Friday, April 29, 2011

Happily Ever After?

Once in a while an event comes around that unites us— sometimes, unfortunately, it is an epic tragedy, such as the recent devastation in Japan; other times, it is a royal wedding, like the recent union of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

In the weeks leading up to the most anticipated royal event in decades, there’s been a lot of bombastic media gushing, with everything from Ms Middleton’s semi-nude catwalk to the prince’s previous dalliances touted out for our consumption. There has also been some rather vitriolic condemnation of our societal fascination with an institution that no longer seems relevant, much less in-touch, with today’s culture, and with a group of people who dwell in a rarified glass bubble of privilege that never reflects anything but the fantasies we cast upon it.

All of which is, to a certain extent, true. Monarchies have by and large become relics clinging to the crumbling edifice of past glory, even as the real world speeds up to pass them by. And past hyped-up royal marriages that ended up being personal and public calamities have certainly plagued the House of Windsor, with the celebrated marriage of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana being the most sobering example.

Nevertheless, this wedding seemed different right from the start. Oh, the bells and extravagance were all there; so were all the over-the-top hats and dowdy rituals and botoxed famous guests. And so were the inevitable comparisons to the union of Diana and Charles. But none of this managed to overshadow the actual sight of two radiant young people, who have had their own ups and downs in their journey to the altar, taking the first steps into marriage.

For those of us who watched Diana’s wedding and painful transformation from shy prey to suave cover model and crusader for the less fortunate, even as she weathered the blinding glare of her own celebrity and devastation wrought by it and the collapse of her marriage to Charles, there are marked differences to be noted. Diana entered the cathedral in an armorial frock garnished by enough tulle to conceal her very person— a symbolic representation of the life that awaited her as royal prisoner. She had to literally claw her way out of that gown to uncover, all too briefly, the stunning flesh-and-blood woman underneath who demanded the right to her own life.

In contrast, the new duchess of Cambridge glided over her red carpet in breathtaking elegance, sheathed in confidence and arm-hugging lace, unable to contain her smile, proof that no matter what the future may hold, she will be no princess-in-peril. And her groom, stalwart and blushing in his military order, gazed upon her with genuine awe, so that all that pomp surrounding them faded to insignificance. Unlike Charles and Diana, who even while standing on the palace balcony appeared to be strangers, this was a couple in love, celebrating their union before the world— and it showed.

Weddings are by their very nature ephemeral. After months of frenetic planning and dieting and expense, they burst upon us and for a few hours rivet our attention with their glamour and endless possibilities, only to be captured as if in amber through videos and photographs, while the couple itself embarks on the challenging road of daily togetherness. As evidenced by Diana's experience, royal marriage can turn catastrophic, much like ordinary marriages all over the world. In essence, there is therefore nothing different between her wedding and her eldest son’s –swathed in gigantic expectations and witnessed by millions, there is still no guarantee of success.

Except for the hope that this time, William and Kate have found the elusive happily ever-after.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

M.J. Rose's THE HYPNOTIST now in trade paperback!

M.J. Rose's elegant and mysterious THE HYPNOTIST is now out in trade paperback! This was one of my favorite novels of last year, and in celebration of its new release, I'm re-posting my review of the book. If you like thrilling, literary suspense, you're going to love this novel!

A priceless sculpture that hides an ancient secret; an FBI investigator haunted by the past; and a terrorist plot involving the theft of magnificent works of art all combine to create THE HYPNOTIST, the unputdownable thriller and third entry in M.J.Rose's superb Reincarnationist series (The Reincarnationist and The Memorist).

No author currently writing in the suspense/thriller category does quite what M.J. Rose does; underpinning her novels is the haunting premise that all of us have past lives that connect us to the present, and within this framework she's conjured a high-stakes world of treacherous business dealings, international intrigue, and the often lethal search for the elusive Memory Tools - objects that can assist people to access their pasts and which, if found and harnessed, could provide their owner with unimaginable power. At the center of this web is Dr Malachi Samuels of the Phoenix Foundation, a gifted yet amoral reincarnation expert who allegedly will stop at nothing to possess the Memory Tools.

These entwined themes are spun throughout the series; however, each novel can be enjoyed on its own merits and The Hypnotist is no exception. When Lucian Glass, FBI criminal art investigator, is called in by the Metropolitan Museum in New York City to investigate the horrific mutilation of a stolen painting, he is plunged into a search for the man who, years ago, destroyed his youth and aspiring career as an artist. His investigation leads him back into the elegant, dangerous milieu of the Phoenix Foundation, where a young girl is being treated for nightmarish visions, and the presence of a mysterious woman who might hold the key to his quest. As Lucian begins to uncover a plot centered around a millennial-old sculpture that has surfaced after years of neglect, he finds himself caught up in an intricately linked conspiracy of art smuggling, terrorism, and the race to claim a coveted Memory Tool.

The Hypnotist stands out from the other entries in the series for its lyricism and the timely question: Who truly owns art? In this novel, which is replete with Ms Rose's trademark moments of breathtaking suspense and secrets-within-secrets, Rose has gone deeper into her mythology, detailing the subtle ways in which senseless tragedy shifts and defines us, and the hallowed effect that art exerts on our beings. While her previous novels have all featured lost souls seeking redemption, in The Hypnotist something of Rose's own complex soul comes into display, and it is a fascinating glimpse into a writer who, with this novel, has both matured and exceeded the very high expectations she has set for herself and her readers.

M.J. Rose is the international bestselling author of over nine novels, including the acclaimed Reincarnationist series. Her new novel, THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES, will be published in 2012. To learn more about her and her work, please visit her website.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Guest post by Laurel Corona, author of FINDING EMILIE

Laurel Corona (THE FOUR SEASONS, PENELOPE'S DAUGHTER) has become well-recognized for her vivid fiction about women and the forgotten or undervalued roles they played in their societies; in her new novel FINDING EMILIE, released on April 12, she offers us the evocative and poignant story of Lili du Chatelet, daughter of the free-thinking Emilie du Chatelet, who liveds in the crumbling world of pre-revolutionary France. Abandoned as a baby, Lili seeks to uncover the startling legacy of her mother, as life in aristocratic society constricts around her like the excruciating corsets she is forced to wear. But she is soon compelled to discover much more than where she comes from and gain the courage to fashion her on life as the world around her undergoes cataclysmic upheaval.

In celebration of FINDING EMILIE's release, Laurel has offered us this guest post. Please join me in welcoming Laurel Corona. Voltaire: Bad Boy of the Enlightenmentby Laurel Corona "The ungodly arch-villain has died like a dog,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is reputed to have said upon hearing of Voltaire’s death in Paris in 1778. Undoubtedly, similar sentiments were expressed over much of France at the news. Voltaire’s death was consistent with his life. Toothless and bald, the octogenarian hypochondriac had finally caught a real illness, and he used his little remaining strength to turn his back on a priest who had come to hear his confession and give him communion. “Just let me die in peace,” he growled. Those were his last words. Peace was not something Voltaire had offered the church in return--or any of the entrenched institutions in France.

With his passionate convictions about intellectual and political honesty and social justice, Voltaire’s acid wit cut a wide swath, sparing no one he considered a hypocrite or liar. Poet, historian, playwright, philosopher, essayist, and satirist, Voltaire used his prodigious talent to combat what he called “l’infame”--the infamy of using a position of authority to take advantage of others. The church lied and abused power to instill fear, the state to foster obedience. No one, it seemed, in Voltaire’s words, “dared to think.” Think for yourself. That’s all Voltaire asked, but whenever he thought for himself he could count on trouble.

He was imprisoned a number of times for problems with the censors, was banished to England, and later was sequestered for fifteen years under loose house arrest at the home of the Marquis du Châtelet, Voltaire’s lover Emilie du Châtelet’s tolerant husband. Throughout his life numerous lettres de cachet, arrest warrants granted as royal favors, were taken out against him by powerful individuals with a grudge. With what amounted to a bull’s eye painted on his back and arrows in the hands of most of the powerful forces in France, after Emilie’s death he lived out his life as a landed gentleman in Ferney, close enough to the Swiss border to escape on horseback at a moment’s notice. He was on that horse more than once. His books were routinely published abroad and smuggled into France, while Voltaire threw up his hands as if this were beyond his control. It was his popularity with a restive public that brought the books to France, not he himself--or so he would have it. Those books include his Philosophical Dictionary, an alphabetized collection of essays skewering one or another pretension. Church teachings were his primary target, but he also took aim at the monarchy and government, and at common people who ought to know better than to believe anything authorities say.

My favorite entry is the one on Adam, where Voltaire pretends not to understand how Adam could be the father of all humankind and yet no one in China seems to have heard of him. Not heard of their original forefather? Voltaire suggests that it must have been a very effective campaign indeed to have so thoroughly destroyed all the monuments that must once have been erected to him, and all the writings other than the Bible that told the same story. Fellow philosophers did not escape his pen, the most notable being Leibniz, whose philosophy of optimism is dismantled by the adventures of Voltaire’s most famous character, Candide. Anecdotes about Voltaire reveal that he practiced in his life the same disdain for authority and illogic.

Stories abound, such as the one Voltaire recounts to my protagonist, Lili, in Finding Emilie. He tells her he once told a police officer searching his room for contraband writing, that he threw the materials down the privy. The officer probed the excrement-filled privy with such enthusiasm that sewage ended up spraying the tavern downstairs when a pipe burst. Voltaire never discarded any papers at all. He just wanted a fit punishment for someone who did not dare to think, and who made his living enforcing censorship laws. Voltaire was rich, having gotten his initial wealth from a successful strategy to manipulate a glitch in the French lottery and win the grand prize.

By the time he needed a new retreat near the Swiss border, he had enough money to purchase not just the chateau at Ferney but the entire town. The tiny town’s church spoiled the view from the chateau, so Voltaire tore it down without church permission, intending to build another in a new location. The church went on the attack, demanding he rebuild on the hallowed ground where it once stood. Voltaire had no choice but to go along. A Deist, he believed that God created and ran the universe through natural law, and that the church distorted that reality through ludicrous doctrines and stories. Above the new church door Voltaire had a different kind of dedication carved: Deo Erexit Voltaire, “Voltaire erected this church to God.” The church in his town would not be named for a saint, based on the foolish notion that some heavenly being would intercede for the people of Ferney. It would honor the God of the Deists, and nothing further. The inscription and the pyramid-shaped tomb he had built to be his final resting place, half in and half out of the church, can be seen by visitors to the Chateau at Ferney today. The town itself was renamed Ferney-Voltaire in his honor. Voltaire is actually entombed in the Pantheon in Paris, but like all the great men honored there, he had painful shortcomings. Many of his writing are painfully anti-Semitic, and he took credit that really belonged to Emilie du Châtelet for scientific work they undertook together. His plays and poetry, for which he was best known at the time, are so dated they are hardly ever read. Still, there is no question Voltaire led one of the great lives of his, or any era, and that he is indeed the undisputed bad boy of the Enlightenment.

Thank you, Laurel. We wish you the best of success with FINDING EMILIE! To find out more about Laurel and her work, please visit her website.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guest post from Nan Hawthorne, author of BELOVED PILGRIM

I'm delighted to welcome Nan Hawthorne, author of AN INVOLUNTARY KING and her latest novel, BELOVED PILGRIM. Set during the disastrous Crusade of 1101, this is the tale of a discontented Bavarian noblewoman who dons her late twin brother's armor and identity and sets out to forge a new life for herself. In midst of adventure and tragedy she discovers honor is not always where one expects it and that true love can come in the form of another woman. Nan has graciously offered us this guest post celebrating her new book's release.

Please join me in welcoming Nan Hawthorne!

Women Fighters in the Crusades
By Nan Hawthorne

One of the challenges an author has in writing historically accurate novels about the Middle Ages is whether sources from that time can be trusted. A combination of alternate sources, archeological evidence, and just plain common sense over and over has put what clerical chroniclers set down as fact in doubt. Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this fact is writing about the Crusades. Another is any writing at all about women. If you take what the Church writers record as the sole evidence, there were no women at the Crusades. They were certainly discouraged from going, though in fact as the mass of pilgrims were not military, coupled with the fact that both soldiers and other pilgrims brought their families, it is clear that in fact plenty of women were present. There are, of course, famous examples of noble women who went to the Crusades, most notably Eleanor of Aquitaine when she traveled with her first husband, the King of France. But for all her play-acting at being an Amazon warrior, she did not in fact fight.

What constitutes fighting? We have a tendency to interpret the fighter as the knight, or at least, a man at arms. There were documented female knights, but they were not necessarily fighters. More likely a woman knight would be the mistress of lands under fealty to an overlord, obligated to provide armed men for his use. But the mounted knight and even the man at arms is not the whole picture of a Crusader. Women could and did use bows and could participate in many aspects of siege warfare, part and parcel of the Crusades. It is a sort of classism and sexism that makes us see the woman’s involvement as lesser and therefore not credit it as fighting.

Recent consideration of Moslem sources and points of view offers alternate evidence of women in battle. The role of women in a siege is a perfect example. At Acre Moslem chroniclers describe in detail the women’s remains found afterward on the battlefield, women who wore some armor and carried weapons. The Church chroniclers do not admit to this, but the Moslem writers dispassionately acknowledge that Christian women fought alongside their husbands and brothers. The fact is that the question is not whether women fought but whether their participation in fighting was recorded. Christians were just one side of the conflict. Islam has numerous female warriors in its tradition. Though not specifically involved in the Crusades Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah was a female fighter who fought at the Battle of Uhud with the army of Muhammad. Sharifa Fatima was a Zaydi chief in 15th century Yemen, and conquered San'a.

Looking at other conflicts in history one finds instances of women fighting along with men. Even in the Middle Ages there are numerous examples of women who fought, not only Joan of Arc, but also Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and other warrior queens. Of the common soldier there is ample evidence of women fighting in, for example, the American Civil War. In that conflict women not only fought, but they joined the army and passed as men in order to do so. There are dozens of such accounts, revealing that it is not impossible for a woman to get away with passing as a man. They not only could, they did. If this happened in earlier wars, they simply would not have been counted as women fighters but included among the men.

When I was first working on Beloved Pilgrim someone asserted to me that swords were huge and heavy and no woman’s wrist was strong enough to wield one. Then how does one account for the many women who did in fact wield swords? As author Brandy Purdy quipped, “Joan of Arc did not go into battle wielding an embroidery needle.” There are strong men and weak men, and there are strong women and weak women. With the right physique and training a woman most certainly can wield any number of weapons. This is clearly not evidence none did.

It is a novelist’s job to speculate, for instance, what it would take for a woman to be accepted as a knight in order to construct a credible story. My heroine, Elisabeth, grows up training alongside her brother. She is the essential tomboy, and she is not a pretty little slip of a thing but tall, squarely built, and strong. If female Civil War soldiers could be accepted as men, then, I reasoned, so could she. Her motivation for this is complex, a mix of not wanting the role she is expected to fulfill of the passive wife of a baron, plus a positive wish to live with the freedom of a man in her social class and time. As a character, she fulfills a revelatory role. Being female she was not brought up with the values her brother was expected to adopt, making her a more objective observer of life as part of a crusading army, so I was able to illustrate the journey more fully with her unique point of view.

Did women fight in the Crusades? The answer is yes, but it is also “Why not?” I firmly believe women have always been part of armies and fought alongside men, and I believe as well that I created a character who fits what such a woman must be.
For the sake of brevity I have not listed my references here, but I will be happy to supply them on request to

Thank you, Nan. BELOVED PILGRIM is now available in print at and as an ebook on To learn more about Nan and her work please visit her at her at www,

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Winner of Margaret George's ELIZABETH I

According to random number generator, Colleen Turner is the winner of ELIZABETH I!
Congratulations, Colleen. Thank you to everyone who entered the contest; Margaret and I wish we had more copies to giveaway.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guest post by Kate Quinn, author of DAUGHTERS OF ROME

I must admit, I'm a sucker for almost anything set in ancient Rome. The tumult, the marble, the breastplates, the decadence - it all fascinates me. And when I started reading Kate Quinn's DAUGHTERS OF ROME, I expected to be drawn right in; after all, it doesn't take much for me. But I did not expect to be as enthralled as I am; not only does Ms Quinn's second novel (her first is the bestselling MISTRESS OF ROME) brim with witty dialogue and marvelous descriptions, but her four women protagonists - cousins, all, and each immersed in the deadly struggles of the epoch known as the Year of the Four Emperors - are vivid, true to their time, yet very much identifiable to us. It's sexy, transporting, addictive fiction and I'm thrilled that Ms Quinn has accepted my invitation to visit with this guest post.

Please join me in welcoming Kate Quinn!

The Woman Behind The Throne

by Kate Quinn

I was already thrilled when C.W. Gortner invited me to be a guest on his blog, but I was even more thrilled when he suggested “women in power” as a topic. Powerful women in historical settings have long been a fascination of mine – and I suspect for Christopher too, considering his splendid book on Catherine de'Medici (which I adored, by the way).

The idea of the woman behind the throne has existed as long as there have been men to sit on thrones in the first place. The beautiful woman whispering into the ear of a powerful man – whether the image makes you envious or just profoundly uneasy, it's irresistible. Of course, some women managed to sit on thrones in their own right, usually through some combination of birth, brains, and luck. But a great many more women had to wield power covertly: wives or mistresses who acted as advisors and sometimes puppet-masters for kings. These are the women I find especially interesting. It's one thing to issue directives from a throne – but a woman who is coming up with the directives and pulling the strings of the man who gets to do the issuing? What a tiring job. They deserve credit, if nothing else, for pulling double duty.

Ancient Rome never had an independent empress, but it was supplied with many influential emperors' wives. Augustus's wife Livia is probably the most famous powerful empress – everyone remembers her from the “I, Claudius” miniseries; wheeling, dealing, blithely murdering family members right and left to see her husband promoted and her son chosen to succeed him. Who knows if the historical Livia was really that ruthless, but certainly Augustus relied heavily on her advice and respected her opinions. No matter what kind of power she wielded behind the scenes, Livia was smart enough to present herself publicly as a simple Roman matron; Augustus was constantly bragging that his wife wasn't too proud to weave his tunics with her own hands, Empress or no. (I always picture Livia getting up from her desk full of official dispatches when she heard guests coming, weaving exactly two bands of cloth until they went away again, and then going right back to work while the servants finish the weaving.)

Livia was the first empress to work actively for the throne, but certainly not the last – a quartet of later Empresses known as “the four Julias” were so influential that no one bothered with the emperors themselves but simply went straight to the Mrs.

Other empresses were less influential. Sometimes this was by choice, but sometimes not – because it's no use trying to pull the strings of a powerful man unless he lets you pull them. Emperors like Augustus were happy to listen to their wives. Others like Nero were content to take orders from them. But others declined to take either orders or advice from their wives, and a woman might find herself trapped in a paradox: the most powerful and elevated woman in the empire, with no control over anything but the daily shopping list.

My novel Daughters of Rome is about the Year of Four Emperors, and thus presents a variety of men who wear the crown – along with my heroine Marcella, who has a talent for dropping the right word in the Imperial ear to produce the desired result. Emperor Galba was cranky but easy to lead around; just tell him it would save money and he was all yours. Charming Emperor Otho who succeeded him was much smarter, but he liked amusing women – present your advice well wrapped in witticisms over a good wine, and he'd be sold. Third Emperor Vitellius didn't care about much beyond his dinner and the chariot races; as long as you caught him in a good mood after his beloved Blues team won, he'd sign anything. But what happens when another emperor comes along whom Marcella can't manipulate? What's a smart girl to do then – keep trying, or give up and resign herself to weaving her husband's tunics?

That's why I love empresses. These crowned women standing behind their Imperial husbands and smiling, much like modern political wives – who's to tell what category they fell into? Did they whisper diplomacy over the pillow or keep their mouths shut when asked for political advice? Did they receive petitioners and sign Imperial documents on behalf of their husbands, or fume and rant as they were firmly shut out of the halls of power? You never know, looking at them. They all look so serene, just like their marble busts which survived them by a few millennia and reside in museums today. I like standing in front of those busts, looking at these women behind the throne and wondering, “What really went on in your head?”

None of them have given me an answer yet. But it doesn't stop me asking.

Thank you, Kate, and we wish all the best of success! To learn more about Kate and her work, please visit her website.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Winner of BLOODWORK!

The winner of BLOODWORK by Holly Tucker is Amy!! Please contact me at cwgortner [at] with your mailing address so I can alert the publicist.

Thank you to everyone who entered the contest. I wish we'd had more copies to giveaway but I hope you'll go ahead and buy one, as it's a fascinating read!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Q&A with Margaret George, author of ELIZABETH I

Today is the publication day for Margaret George's epic new novel, ELIZABETH I. Margaret graciously agreed to this interview, and in celebration of her book Historical Boys is offering a signed first edition of ELIZABETH I. See below the interview for entry details. Please join me in welcoming Margaret George again! HB: Congratulations on the publication of ELIZABETH I. It's an honor to have you with us. This is a vivid and compelling novel detailing the later years of Elizabeth I's reign and her long, often tumultuous relationship with Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth I is such an iconic figure, and she exerts endless fascination. What inspired you to write about this portion of her life, as opposed to, say, her younger years?
MG:I identified more with Elizabeth at the height of her power than with the ‘princess in peril’ of her youth. Also, I wanted to explore a time that is strangely neglected by writers---the years following the Armada. In many ways those were the most interesting, and certainly the most “Elizabethan”, since many of the big names come into their own then, such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Raleigh, Donne, Francis Bacon, and Robert Cecil. At the same time Elizabeth was grappling with her own issues of mortality and what would become of England after her death. This rich period is looked back on as the golden age of England.

HB: Lettice Knollys is often treated as either the ambitious lady who snagged Robert Dudley from under Elizabeth's unsuspecting nose or as the hapless object of the queen's ruthless jealousy. What interesting facts did you discover about Lettice? How is she different or similar to the myths surrounding her? Why do you think she presents such an intriguing counterfoil to the queen’s voice?
MG: Lettice was in many ways Elizabeth’s doppelganger. They shared similar coloring, intelligence, and personality, as well as being cousins. It must have been difficult for Lettice to see someone so like herself be given so much, while she, Lettice, had to fight for everything, and face setback after setback. It was almost a Cain and Abel story. On the other hand, Elizabeth could envy Lettice’s freedom. Just before I started writing, new evidence about Lettice’s age came to light in a family record, revealing Lettice as younger than previously thought---almost a decade younger than Elizabeth. Also, her time abroad in Basel as a young girl, when her staunch Puritan father had to flee England from “Bloody Mary”, must have stamped her in ways that Elizabeth had never experienced. Lettice knew what it was to be exiled, and to be a foreigner. If that taught her to be grasping, greedy, and calculating, still, I found her a sympathetic character. She reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara, vowing to never be hungry again, and with good reason.

HG: You are well known for your biographical novels of historical figures, from Henry VIII to Cleopatra to Mary Magdalene. What advantages or disadvantages did you find in terms of researching this particular novel? What decisions and/or compromises did you find yourself making as a writer when it came to telling Elizabeth’s story?
MG: Although Elizabeth is a familiar icon, and the nearest to our own time of anyone I’ve written about, she was a great mystery. She has a shell, a public persona that we all know and can see (there are more portraits of her than any other English monarch, but they may not really look like her at all, as she managed her image so carefully), and an inner self that is utterly guarded. We feel that she is hiding a secret of some sort, but we can’t guess what it is. She left no diary, no memoirs (in spite of many novelists writing them for her), very few personal letters. The poetry attributed to her is doubtful, and the anecdotes---usually illustrating her wit---are also of questionable authenticity. So I had to read between the lines and make educated guesses about what went on in her head. Since she didn’t want people to know what she was thinking, this was a challenge. A French ambassador said, “ She is a princess who knows how to transform herself as suits her best.” By limiting myself to one period of her life, I was able to cut down on the number of different facets I had to deal with. In the end I had to construct motivations that seemed the most likely to me, but as with everything connected with Elizabeth, I was taking a leap of faith---in my own ability to decipher her secret code.

HB: Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex was complex and is often misunderstood. What do you think motivated Essex to act as he did?
MG: Essex is a fascinating character but not a mysterious one like Elizabeth. He was a man born out of his time---he belonged in an earlier era when chivalry was in full flower, not in the cynical age he actually lived in. His gestures--- duels to settle matters of honor, his need for extravagant adventure and derring-do, and harking to military glory as a way to power---all point to that. He had outsized charm and much talent, and Elizabeth was drawn to that. She probably thought she could ‘tame’ him as she had his stepfather, Robert Dudley, and make him into a useful courtier. But, besides the Miniver Cheevy-like aspects of his personality, Essex seems to have suffered from a bipolar disorder that made him increasingly cut off from reality. It is dangerous to make a medical diagnosis on a historical character but his behavior---mood swings and grandiosity alternating with collapses and remorseful asceticism, point in that direction. That meant that sooner or later, since he was given huge public responsibilities he could not retire from, he was going to come to doom. Perhaps he just saw no way out and this was his way of ending it.

HB: Please tell us about methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity.
MG: I start by trying to find out everything about them---an ambitious undertaking! I feel that the more I know of hard facts, the more I will be able to connect the dots for the areas that are more shadowy. You know how they use sonar to make a grid on the ocean floor when looking for objects; that’s what I try to do with the facts. I record each month of a character’s life on one page of a spiral notebook, and every time I get a firm date for something I write it down, the big and the little alike. So, for May 1936 in Henry VIII’s life, I might write on the 19th: Anne Boleyn executed. On May 26th, I might record, “Henry is measured for a new green cape.” It becomes a sort of live-streaming video of his life. That gives me a feeling that I was really there and I know what happened. (Even if this is most likely not so as there were plenty of things he did in May 1536 that obviously weren’t recorded.)

I also, whenever I can, try to find someone I know, or know of, who may share traits with that character, so I can ‘see’ them in action. Often the historical character is a composite of real people I use for reference. Essex reminded me a bit of Jim Morrison---not that I actually ever met Jim Morrison. Of course Morrison’s personality and behavior was fueled by drugs and alcohol, whereas Essex’s was natural. Both were handsome, young, and self-destructive.

HB: How do you think this novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
MG: I was struck by the similarities between Obama and Elizabeth. “No drama Obama” has an echo in Elizabeth, who was profoundly grounded in Realpolitik and was a cautious, clear-sighted realist. Knowing that a cool head was the best way to survive a crisis, she always kept steady on course. In some ways she seems very modern to us, and the problems she faced are still ones we face. How to maintain command of a situation? What does it take to be a successful world leader? She didn’t sponsor any great building programs, sign any significant laws such as the Magna Carta, or conquer any territory---all the standard things a successful ruler should do. Yet she gave her name to an age. What she gave her people was what everyone still wants, and now demand of their world leaders: stability, peace, and pride in themselves and their country.

HB: If you can, please tell us about your next project.
MG: I’d like to do a novel about the conflict between Boudica, the warrior queen of Britain, and the emperor Nero, her ultimate adversary. With her enormous ‘people’s army’ and wheeled chariots, Boudica took the occupying Romans by surprise and destroyed Colchester, St Albans, and London itself. This all happened during the time in Nero’s rule when he had just finished getting rid of his bothersome mother and was turning into the Nero of legend. What outsized personalities, and what an interesting corner of history! I will probably do it as alternating first person accounts.

To enter to win a copy of ELIZABETH I, please leave a comment below telling us which of Margaret's previous novels is your favorite. You must be a follower of this blog; unfortunately, this contest is open to US residents only due to publisher territory restrictions. Contest ends on April 15..

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Guest Post from Margaret George, author of ELIZABETH I

Tomorrow, April 5, is the release day of my friend Margaret George's astonishing, epic account of the latter years of Queen Elizabeth I's reign: ELIZABETH I. The novel is told through the eyes of the queen herself and her longtime nemesis, Lettice Knollys, whose rivalry with Elizabeth carves a path of tragic destruction through both women's lives. Filled with Margaret's trademark penchant for detail, this is a vivid, sweeping look at the fabled Gloriana, from the invasion of the Armada in 1588 to Elizabeth's struggle to keep her final foes at bay.
A release by Margaret George is always an event, and this is the first of two posts I'll be posting in celebration of her new novel. Check back tomorrow for a Q&A with Margaret, along with the chance to win a signed first edition of ELIZABETH I.

Please join me in welcoming Margaret George.

Secrets of the Virgin Queen by Margaret George

Elizabeth Tudor, the second most famous virgin in the world, has been having a difficult time defending her virtue lately. People refuse to believe that she was a virgin. Since this question can never be definitively settled, the argument can go on forever - and it has. In her own day, opinions about the queen’s virginity had more to do with politics than with evidence. If you were Spanish or Italian or Portuguese and loyal to the pope, then you had to believe that she was an ‘incestuous bastard born of an infamous courtesan’ with the morals of her mother. The pope had issued declarations that she was not the rightful queen and that no one should recognize her as such. Her enemies spread stories about her immorality and lovers, showing how unfit she was for the throne. On the other hand, if you were a Protestant from Germany or Scandinavia or Scotland, the queen’s purity was fiercely defended. She was the guardian of the faith against the evil Armadas sent by the satanic forces of Spain, and God only protects the pure of heart and body. Elizabeth herself made no bones about her virginity. She claimed to have embraced it for the sake of her people, so that she could say, ‘I have been content to be a taper of pure virgin wax, to waste myself and spend my life that I might give light and comfort to those that live under me.’ She appropriated every symbol of virginity that she could - white dresses, selection of the eglantine rose as her emblem, paintings that featured herself with an ermine (a creature that would die rather than soil its white fur) and a sieve (a Roman test of virginity), the moon, and pearls.

But, did the lady protest too much? Was this all a coverup? And if so, who was her lover? Popular opinion, then and now, pointed to Robert Dudley as the chosen one. It’s certain that she came as close to being in love with him---if she was capable of being in love---as with anyone. He was a swashbuckling ladies man and known as a love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of guy. Clearly he had a lot to offer in that department. But did she take him up on it? Evidence would say not. There was no privacy at court, and her foreign enemies had spies everywhere who would have discovered this tasty tidbit, if it existed. More than that, even had there been an opportunity with ironclad privacy, her own psychology did not permit her to yield to anyone, not even for pleasure. “There will be but one mistress here and no master,” she warned Dudley. Hardly the thing you say to anyone you want to go to bed with. In those days the concept of the zipless f--- did not exist. In fact, being someone’s lover created a legal relationship with them, something she would have shunned. (At one time an obstacle to Henry VIII’s marriage with Anne Boleyn was that they were ‘related’ because Anne’s sister had been Henry’s mistress.) Safe in her marble tomb in Westminster Abbey, the queen kept her secret to the grave. We may never know the truth, and that’s exactly as she wanted it.

Thank you, Margaret. To learn more about Margaret and her work, please visit her website. Don't forget to come back tomorrow for a chance to win a copy of ELIZABETH I.