Friday, October 30, 2009

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Car c'est au Roy, & qui l'en gardera?
D'eslever ceulx que bon luy semblera."

"For it's the King's right (and who will keep him from it?)
To raise up those it pleases him to raise."

Claude Chappuys, poet and royal librarian
Le Discours de la Court (1543)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Poll: Sixteenth Century Household Names?

I often wonder how familiar the people I write about are to historical fiction readers. I've lived and breathed with these people for so long, I can't remember not knowing about them, but I'm sure that's not the case with many of you. To help me out, take the new poll in the sidebar. Check off the names of those individuals you knew nothing about before you began to follow this blog. Were many of them previously unknown to you? What about the people you already recognized--did you know much about their lives or personalities? Does your familiarity with historical characters make you more or less interested in reading about them?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Soccer, Anyone?

Jackie at Weave a Garland has an interesting post about soccer (football) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Henry VIII even had a special pair of soccer shoes made for himself!

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Mieux est de ris que de larmes ecripre,
Pour ce que rire est le propre de l'homme."

"It's better to write about laughter than tears,
Because laughter is particular to man."

François Rabelais (c. 1494-1553), French humanist
La Vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua (1534), Notice to the Reader

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Galleries, Redux

Interesting, what I just read in a biography of Marguerite de Navarre. Marguerite had joined her daughter Jeanne, who was recovering from a "strong and furious flux" at Blois. However, at Blois "il n'y avoit pas assez de galleries...pour la faire promener à couvert" (there weren't enough galleries to take Jeanne walking under cover), so she moved her daughter to La Bourdaisière, where, presumably, there were more.

Illustrates yet again the important function galleries played in the lives of Renaissance nobles.

[Source: Pierre Jourda, Marguerite d'Angoulême (Geneva, 1978), I:225]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chenonceau Videos

For those interested in Renaissance history and architecture, I would like to bring to your attention a series of eighteen videos on the château of Chenonceau. The videos discuss the cultural context of the château and present biographical vignettes of individuals who owned and altered it (François, Henri II, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici). The later installments follow the history of Chenonceau on up through the twentieth century. Each video runs about 9 minutes in length. Worth watching if you have time to spare!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winner of SUNFLOWERS Drawing

The winner of the drawing for a copy of Sheramy Bundrick's SUNFLOWERS is...Teabird! Congratulations, Teabird! I'm sure you'll enjoy the novel. If you email me your mailing address, I'll forward it to Sheramy, who will send the book off to you.

Thanks to everyone who entered, and to Sheramy who provided the book for the contest. You can find SUNFLOWERS at all major book outlets. In the meantime, here are a few more inteviews and guest posts to check out:

Interview by author Catherine Delors at Versailles and More;
"Why I Love Vincent van Gogh" at Historical Tapestry;
"Following van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise" at

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hilary Mantel on History in Fiction

Excellent, excellent article in The Guardian by Hilary Mantel on "dealing with history in fiction." Practically every sentence is worth quoting. Here are some of my favorites:

"A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity."

"To try to engage with the present without engaging with the past is to live like a dog or cat rather than a human being; it is to bob along on the waters of egotism, solipsism and ignorance."

"History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it."

"A novel arrives whether you want it or not. After months or years of silent travel by night, it squats like an illegal immigrant at Calais, glowering and plotting, thinking of a thousand ways to gain a foothold. It's useless to try to keep it out. It's smarter than you are. It's upon you before you've seen its face, and has set up in business and bought a house."

I so need to read WOLF HALL. Now.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"[M]en should devote themselves to practicing no other kind of music than that of living in harmony with us women. For their current state of disharmony with women produces such an awful sound: all one hears all day is carping, scorn, abuse, and a thousand other ills, as we are forced to curse, insult, and dishonor them, quite against our natural inclination, habits, and will (because, by nature, we would be inclined to put up with anything and suffer our mishaps in silence, but men are so pestilential and importunate that eventually they wear down even our patience)."

Moderata Fonte (Modesta Pozzo) (1555-1592), Italian writer and poet
The Worth of Women: Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men (1600)
Edited and translated by Virginia Cox (U Chicago Press 1997)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review of Sheramy Bundrick's SUNFLOWERS

In yesterday's interview, author Sheramy Bundrick revealed that her goal in writing SUNFLOWERS, her new novel about Vincent van Gogh, was to dispel the myth of van Gogh as "a mad genius slapping paint on a canvas." Determined to show that "there is much more to van Gogh than the 'ear incident,'" Bundrick draws a sensitive and nuanced portrait of the man who gave us not only one of art history's most gruesome anecdotes, but some of the most stunning paintings of all time.

The reader comes to know this other Vincent through the eyes of Rachel, the Arlesian prostitute who narrates the tale. A schoolteacher's daughter who turns to prostitution in order to survive after the deaths of her parents, Rachel first encounters "the foreigner with the funny name who wander[s] the countryside painting pictures" in a public garden when he draws her as she sleeps. As the relationship between the two blossoms, Vincent slowly reveals his hidden side: his complex relationship with his art-dealer brother Theo, who supports him monetarily and emotionally, yet whose happy and seemingly unattainable family life torments the artist; the guilt Vincent carries over abandoning a woman he lived with for years; his frustration at being ignored and misunderstood by the art establishment of his day. His biggest secret, the one that results in the "ear incident" itself, is the mental crises that plague him, the fits (epilepsy? lead poisoning? syphilis? Bundrick opts for bipolar disorder) that send him to hospital and asylum and ultimately compel him to take his own life. Rachel, with dogged devotion and deep love for this man who sees past her tawdry circumstances to a soul that, like his, has suffered greatly, never deserts him. If he teaches her anything at all, it is to follow the sun--to seek light and beauty despite the darkness that threatens to overwhelm her.

Rachel's tale is an engaging one; I was swept up in the narrative and read the book over the course of only a few days. Although at times I felt the depiction of her life as a prostitute was a bit romanticized (I expected sheltered Rachel to be more traumatized by her parents' deaths and her nightly encounters with strange men), her spunkiness and determination to create a new life for herself and Vincent provide a plausible thematic counterpoint -- instead of wallowing in pity and fear, she seeks to create something beautiful out of her brokenness and shame. As with most well-written historical fiction, it was fascinating to find the facts and commonplaces of a historical person's existence fleshed out in ways I hadn't expected -- Gauguin's jealous vindictiveness, for example, or Vincent's fascination with the sea. Bundrick's descriptions of Provence capture with great accuracy and vividness the sights and sounds and colors of the region, as well as the customs and character of its inhabitants. The book's final chapter is sublime, the crowning moment of an obvious work of love on the author's part. I was sad to finish reading and can only hope to enjoy another fine historical novel from Sheramy Bundrick before too long a wait. Congratulations to the author on a remarkable and most promising debut.

Remember, to enter the drawing for a signed copy of SUNFLOWERS, leave a comment here or after the previous post, revealing your favorite van Gogh painting. [Readers from the US and Canada only, please.] Otherwise, you can find SUNFLOWERS at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Interview with author Sheramy Bundrick

Most of us who know anything at all about Vincent van Gogh have heard the story of how he cut off his ear and presented it as a gift to a prostitute. But how many of us have delved beneath the surface of the anecdote to imagine the relationship that existed between Vincent and the girl, identified only as "Rachel" in the article about the incident in the local paper? Sheramy Bundrick, and art historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has turned her musings about the couple into a novel that Publishers Weekly calls "a knockout impressive volume of suspense, delight and heartbreak." SUNFLOWERS, published by Avon A as a paperback original, goes on sale tomorrow, October 13.

Sheramy first contacted me through this blog as she searched for an agent. It has been great fun to follow her through each successive step on her path to publication. Passionate about her story and the people who inhabit it, she offered to share some of the research that went into the writing of the novel. In this short interview, her love for Vincent van Gogh, the man and the work, comes through with the verve and vigor of one of Vincent's own paintings.


1. How did you become interested in van Gogh? What prompted you to write a novel about him, rather than an academic work?

Like many people, I’ve been a fan of van Gogh’s paintings for a long time. But I’ve been especially interested in him the past eight or nine years, beginning with a research fellowship I had at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was there to write a scholarly book about ancient Greek art (and I did), but I kept returning to the gallery with the van Gogh paintings as a place to sit and think. When I became a fulltime professor, I started teaching van Gogh as part of the art history survey, and that became a great excuse to read more about him. As for why a novel — I didn’t exactly plan for it to happen. At first I was writing a little short story as something fun to do during the summer, after an inspirational trip to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise. Then it kept growing and growing...!

2. Which scene in the book is your favorite? Which scene was the most difficult to write, and why?

Rachel’s first trip to the yellow house makes me smile, but there are other scenes I like for their bittersweet nature. I love the last chapter. The hardest chapter to write was Chapter 34, “Seventy Days in Auvers.” A specific event had to take place that first of all I didn’t want to happen, and secondly, I had to decide how to convey that event to the reader. I ended up crafting the chapter as a series of letters between characters, but it didn’t start out that way.

3. Could you tell us a little about the history of van Gogh's sunflower paintings? What happened to them after his death and where are they now? Do the paintings function symbolically in your novel?

Great question and a long story! There are actually eleven van Gogh canvases of sunflowers, done between August 1887 and January 1889: four painted while living in Paris, seven in Arles. Let’s focus on the five most famous Arles pictures. In the novel, Rachel sees in Vincent’s studio Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, which has a yellow background and was painted in August 1888. Around the same time, Vincent painted Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, which has a turquoise background. Both of these were later sent to Theo and remained in the van Gogh family for some time after Vincent and Theo’s deaths: Theo’s wife Johanna sold the yellow-background version to the National Gallery in London in 1924, and the turquoise-background version made its way to a museum in Munich around 1905 or so. Vincent made two copies of the yellow-background picture: one in probably December 1888 during Gauguin’s visit (this one I don’t mention in the novel because it was getting complicated!), which again the family had for a time — after a series of owners, it was bought at auction by the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company (based in Tokyo) in 1987. The second copy, which I do mention in the novel, was done in late January 1889. This one never left the van Gogh family and today is in the Van Gogh Museum. Also in January 1889, Vincent made a copy of the turquoise-background version, which after changing hands a few times, today is in Philadelphia.

The Sunflowers paintings absolutely function symbolically in the novel. Vincent himself used the paintings to express ideas about the life cycle, and long before his time, the sunflower’s legendary quality of following the sun — even when it’s cloudy — granted it a spiritual meaning for many artists and writers. I’ll let readers interpret from there!

4. How important do you feel it is for historical novelists to travel to the places they write about? What locations did you visit in order to write SUNFLOWERS? How did your visits contribute to your descriptions?

I think when it’s financially possible, authors should visit their locales. When I traveled to Arles and Saint-Rémy in summer 2007, I already had a draft of the manuscript, I had a mental map of both places, photographs I had found, but making the trip added many dimensions that I could not have gotten otherwise. The church of Saint-Trophime in Arles is one example: in the earlier draft, Rachel does not walk inside the church, but the trip inspired me to add that scene and description. I returned to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise, both of which I had visited before, and I traveled to Amsterdam and Otterlo in the Netherlands to see the two largest museum collections of van Gogh’s work. I made two trips to New York during the writing process to see van Gogh paintings and exhibitions. I would have traveled more if I could!

5. At what point did you insert the quotations from Vincent's correspondence at the head each chapter? Did the quotations direct your writing of the chapters or sum up what you'd accomplished therein?

Fairly late in the process. I mainly intended the quotes for readers, so they could see snippets from original archival material. Each quote does “comment” on what’s happening in the story in some way.

6. What do you want readers to take away from their reading of SUNFLOWERS?

Hopefully, a new perception of van Gogh and a desire to learn more. “Famous” as Vincent is, he’s incredibly misunderstood. The cliché of the mad genius slapping paint on canvas is very much alive, even though the primary sources and the scholarship reveal it as a myth. He knew exactly what he was doing in his art; he was methodical, disciplined, and highly knowledgable about art history and the contemporary market. Popular culture focuses on his mental illness — often in ways that are very disrespectful — but there is much more to Vincent van Gogh than “the ear incident.” In the novel, I tried to contextualize his illness and show that it was only part of his story.

7. Do you think your future novels will deal with artists or the world of art? What are you working on now?

I’ve got some scholarly projects in the hopper at the moment — about ancient Greek art, not van Gogh. A second novel is percolating that yes, deals with artists and is set in nineteenth-century Paris. Finding time to work on it, though, is hard since I teach fulltime at the university and want to keep up my scholarship. I’m not in a hurry; I believe things happen in their own good time!


Sheramy has an autographed copy of SUNFLOWERS to send to one lucky winner. Please leave a comment with an answer to the question: "My favorite van Gogh painting is ...." by eleven pm PST Sunday evening, October 18. The winning entry will be drawn at random and posted Monday morning, October 19. Contest open only to readers in the United States and Canada. Good luck!

You can learn more about Sheramy and her work at or visit her blog, Van Gogh's Chair.

Many thanks to Sheramy for the interview and giveaway, and heartfelt congratulations on publication day!

Tomorrow: my review of SUNFLOWERS.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Next Week: SUNFLOWERS by Sheramy Bundrick

On Tuesday, October 13, my writing friend Sheramy Bundrick's new novel about Vincent Van Gogh, SUNFLOWERS (Avon A), hits the shelves. I'll have an interview with Sheramy posted on Monday and a review of the novel on Tuesday. Sheramy is providing a signed copy for one lucky winner, so be sure to check in on Monday to enter the drawing. SUNFLOWERS received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It's one book you won't want to miss!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Vivez, si m'en croyez,
n'attendez à demain:
Cueillez dés aujourdhuy
les roses de la vie."

"Live now, believe me,
don't wait until tomorrow:
Gather the roses of life today."

Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), French poet
Le Second livre des Sonets pour Hélène, XXIV

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Our bodily eye findeth never an end, but is vanquished by
the immensity of space."

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Italian philosopher,
mathematician and astronomer
On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1584), Fifth Dialogue