Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Two by Two

The important women in François I's life seem to come in pairs. The king spent the first two decades of his life in close relationship with his mother and sister. As an adult, he married twice and had two official mistresses. Even his daughters followed the pattern: of the four he fathered, two died extremely young and two lived long enough to marry off. Over the next few weeks, I'll briefly sketch these pairs for you and try to give you a glimpse of what life as a women in the French court was like.

François's mother, Louise de Savoye, devoted her life to seeing her son, whom she called her "César," named king. François's father, Charles d'Angoulême, died when François was only two, leaving his nineteen year old wife, Louise, a widow with two small children (François and his sister Marguerite). The Angoulêmes were a minor branch of the House of Valois, but, unless the aging reigning monarch, Louis XII, produced a male heir, François was next in line for the throne. Louis allowed the widowed Louise to retain custody of her children, but only if she agreed not to remarry and to live under conditions imposed by him. Louise accepted the terms and lived with François and Marguerite as virtual house prisoners under the tight surveillance of Pierre de Rohan, seigneur de Gié, for years. During this time, Louise provided her children a broad humanist education, laying the foundation for the love of learning and the arts that would inspire François throughout his reign. Louis, meanwhile, fathered two daughters, Claude and Renée; his only son was stillborn in 1502. In 1506, Louis finally affianced Claude to François; the marriage took place in 1514 and François ascended to the throne the following year.

Louise never did remarry, even after her son became king. She remained active in politics during the early years of his reign and served as regent in 1515 and in 1524 when François went to war. Her influence in foreign affairs was great. Wolsey referred to Louise as "the mother and nourisher of peace." An English ambassador in 1521 described her influence over the king:

I have seen in divers things since I came hither, that when the French king would stick at some points, and speak very great words, yet my Lady would qualify the matter; and sometimes when the king is not contented he will say nay, and then my Lady must require him, and at her request he will be contented; for he is so obeissant to her that he will refuse nothing that she requireth him to do, and if it had not been for her he would have done wonders. [Quoted in Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron 113]

Louise was one of the principal negotiators of the Treaty of Cambrai, known as the "Paix des dames" ("Peace of the ladies") in 1529, which put an end to the second Italian war between François and the head of the Hapsburg dynasty, Charles V. She died in September, 1531 at the age of fifty-five. François was not with her when she died, but gave her a magnificent funeral. Her body was taken to he abbey at Saint-Maur-des-Fossées, where her wax effigy was displayed. After a funeral service at Notre Dame in Paris, she was buried at the abbey of Saint-Denis, where French royals were customarily laid to rest. With her passing, François lost one of his greatest supports and the woman who had formed him as man and king.

Next up, François's sister, Marguerite de Navarre. But as my next post will be my hundredth, she'll have to wait until the festivities have ended!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Rise and Fall of a Royal Mistress

A fascinating and powerful figure at court during the second half of François I's reign was Anne de Pisseleu d'Heilly, the duchesse d'Etampes. Anne was born in 1508 (making her fourteen years younger than the king) and began her career at court as maid of honor to François's mother, Louise de Savoie. When François returned to France in 1526 from his imprisonment in Spain, he discovered the lovely--and ambitious--Anne and took her as his lover. She became his official mistress and for the next twenty years, until his death in 1547, she wielded significant influence in political and artistic circles at court.

The poet Charles de Sainte-Marthe called Anne de Pisseleu "la plus belle des savantes et la plus savante des belles" ("the most beautiful among the learned and the most learned among the beautiful"). Indeed, Anne needed intelligence and a sharp wit, in addition to looks, to keep the attention of François, who prided himself on his learning. She cultivated poets and writers like Jodelle, Magny and Dolet and championed the artist Primaticcio, Rosso's chief competitor at Fontainebleau. She beautified the many properties the king bestowed on her and her husband (in 1532, for propriety's sake, François married her to Jean de Brosse and elevated the couple in rank) and undertook architectural projects. Through her favor, distant relatives and sympathetic friends obtained appointments to court offices and the military. She completely outshone, in beauty and influence, François's second wife, Eléonore d'Autriche, sister of Charles V, whom François was forced to marry as a term of his release.

Though she faced no competition from the queen, Anne did face a real threat to her power and influence from another source: Diane de Poitiers, the dauphin Henri's mistress. As relations between François and the dauphin soured, the court split into factions: those who supported Anne and her circle, those who looked to the future and threw their support behind Henri and Diane (including the powerful Grand Master of France, Anne de Montmorency), and the few who remained quietly on the sidelines with the queen. Anne did all she could to contrast her youth to Diane's age (Diane was only five years younger than François, and therefore twenty years older than Henri); she also differentiated herself by embracing the religious ideas of Luther and Calvin. Whereas Diane remained an ardent Catholic, Anne, along with François's sister Marguerite de Navarre, adhered to the reformed faith and encouraged François's tolerance of it as long as she could. Politically, her circle threw its support behind François's third son, Charles, the son François preferred.

Unfortunately for Anne, Charles died before François and upon the king's death, Henri took the throne. Anne's rivalry with Diane assured she was no longer welcome at court; in fact, she was accused of selling state secrets to France's enemy Charles V, stripped of her jewels and many of her possessions, and banished to her estate in Brittany. She died there in 1580, having outlived both Henri and Diane by many years.

The duchesse d'Etampes, pictured above around the time she became François's mistress and to the right at the height of her influence in the late 1530's, is one of the viewpoint characters in my new novel. Despite her importance, little has be written about her; much of what has been written focuses on her rivalry with Diane. An interesting source in French is this excerpt from a book by Etienne Desjardins; David Potter has written a recent article on the politics of the various court factions. In the novel, I'll be considering whether those rumors of her selling secrets to Charles V just might be true.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Can she escape the legacy of her aunt Neferiti, the reviled Heretic Queen who, together with Pharaoh Akhenaten, robbed Egypt of its ancient gods and imposed a new, monotheistic religion on its people? This is the question that dogs Nefertari, the orphaned and outcast protagonist of The Heretic Queen, Michelle Moran's second historical novel (Crown, September 2008). Determined to marry her childhood friend Prince Ramesses and rule at his side as Chief Wife, Nefertari must overcome her own discomfort at her ancestry as well as the people's mistrust and resistance if she wants to succeed.

I'll admit I was a bit apprehensive when I began reading. After all, both novels are narrated in the first person by teenaged Egyptian princesses--how different could they be? Quite, it would seem. Mutny, the narrator of Nefertiti, is an observer. Sister to the queen, she is always guessing at Nefertiti's motivations and true allegiances. Nefertari, on the other hand, is a doer. She is not observing the actions of a queen, but reigning as one. Nefertari is a strong, determined character who, after some initial hesitations and lapses in confidence, decides what she wants--to rule with Ramesses as Chief Wife--and does everything she can to obtain her goal, endangering her own safety and security to win back the love and trust of the Egyptian people. Although the reader knows Nefertari will ultimately succeed--why write a book about a protagonist who fails in her quest?--Moran keeps the reader's interest by setting obstacle after obstacle in Nefertari's path. As the machinations devised by those who desire to prevent Nefertari from becoming Chief Wife become increasingly malicious, the reader eagerly turns the pages, wondering what Nefertari will do next and whether it will be enough. The suspense, as well as the growth in Nefertari's character, carry the reader through to the novel's very satisfying climax. 

The Egyptian setting does not wear thin in the second book, as the Egyptian court travels between Thebes and Avaris and Moran takes the reader into schoolrooms, temples, audience chambers and military encampments. She depicts a wide swath of Egyptian society: viziers and courtiers, ambassadors and priestesses, generals and architects, nursemaids and dancers and slaves. Instead of lecturing the reader about Egyptian culture and religion, Moran deftly allows elements of both to shape the character's outlooks and actions: for example, the knowledge that any record of her family's deeds has been erased from temple murals and therefore lost to posterity as well overlooked by the gods eats at Nefertari and motivates her to clear her family's name. Moran does a wonderful job of weaving her knowledge of ancient Egypt into the details of the story without ever sounding didactic or heavy-handed. Her historical fiction reads with the flair of contemporary fiction yet never stumbles into anachronism.

The relationships between all of the characters are believable, consistent, and nuanced. Nefertari has a touching relationship with her nurse, Merit, who has raised her since her parents' deaths; the animosity between Ramesses's two aunts, Woserit and Henuttawy, which has far-reaching consequences, is convincingly established and maintained. I was a bit disappointed that Nefertari doesn't have more of a struggle in falling in love with Ramesses. I thought that Asha, the third member of their childhood trio who seems to be in love with her, will complicate things, but he readily steps aside and winds up with a secondary character in the end. Nefertari, to her credit, truly loves Ramesses and not just his power; this keeps her sympathetic during her rivalry with his other wife, Iset. Moran's story is about the individuals, not just the history, and her grasp of their psychology makes them vivid and dynamic.

No sophomore slump here: Michelle Moran has written a fascinating and engaging book that merits praise for the fineness of its historical detail as well as the quality of the writing. While the reader must wonder whether Nefertari will escape the shadow of her notorious aunt, there is no question that The Heretic Queen will equal or surpass the fame of its predecessor, Nefertiti.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Author Interview: Michelle Moran, The Heretic Queen

Michelle Moran's debut novel, Nefertiti (Crown, July 2007) was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a favorite of readers and critics alike. Michelle's second book, The Heretic Queen, goes on sale tomorrow and is sure to be an even greater success than the first. It tells the story of Nefertari, the only surviving member of reviled Queen Nefertiti's royal line. When Ramesses, the Pharaoh's son, falls in love with Nefertari and announces they will marry, his outraged people rise up against her rule. The couple's reign is filled with conquest and strife, yet great achievement--and even greater love. Michelle graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss The Heretic Queen with me.


1) How did you decide on the title The Heretic Queen? I find it ironic that the story is about Nefertari's struggle to break free of the legacy of her heretical ancestors, yet the novel carries the moniker that designated her aunt. Why did you not choose something that was wholly Nefertari's, like The Warrior Queen? Was it so as not to destroy the suspense of whether or not Nefertari would manage to escape her family's reputation?

What a wonderful question, and I suspect I’m going to get it quite a bit. A more appropriate title for the book would certainly have been The Warrior Queen, but that sounded too much like a fantasy novel, and with the ambiguous cover, I didn’t want to risk that. Even Nefertari would have been appropriate, but that sounded too much like Nefertiti. So ultimately, I chose The Heretic Queen for exactly the reason you mentioned. I wanted the book to focus on how the sins of the older generation can be visited upon the young, and the question of whether Nefertari would ever be able to overcome that.

2) You wrote both Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen in the first person from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl. Was it difficult to create two different voices? Did you ever consider writing the second book from the third person? What motivated your choice?

I adore first person fiction. I do like third person POV as well, but I find that I’m better at writing through the voice of someone else rather than the all-seeing narrator. I have no doubt there will come a time when my readers will have had enough of first person fiction from me and a change will need to be made, but I’m hoping that change isn’t for another few books! I try very hard to distinguish the voices of my narrators from one another. People’s approaches to life and their attitudes are shaped (in part) by the people they’re surrounded by, and since no one in The Heretic Queen is quite the diva that Nefertiti was, Nefertari’s voice is (I hope) far different from Mutny’s (who narrated the first book and had to put up with her sister’s attitude).

3) I was fascinated by the presence of the Habiru in the novel and the fact that you purposely choose not to introduce material found only in the Hebrew Scriptures. Could you talk a bit about the position of conquered peoples within Egyptian society? The Scriptures portray the Hebrews as being slaves, whereas in your novel the Habiru are incorporated into the Egyptian army and Ashai and Ahmoses seem to move about freely. Also, is the detail of Ahmoses teaching Akhenaten about monotheism entirely of your making, or is there evidence of Jewish influence on Akhenaten's faith?

Oh wow, what a big question! Like many societies in the ancient world, slavery was both common and accepted in Egypt. Conquered peoples were taken to Egypt and their fate depended heavily on luck. Some would be sent to the quarries (and an early death), others would be sold in the marketplace to the highest bidder, and still others would be saved for Pharaoh’s palace. Of course, none of these fates were very lucky, but in terms of life and death, those who were sent to the auction block or the palace fared much better than those who were forced into manual labor in the mines.

Slavery in Egypt was not quite the same as slavery in other countries. In ancient Rome, for instance, slaves were not allowed to marry or have any official say whatsoever in their fate. In Egypt, however, slaves could marry and have children. In Rome it is estimated that one out of every three people were slaves (a dangerous number, as Spartacus proved), whereas the slave trade in Egypt was quite small. In many ways, the slaves of Egypt were more like indentured servants who could work toward their own freedom if they were wise and capable and served with distinction (not that this makes their slavery any more acceptable, just slightly less harsh).

And the historical Habiru were indeed part of Pharaoh’s army. However, there is no evidence that Akhenaten’s belief in monotheism was based on Habiru teachings. Does the possibility exist? Certainly. But is there evidence for it? No.

4) Tell us more about the role of priestesses. Were the appointments as high priestess honorary ones? Why would the sisters of the Pharaoh become priestesses instead of being married off to Egypt's allies, the way European princesses were? Were temples used in the same way as convents, as a place to educate the daughters of nobility or to dispose of superfluous female offspring?

That’s an interesting question! Appointments to the priesthood seemed to have been both honorary and merit-based, depending on where the temple was located. In the Theban temples positions like high priest or priestess were taken by the sons and daughters of Pharaoh. Queen Kiya’s son Khaemwese, for example, was the High Priest of Ptah. And the High Priest Sheshonk was a son of Pharaoh Osorkon I. Unlike other kingdoms, Egypt didn’t marry her princesses off to foreign princes, which was a huge boon for the young ladies of the royal family. The ancient Egyptians were too proud of their country to even consider sending their princesses to far-away realms where they would suffer the indignities of having to live beneath Egyptian standards. So the royal daughters often found themselves in charge of religious ceremonies.

And in some ways, yes, the temples were used as ancient-day convents where women could be educated and brought up. But in many other ways, the idea of a convent would have been incredibly foreign to Egyptians. Priestesses were not expected to be celibate and could even adopt children if they wanted. The goddesses the women worshiped were images of fertility, so it would have been incredibly counter intuitive to ask that their worshipers abstain from reproduction and sex. The High Priestess of Amun (frequently called God’s Wife) was often a position held by Pharaoh’s wife or daughter. Even the priestesses who ranked below God’s Wife - the Divine Adoratrices - were not celibate. Some of the women who held this position were Huy (the mother of Queen Meritre Hatshepsut) and Seniseneb, the wife of the High Priest Puyemre. In the 19th dynasty, things began to change for the Divine Adoratrices when Ramses VI gave the position to his daughter Aset and required of her both abstinence from sex and the promise never to marry. However, this was unusual.

5) In addition to the first and second wives, the Pharaoh seemed to have an entire harem of women (the harem of Mi-wer) at his disposal. What advantage was there for a woman to be part of the Mi-wer, since most of them could only have spent time with the Pharaoh rarely? How was a woman chosen to become part of the Mi-wer, and was she cared for until her death? In regards to the position of First Wife: could a woman lose that position if she displeased the Pharaoh, or was it hers for life?

I cannot imagine why any woman in Egypt would have ever wanted to be part of the harem of Mi-wer. This harem was so far removed from court that Pharaoh almost never visited there and the women inside were doomed to live loveless, childless, family-less lives. There were several reasons a woman would have been sent to Mi-Wer. Perhaps the current Pharaoh had inherited her from his father, or she was old and in some way displeasing to him. A woman sent to Mi-Wer could expect a life not of luxury, but of hard work in order to maintain her place in the palace. The women sewed garments, grew plants, and all of them were expected to contribute in some significant way. Being sent to Mi-Wer was a social death sentence, since you would never see your parents again, never live a real life in Egyptian society, and never experience physical love (unless it was with a woman).

As for the position of First or Chief Wife, a woman could certainly lose it, especially if she was discovered to be part of a conspiracy in the harem. Just such a plot was uncovered during the reign of Ramesses III. It was led by Queen Tiy who wanted to assassinate Ramesses and place her son on the throne. Although nothing is known of her fate after the trial, we can imagine that she didn’t remain queen for very long.

6) The Heretic Queen is your second book. How is writing a second novel different from writing the first? Did you learn anything from writing your first book that helped you the second time around?

There really is nothing like publishing for the first time. The expectation, the excitement of the unknown, and the wild drive that pushes an author to do anything and everything they can for their very first book doesn’t compare with the experience of publishing successive novels. Since Nefertiti was my first novel, I had no idea what to expect. What would happen on the first day of publication? Or if I made a bestsellers list? Or if I didn’t make one? Should I do signings? What about drive-by signings? Do bookmarks really work? Of course, all of these questions were answered in due time. And now, for The Heretic Queen, I know that bookmarks are useful, that if I make the bestsellers list my editor will call at an ungodly hour on her – gasp – personal phone to congratulate me, and that drive-by signings can be just as effective as signing events. There is an inner peace – at least for me – in publishing the second novel that wasn’t there for the first book when everything was uncertain and new. The nervousness is still there – will people like it? will I let down my publishing house? – but this time I know what to expect.

7) What do you want readers of The Heretic Queen to come away with?

I’d like readers to feel that if a time machine were to suddenly appear and whisk them away to ancient Egypt, they wouldn’t be totally lost. They would recognize the traditions, the gods and goddesses, and know what to expect in Pharaoh Ramesses’s court. I have tried my best to make the writing accessible to a modern audience. That means not dating the dialogue, or using too many long and unwieldy Egyptian names, or overdoing it with ancient Egyptian terms. Hopefully, by doing this, readers will come away with the sense of not only having been there for a little while, but of relating to the Egyptians. Because for all of the technological, medical and philosophical changes the world has undergone in the past three thousand years, people have remained the same. They had the same desires and fears in ancient Egypt that we have today, and I hope that readers can come away with an understanding of that.

8) Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Cleopatra's Daughter?

Cleopatra's Daughter will follow the incredible life of Cleopatra's surviving children with Marc Antony -- twins, named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a younger son named Ptolemy. All three were taken to Rome and paraded through the streets, then sent off to be raised by Octavia (the wife whom Marc Antony left for Cleopatra). Raised in one of the most fascinating courts of all time, Cleopatra's children would have met Ovid, Seneca, Vitruvius (who inspired the Vitruvian man), Agrippa (who built the Pantheon), Herod, his sister Salome, the poets Virgil, Horace, Maecenas and so many others!

9) Do you think you will always write about the ancient world? What other possible settings interest you?

Oh, I seriously hope not!! My academic specialties are ancient Rome and the Middle Ages (seemingly very different, I know… but there are similarities!). Once I finish writing on ancient Rome, I fully intend to skip forward and explore more “recent” history. Recent, of course, meaning men on horses wearing suits of armor versus men riding chariots!

10) What advice do you have for aspiring authors of historical fiction?

Learn as much as you can about the business of writing. Because we writers feel an emotional connection to our stories, we tend to feel that publishing is also emotional. If I’m nice, they’ll publish me. If I send them chocolate with my query letter, they’ll see what a good person I am. But publishing isn’t personal and most of the time it’s not emotional either. It’s about numbers and sales and - at the end of the day - money. So learn everything there is to know about the business before you send off your material, especially once your material is accepted for publication. That’s when business savvy matters most, and knowing important publishing terms like galleys, remainders and co-op is extremely important when trying to figure out how you can best help your book along in the publication process. Learn everything, but above all, keep writing!


Thank you, Michelle, for your detailed answers and for the chance to take part in The Heretic Queen's launch. I wish you all the best with this novel and your writing career and look forward to reading many more books by you in the future.

You can find out more about Michelle, her novels, and ancient Egypt at her website. Tomorrow I'll be posting a review of The Heretic Queen, so please check back then! In the meantime, if you have any questions for Michelle, post them in the comments and she'll stop by periodically to answer them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forthcoming Author Interview: Michelle Moran

This coming week is an exciting one: Michelle Moran's second Egyptian-themed historical novel, The Heretic Queen, hits the shelves on Tuesday, September 16. If you've read Michelle's first book, Nefertiti, you'll know why I'm so excited.

I will be posting an interview with Michelle about the book and the writing of historical writing on Monday. On Tuesday, I will post a review of the book, which I read in advance. Michelle always stops by to answer questions in the comment section, so be sure to visit.

Another spot definitely worth a visit is the blog Historical Tapestry, which will be running a "Michelle Moran Week" all next week! Stop by there and post some questions for Michelle come Monday and you could win a signed copy of The Heretic Queen. And while you're there, you can read the blogging team's great reviews of other historical novels.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Author Bios

Author biographies, those little blurbs that accompany the author photo on the inside back cover flaps of hardbacks, give us glimpses into the lives, personalities and credentials of authors. The author bio is primarily a marketing tool (hence its placement on the cover) whose purpose is to convince you that the book you are considering buying will be worth your investment in time and money. The biographies are usually quite brief--a few sentences that tell where the author lives and what other books she has written. For example, "Author X lives in Maine with her four cats. She studied nineteenth-century English literature at Famous University. The Book in Your Hand is her first novel."  The main point of such bios is to establish the author as Someone Worth Reading: someone who knows how to write and whose credentials demonstrate her grasp of the subject matter. 

Sometimes author bios "go off the board" and include picturesque details about the author and her interests. For example, the author bio for The Heretic Queen tells us that author Michelle Moran "lives in California with her husband and a garden of more than two hundred roses." I thought that was a neat detail to include, for it tells me something about the author's sensibilities. Now, as I read Michelle's books, I will be on the lookout for descriptions of flowers and their scents and colors to see how they demonstrate Michelle's love of gardens. I find that I appreciated this type of bio more than the standard resume type. Not only is it more interesting to read, but it helps me imagine the person behind the name better. Unfortunately, when I checked out the author bios on a dozen of the hardbacks on my shelves, very few were as engaging as Michelle's. This is a shame, because I think more personalized details could forge bonds with potential readers just as effectively as credential-type details, if not more so.

So, some questions for you:

1.  Do you read author bios?

2.  What type of details do you like to see there?

3.  Does the author bio affect your decision to buy the book? Have you ever bought/not bought a book based on what you read in the bio?

There is an even greater issue lurking behind this discussion of details: why is the author bio important at all? Does it matter whether the author likes cats or runs triathalons? Shouldn't the book be judged on its own merits?

I'm looking forward to reading  your answers to these questions and your thoughts on the larger issue. In the meantime, off to brainstorm some interesting details for a bio of my own...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Words to Write By

Moonrat, the anonymous editor at editorialass who shows us what it's like on the other side of the desk, advises writers who are obsessing over the slow pace at which the publishing industry moves to distract themselves by writing. She says:

The thing is, and I can vouch for this, writers develop really quickly and constantly, so the next book you write will--guaranteed--be better than the one  you've already written. This is a reason for you absolutely to keep writing and writing.

Just what I needed to hear. Thank you, Moonie!