Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts: Social Media and Revolution

Much has been written in recent months about the role social media has played in fomenting and facilitating the Arab spring, allowing revolutionaries to express their views and coordinate their actions. According to a detailed feature article in the 17 December 2011 issue of The Economist, social media, albeit of a different kind, played an identical, pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. "How Luther Went Viral" traces the spread of the German ex-monk's ideas through quickly-printed, widely-circulated pamphlets, crude and graphic broadsheets, and re-worded popular songs. Just as modern digital media fan the simmering discontent of those opposed to authoritarian regimes, the sharing of print media in sixteenth-century markets and town squares helped precipitate the Protestant revolution. Today's "[s]ocial media are not unprecedented; rather, they are the continuation of a long tradition." A fascinating and worthwhile read.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Too big for the Christmas stocking...

This FRANCE TODAY article on gift giving opens with the example of Henri II giving the château of Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers and François I presenting the fortress and village of Dourdan to Anne de Pisseleu. Modern generosity seems a bit lacking in comparison, wouldn't you say? I know I'd love to find a château under my tree this Christmas!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel

Printing and publishing spurred the revival of learning known as the European Renaissance to such a degree that the Renaissance can, without exaggeration, be called "The Age of the Book." Often lost in this emphasis on The Book as a revolutionary cultural construct, however, are the particular details of the history and genesis of individual books themselves. In A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (Walker & Co., October 2011), Dava Sobel recounts the fascinating story surrounding the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres]. With the charm and erudition that readers have come to expect from this writer of narrative nonfiction, Ms. Sobel (Longitude [1995], Galileo's Daughter [1999]) dramatizes how a "book-that almost-wasn't" changed mankind's understanding of his place in the universe.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was hardly the heroic iconoclast history loves to celebrate. A physician and the busy administrator of a remote diocese of the Catholic Church in Poland, Copernicus devoted himself to astronomy as a private passion. Determined to correct weaknesses in Ptolemy's astronomical system, Copernicus observed, recorded and calculated in solitude, ultimately reaching the astounding conclusion that the sun, not the earth, sits at the center of our universe. Wary of ridicule from theologians and mathematicians alike, he summed up his thesis in a Brief Sketch, which he sent to a few correspondents around 1510. Word spread, and eager scholars pressed for particulars. He set to work compiling a book-length manuscript; years passed as he wrote and refined his calculations. Yet, despite his own confidence in his claims, Copernicus continued to shy from sending his manuscript to a publisher.

It took the arrival of a young German mathematician, Georg Rheticus, to spur Copernicus to action. At great risk to himself (the Catholic diocese of Varmia prohibited Lutherans from entering its territory), Rheticus sought out Copernicus in 1539, lured by rumors of his theory. Rheticus won Copernicus's trust and studied with him for two years. Recognizing the theory's great import, Rheticus wrote up a First Account, which he sent to Danzig to be printed. As the Account was received with much enthusiasm and interest, Rheticus stayed on to help Copernicus reorganize and revise sections of On the Revolutions. He finally convinced the elderly canon to release the manuscript for publication and personally carried the thick stack of pages to Nuremberg, where the noted scientific printer, Petreius, began production in May 1542. Rheticus served as proofreader and sent sections of the book back to Copernicus as they were printed. In November of the same year, Copernicus suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated. Bedridden, he held on until May 1543, when he died with the final pages of the book in hand. Without the encouragement of his unlikely collaborator, Copernicus might have died without ever having submitted his work to the public.

As much as A More Perfect Heaven will delight lovers of narrative nonfiction, it will appeal to readers of historical fiction even more, for its very structure dramatizes the interplay between fact and fiction that informs the latter genre. Following Copernicus's lead, Ms. Sobel challenges the norms of narrative nonfiction by placing a two-act play of her devising, And the Sun Stood Still, at the center of her book. As she explains in the foreword, she surrounds these "imagined scenes" with "a fully documented factual narrative." An engaging recreation of the events spanning Rheticus's arrival in Varmia to Copernicus's death four years later, the play breathes life into personalities sketched in only the broadest terms in the historical record.

Particularly interesting is the apportionment of information between the narrative and dramatic sections of the book. The reader encounters the play after having read six factual chapters and forming impressions of Copernicus and the other characters based on information presented therein. While the play supports these initial impressions, it presents additional information that often qualifies and redirects them. Much of this newer information will be elaborated upon in the factual chapters that follow. However, certain details exist only within the play itself, leading the reader to suspect--although never know for certain--whether these details arose solely from the author's imagination.

For example, in Act I, scene v, Copernicus spins Rheticus
in a "World Machine," a "globe-like nest of intersecting rings, about the size of a manned spacecraft capsule, perched on a pedestal" that recreates the motion of the stars crossing the heavens as the earth rotates on its axis. Did Copernicus actually build such a machine? No reference to it appears in the factual chapters. Whether the machine truly existed is beside the point, however, for within the economy of the play, the ride in the World Machine convinces Rheticus of the validity of the heliocentric theory and allows him to experience its abstract implications in a profoundly physical way. Rheticus's giddy dizziness becomes a potent metaphor for the momentous, intellectually traumatic effect Copernicus's theory has on the conceptual landscape of his time. The scene illustrates how fiction, by appealing to emotion and experience in a visceral way, can portray truth with a force nonfiction often lacks.

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos is a thought-provoking read, satisfying on many levels. The book presents a thorough history of the development and reception of Copernicus's theory, explaining the intricacies of astronomical discourse in an accessible way. It evokes the intellectual milieu of the time with compelling detail as it follows the treatise's arduous path to publication. It experiments with form and the expectations of genre to inspire contemplation of the nature of historical narrative. Above all, the book humanizes a key moment in intellectual history by uncovering the fears, faults and friendship that motivated its principal players.

Learn more about Dava Sobel and her books at her website.

Monday, November 7, 2011

NOT a Copy

A beautiful painting once thought to be a copy of a work by Raphael is now considered to be an authentic work by the artist. Infrared technology has established that Raphael did indeed paint this small portrait, although it was completed after his death in 1520 by one of his pupils, Giulio Romano. Story here.

***Edited to add: Unfortunately, I misread the date on the newspaper article. This story dates from 2010--no new evidence has been added. I've changed the title so as not to mislead anyone. I apologize for any confusion.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Art of Pleasing the King

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently acquired a sculpture dating from 1543, commissioned by François I from the artist Francesco Primaticcio. The 22" statue, depicting conjoined heads facing in opposite directions, probably sat atop a pillar and may have been fashioned in homage to François's mistress, Anne d'Heilly. Anne was an ardent admirer of Primaticcio, who became artistic director of Fontainebleau after the death of his rival, Rosso Fiorentino, in 1540.

In my current novel, set in 1539, Anne openly champions Primaticcio (known to the French as "Boulogne") as he competes against Rosso, King François's favored artist. In this scene, Anne exploits Boulogne's envy for her own ends:

Anne was winnowing the gossip her ladies had gathered when Boulogne threw open the door.

Mille pardons, madame.” The painter's heavily accented words belied the sketchiness of his bow. He displayed his arms, bent upright at the elbows, as the excuse for his tardiness: “It takes time to wash the stuff of my labors from my hands.”

The cleanliness of Boulogne’s hands never failed to amaze her; unlike Maistre Roux, whose extravagant dress only accentuated his paint-rimed nails and unkempt hair, Boulogne was a model of fastidiousness. Slight as a switch and hardly a thumb’s length taller than she, every pleat of his somber tunic neatly tucked into a plain leather belt, the master painter might have passed for a simple clerk, save for the dusky pearl, large as a swallow's egg, that dangled from one ear. With his bulging eyes and reedy voice, Boulogne found himself dismissed by courtiers without consequence, by ladies without longing. But his hands—those slender, fluttering hands that never bore the stain of his toil—attracted Anne like no others. François’s hands ruled a kingdom, but Boulogne’s held time in their thrall.

She shook off an image of the painter's hands on her skin. If she’d ever entertained thoughts of pursuing the experience, François’s thinly veiled threats had banished them. “Don’t let them dry," she warned Boulogne, ”for your reprieve will be short. The King grows impatient with the unfinished state of the pavilion.”

Boulogne flicked his hands in the air, unleashing a plaint that accompanied them to her private chamber. “It is not I, but the Florentine who delays us! I paint the ceiling bice, he tells me it must be smalt. ‘Change those primroses to carnations,’ he orders, ‘the satyrs to centaurs. And the sky, we’re no longer looking north, but south. Those constellations are wrong, wrong, wrong!’ I erase and adjust and cater to his whims while he dines with the king and turns His Majesty against me. Le Roux treats me worse than a lackey, I who trained at the side of the great Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te!”

Anne’s hands settled on her waist. “Le Roux’s primacy might seem unassailable, yet there is a way to win the king’s favor, if you’re willing to try.”

“And what way is that?” His tirade had displaced a lock of lank hair; he smoothed it back behind his ear. “The royal bedchamber, the baths, these very walls—I’ve surpassed myself with each new task, yet still His Majesty overlooks me.”

“It is simple. You must offer the king something Le Roux cannot.”

He contemplated her, his lips pursed, dark eyes intent. “Something tells me you have discovered what this thing is.”

“Of course,“ she said, her eyes never leaving his. “A portrait. Of me.”

Boulogne snorted. “With all due respect, madame, Maistre Clouet has taken your likeness many times.”

What she envisioned had no comparison to the elder Clouet's staid renderings. She placed a hand on Boulogne's arm. “A portrait of me,” she repeated, and paused to lean in close. “Bathing.”

(copyright Julianne Douglas, 2011)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"For I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. I am aware that a philosopher's ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God. Yet I hold that completely erroneous views should be shunned."

Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), Polish astronomer and mathematician
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), Preface

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lying for a Noble Cause?

Interesting article on the reader's relationship with the past in historical fiction and the role fiction plays in getting readers to engage with history. I particularly like de Groot's line, "All history lies to us, but at least historical fiction admits it." Readers of historical fiction accept the subjectivity of history and use their reading experience "to think about the ways in which what we call 'history' works."

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

A thousand graces diffusing
He passed through the groves in haste,
And merely regarding them
As He passed
He clothed them with His beauty.

St. John of the Cross (1542-91)
Spanish mystic and saint

The Spiritual Canticle (1577), Stanza V
Translated by David Lewis

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hours of Fun for A Dollar Apiece

Considering that I own shelves of novels I have not yet had time to read, I exhibited great restraint Saturday at our town's library book sale. I bought only four hardbacks, but they are all books that I very much want to read.

THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA by Susan Vreeland. This book, about a seventeenth-century female painter, has long been on my virtual to-be-read pile, but after hearing Ms. Vreeland speak at this June's Historical Novel Society Conference, it moved to the top. I was so impressed by her impassioned arguments on the role fiction plays in fostering compassion and human connection that I am very eager to read her work and experience her creative vision for myself.

BAUDOLINO by Umberto Eco. My college-age son had to read THE NAME OF THE ROSE for class this past summer, reminding me how much I enjoyed that novel when I read it years ago. Although I once attempted (and failed) to make it through FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM, I thought I'd try Eco again with this novel.

MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk (winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature). This curious novel is set in sixteenth-century Istanbul and deals with the murder of a court miniaturist selected by the Sultan to illustrate a great book in the European style--a dangerous proposition, given that figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam. Mixing romance with mystery, fantasy and philosophical discussion and narrated from multiple viewpoints ranging from that of a corpse to the color black, this novel promises to be a challenging and satisfying read.

HUNGER'S BRIDES by Paul Anderson. I was tempted to check this book out from the library once, but its size daunted me--at 1358 pages, it weighs 4 1/2 pounds and is 2 1/2 inches thick! It explores the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican nun who wrote plays, poetry and theological arguments before signing a vow of silence in her own blood at the age of forty. Anderson frames the historical portions of the book within a contemporary academic mystery plot. I'm curious to see whether this book, which breaks every taboo for a first novel, lives up to the hype.

I think I did pretty well for a grand sum of $4! Now if I could only purchase the hours to read them... Readers? Have you read any of these books, and if so, what did you think?

Saturday, September 24, 2011


SO EXCITED! Just learned that the movie I've been dying to see, THE PRINCESSE OF MONTPENSIER, is being released on DVD here in the US on October 11. It is available for pre-order at online vendors. Glad I still have some birthday money left... Look for a review by mid-October!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: THE FRENCHWOMAN by Jeanne Mackin

Given historical fiction's recent explosion in popularity, it's hard to keep up with all the new titles publishers turn out each month. However, there are many older novels well worth reading. I'm always thrilled to come across an older book that escaped my attention when it first came out yet has the substance and sparkle to compete with newer titles.

One such book is THE FRENCHWOMAN by Jeanne Mackin. Published by St. Martin's Press in 1989, this novel tells the story of Julienne, a poor seamstress who uses her wits, skills and determination to become one of Marie Antoinette's favorite dressmakers. Foreseeing her own arrest, the Queen entrusts Julienne with a jewel meant to ensure the future of the young Dauphin. Pursued by agents of the various factions seeking to keep the Dauphin from regaining the throne, Julienne flees the blood-soaked streets of Revolutionary Paris for the wilderness of Pennsylvania, where French exiles are building a haven for the queen they hope to save. But until Julienne frees herself of the burden of the secret and surrenders the lost world the flawed diamond represents, love and security continue to elude her.

My reading of Catherine Delors' MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION and, more recently, Michelle Moran's MADAME TUSSAUD whetted my appetite for historical fiction set during the French Revolution, and THE FRENCHWOMAN did not disappoint. A parallel with Moran's book made Mackin's all the more interesting: whereas Marie Tussaud collaborates with the famous dressmaker Rose Bertin in clothing her wax figures, Julienne actually works as a seamstress in Bertin's shop. It was interesting to experience Bertin's establishment from both an exterior and interior perspective, as well as compare how the two authors depict the commanding figure of Rose Bertin, the creator of many of Marie Antoinette's most famous gowns. Other characters, such as the Duc d'Orléans (Philippe-Égalité) and Robespierre, figure in both books and invite interesting comparisons on how authors interpret and recreate characters from the historical record.

The fact that Julienne, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute, transforms herself into a successful business woman who frequents the Queen's chambers at Versailles, gives the author ample opportunity to explore and depict many levels of Parisian society. Mackin's descriptions of each are detailed and convincing. Especially intriguing is the final section of the book, which takes place on the Pennsylvania frontier. I discovered this novel while searching for information on historical Azilum, an actual French settlement built expressly to house the Queen and her children, whom royalists hoped to smuggle out of France, and was pleased with what I found. Mackin does an excellent job of depicting the French aristocrats' determined if somewhat ludicrous attempts to preserve and sustain the glamour and refinements of their previous existence in the rude, snowbound cabins of Pennsylvania, where wolves howled outside the very doors. The author handles the exiles' psychological motivation--their intense devotion to the monarchy and sincere hope of sheltering the Queen and her children, as well as their reluctance to abandon the past--with respect and a sensitivity that makes it thoroughly believable to a twenty-first century reader.

Narrated by Julienne in the first person, THE FRENCHWOMAN presents a good balance of historical detail and psychological density. Chief among Julienne's difficulties are her ability to trust and her incapacity to forge a healthy love relationship when she has so many things to hide. Although at times the jewel as a plot device seems a trifle forced, on a thematic level it adds great richness to the story. Symbolic of many things--a damaged monarchy; adherence to an outmoded way of life; shameful origins and closely-guarded secrets; unattainable dreams--the jewel is the weight that centers the book and draws together the rays of Julienne's past, a past she must cast off if she hopes to revel in the bright, clear light of the future.

I borrowed this book though interlibrary loan, although it appears available for purchase through used book outlets. This is one book that definitely deserves to be reissued. Jeanne Mackin has written other historical novels and currently writes Louisa May Alcott mysteries under the name Anna Maclean. You can learn more about Ms. Mackin and her work at her website.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Qui craint de souffrir, il souffre déjà de ce qu'il craint."

He who fears suffering already suffers
from what he fears.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French humanist
Essais III, 13

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Link to Interview with Sophie Perinot

Great interview from writing friend Sophie Perinot, whose debut historical novel THE SISTER QUEENS, about two thirteenth-century Provençal sisters who become the queens of France and England, will be published by New American Library in Spring 2012. This is one book I can't wait to read!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"They are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, and scientist
The Advancement of Learning (1605), bk II, vii, 5.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Or je fais fin à mon adieu" (Marot)

This has been a difficult week for me--my oldest son left home for his first year of college a day after my daughter departed for her third. Both attend schools on the other side of the country; as we can only afford to fly them home for semester break, I won't see them in person until Christmas. As I watched my daughter disappear past the security checkpoint at the airport and the taxi whisk my son away to begin this new chapter in his life, I thought my heart would break. Good thing my six-year-old was there to hold the pieces together with one of his crushing hugs.

Goodbyes are always difficult, but at least I know--barring some extraordinary event--my children and I will be reunited in December. In the meantime, we can talk on the phone, text, even see each other via Skype. I have photographs I can look at, videos I can watch. When I think about the numerous means I have to make their absence less absolute, I can't help but wonder at how much harder it must have been to say goodbye centuries ago.

With travel as difficult and as slow as it was in the sixteenth century, journeys stretched past weeks into months and even years. Weather determined the condition of roads and the courses of ships, making an exact date of return impossible to predict. Brigands, accidents, illness, and war threatened to make any absence permanent. Letters, the only means of communication between those separated, took weeks or months to arrive, if they ever did. Portaits were a luxury; most people had to rely solely on memory to recall their loved ones' appearance and expressions.

It is easy to imagine situations for which a goodbye might have been forever. Sons and husbands marched off to battle, where a pike thrust, a cannonball or a bout of dysentery could easily thwart their return. Explorers and merchants embarked in creaking ships on treacherous seas to uncharted lands. Marriage removed daughters to far-off places to bear children, subjecting them to the dangers of childbirth. Today, we have multiple means of instant communication to reach out to loved ones at any given moment; in the past, a cloud of near impenetrable uncertainty engulfed the departing traveler at the horizon.

One can postulate the ways the people of the time coped with this uncertainty. As no one knew any different, perhaps they accepted it with calm resignation as the normal course of life. Many most likely found peace in their faith, entrusting their loved ones to divine protection. Others may have been distracted from their worry by the more pressing concerns of daily life. Some must have fretted, others pined. Imagining their responses--placing myself in the shoes of an emigrant to the New World, for example, who knows she will never again return to the land of her birth--helps me put my own feelings into perspective. Harsh as a present-day separation might seem, it little compares to those of the past.

As my children leave on their separate journeys, I rejoice in their courage and the opportunities that await them in the New Worlds they will inhabit. I, too, have a journey of my own to make, one that leads deep into an imagined world of kings and castles along practical paths of word counts and deadlines. Who knows, I might even find time to update this neglected blog on a more consistent basis! Trusting fate will be kind, I wish my children and myself Godspeed, knowing we will see each other soon and have much to show for our separation. In the meantime, ever grateful for your loyal companionship, I invite you to continue to accompany me on my writerly journey.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Un homme ne peut bien écrire,
S'il n'est quelque peu bon lisart."

A man cannot write well
Unless he's somewhat of a bookworm.

Clément Marot (1496-1542), French poet and royal secretary
Epistre du coq-à-l'asne (1531)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Historical Fiction Online Magazine

Historical Fiction Daily is a new historical fiction magazine that aggregates articles and links of interest for writers and readers of the genre. It is moderated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society. If the first issue is any indication, it's going to be a wonderful daily read!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

And It Keeps on Ticking

Stumbled across an utterly fascinating story of a sixteenth-century wooden automaton of a monk on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution. Watch the monk walk and kiss his rosary in this video, then read the article by Elizabeth King about the machine's genesis and attribution. "Monkbot" appears to have been built in 1560 by Juanelo Turriano, Emperor Charles V's mechanician. Representing Fray Diego de Alcala, a fifteenth century monk whose cause for sainthood was being promoted at the time, the automaton was commissioned by Charles's son, King Philip II, in thanksgiving for the miraculous healing of his own son Don Carlos from a near fatal head wound. It's amazing to watch the six hundred year old figure move and to read King's account of her attempts to determine its origins. Thanks to the Radiolab blog for running a recent post about this "Clockwork Miracle."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"I set to work to learn dancing and went twice to the school. There I had to pay the master a ducat. Nobody could make me go there again. I would have to pay out all that I have earned, and at the end I still wouldn't know how to dance!"

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), German painter
Letter to Willibald Pirckheimer, 1506

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Biography of the Biographer

Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) is best known for writing Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, a collection of biographical sketches of contemporary artists that is filled with amusing anecdotes about famous Renaissance creators, many of whom he knew personally. Vasari was, however, a painter and architect in his own right who served as court artist to Cosimo I de' Medici. One of Vasari's grandest projects was designing the Uffizi, a building constructed to house Florence's administrative offices and guild headquarters under one roof. The Uffizi now serves as one of Florence's finest art galleries, displaying works by many of the artists Vasari wrote about. In order to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Vasari's birth, the Uffizi is hosting a special exhibition now through October. Vasari, Gli Uffizi e Il Duca highlights Vasari's collaboration with Duke Cosimo in transforming Florence into a modern capital. The Financial Times just ran an interesting article about the exhibition and Vasari's accomplishments. I myself have a special debt to Vasari, for his essay on Rosso Fiorentino sparked several ideas for the novel I am presently working on.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"I have shown your letter to the Demoiselle Marguerite de Lorraine, who, despite her grey habit, has a very vivid remembrance of bygone days. I assure you she acquits herself so well in praying for your prosperity, that if all the other ladies, whose favour you have possessed, did as much, you ought not to regret the past; for their prayers would speedily transport you to Heaven, where, after a long and happy life, she desires to see you."

Marguerite, duchess of Alençon (later Queen of Navarre) to
Baron Anne de Montmorency
Letter, 1523

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: MADAME TUSSAUD by Michelle Moran

Oppression versus freedom. Extravagance versus want. Corruption versus altruism. It's easy, and tempting, to view revolution, especially eighteenth century revolution, in terms of these stark dichotomies. For individuals who lived through this tumultuous era, however, things were far from clear-cut. Ideas often clashed with the realities of circumstance; ignoble actions frequently compromised lofty ideals. As political and social thought evolved quickly over the course of days and weeks, individuals who set off on one path might suddenly wake to find themselves in a place they had never intended to be. Fear and uncertainty clouded moral judgment and complicated personal relationships; swept up in the turmoil, people found themselves having to make difficult choices between less than desirable alternatives. What history books now depict as a series of clear oppositions was, for the people of the time, a seething morass of buts, ands, and what ifs.

Marie Grosholtz, the protagonist of Michelle Moran's new novel MADAME TUSSAUD (Crown 2011), straddles the two worlds that collide in the bloody foment of the French revolution. Niece of Philippe Curtius, the Swiss showman who runs a popular wax-model attraction known as the Salon de Cire, Marie lives among laborers and entertainers on the Rue du Temple and listens to the fiery political debates of Marat, Camille Desmoulins, and Robespierre in her uncle's parlor. Yet, Marie is no stranger to the glittering world of the nobility. Engaged as wax tutor to the King's sister, she comes to have intimate knowledge of the muddled King, the extravagant but good-hearted Marie Antoinette and the kind and religious Elisabeth through her biweekly visits to the Princess's palace and the Princess's trusting friendship.

Marie's role as intermediary between the two worlds creates the conflict that makes Moran's novel a gripping, thought-provoking read. Each faction assumes Marie's complete loyalty. The revolutionaries depend on her to create scenes at the museum that not only chronicle the developing revolution but influence public opinion in favor of its radical philosophy. Unaware of Marie's ties to the opposition, Princess Elisabeth confides to her details of the royals' private lives and reactions to the unfolding events and trusts Marie to bring her news from the outside once she is placed under house arrest. Marie finds herself in an uncomfortable and dangerous position as the revolt against the monarchy turns violently ugly. To appear to support the royals in any capacity would place her family and livelihood in extreme danger, yet her growing dissatisfaction with the revolutionaries' tactics and her friendship with the princess cause her to question her complicity with her radical friends in the scenes and figures she creates. Ever the businesswoman, Marie juggles her two roles for as long as she can for the sake of the Salon, but ultimately she must choose between them. Moran masterfully manipulates Marie's inner tension, keeping the reader wondering how events will play out and what type of person Marie will become. To great effect, the author crystallizes the general societal crisis in Marie's personal turmoil, reminding the reader that individual conscience plays a pivotal role in determining the course of history.

In MADAME TUSSAUD, her fourth published novel, Moran moves effortlessly from ancient Egypt and classical Rome to the streets and salons of eighteenth century France. The world she evokes is a convincing one, filled with details of dress and custom and architecture that settle the reader comfortably in the historical milieu. The novel provides a fascinating look at the art of wax modeling, and, even more interesting, the role Curtius's Salon de Cire played in portraying and synthesizing political events for the masses in an era that predated photography and video. Moran does an admirable job of conveying the complicated history of the late eighteenth century in a clear and concise manner. She narrates the story in short chapters, each headed by a date and a contemporary quotation, a strategy that allows her to trim dead time from the narrative and linger as long as necessary on specific hours, days or weeks. However, it is Moran's characterizations that most strongly testify to her consummate skill as a novelist. Readers will long remember the shrewd yet open-minded Marie; her loyal yet practical lover Henri Charles; sheltered, faith-filled Princess Elisabeth; impish, resourceful Yachin; and damaged, power-hungry Robespierre. With her appreciation for ambiguity and ambivalence, Moran manages to humanize figures that, like Marie's wax, have hardened into stereotypes down through the centuries.

I highly recommend MADAME TUSSAUD as one of the best historical novels I have read this year. I'm thrilled Michelle has decided to visit France as a setting for her novels, and hope she will remain there for many books to come. Learn more about Michelle Moran and her novels at michellemoran.com.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"I can't write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me."

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)
English courtier, explorer and poet

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Italian painter and sculptor

Friday, May 20, 2011

Interview: Anne Easter Smith, QUEEN BY RIGHT

Anne Easter Smith is the author of four historical novels set in fifteenth-century England. In her first book, A Rose for the Crown (2006), Anne recounts the story of Kate Haute, an imagined mistress of Richard III extrapolated from the historical record. Anne's latest book, Queen by Right, published on May 10, tells the story of Cecily of York, "mother of two kings and one of England's most intelligent and courageous women."

Anne shares some thoughts on Queen by Right and her journey as a writer of historical fiction:

What led to writing Queen By Right?

Thank you for hosting me today, Julianne, and for letting me tell your readers about my new book! I needed a fourth book to fulfill the second part of my second contract with Simon & Schuster and as it seemed I was telling the York-family story during the Wars of the Roses through my three other books, I felt compelled to begin at the beginning of that story with the matriarch of the family, Cecily Neville, duchess of York. Besides, Cecily had "spoken" to me during the writing of Daughter of York and I thought then she would make for a compelling read. She a wonderfully strong woman who was right there with her husband, Richard, with whom, history appears to think, she had an unusual love match.

What research do you do for the books?

Most important for me is doing research by walking in my characters’ footsteps. I travel to those places where history tells us they were associated with. Until I have seen the places they lived, walked, loved and worked, I don’t get a feel for them. At Raby Castle, where Cecily Neville grew up, I was grateful to have a private tour with the present descendant Lord Barnard's executive assistant who showed me to a part of the castle that is not on the usual tour but where the castle historian believes Cecily and her sister, Anne, would have been housed. She also photocopied old genealogy charts from the castle archives that are incredibly detailed. That's just one instance of how kind and helpful historians/archivists are when you approach them for help. I talk to historians and curators, search archives, spend a lot of time in museums and libraries and use the internet to fill in a few gaps (but I don’t rely on that too much! It’s not always very accurate.) And I am proud of the library of resource books I have collected over the years. I research right up until I complete the last page; it is pretty much ongoing.

Do you have any anecdotes worth sharing during the research of Queen By Right?

I would have to say that an afternoon spent with the woman who owns Brancepeth Castle about 12 miles from Raby Castle BTW was the more unusual event of my research for the book. My oldest friend in UK and I traveled north to Yorkshire and Co. Durham for a double dose of research for The King's Grace and Queen By Right. Through a fellow Richard III Society member, who lives in Durham, I was given the phone number of the owner of Brancepeth (it was Cecily’s father’s, the earl of Westmorland, family seat and certainly on my list of places to visit). I called Margaret and asked if I could possibly talk with her about the castle and have a look around. She was very gracious and invited us for tea the next day. The castle is MASSIVE, and we were told to go into the Brancepeth village post office which was housed inside the gatehouse and ring for Margaret. Turns out she bought the castle on a whim--it was going for a song, and began renting bits and pieces of it as apartments. She was also the village postmistress! And if you have ever watched Masterpiece Theater and can recognize an eccentric elderly English lady when you see one, then you will know what an entertaining afternoon we had. We knocked on the huge oak door and were let in by a young man who did odd jobs. He waved us in the direction of Margaret's quarters--through a lofty and very draughty hall--and said she was expecting us. We walked through the open door into another enormous room only to see Margaret coming out of the bathroom still adjusting her underwear. "Oh, do come in!" she enthused, smoothing down her thick wool skirt. "Let's have a cup of tea before I show you around." It was here I learned that second-wife Joan Beaufort had not been welcome at Brancepeth with Ralph Neville's children from his first Stafford marriage, and Margaret was quite disdainful about my interest in Cecily (one of Joan’s brats, she scoffed!). She was an enthusiastic tour guide and I felt so lucky to have been given a glimpse into this private castle.

What are you currently working on?

I have a contract for a fifth book with Touchstone at Simon & Schuster and it will complete the York family series. It's about Jane Shore, one of Edward IV's mistresses.

Where are you based?

I moved to the US with a flatmate in my early 20s to work as an executive secretary in Manhattan. Forty years later, plus two marriages, two children and eight moves to different states and one three-year stint in Paris with the US Embassy, I am now living in Newburyport, MA, an historic seaport on the mouth of the Merrimac River about 25 miles north of Boston with my husband, Scott.

How does it feel to see your fourth book published?

It has been astonishing to me that I have a new career in my sixties. I never aspired to be a writer for the first 58 years of my life, but a desire to tell Richard III's real story (A Rose for the Crown) and a lifelong passion for reading historical fiction led me to believe I could write a book. It was probably very arrogant of me, considering I had had no formal writing training (except for learning to write business letters at secretarial school) until I somehow got hired in my forties to write for a northern New York State daily newspaper and ended up as Features/Arts Editor for ten years. There is something magical about seeing your name on a book jacket next to established authors in the bookshelf.
I'm grateful to Anne for providing these insights into her research and her writing life. Although I've yet to read her work, her novels come highly recommended by authors I respect and admire. I'm looking forward to reading Queen by Right and learning more about the fascinating world of fifteenth-century England.

You can learn more about Anne Easter Smith and her novels A Rose for the Crown, Daughter of York, The King's Grace and Queen by Right at her website.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

Engraving by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (1520-86)

"S'il vient à point, me souviendra."

"If it reaches completion, I will be remembered."

Thomas Bohier (1460-1523), French finance minister
Motto carved in various places on the château de Chenonceau

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pasta and Pearly Whites

Check out the blog of translator and editor Lucinda Barrett, A World of Words, for very interesting posts about Renaissance art and life. "Making up the Renaissance! How beauty was perceived and achieved in the Renaissance" summarizes a workshop held this past March in Edinburgh on the topic of Renaissance cosmetics. Be sure to follow the link to Jill Burke's website Making Up the Renaissance for information on Renaissance cosmetics and photos of an actual "Renaissance Makeover"! "On the subject of pasta...and Sir Hugh Plat (1552-1611)" describes the development of extruding machines and one man's advocacy of pasta as a way to solve provisioning problems for the Royal Navy. Thanks to Lucinda for some great reading!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The "Secretive Messages" of Poetry

Were the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the rumored lover of Anne Boleyn, "a veiled but intimate account of life inside the claustrophic court of Henry VIII"? Nicola Shuman states her case in Graven with Diamonds, a new study of the poet's life and works. Review by Charles Nicholl here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: THE TUDOR SECRET by C.W. Gortner

Novelists necessarily begin with the question "What if...?" C. W. Gornter's THE TUDOR SECRET, the first of his Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles, poses a major "What if?" question about Tudor genealogy and develops it into a riveting tale of intrigue and passion. Readers willing to stretch the bounds of possibility cannot fail to be swept up into the story of the fictitious Brendan Prescott, a foundling who rises from anonymity to become Elizabeth I's devoted courtier and trusted spy.

It's 1553 and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, is king in all but name. He has sequestered King Edward, ailing to the point of death; Princess Elizabeth, Edward's sister, is determined to see her brother, despite the danger the visit poses to herself. She arrives in London on the same day as Brendan Prescott, a foundling raised by the Dudleys at their country estate. Brendan has been summoned to court to serve Robert, Northumberland's arrogant and ambitious son. In love with Elizabeth, Robert hopes to marry her and uses Brendan to carry his clandestine messages. But Brendan, mesmerized by Elizabeth and sympathizing with her orphaned state, warns her of Robert's machinations and quickly finds himself engaged by Elizabeth's protector, William Cecil, as a spy on her behalf. As Brendan works to keep Elizabeth free of the Dudleys' grasp, he unearths unsettling facts about his own history, facts someone at court has determined shall never come to light. By the time Brendan learns his true identity, he has gained the trust of both Elizabeth and her sister Mary; now he must decide what to do with a discovery that threatens the princesses' claims to the throne.

One of the strengths of the THE TUDOR SECRET is its male protagonist. It is refreshing to read the adventures of a main character who is free to come and go as he pleases and does not have to resort to elaborate subterfuges to escape the ever-watchful eyes of chaperones and parents. Brendan is a likeable and articulate character who has gone to great lengths to educate himself. He loves deeply and loyally and, determined to make his own way in the world, readily adapts to his changing circumstances. The infectious enthusiasm that infuses his voice makes his first-person narrative enjoyable to read.

Memorable characters are a hallmark of Gornter's fiction, and the novel's other characters are equally well-drawn. His young Elizabeth, fragile yet iron-willed, exudes an unrealized potential that captivates anyone in her orbit. She and Brendan share an immediate sympathy that blossoms into an unshakeable trust. Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, a tiny woman distrustful by nature and circumstance, nevertheless commands respect and exhibits a healthy regality. Peregrine, the quick-witted stable boy who becomes Brendan's sidekick, provides both humor and the street smarts necessary to rescue Brendan from his numerous scrapes. William Cecil straddles the moral spectrum; closed-mouthed and enigmatic, he tends his own interests as much as Elizabeth's. The villains, who will remain unnamed so as not to spoil the plot, tend toward the extreme but are given justifiable reasons for their wickedness.

The evocation of sixteenth century England resonates with well-chosen details, from the "tar-boiled heads" mounted on poles at the city gate to Mistress Alice, Brendan's surrogate mother, smoothing animal fat into leather shoes with a wooden spoon. Gortner always lavishes attention on his characters' dress, revealing personality traits through their clothing. Mary Tudor, for example, wears a "gable headdress that look[s] too heavy for her thin shoulders." Smells bring scenes to life, and the omnipresent scents of urine, vomit, and blood, as well as the sweeter odors of flowers, salve and ale, immerse the reader in the robust world of the sixteenth century.

The plot hangs together well, although the reader must pay attention to the details to understand Brendan's complicated origins and the Dudleys' convoluted schemes. It is important to remember that this novel is a mystery rather than straight historical fiction; the events depicted serve Brendan's story first and foremost. Given the power struggles surrounding the succession of Henry VIII's children to the throne, however, Gortner's imagined events are not implausible. As he explains in the interview that follows the story, "While nothing in THE TUDOR SECRET contradicts the known facts of what happened in the summer of 1553, I do mix things up and seek to reveal what might have been transpiring behind the scenes."

I thoroughly enjoyed THE TUDOR SECRET and look forward to the series' next installment. As SECRET closes, Brendan decides to keep mum about his identity for the time being. It will be interesting to see with whom he shares his discovery and how it affects his relationship with those who wield power. Add this uncertainty to the political intrigue he'll encounter as Elizabeth's spymaster and we have all we need for an engrossing and exciting series.

Learn more about C.W. Gortner and his books at his newly redesigned website.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Greetings

Happy Easter!

Pierre II Veyrier, 1560
Enamel and gold on copper

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Film: The Princess of Montpensier

The Princess of Montpensier, Bertrand Tavernier's gorgeous historical drama set in sixteenth century France and based on the eponymous novel by Madame de Lafayette, opens this Friday in US theaters. When the film opened in Europe last May, I longed for an American showing. Now I'm hoping to be lucky enough to find it in a nearby theater. If not, I'll have to wait for the DVD, but at least a DVD is assured now that the film is showing in the States. You can view the English trailer here. Film Journal International ran a wonderful interview with Tavernier here. The reviews are uniformly exceptional. If anyone is lucky enough to view the film, please come back and share your impressions! I'm off to see if I can find it in an area theater.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage."

"Happy he, who like Ulysses, has made a glorious voyage."

Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560), French poet
Les Regrets (1559), Sonnet 31

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Forget Me Not

We're nearing the end of the school year and soon students, especially graduating high school seniors, will be begging their friends to "sign my yearbook." Little do the students know that the pithy observations, endearing epithets and codified farewells that they scrawl across endpapers and over and around photos partake in a tradition that dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century.

In medieval and Renaissance times, going to university was a peripatetic affair. Students would travel to various university towns--Paris, Louvain, Oxford, Bologna, among others--to listen to the lectures of the renowned scholars who taught there. Scholars themselves would travel to consult with and debate those at other universities. To record his meetings with academic celebrities as well as the new friendships he forged with fellow students, a student would bring a bound book of blank pages with him on his travels. In this book, the student's new acquaintances would inscribe their names along with mottos and maxims, tributes (often in verse form), and sketches of their heraldic crests or even illustrations of scenes or places to jog memories of shared experiences. The "album amicorum," or "friendship book," became a record of the student's intellectual as well as physical journey and, for modern historians, fascinating record of early modern European university life.
Photo: http://www.kettererkunst.de/kunst/kd/details.php?obnr=410900929&anummer=359

The use of alba amicorum was particularly widespread in Germany and the Low Countries and continued well into the eighteenth century. Literary salons kept albums of the luminaries who participated in the circle's discussions. Women created alba to mark special occasions such as weddings and baptismal celebrations. As pleasure travel became more widespread, travelers filled alba with mementos of the places they visited and inscriptions by their fellow sojourners and those they frequented in various locales. In upperclass and merchant households, visitors inscribed friendship books in tribute to the hospitality they received.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheka, the National Library of the Netherlands located in Den Haag, has a collection of 470 alba amicorum dated from 1556 onwards. It includes eleven alba from the Van Harinxma thoe Slooten family of Friesland. Click on the link at the very bottom of the page to view the collection. Although the descriptions 0f the alba are in Dutch, you can click on any of the covers to view sample pages from the album. This entry, known as "La Dame aux Plumes" ("Woman with Feathers") bears the inscription: "Bon vin, belles Dames et bonne viande / Pendu soyt il qui plus demande" ("Good wine, beautiful women and great food; / Hang him who asks for more").

An infinitely more colorful motto than the ubiquitous "HAGS" (short for "Have a great summer") that fills today's yearbooks!

Sources and further reading:
"Early European Notice of Marbling, and the Album Amicorum," in Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns by Richard J. Wolfe (1990)
"The 'Stammbuch' or 'Album amicorum'" by Martin Hardie in The Connoisseur, Vol. 19: 1907.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"The readers and the hearers
like my books,
But yet some writers cannot them digest;
But what care I? for when I make a feast
I would my guests should praise it,
not the cooks."

Sir John Harington (1561-1612)
English courtier, author and inventor of
the flush toilet
Epigrams. Of Writers Who Carp at Other Men's Books

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

photo: Nicholas

"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory."

Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596), English navigator and engineer
Letter to Sir Francis Walsingham, 17 May 1587

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: DARK MOON OF AVALON by Anna Elliott

One benefit of having writer friends is the opportunity to read their work and discover exciting worlds. Anna Elliott's DARK MOON OF AVALON (Touchstone, 2010) opened up for me a new and thoroughly engaging perspective on the Arthurian legends of sixth-century Britain.

DARK MOON is the second book in her TWILIGHT OF AVALON series and the first I've read. In this novel, Former High Queen Isolde embarks on a dangerous diplomatic mission. She must persuade the rulers of smaller kingdoms from Ireland to Cornwall to ally themselves with King Madoc as he fights to keep Britain from falling into the hands of a ruthless despot, Lord Marche. Accompanying Isolde is Trystan, her childhood friend and unacknowledged true love. The couple's physical journey parallels their emotional one as they struggle to understand their feelings for each other and heal from abusive relationships with Marche, who is Trystan's father and Isolde's ex-husband. Aided by a band of outlaws who once slaved alongside Trystan in the mines, Isolde sets into motion a daring and dangerous plan to turn Marche's allies against him. Although success leads to the usurper's defeat, it forces Isolde to surrender Trystan once again to peril as he sets out on a rescue mission, the segue into the series's forthcoming third installment.

It was a bit disconcerting to jump into the middle of the story without having read the first book, but Elliott does such an excellent job of weaving the backstory into the present action that it didn't me take too long to find my bearings. I soon discovered that Elliott's version of the Tristan and Isolde legend differs significantly from the story familiar to me from my graduate studies. Most readers who come to the book with any previous knowledge of the tale know late medieval versions of the legend that reflect thirteenth century notions of courtly love. Elliott, however, was more interested in exploring the earlier, Celtic origins of the tale. Accordingly, in her novels Trystan is the son rather than the nephew of King Marche--she bases this on an inscription found on a period gravestone. The non-adulterous passion Trystan and Isolde share finds its roots in the surviving fragment of an early Welsh version of the story that has a happy, rather than tragic, ending. Elliott's strategy of molding her novel along ancient Celtic rather than medieval French lines provides an intriguing and refreshing flavor to the telling of the tale.

The supernatural plays a role the novel, but it is not overwhelming. Granddaughter of the sorceress Morgan, Isolde has the gift of the Sight, which allows her to catch glimpses of the future in the scrying waters. She uses this gift when faced with important decisions or in dangerous situations, but the visions she sees are often fragmentary and inconclusive. Of more help to her is her ability to feel others' pain. Isolde is a healer, and her ability to experience others' pain--emotional as well as physical--allows her not only to treat them more effectively but to draw them out of the despair and hopelessness that beset them. She has a harder time healing herself from her own emotional wounds; fears and misconceptions keep her from acknowledging and admitting her feelings for Trystan (tormented by his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness), for most of the book. Isolde impressed me as a compassionate, courageous, noble-minded yet thoroughly human heroine striving to save her soul as well as her country from the ravages of war.

This is the greatest strength of Elliott's writing: her ability to create fully-formed, convincing characters who combine emotional depth with endearing idiosyncrasies. From Madoc, the disfigured and beleaguered British king who dares hope Isolde might become his wife; to Fidach, the flamboyant leader of the outcasts who cultivates the reputation of a man without honor yet lives by the highest standards; to self-effacing Eurig, Trystan's loyal friend, who surrendered his wife to another man rather than cause her unhappiness, DARK MOON is peopled with characters fashioned with a keen understanding of psychology. Trystan and Isolde yearn to be together, but suffer from past trauma that prevents them from reaching out. Only as Britain routs Marche on the battlefield do the lovers break free of his
hold over them and find solace and a future in their love for each other.

The TWILIGHT OF AVALON trilogy is a gripping and convincing foray into the world of sixth century Britain. Start with the first novel, TWILIGHT OF AVALON (Touchstone, 2009)--I can't wait to go back and read it myself. The third book of the series, SUNRISE OF AVALON, will appear this September. You can learn more about the AVALON series at Elliott's website. And there's always the touching post she wrote about writing and motherhood when DARK MOON was published last fall. Thank you, Anna, for breathing new life into this timeless legend.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Elizabethan Compendium

Although it focuses on England rather than France, here is an entertaining website chock-full of information on life during Elizabeth I's reign--a great way to pass some time when you're stuck writing a scene. [wry grin] Thanks to Susan Higginbotham for reminding me of it!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"La cour est un théâtre où on voit à la fin
Le pauvre venir riche et le riche coquin."

Court is a theater where you see, in the end,
The poor man become rich and the rich man a scoundrel.

Claude de Trellon (died 1611), French poet
Le portrait de la cour

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sixteenth-century Linen Closet

Go here to view a stunning piece of sixteenth-century furniture, a carved walnut dressoir, or sideboard, used for storing linen and displaying gold and silver plate. Far too beautiful for such a menial function, it looks as though it could be a portal back in time, à la Narnia. Dusting must have been a daunting task!

Monday, February 21, 2011


I apologize for missing the promised posting date for the winner of the giveaway of Karen Harper's THE IRISH PRINCESS. I went away for the weekend, and believe it or not, endured both a flat tire AND a dead battery, which kept me from home an additional day.

So now, let me put an end to the suspense.....The winner of Karen's latest novel is

Carol N. Wong

Congratulations, Carol, and thanks to all who entered! Be sure to look for Karen's book at your neighborhood or online bookseller. Come back after you've read it and tell us what you think!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Luck o' the Irish

Sixteenth-century artifacts seem to be popping up in random places rather often lately.
A painting bought at a garage sale in South Bend, Indiana turns out to be a sixteenth-century portrait by François Quesnel (1542-1619), court painter to Catherine de Medici and her son Henri III. I'd love to know the history of this painting--especially since the frame bears a brass plate that reads "Gift of Ruskin"--quite possibly the nineteenth century art critic and poet who is considered the father of the pre-Raphaelite movement. Talk about a bargain purchase! Read the article here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"One must above all praise the wisdom of our King Francis I and his spirit of farsightedness, worthy of a great prince, to do specially with regard to men what others do for dogs and horses, in ordaining that, on one side as on the other, those who decide to unite under the holy ties of matrimony take into consideration the race from which they issue, in order that from good parents are born children who will later prove useful to king and country."

Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547), Cardinal and Bishop of Carpentras
De liberis recte instituendis (1530; trans. P. Charpenne, 1855)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest Post by Author Michelle Moran

Author Michelle Moran shares some thoughts about the subject of her new novel, MADAME TUSSAUD.



by Michelle Moran

When most people hear the name Madame Tussaud, the first thing that comes to mind are the eerily lifelike waxworks which crowd her museums throughout the world. But who was the woman behind the name, and what was she like in the flesh?

Madame Tussaud’s story actually began in 18th century Paris. While most people know her from her famous museum in London, it was in France, on the humble Boulevard du Temple, where Marie first got her start as an apprentice in her uncle’s wax museum, the Salon de Cire. At the time, the Boulevard du Temple was crowded with exhibits of every kind. For just a few sous a passerby might attend the opera, watch a puppet show, or visit Henri Charles’ mystifying exhibition The Invisible Girl. The Boulevard was a difficult place to distinguish yourself as an artist, but as Marie’s talent grew for both sculpting and public relations, the Salon de Cire became one of the most popular attractions around. Suddenly, no one could compete with Marie or her uncle for ingenious publicity stunts, and when the royal family supposedly visited their museum, this only solidified what most showmen in Paris already knew — the Salon was an exhibition to watch out for.

But as the Salon’s popularity grew, so did the unusual requests. Noblemen came asking for wax sculptures of their mistresses, women wanted models of their newborn infants, and – most importantly – the king’s sister herself wanted Marie to come to Versailles to be her wax tutor. While this was, in many ways, a dream come true for Marie, it was also a dangerous time to be associated with the royal family. Men like Robespierre, Marat, and Desmoulins were meeting at Marie’s house to discuss the future of the monarchy, and when the Revolution began, Marie found herself in a precarious position. Ultimately, she was given a choice by France’s new leaders: to preserve the famous victims of Madame Guillotine in wax, or be guillotined herself.

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution is the story of Marie’s life during one of the most tumultuous times in human history. Her survival was nothing less than astonishing, and how she survived makes for what I hope is a compelling read.

Visit MichelleMoran.com
Check out Michelle's blog at