Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest post from Mary Sharratt, author of DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL

I am delighted to welcome Mary Sharratt, author of the upcoming DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, an evocative and haunting novel that recreates the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire in the 16th century. Mary lives in the area and has woven a masterpiece of imagination and fact around the women and men caught up in the hysteria of this event. She twists the tale with the possibility that one of the women may have actually possessed supernatural gifts, infusing her book with vivid details of life in a dangerously superstitious era. This is a gorgeously rendered account of faith, persecution, and tragedy that I could not put down and has been called "uplifting in its portrayal of women who persevere, and mothers and daughters who forgive" by Publishers Weekly; and "a fascinating tale . . .unfolds without melodrama and is therefore all the more powerful" by Library Journal.

Mary is the winner of the 2005 WILLA Literary Award and a Minnesota Book Award Finalist and the author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue (Coffee House 2000), The Real Minerva (Houghton Mifflin 2004), and The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin 2006), which was a UK Guardian Readers’ Book of the Year. She is also the co-editor of the subversive UK fiction anthology, Bitch Lit (Crocus Books UK 2006), a celebration of female anti-heroes. Mary’s short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic, including the recent Twin Cities Noir (Akashic Books 2006). She also happens to be delightfully witty in person and a devoted equestrian; I am privileged to call her a friend.

Please join me in welcoming Mary Sharratt to Historical Boys.

Daughters of the Witching Hill: In Search of the Pendle Witches

by Mary Sharratt

In 2002, I moved to the Pendle region in Lancashire, Northern England. It didn’t take long before the wild, brooding landscape cast its spell on me and inspired my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.
Pendle Hill is famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But this rugged countryside is also haunted by the legacy of the Pendle Witches.

In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were executed for witchcraft, but the most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Old Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison.
"Allow me to introduce you to a woman of power who changed my life forever": this is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster: "She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies."

Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how Bess’s strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. Bess freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. She lived as a matriarch with her family at Malkin Tower and instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Cunning craft—the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock—was Bess’s family trade. Their spells, recorded in A Wonderfull Discoverie, were Roman Catholic prayer charms—the kind of folk magic that would have flourished before the Reformation. Yet she also drew on an even older source of power: Tibb, her familiar spirit, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man.

Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches—both nuanced and lurid. Mine is the first to tell the tale from Bess’s point of view. I longed to give Bess Southerns what her world denied her—her own voice.

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. As a writer, I am obsessed with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the landscape. No one in Pendle can remain untouched by the witches’ legacy. As contemporary British storyteller, Hugh Lupton, has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in a meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition. Bess Southerns’s voice deserves to be heard.

Long after their demise, Bess and her fellow witches endure, their spirit woven into the land, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By learning their story, I have become an adopted daughter of their living landscape, one of many tellers who spin their unending tale.

Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL will be published on April 7 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more, please visit her website at and join her on her virtual tour:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Guest post from Stephanie Cowell, author of CLAUDE AND CAMILLE

I am delighted to welcome my friend Stephanie Cowell. A marvelous novelist whose work includes the exuberant Marrying Mozart and The Players: A novel of young Shakespeare, on April 6 Crown Publishers will release Stephanie's new novel Claude and Camille, the haunting, passionate story of Claude Monet's youthful love affair with his wife and muse.

Already, the reviews are stunning. Publisher's Weekly calls it "A convincing narrative about how masterpieces are created and a detailed portrait of a complex couple. Cowell's novel suggests that a fabulous, if flawed, love is the source of both the beauty and sadness of Monet's art." And Library Journal adds, "Moving through war, illness, prosperity, and poverty, Cowell writes the couple's love story with an eye for perspective as skilled as any painter's."

I had the honor of endorsing this book, and was captivated from beginning to end by Stephanie's elegant language and sensitive insight into the emotion and torment of this great artist. I highly recommend her unique portrait of Monet as he began his career, and of the woman whose inspiration and secrets he could never forget.

Stephanie Cowell has kindly offered this guest post for Historical Boys, to celebrate the upcoming release of Claude and Camille. Please join me in welcoming her!

Visiting old places with an historical novelist
My parents and I were walking down a street in one of those Italian Swiss hill towns a little before dusk. It was a narrow cobbled street which few cars could pass, lined with squat stone houses which had stood there far beyond memory and low cracked wood doors. To me they were not ordinary houses for I felt the ghosts who had lived there in previous times and walked slower and slower, trying to catch their voices and what they were saying. My father’s call rang from far ahead. “Where are you, daughter? We’re going to eat!” “Oh here I am!” I replied, startled into the present. “Just five centuries and fifty feet behind you, you know…”

I suppose my friends and family are used to it by now. We go to Mozart’s birthplace, a narrow street in Paris where Monet had a studio in his youth or the packed old City of London, where ancient churches rub walls with glass skyscrapers. The names of the streets are Fishmonger’s Lane, Cheapside, Love Street. Friends see the skyscrapers, I see the half timbered house in 1591 on Wood Street where Shakespeare hurried at night, lighting his way with a torch, to the house of his old acting colleague Jack Heminges.

There goes Will and Jack! I want to tell cry. I watch as a hint of brown doublet rounds a corner and is gone. There they were! Most the time my husband waits for me. “You don’t see anything?” I ask him. “Just the financial district,” he replies. “But you see things, Stephanie! I can see your face.”

It is true. The past touches and takes hold of my shirt and draws me back. No, it hurls me back. I never know when it is going to happen. It was so intense when entering the room with the Parthenon marbles in London that I had to leave for a time. I almost passed out before one of Queen Victoria’s dresses. And when we visited the newly constructed Globe Theater on Bankside in London I had no idea if I were in 1601 or 2001. T.S. Eliot says, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” Madeleine L’Engle says that characters come to us and demand, “Enflesh me!”

New England graveyards at dusk, my footsteps on the floors of Windsor Castle, and staring at the spot in the Tower of London where Anne Boleyn was executed. Show me a 300-year-old shoe, a ruined church, the moors behind Haworth. I stand and stare. I write furiously in a notebook. I discovered one winding, deserted street in Vienna in front of the Cathedral after dark and stood as if stunned. I had no idea what was on that street. In daylight I returned and found that Mozart and his wife had lived there in 1785.

Once a kind guard approached as I sat among the ruins of the old boy’s school in Canterbury. “All right then, dearie?” “It’s ok,” I managed, “I’m a novelist.” He retreated, looking a bit bewildered.

We are fortunate, we who love history and historical fiction and who write it for we live in many worlds. The past opens to us in a hidden street, an old pen, a signature of someone long gone. We are wealthy; we share many lives and we listen to older voices. “Don’t mind me; I’m just walking five centuries behind you,” you can say to your friends. If they know and love you, they will understand and be waiting when you show up at the restaurant for dinner.

Stephanie Cowell is the author of several novels. To learn more about her and her work, please visit her at:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Library Journal weighs in!

Gortner, C.W. The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Ballantine. Jun. 2010. c.416p. ISBN 978-0-345-50186-8. $25.
History has depicted Catherine de Medici (1519–89), wife of one king and mother of three, as a grotesque monster, poisoning and murdering to gain and maintain control over the French throne. After the death of Henri II, she began the struggle of her life—keeping one son after the other on the throne through the religious wars that threatened to tear France apart. In this meticulously researched novel, Gortner (The Last Queen) gives us a Catherine who is passionate yet sometimes naive. Most of her decisions following her husband's death are made to keep peace in France or safeguard her children. Yet she is still held responsible for the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, in which thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered. VERDICT While the Catherine depicted here is in some ways similar to Jeanne Kalodigris's protagonist in The Devil's Queen, Gortner breathes more life into his queen. Historical fiction fans will appreciate the vivid details of Renaissance France. [Library marketing.]—Pamela O'Sullivan, Coll. of Brockport Lib., SUNY

Publisher's Weekly Review is in!

And it's a nice one, despite the evident gender confusion. Guess I should take it as a compliment that the reviewer thought I was a girl :)

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici / C.W. Gortner.
Ballantine, $25 (400p) ISBN 978-0-345-50186-8
Catherine de Medici uses her natural and supernatural gifts to protect the French throne in Gortner's (The Last Queen) portrait of a queen willing to sacrifice happiness and reputation to fulfill her family's royal destiny. Orphan Catherine has her first vision at age 10, and three years later is betrothed to Henri d'Orleans, brother of the sickly heir to the French throne. She heads to France with a vial of poison hidden among her possessions, and after negotiating an uneasy truce with her husband's mistress, she matures into a powerful court presence, though power, she learns, comes at a price. Three of her sons become king in succession as the widow Catherine wields ever-increasing influence to keep the ambitious de Guise clan at bay and religious adversaries from murdering each other. Gortner's is not the first fictional reinterpretation of a historical villainess—Catherine's role in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, for instance, is recounted in a way sympathetic to her—but hers (should be "his") is remarkably thoughtful in its insight into an unapologetically ruthless queen.