Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Guest post from Juliet Grey, author of DAYS OF SPLENDOR< DAYS OF SORROW

I'm delighted to welcome back Juliet Grey, who is currently on tour for DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, the second novel in her sumptuous trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette. The Historical Novels Review praises the novel as "[an] engaging voice, coupled with vibrant descriptions . . . really thrusts the reader into the story." Today, Juliet offers this fascinating guest post on the myth and reality of one of history's most misunderstood and defamed queens.  
Please join me in welcoming Juliet Grey!

EXONERATING MARIE ANTOINETTE: Separating Truth from Propaganda

DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, the second novel in my historical fiction trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette, focuses on the fifteen years she reigned alongside her husband, Louis XVI, from the death of his grandfather Louis XV in May, 1774, to the days following the violent fall of the Bastille in July 1789.

Paris, 1774. At the tender age of eighteen, Marie Antoinette ascends to the French throne alongside her husband, Louis XVI. But behind the extravagance of the young queen’s elaborate silk gowns and dizzyingly high coiffures, she harbors deeper fears for her future and that of the Bourbon dynasty.From the early growing pains of marriage to the joy of conceiving a child, from her passion for Swedish military attachĂ© Axel von Fersen to the devastating Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Marie Antoinette tries to rise above the gossip and rivalries that encircle her. But as revolution blossoms in America, a much larger threat looms beyond the gilded gates of Versailles—one that could sweep away the French monarchy forever.

Picking up, chronologically, where the first novel in the trilogy, BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, left off, DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW covers a lot of ground, from Marie Antoinette's early years as queen when the public loved her, to her struggles to consummate her marriage and bear France an heir, to the hedonistic pastimes and pleasures that filled her lonely hours and offered solace and compensation for the one thing she desired most in the world—children—to a scandalous and clandestine romance, to the disastrous "affair of the diamond necklace," which enmeshed her in the greatest con game of the century and although she was innocent, damaged her already tarnished reputation beyond measure.

For more than two centuries, beginning with her reign (as the accusations started during her lifetime), Marie Antoinette has been blamed for France’s ills. Her purported lover, the Swedish diplomat Axel von Fersen wrote to his sister Sophie Piper that she was even blamed for the results of acts of Nature such as bad harvests. If women overspent on their wardrobes she was accused of bankrupting the nation by encouraging them to follow the fashionable trends she set. She was even accused of corrupting the kingdom’s morals because some women took lovers to afford to keep them in costly garments, jewels, and accessories, when their husbands could no longer afford to do so—as if it their extramarital decisions were Marie Antoinette’s personal responsibility!

If I had a nickel for everyone who mistakenly attributes the “Let them eat cake” quote to Marie Antoinette and miscasts her as a monarch who was tone-deaf to the needs of her husband’s subjects, I could afford to live in a penthouse overlooking Central Park.  Those who know me well have witnessed my reaction, which can be anything from a cringe to outright vitriol, especially when the ignorance is perpetrated by a journalist (who should be smart enough to know better) or a politician (regurgitating the propaganda-as-history lesson that he snoozed through in school), flinging mud at his opponent by characterizing him as Marie Antoinette.  It’s an insult to the queen and a complete misread of both her character and of the historical record.  But history as we all know is written by the winners and Marie Antoinette is the French Revolution’s most famous victim, even more  so than her husband Louis XVI, because as queen of France she was a mere consort with no political power whatsoever.

And the truth is that France was broken before Marie Antoinette arrived there at the age of fourteen, already the dauphin’s bride by proxy. The entire court lived large, with each member of the royal family having their own satellite court and entourage. They even had their own separate kitchens. The first Two Estates, the clergy and the nobility (who held the lion's share of the wealth) did not pay taxes; consequently, the Third Estate—everyone else—was forced to foot the bill for just about everything, and when there were natural disasters, such as bad harvests, laborers and tradesmen had nothing to pay. King Louis XV had already emptied the treasury long before Marie Antoinette got there, fighting the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Every time a progressive minister proposed levying taxes on the first Two Estates, the Parlements (the judicial bodies that voted to ratify a king's edicts, and which were comprised of clergy and nobility), voted down the proposal. It was akin to a U.S. President proposing that taxes be raised on the wealthy, and the congressmen and senators who represent the interests of the wealthiest citizens consistently voting down the bill so that the wealthiest citizens continued to be tax exempt and the poorest, who could least afford it, kept getting shafted. And yet the poorest citizens didn't realize that it was the Parlements who were standing in the way of tax relief. So they blamed the king. And they blamed Louis (and Marie Antoinette) because their heads were being filled with propaganda against them.

Additionally, because Marie Antoinette was a foreigner, and, moreover, came from Austria, which had been an enemy of France for 950 years prior to the treaty that paved the way for her marriage, she became the scapegoat. She was even mistrusted by others at court who never endorsed her marriage in the first place. The poor woman couldn't do anything right.  Yes, she spent a lot of money, but so did everyone else at court, especially the king's youngest brother, the comte d'Artois, whose gambling debts were legion. (Artois was detested by the people as well, and he was one of the people falsely accused of being one of Marie Antoinette's lovers). But Marie Antoinette's shopaholicism was not responsible for bankrupting France. The kingdom was already in deep financial straits; several dozen gowns and pairs of shoes barely made a dent in the budget; unfortunately, they were visible signs of extravagance that the people could relate to

France's commitment in 1778 to aid the American colonists in their bid for independence from the British crown also contributed mightily to her financial woes. A series of bad harvests in the late 1780s compounded matters, and those acts of Nature, added to the plans to increase taxes on those who truly didn't have the cash to pay, spurred the commoners to heed the calls to arms from the demagogues who began to foment rebellion. What many people don't realize is that the seeds of the French Revolution were sown from the top down. From the moment she became queen, Marie Antoinette alienated many of the courtiers of the old guard who had been accustomed to certain perquisites during the reign of Louis XV. She detested court etiquette and not only downsized her entourage, but was determined not to surround herself with the "toxic" people who had derided her when she was dauphine, preferring to be waited upon by only a few close friends, people who had not earned their perqs through centuries of service to the crown. So, she began by alienating the aristocracy (some of whom had their own printing presses in their apartments at Versailles), and never imagined that her actions would come back to bite her. Add to that the liberty fever that had imbued the French noblemen who'd served as the commanders of mercenary regiments in North America during America’s War of Independence. These enlightened men had already read the treatises of the 18th c. philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. They saw that self-governance could work in America and wanted a taste of it themselves.
DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW offers an intimate window into the queen's personal and family life as well as a view of the opulent Bourbon court and the schemers behind the scenes who contributed to the public opinion of Marie Antoinette as the symbol for everything that was wrong with the kingdom. The novel charts the events throughout Marie Antoinette and Louis’s reign that led to the storming of the Bastille.  While it is of course fiction, it is grounded in historical fact, offering a view into the monarchs’ hearts and souls and illuminating the greater truths that lie behind nearly 250 years of spin doctoring. 

Thank you, Juliet! Best of luck with this rich and vibrant novel. To learn more about Juliet and her work, please visit her website.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Giveaway for SACRED TREASON by James Forrester

I'm delighted to offer a giveaway of SACRED TREASON by James Forrester, with the generosity of his US publisher, Sourcebooks.

Set in 1563, rumors against the young Queen Elizabeth have plunged England into a state of fear and suspicion. Despite being descended from treasonous Catholic lineage, William Harley has managed to earn the high-ranking position in the queen’s court, until a late-night knock on the door changes his life. A friend visits William, begging him to hide a puzzling manuscript. It seems harmless, but as William begins to unravel the clues inside, he realizes that he’s been entrusted with a dangerous secret about the queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn – an explosive mix of faith and fear that could tear his family, and the country, apart.

Acclaimed historian Ian Mortimer is well-versed in the drama of Tudor times. A Fellow of Royal Historical Society, his non-fiction handbook The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England was a surprise bestseller in 2009. Inspired by Mortimer’s research in the British National Archives, Sacred Treason is the first installment in an electrifying trilogy set in the tumultuous early years of Elizabethan England. Published under the pseudonym James Forrester, this is the historian’s first novel, combining factual detail with a chilling conspiracy.

To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment here on this post. The giveaway is open to US and Canada residents only. The winner will be announced here on November 5. Please do check back to see if you have won, so we can obtain your mailing address to send the book.

Thank you and good luck to all!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest Post from Jeri Westerson, author of BLOOD LANCE

I'm delighted to welcome back Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest historical noir series. Jeri has received resounding acclaim for her novels; set in 14th century London, her hero, Crispin, is a disgraced knight turned detective, trying to eke out a living while seeking to restore his fortunes. Jeri's stories are full of hard-hitting action and characters with secrets. And there’s the added twist of murder and a relic with mystical powers that always seem to stir things up. In celebration of the release of BLOOD LANCE, the fifth installment in the series, Jeri offers us this guest post about that most iconic of London's attractions: The Bridge.

London Bridge
By Jeri Westerson

What do you think of when you hear the words “London Bridge”? Do you hear the nursery rhyme? You know the one:
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

The origins of nursery rhymes are hard to trace and this one is no different. It is likely from a seventeenth century rhyme incorporated with an arch game people played in the Middle Ages, where participants join hands to form an arch with folks dancing under it. At an appropriate part of the rhyme or song, someone is trapped, like musical chairs without the chairs.

No matter the origins, London Bridge itself has been an important part of London’s landscape for almost 2,000 years. The Romans built a bridge across the river Thames where the embankments on both sides of the river were high, and where the indigenous people probably forded the river when the tide was low far before a bridge was ever built.

But a bridge was eventually constructed many times over that same spot for many hundreds of years, well after the Romans left. In Roman times, it probably started off life as a simple wooden bridge. But as Britannia became more important to the empire and as more commerce came through Londinium, a grander wooden bridge was probably erected. Empires fell and England began its many fights for power of the realm. The bridge fell into disrepair and only built up again in order to move troops when the Saxons wanted to assert power. When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he rebuilt the bridge yet again, but in 1091, a freak tornado destroyed it. It was once again rebuilt by his son William II but it was again destroyed in 1136, this time by fire, and rebuilt in the mid-twelfth century. Under King Henry II in the latter part of the twelfth century, a monastic guild, the "Brethren of the Bridge", was created to oversee all work on the bridge, and in 1163 the last timber bridge was built. It was in stone ever after that and that made all the difference to commerce for the city.

London was always an important center and capital, and it now had a bridge to match it. London Bridge joined the north bank (where anyone who is anyone lived and worked) with the south bank, or Southwark (where brothels and some of the poorer neighborhoods dwelt. Eventually, in Shakespeare’s day, it was also the side where the theatres were erected, since actors were thought of little better than whores.)
Meanwhile, London’s Bridge—and incidentally, its only bridge—became more and more grand. And you had to pay a toll to cross. Either you paid the Bridge’s toll or you paid a ferryman to ferry you across in a boat. It might be more convenient and more covert to hire a ferryman in the dead of night, particularly if you were up to no good, but the Bridge was mostly the way to go.
Because London was so bustling, space was at a premium. It was tough to expand outward as much of the land surrounding the formerly walled city was pasture and belonged to others, and so they built upward, medieval skyscrapers, if you will, reaching two and sometimes three storeys high situated in crowded canyon-like streets and alleys. And the bridge was not immune to this building. Houses, shops, and even a chapel were erected on the bridge itself, cantilevering its structures over the churning Thames, going two and three storeys high.

When I set out to write my latest Crispin Guest Medieval Noir novel, BLOOD LANCE, I wanted to focus on London Bridge. It was its own city within a city, and in fact, was its own parish. Much of the action takes place on the bridge, including a climactic joust, which was based on real jousts that were held there. London Bridge, with its closed-knit community, suspicious of outsiders, seemed the perfect setting for a murder, and what better murder than a man hurtling into the chilling Thames below? Consequently, the Bridge becomes another character in the story, a stoic parade of stone arches with buildings huddled on its shoulders, fearful of interlopers, and a silent witness to murder.

Thank you, Jeri. Best of luck with the new novel.You can read more about BLOOD LANCE and the other books in Jeri’s series, see discussion guides and read Crispin’s blog at Jeri's website.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest post from Mary Sharratt, author of ILLUMINATIONS

I am delighted to welcome Mary Sharratt, author of ILLUMINATIONS, a novel based on the life of the famous Benedictine abbess, healer and mystic, Hildegard von Bingen. Mary is the acclaimed author of several novels, including The Vanishing Point and Daughters of the Witching Hill. In her latest book, she brings to vivid life the travails and triumphs of the 12th century nun who became one of the world's most accomplished women - a composer whose music is still recorded today as well as a skilled healer and powerful philosopher. In celebration of Illuminations' publication, which coincides with Hildegard's elevation as Doctor of the Church, Mary offers us this guest post about her character's astonishing gifts.

Please join me in welcoming Mary Sharratt.

Hildegard the Healer by Mary Sharratt

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary Benedictine abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.  Eight hundred and seventy-three years after her death, Hildegard was canonized in May 2012. On October 7, she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. 

But Hildegard was also a physician and healer who developed her own highly original style of medical treatment and holistic dietary philosophy.  Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-543), the founder of her order, expressly forbade the study of medicine, which in his era derived solely from texts written by pagans such as Hippocrates and Galen. Benedict believed that prayer alone must suffice in healing Christians.

By Hildegard’s time, monasteries had become centers of healing and embraced the medical knowledge of the Classical pagan world along with the pioneering work of the Arab and Persian physicians. Nearly every monastic house had its own infirmary, hospice, apothecary, and medicinal garden. Hildegard would have had ample opportunity to train as a physician and apothecarer at Disibodenberg Monastery, a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, where she had lived since the age of eight.

Author photo by Anne Bullen
In his essay, “Hildegard’s Medicine: A Systematic Science of Medieval Europe,” Kevin Anthony Hay suggests that Hildegard trained as an infirmarer at Disibodenberg under the guidance of a senior monk before she later took charge of the infirmary. After she and her nuns left Disibodenberg to found their own community at Rupertsberg, she wrote Causae et Curae, her main medical text, possibly so the new infirmarer at Disibodenberg could benefit from her knowledge and expertise. When designing the new abbey at Rupertsberg, Hildegard made sure to include a medicinal steambath. People throughout her region came to Rupertsberg to receive healing.

In the Middle Ages, women freely practiced the medical arts. The School of Salerno, the first medieval European medical school and the epicenter of Western medical science, included both women instructors and students. One such instructor was the 11th century Trotula whose treatise on women’s health that bears her name, de Trotula, was used for centuries after her death. It was not until the mid- 16th century that European women were formally forbidden to study and practice as physicians.  

Hay believes Hildegard was unique among female practitioners of her time because her medicine didn’t focus solely on female complaints and also because she developed a systematic, scientific, and holistic understanding of medicine that rivaled what was coming out of Salerno, even though she had never received any formal university training. For Hildegard, medicine was an integral part of her religious vocation. Her medicine mirrors her theology—she believed that humans existed as the microcosm within the macrocosm of the universe and, as such, mirrored the splendor of creation. But if one fell into disharmony with the innate wholeness of creation, illness resulted. This could be treated through rest, herbal cures, steam baths, a proper diet, and by making one’s peace with the divine order. She identified precancerous states and developed herbal remedies to treat them before the cancer could develop. Naturopathic doctors in modern Germany still practice “Hildegard Medizin” and work with her dietary philosophy. She was a big fan of spelt bread. She warned that water could be unhealthy to drink and could cause illness, but that beer was most wholesome and pleasing to God. She was credited for discovering the use of hops to preserve beer. 

If you are visiting Hildegard sites in Germany, be sure to stop at the Hildegard Forum, just across the Rhine from the Saint Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen. The Forum is run by religious sisters who offer outreach for the public to learn more about Hildegard, particularly her philosophy of holistic healing and nutrition. They manage a café and restaurant; offer seminars and retreats; and maintain an orchard and a medieval-style herb garden.

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Book of the Month and One Spirit Book Club pick. Visit Mary at her website.