a week and Roger Fry wrote to his wife Helen from his posting in America.

4. In the novel, Vanessa’s culmination as an artist coincides with her estrangement from Virginia. How dependent do you feel Vanessa’s success was on her ability to free herself of Virginia’s emotional demands?

This is very much a novel. It is a guess, a hat tossed into the ring at the interior landscape of these historical figures. Vanessa stepped into prominence with Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition and it did coincide with the end of Virginia Woolf’s emotional entanglement with Clive Bell. That much is fact. My fictional Vanessa had to emancipate herself before she could fully step into her role as an artist.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell
5. You portray Virginia as brilliant yet fragile and emotionally manipulative of those she loves. Did you worry about portraying such a revered literary figure in a less-than-complimentary light? How would you respond to someone who took issue with your portrayal?

It was terrifying. But my portrayal was grounded in huge amounts of research and I cleared it with several Woolf experts and then showed it to Woolf’s descendants. Once the brilliant writer Virginia Nicholson (Woolf’s great niece and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter) read the novel and approved it, I felt much better!

6. How did writing from the viewpoint of a visual artist challenge you as a writer?

I have a dear friend who is an artist and I spoke to her about her relationship with her work. It helped enormously as it is such a very different creative process from writing.

7. The novel begins with Virginia’s plea for forgiveness and ends with Vanessa’s refusal to grant it. Did the sisters ever completely reconcile in real life?

We do not know for certain. Based upon Angelica Garnett’s writing, no, I do not think they ever completely healed the rift. But they loved each other fiercely for the remainder of their lives.

8. What strategies did you use to help manage the novel’s large cast of supporting characters?

I had an extraordinary editor! She helped me to clarify and simplify. The cast was originally much larger!

9. If you could write the story of the Bloomsbury group from the perspective of any character other than Vanessa or Virginia, whom would you choose and why?

Ottoline Morrell. Because she was underestimated and underestimated people are always surprising.

10. What is the best bit of advice about writing or the writing life you have to pass on to as-yet unpublished authors?

Write the story that is in your head. Even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Write it the way you hear it in your mind.

A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, EXIT THE ACTRESS. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London. You can find out more about Priya at her website.

Review: VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

You see, Nessa and I are more than just sisters. We are different--exceptional. 

So writes Virginia Woolf to a friend in Priya Parmar's captivating new novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine, 2014). Exceptional Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell certainly were--exceptional for their contributions to the world of art and letters, exceptional for their pivotal roles in the intellectual circle that gathered at their home, exceptional in the importance each held in the other's emotional life.

But whereas Virginia thrives on being more than "just sisters" with her sibling, the Vanessa Parmar presents in her novel would relish the more circumscribed role. Beneath the broader story Parmar paints with verve of the bohemian escapades and intellectual ebullience of the Bloomsbury intellectuals, the sisters' conflict--Virginia's determination to retain Vanessa's complete attention and Vanessa's desperation to escape this obsessive preoccupation--builds to an agonizing climax.

Vanessa Bell (1902) by George Beresford
Vanessa, an accomplished painter, narrates the novel as a private journal covering the period 1905 to 1912. Recently orphaned, the four young and wealthy Stephens siblings set up house in a past-its-prime neighborhood of London. Just as the neighborhood has shed the glory of its Victorian heyday, the group of artists, writers, students and critics that frequents the house eagerly dispenses with stuffy convention. They keep mixed company, drop in unannounced, refuse to dress for dinner, and call each other by their given names. Couples--both hetero- and homosexual--form and reform at will. Applying this unfettered enthusiasm to their various pursuits--Virginia, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey to literature; Vanessa, Duncan Grant, Robert Fry, and Clive Bell to visual art; John Maynard Keyes to economics--they make their mark in the more avant-garde fringes of their respective fields. The group feeds off the confrontation of ideas and personalities that occurs at the Stephens' drawing room. Vanessa, with straightforward level-headedness and unaffected frankness, anchors the group, while brilliant, fragile Virginia provides the animating spark--when the mood and inclination strikes her.

Virginia Woolf (1902) by George Beresford
Virginia's emotional fragility has long been Vanessa's prime worry. The writer has had previous nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa is ever wary of seeing her sister succumb yet again. Virginia thrives on being the center of attention and is particularly adept at manipulating her brothers, sister and friends so as to remain there. She wields an unhealthy hegemony over Vanessa, who recognizes the danger in her sister's constant need for more--more affection, more contact, more safety, more secrets--yet has had little reason, or willingness, to deny her. Things change when Vanessa falls in love with Clive Bell and contemplates marriage. The exclusivity she and Clive share necessitates distance from Virginia, but Virginia refuses to retreat. She fights abandonment the only way she knows--by claiming what Vanessa has for herself. Will Vanessa realize what is happening before it is too late? More importantly, will she risk her sister's mental stability in order to secure her own happiness?

With keen psychological insight, Parmar explores the sisters' interdependence and follows the trail of need and betrayal to its unfortunate end. In so doing, she finds an inviting entry into the densely populated and much examined world of Bloomsbury. The sisters' conflict mirrors the larger questions of the age, illustrating the clash of theory and practice in the arena of values--for all their eagerness to jettison conventional roles and traditional virtues during debate, the characters find little comfort in their bohemian free-spiritedness when it comes to the concreteness of their particular lives. Based on extensive research and thorough familiarity with the historical characters' private papers, VANESSA AND HER SISTER delves deep into the sisters' psyches to elucidate the cause of their estrangement. Beautifully executed and ever convincing, Parmar's novel found a ready place on my list of the year's best reads.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Étrennes: A New Year's Tradition

It has long been a tradition in France to give gifts on New Year's Day. The word étrennes (as opposed to the more generic cadeaux) refers specifically to these New Year's gifts, now usually bestowed as signs of appreciation to the doorman, the letter carrier, and others who provide service throughout the year.

In the sixteenth century, Christmas was observed as a religious  holiday, so gifts were given at the turn of the new year. So popular was the practice that it took on a poetic form. François I's court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544), sent short, epigrammatic poems to members of the court at the holiday. Although he wrote étrennes throughout his career, in 1541 Marot published a collection of forty-one of them addressed to the ladies of the court. In each poem, he presents a gift to the lady he names.

For example, to Queen Eléonore (François's second wife and sister of his enemy Charles V) he grants accord between her husband and brother:

Au ciel ma Dame je crye,
Et Dieu prie,
Vous faire veoir au printemps
Frere, & mary si contents
Que tout rye.

Madame, I cry to heaven,
And beg God,
That you may see by springtime
Your brother and husband so happy
That everyone laughs.

To the Dauphine, Catherine de Medici, barren for the first decade or so of her marriage, he grants a child:

A Ma Dame la Daulphine
Rien n'assigne:
Elle a ce, qu'il faut avoir,
Mais je la vouldroys bien veoir
En gesine.

To Madame la Daulphine
I prescribe nothing:
She has what she needs,
But I would really like to see her
On the point of giving birth.

To Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister, who was one of Marot's staunchest supporters:

A la noble Marguerite,
Fleur d'eslite,
Je luy donne aussi grand heur
Que sa grace, & sa grandeur
Le merite.

To the noble Marguerite,
Flower of the elite,
I give the good fortune
That her grace and greatness

And to Madame d'Etampes, the king's long-time mistress:

Sans prejudice à personne,
Je vous donne
La pomme d'or de beaulté,
Et de ferme loyaulté
La couronne.

Without wronging anyone,
I give to you
The golden apple of beauty
And the crown
Of firm loyalty.

In these brief and often mordant poems, Marot provides us a snapshot of the personalities and the concerns of the French court around 1539-- a literary version, if you will, of Jean Clouet's chalk portraits. One wonders if the courtiers played guessing games with the étrennes as they did with the sketches.

I'm no Marot, so I'll have to wish you all--in prose--a healthy, happy new year filled with good fortune of every kind!

[Marot's verse quoted from Gérard Defaux's edition, Classiques Garnier (1993). Translations mine.]
A version of this post originally appeared on Writing the Renaissance on January 1, 2009.