Review of Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin. (Amazon)

This clever novel has been skillfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material and official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’.

The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is who is far more than a mere fortune-teller: Bezons, a young, somewhat naïve police agent; the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin; and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Chateau de Versailles

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is no overly-dramatic action in this novel and at times it feels rather static. Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. Initially, I wondered when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work.

(This review was originally published for Discovering Diamonds on 5th June, 2017: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/p/our-reviewers.html)

A Tudor Trilogy

Interview with Tony Riches, author of ‘HENRY’

Book Three of The Tudor Trilogy

My guest today is Tudor specialist Tony Riches, author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy.

 

 

 

 

Tony, where did the idea for writing the Tudor trilogy come from?

I began looking into the life of Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen, and was surprised to discover his amazing story. As my research progressed I began to collect fascinating details of the lives of Owen’s sons, Edmund and Jasper. I realised that if I planned it as a trilogy, Henry Tudor would be born in the first book, come of age in the second and become King of England in the final book.

 Why do you think this is the first full-length novel about Henry Tudor?

Everyone from Shakespeare to Alison Weir has written about Henry, but this trilogy is the first time his full story has been told through historical fiction. Even at the Bosworth re-enactment you would hardly believe Henry was victorious, as ‘Ricardians’ outnumber Tudor supporters by more than ten to one. Schools and TV historians can’t wait to get on to Henry VIII and his six wives, and Henry has too often been dismissed as the ‘miserly’ king. The truth is, as so often the case, far more complex and his story deserves to be told.

 What surprised you about the ‘real’ Henry Tudor?

Far from being ‘miserly’ I found Henry loved gambling with cards and dice and lost huge sums more often than he won. He also kept detailed records of who he’d played against (which included his wife, Elizabeth of York) and how much he’d lost. As well as lions and other dangerous animals, which he kept at the Tower of London, he kept a pet monkey, thought to be a marmoset, in his private chambers. (One day he discovered it had torn up his detailed diary, so there is a gap in his meticulous records.) I’m certain he loved Elizabeth of York but when the pretender Perkin Warbeck was finally captured, Henry was so enamoured of Warbeck’s wife, Lady Katheryn Gordon, he kept them both in his household – but wouldn’t let them sleep together. He also bought Lady Katheryn expensive dresses and she became a close companion and confidante, even after Henry had her husband executed!

 What did you find most difficult about the research for this book?

Henry escaped to exile in Brittany at the age of fourteen and remained there until he sailed to take the throne with his invasion fleet at the age of twenty-eight. I struggled to understand how he spent those formative years (often described as ‘uneventful’) so decided to follow in his footsteps, all the way from Pembroke Castle to the remote Forteresse de Largoët, deep in the forest outside the town of Elven in Brittany.

Amazingly, I was able to climb the Dungeon Tower through a dark high stairway lit only by small window openings. Henry Tudor’s rooms were full of cobwebs and signs in French warned of a danger of falling masonry, but this first hand research really helped me understand what Henry’s life there might have been like. Although it was called the ‘dungeon tower’, in subsequent research I discovered intriguing details at the National Library of Wales which suggest Henry Tudor enjoyed more freedom at this time than is generally imagined. The papers claim that, ‘by a Breton lady’, Henry Tudor fathered a son, Roland Velville, whom he knighted after coming to the throne.

 What will you write next, now you’ve completed the Tudor trilogy?

I’ve moved on one generation of Tudors for each of the past three years, so thought it would be interesting to write about the life of Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. Reputed to be a great beauty, Mary was only eighteen when she became Queen of France, married off by her brother Henry VIII to the fifty-two-year-old King Louis XII. I’m also looking forward to writing about her womanising second husband, one of the last true Tudor knights and Henry VIII’s lifelong friend, Charles Brandon. The Tudor trilogy may be completed – but the story of the Tudors continues!

About the Author

Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, with his wife and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

Tony Riches’ books can be found on: Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU

 

A Place in History

There is a cave in Iceland that I will always remember. It is a place I have never been, but Karen Maitland took me there in Falcons of Fire and Ice and I have never been able to forget it. There is a valley full of butterflies and venomous little snakes on the Isle of Rhodes, and a besieged castle on the Isle of Crete, Dorothy Dunnett took me to both – and Constantinople and medieval Bruges. She took me over rooftops in sixteenth century Blois as well. I can think of many memorable places that I have never visited but somehow cannot forget.

What strange and wonderful power is this that enables an author to create a place so completely in words that a reader will see it in her mind’s eye for years to come? It is an aspect of good story writing often overlooked. Historical fiction reviews, articles and conference panels say much about characters and what they did – the wilder and sadder royals, infamous rogues and feisty heroines – far less is ever said about where their stories unfold. Yet these locations have often inspired the telling in the first place.

This is how Karen Maitland found the cave I remember so clearly and why she had to write about it:
“I was in Iceland. A guide took me to a hillside in the snow and vanished. He had dropped down into narrow slit in the ground, invisible unless you were standing next to it. I followed him down the shaft, scrambling over rocks which formed a natural ladder. At the bottom was a broad stone ledge around a thermal pool. Viking women used come down to give birth in the warm water and the old people were brought into the cave in the bitter winter snows to live on the rock ledges, which were always warm. During the persecutions of the Reformation, local Icelanders hid in the cave and worshipped in the old ways, knowing it would mean a terrible death if they were caught. About twenty years before I went down, the water temperature in the pool suddenly shot up to over 200 degrees centigrade. The water was gradually cooling, though still too hot to touch, and the cave was full of white steam rising from the water. As I stood there, I could almost see and hear the ghosts of all those people who had hidden in the cave over the centuries. It was as if they were circling around me in the silent white mist, whispering their stories.

P.D. James said her crime novels always began with a location. The air, the atmosphere, what she could see and hear and smell not only set the tone for the story, they became the story. Her characters and plots came later. The manner in which historical fiction authors conjure the streets along which their characters walk or ride, the countryside they traverse, the shape and sound of Regency tea rooms, the dampness of dungeons, the musky sweat of unwashed uniforms in wartime dance halls . . . adds significantly to the quality of a book. This description, however, has to be handled carefully, pared down so it does not intrude. A good writer employs the five senses in their descriptions, but with the lightest of touch: a mere whiff of cinnamon in a Goan spice warehouse; the flicker of sunlight on leaves before a forest glade ambush . . . Just enough for the reader to imagine a scene. For this, the author may have done weeks, months of research; travelled hundreds, even thousands of miles. All for a few apt words on a page.

Knowing a place well obviously helps a writer re-create it in words, but in historical fiction this is not enough because the author has to also imagine what that place was like many years ago. Writing about a place in the past – a castle, a workhouse, a landscape – requires significant research because places change; towns grow and absorb villages; villages disappear under volcanoes; forests are felled to provide grazing for sheep; railways are built where canals boats once plied their trade. Entire landscapes change.

Let’s examine these two aspects of setting and location in historical novels a little further. Firstly, when a particular place inspires an author to write about a certain epoch or event, then how and why most authors visit and explore the locations in which their characters lived. To do this I asked authors to comment on their experiences and research, and what or where has moved them to create a novel.

Hilary Green’s Never Say Goodbye grew out of seeing roadside plaques to members of the Resistance in the French Comte region then standing in front of a memorial in the castle of Besançon, where many had been executed.

Ruth Downie was impelled to write after a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. What inspired her, though, was what was not there: tombstones for the women who lived with and worked for the occupying Romans.

I was once in the National Trust property Cotehele in Cornwall, preparing to write a sequel to a twentieth century novel when an entirely new story set in the seventeenth century emerged unbidden from the rooms and the portraits on the wall – the view from the roof gave me the absurd fight scene at the end of The Chosen Man before I had even begun.

Monuments and the effect they have on writers can lie dormant for years – until one day that place is just right for a certain story. As a teenager, Joanna Hickson visited Orford Castle, years later that visit became a children’s story, Rebellion at Orford Castle. As an adult, a visit to the Chateau Vincennes outside Paris, where Henry V died, and where ‘the solemn tragedy of (that) event seemed to have seeped into the walls’, reduced her to tears. It was, she says, ‘a story that had to be told’.

This in itself is a little explored aspect of how authors see and present places in their fiction. The story that develops out of a visit somewhere can be heavily influenced by the mood that place generates. And perhaps the mood the author is in at the time. Elizabeth Freemantle tells of her visit to the Elizabethan house Hardwicke Hall in Derbyshire, which inspired The Girl in the Glass Tower: ‘The place is perched on a hill surveying the surrounding countryside and in my mind it became a glorious prison (for the tragic royal girl, Arbella Stuart)’. Had she visited on another day would the way the daylight lit the walls or her inner feelings have resulted in a quite different novel?

Personal experiences and private histories also influence how writers see places. Living far from home across the world in a remote region of New Zealand, Martine Bailey’s sense of being alien meant she was able to empathise with European women who had been there long ago, some of whom who had been captured by the Maori. The experience led to her writing The Penny Heart. Tom Williams’ first book The White Rajah came out of a visit to Sarawak in Borneo, where he came across the story of James Brooke. To tell the story in greater depth, he travelled up-river to stay with the Dyaks. When it came to writing about the area his own sense of adventure, facing potential dangers and difficulties, can only have informed his writing.

This leads back to how and why authors research locations for their novels. Characters in novels need to act and interact in appropriate and credible settings. Authors also need to check storylines are feasible. This research can lead to surprising and awkward discoveries. While writing Threads of Treason, Mary Bale used ‘a fabulous map of the coastline of Kent as it was during the period of (her) book’ only to find the coastline had changed so much that Lympne, which is now well inland was once by the sea.

Michelle Birkby, writing about The Women of Baker Street, and Sally Zigmond, writing about Harrogate in Hope against Hope, both say that when their characters walk down a street they have to know what they’ll pass on the way, what they’ll smell and hear. As mentioned earlier, in order for a reader to see what is happening in their mind’s eye some writers go to extra-ordinary lengths – and distances – following in their protagonists’ footsteps, even travelling to wild, unpopulated places.

Janet Kellough’s books about the saddlebag preacher Thaddeus Lewis set in nineteenth century Upper Canada (now Ontario) involved exploring the regions he covered, the northern shores of the Great Lakes, even the backcountry.

Closer to a British home, Anna Mazzola has recently travelled up to Skye to find the ‘treeless, bleak, beautiful and sometimes frightening’ spot where her upcoming novel involving dark folkloric beliefs unfolds. Jason Hewitt describes how during his research for Devastation Road he took the same journey as his protagonist, sketching out ideas for scenes as he went ‘a bit like an artist making rough sketches before he returns to his studio to produce the final work’.

Walking where real people of fictitious characters walked to then describe what they might have seen, touched, sensed long, long ago, can be one of the drawbacks to writing historical fiction, though, because it requires time and sometimes considerable expenditure. Is it necessary? Is it worth it? Yes – precisely because the author has to convey what was real then – if not, it’s fantasy?

As someone who is currently writing about Portuguese Goa in the seventeenth century, I agree with Ruth Downie, Google can only take you so far. Re-creating what any place was like in a certain period is, ultimately, an act of imagination, but for it to be effective and affective, it is better if it comes from what the writer has actually experienced.

J.G. Harlond

Photos: Hardwicke Hall – Barry Skeates, Hadrian’s Wall – Ruth Downie, image of Stoney Lake – Janet Kellough.

This article was first published in the Historical Writers’ magazine ‘Historia’: http://www.historiamag.com/a-place-in-history

 

Plague and Tulips: gambling in a time of pestilence.

The first recorded economic bubble, ‘tulipomania’, occurred in the Dutch United Provinces between 1635 and 1637. The 1630s were a period of intense political and religious intrigue, when Pope Urban VIII appeared to be supporting Spain’s attempt to reclaim her lost territories in the Netherlands, but was actually conspiring to limit the size and power of the Habsburg Empire, Continue reading “Plague and Tulips: gambling in a time of pestilence.”

My ‘PORRIDGE & CREAM’

Sandra Danby asked various people about their ‘comfort reads’ – which books do they always go back to? Here is my response.

DDMy ‘Porridge & Cream’ novels are in the House of Níccolò series by the late Scots author Dorothy Dunnett. I became hooked on her sixteenth century Game of Kings series featuring the exquisite Francis Crawford of Lymond in the 1970s. Continue reading “My ‘PORRIDGE & CREAM’”

The Act of Writing Historical Fiction.

Fiction writers are essentially liars. Historical fiction writers are thieves as well.

Readers of fiction enter a deal whereby they knowingly suspend disbelief, and believe what they are told. Readers of historical fiction do not have to suspend disbelief, but they knowingly accept stolen goods – unless the tale has been legitimately inherited as in Karen Charlton’s Catching the Eagle. Continue reading “The Act of Writing Historical Fiction.”

Writing historical fiction – when & why.

Which epoch and why? #1
JGH: ‘I write stories set in the seventeenth century and the early twentieth century.’

Question: ‘Why those epochs?’

Good question. Let’s look at some clichés first: Roman sword’n’sandal stories are bloody and exciting; the War of the Roses is full of intrigue; Tudor novels are sexy; Regency novels are titillating; Victorian novels are upstairs and downstairs; and World War stories are full love, loyalty and family suffering. But the seventeenth century has it all – and Continue reading “Writing historical fiction – when & why.”