Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking back on 2014: A dozen excellent historical reads

This is another of those "favorite books" posts that have been springing up on numerous blogs at the end of the year.  I thought about coming up with 10, but that was too difficult, so I decided on a dozen and choosing even those was a challenge.

According to Goodreads, I read 109 books during 2014, and most were strong, good-looking, and above average.  A fair many were excellent, and if I thought about my picks even more, I might have come up with a different list.  These are all books I read during the last year, even if they were published earlier, or will be published later.

I found it interesting to see there isn't much overlap with the Goodreads list for Best Historical Fiction, as voted on by readers.  I've read only five of the 20 finalists, and just two (My Name Is Resolute and Secret Life of Violet Grant) made it to my list.  Another, Emma Donoghue's Frog Music, was outstanding, but I read it as an ARC in 2013. 

Hope you all had a good reading year, and I'm looking forward to the new crop of books in 2015. Thanks for reading along with me.

And now for the list.  The links lead to my reviews of the books, if they exist.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Knopf, 2014). Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario: the French, the Iroquois, and the Huron (Wendat). Despite the cultures’ disparate beliefs, the author remains clear-sighted and impartial, and the scenes of Native spirituality are beautifully rendered.

Alix Christie, Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper, 2014). This gorgeously written debut, an inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible. I hadn’t heard of Peter Schoeffer or his important historical role before this, and it was a revelation.

Charles Finch, The Laws of Murder (Minotaur, 2014). Set in 1876 London and featuring gentleman detective Charles Lenox as he gets pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation with links to his own past, this stellar mystery is chock full of atmosphere and twisty, dramatic surprises. I jumped into Finch's series with this 8th volume without much trouble.

C. W. Gortner, Mademoiselle Chanel (William Morrow, 2015). Disclaimer: the author is a good friend, and I read this as a manuscript. That said, I honestly feel this is his best novel yet, an engrossing story of 20th-century designer Coco Chanel: her career successes, her love affairs, her hidden vulnerabilities. For those weary of “famous guy’s wife” novels, many of which explore unfulfilled ambitions, this convincing vision of a driven, powerful woman is an ideal antidote.

Alexis Landau, Empire of the Senses (Pantheon, 2015). I’ll be reviewing this later on so won’t say very much about it now. This ARC arrived with little fanfare (plain tan cover, no other material), but I was immediately swept into an absorbing saga about a family of mixed faith living in WWI-era and late 1920s Berlin.

Laurie Loewenstein, Unmentionables (Akashic, 2014). This warmhearted, involving work, situated gracefully in small-town Illinois and overseas during the WWI years, depicts a wide range of social concerns as people's minds are opened to new, previously hidden possibilities.

Rett MacPherson, Sleeping the Churchyard Sleep (Word Posse, 2014). When Olivia VanBibber and her brother bring a plate of their great-aunt’s fried chicken over to the home of a newly arrived stranger, their surprising friendship transforms her world – and eventually pulls her into a genealogical mystery. A warm-hearted, stereotype-free portrait of 1950s West Virginia, and the witty, forthright narrative voice of Olivia (a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair) is irresistible.

Marschel Paul, The Spirit Room (Wasteland Press, 2013). This epic about two teenage sisters’ coming of age in 1850s New York State, set against a vivid backdrop of quirky social fads and dark situations, is a fabulous read for fans of American women’s history. I picked this up on a whim when I was supposed to be reading something else and got drawn right in.

Stephanie Thornton, The Tiger Queens (NAL, 2014). A lengthy, immersive read about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. It’s full of fascinating detail about 12th-century Mongolia yet the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum.

Nancy E. Turner, My Name Is Resolute (St. Martin’s, 2014). Resolute Catherine Eugenia Talbot (a fictional character) reveals the story of her eventful life, from her Jamaican childhood through her involvement in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Full of adventure, romance, and unexpected surprises, her account remains captivating throughout its nearly 600 pages.

Various, A Day of Fire (Knight Media, 2014). Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii at the time of its destruction in 79 AD. This gets my vote for “most creative.” Their stories interlock perfectly, and if you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.

Beatriz Williams, The Secret Life of Violet Grant (Putnam, 2014). A dual-period novel – you might call it a historical mystery-thriller-romance – set in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin and also in 1960s Manhattan. The cheeky, whip-smart voice of Vivian Schuyler, a young woman caught up in solving the mystery of her the great-aunt she never knew, won me over completely.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A look at Kate Sedley's The Christmas Wassail

Although December 25th has come and gone, Kate Sedley’s The Christmas Wassail still made for a timely read after the holidays.  It’s set in and around Bristol, England, opening on the day before Christmas Eve in the year 1483 and wrapping up after Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.

All of the religious observations and traditional folk customs held over the twelve days of Christmas are included, which creates a rich cultural atmosphere. On Christmas Day, Roger the Chapman, his wife, and their blended family of four children attend three separate masses. There’s much merriment and drinking of “lamb’s wool” as people travel from house to house during their wassailing, and a group of mummers has come to town to perform.

Amid all the activity, including his investigation of a growing number of murders (since this is a mystery, after all), Roger is charged with finding a suitably large Yule log and keeping it burning for nearly a fortnight.

The crime aspect is introduced through the stabbing death of a city alderman who was a good friend of the wealthy Sir George Marvell, an ornery old man with a healthy libido and a multitude of family problems. Roger finds the victim right before he dies and hears his puzzling last word.

To the dismay of his wife, Adela, Roger has the habit of getting drawn into solving murders, both in Bristol itself and on his many peddling excursions around the countryside. It’s the second marriage for both of them, and their loving but sometimes acrimonious banter is fun to watch. Strong-willed, efficient Adela runs a tight household, or would, if Roger wasn’t away so much, meeting with friends in his favorite tavern or following wherever his curiosity leads him. Roger’s past service on behalf of the Duke of Gloucester, now Richard III, has helped his family rise in the world, so she can’t resent his work too much.

Although The Christmas Wassail is the 22nd (!) volume in the Roger the Chapman series, I didn’t feel disoriented. Enough backstory is provided so that the characters’ relationships are clear. The occasional reference to specific events from earlier volumes flew over my head, but that wasn’t a big deal. There’s enough detail on late medieval life to satisfy historical fiction readers, even those who don’t seek out mysteries. The book was published last year, and so far it marks Roger’s last appearance in fiction, which makes me wonder if there will be any others.  Kate Sedley (a pseudonym) also wrote many novels set in the Middle Ages as Brenda Honeyman and Brenda Clarke, her maiden and married names.

The Christmas Wassail appeared from Severn House in 2013 ($29.95 hb, $9.99 ebook).  I read it from a library copy, and wrote this review on my trip back to Illinois after spending Christmas in Orlando with my in-laws.  Hope you're all having a nice holiday season!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book review: Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James

As you can guess from the title, this gently and lovingly told novel imagines young Jane Austen’s first experience with romance, but I would have picked it up for the setting alone. An invitation to spend the summer of 1791 amid fine company at a grand manor in the English countryside was hard to resist.

Fifteen-year-old Jane adores her siblings, including sister Cassandra and brother Edward – who had the good fortune to be adopted by wealthy relatives, and whose upcoming marriage to Elizabeth Bridges, a baronet’s daughter, will serve him well socially. In June, several family groups gather to celebrate their engagement, as well as that of Elizabeth’s sister Fanny. Goodnestone Park in Kent, the ancestral home of the Bridges family, is the center of all the festivities, which include balls, a strawberry-picking excursion, and other distracting pastimes.

Jane, who hasn’t yet “come out” into society (but who has her family's permission to socialize with others within this small group), can’t help but be awed by Edward Taylor, the Bridges’ handsome neighbor. Although he’s only a year older, Mr. Taylor has a wide range of life experiences and has hobnobbed with European nobility. Most of Jane’s knowledge of the wider world comes from book-learning, but her powers of observation are sharp even as a sheltered teenager.

The scenarios that play out at Goodnestone are the author’s invention, though James has ensured that her characters’ backgrounds and personalities reflect the historical evidence. Jane’s growing affections for Edward in the novel are based on a few sentences in letters the author wrote to her sister, referring to Edward Taylor as a man with “beautiful dark eyes” upon whom she “had once fondly doated.”

Her irrepressible and impetuous wit is well evident in James’s writing, which follows Jane at a critical juncture in her young life, a time when she learns for herself not to rely on outer appearances.  Beyond the sweet romance, some deeper issues are touched upon, such as the importance of individuality, the serious meaning behind silly fashion trends, and the inner struggle between ambitions that are achievable and those that aren’t.

Although I found the scenes involving the young people’s amateur theatrics to be too drawn out, I enjoyed this lighthearted excursion into a beloved author’s enigmatic past. It’s especially recommended for fans of Austen-themed fiction and country house sagas.

Jane Austen's First Love was published by Berkley in September (trade paperback, $16.00/Can$18.00, 384pp).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What’s in a Name? Prostitution in Shakespeare’s England, a guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is back with a yet another entertaining post marking the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mystery series. This essay, the second of two, deals with prostitutes in Shakespearean times; his first post, from Tuesday, detailed how he researched their trade in early modern England.

The first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale is currently available as an E-book for $2.99. (The link is to Amazon, but it’s available in other formats as well. Click here for more buying options.)


What’s in a Name? Prostitution in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

As in so many matters touching on the darker side of human behavior, the language of prostitution included all manner of synonyms and euphemisms for the simple word “prostitute.” There was meretrix (from the Latin), putain (French), strumpet, whore, stew (from the infamous brothels, known as “stews of Rome”), quean (or, in many cases, abominable quean!), and harlot.

When I started writing The Harlot’s Tale, I had no idea what I would call it. It was pretty clear that it would be Somebody’s Tale, but whose? I ran through a number of possibilities, most of which had the down-side of hinting at (or announcing!) the identity of the killer. I didn’t want to do this, because Rule #1 of Mystery Writing is: “Do not give away the identity of the killer in the title of your book.”

I ultimately settled on The Harlot’s Tale, both because I liked the Biblical feel of the word, and because the book is set in the aftermath of the Puritan capture of the city of York, when the godly were riding high. But as I did more research on prostitution in medieval and early modern England, names for individual prostitutes came to light, and it turns out that these individuals could be quite creative in establishing pseudonyms.

The first I discovered was "Spanish Jane," who – you will not be surprised to learn – was in no way Spanish. More alarming was "Claire Clatterbollocks." (If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘bollocks’ they are a rather coarse term for a man’s delicate bits.) Finally, there was a sex-worker whose given name was John Rykener, but worked under the name "Eleanor." The historical record is regrettably silent on the question of what John/Eleanor’s clients thought they were getting for their money! 


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries.  To win a copy of The Harlot’s Tale, leave a comment on this page, head over to his Facebook page, or send him an email. For more information on the history and mystery of midwifery, visit Sam’s website.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England: A guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is visiting Reading the Past with two linked guest posts to celebrate the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series. This essay covers brothels in Shakespearean England, and on Thursday, Sam will have a second post about the women who worked there.  As it happens, the first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale (a book I very much enjoyed reading), is currently available as an e-book for $2.99 (see the author's website for some buying options). The Harlot's Tale is published in paperback today by Minotaur ($16.99, 336pp).


Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

When I began work on the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series, I needed a hook. It would be a mystery, it would feature Bridget Hodgson and her butt-kicking assistant Martha Hawkins, but what would it be about?

As the title indicates, The Harlot’s Tale focuses on sex and sin and is thus right up Bridget’s alley: When it comes to these subjects, who knows more than a midwife?

The next step in writing the book was to learn as much as I could about the business of prostitution in early modern England – and what a fascinating world it turned out to be! In a few days I’ll have a post about bawds over on English Historical Fiction Authors, and here I’d like to share what I learned about the brothels.

Despite their (deservedly!) seedy reputation, many English brothels had wealthy and respected owners behind the scenes. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, owned several brothels, as did several well-known actors from the Elizabethan stage. This is not terribly surprising given the links between prostitution and the theatre; as we shall see, theatres and brothels lived cheek by jowl! More remarkable was that for centuries brothels outside London were under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. This was so well known that prostitutes became known as “Winchester geese.”

Many of London’s brothels were found not in the city itself, but across the Thames in the Southwark neighborhood. For centuries, Southwark operated as a sort of Las Vegas, satisfying Londoners’ less acceptable desires, and existing just beyond the reach of city officials. The south bank of the Thames features both brothels and theatres, cementing in many minds the connection between the two. Some brothels also doubled as alehouses, and one in Essex featured a common drinking vessel crafted to look like – er, there’s no good way to say this – a man’s sexual organs.

The question this raises is why brothels were tolerated at all. Other than rank hypocrisy, why would the Bishops of Winchester put their imprimatur on such a sinful business? It turns out that in the early modern world, brothels – and places like Southwark more broadly – were seen as necessary outlets for London’s sins.

Many commentators compared brothels to sewers and cesspools, but not in an entirely negative way. We may not like the smell of sewers, but they do us a service. In the same way, places like Southwark drew sins away from the city, and without them the city would become contaminated. They were, in short, a necessary evil.

The Harlot’s Tale is set in York rather than London, so I could not send Bridget off to Southwark – Spoiler alert: that will be in a later book! – but I did my best with the history I had at hand, and hope you will enjoy reading about it!


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries from Minotaur/St.Martin's. The third book in the series, The Witch Hunter’s Tale, will be released on January 6, 2015. For more on midwifery and childbirth, visit his website.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dinner with Jane, Charlotte, and Will: A guest post by Syrie James

In today's guest post, Syrie James, a longtime fan of British literature and the author of many historical novels set in the 19th century, reflects on an imaginary dinner conversation with three of her favorite authors.  There's a Jane Austen-themed giveaway, too, open internationally to anyone who leaves a comment.  See details at the end.


Dinner with Jane, Charlotte, and Will

I was having lunch with a friend the other day and she asked me, totally out of the blue, “If you could dine with any three authors in history, who would you choose?” It isn’t the kind of question you expect to be asked while chatting about life and family and books in the courtyard of a really cute café over ahi tuna salads, and I promptly replied, “You mean I can only pick three? Out of all the literary greats in history? That’s harsh.” But I was game. I gave it a go.

“I guess I’d love to sit down for a bite and a chat with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and William Shakespeare,” I told her. Now, this was a really good friend who had read (mostly) all of my books, so she didn’t have to ask “Why Jane and Charlotte?”—I mean, she knew. She knew how much I admire them both. She knew I’d studied them for years, have read everything they’ve ever written (including their juvenilia and poetry, which in Charlotte’s case is a lot), and have written novels about them from their points of view. She knew how excited I’d been to go to their homes in England, as well as many of the places they’d visited (and in Charlotte’s case, one of her schools.) So what my friend said (and this endeared me to her even more) was:

“Great choices. How awesome would it be if we had a time machine and could transport them all to your house for dinner tonight! If we did, what would you say to them?”

“Well, after I recovered from the shock of seeing them in person,” I said, “I’d thank them for the wonderful books and plays they wrote, which have so enriched my life and the lives of others. Then I’d fill them in on how incredibly popular and famous they’ve become over the past two hundred years. I’m sure they’d be astonished—and proud.”

“If you showed them the nearly endless variety of film versions of their novels and plays, it would blow their minds. And as for Jane and Charlotte, they’d love the books you’ve written about them—I mean, as them.”

“I hope so.” I went briefly quiet. “It was so important to me to get that right—to emulate Jane’s and Charlotte’s voices as closely as possible in my novels, and to honor their spirit, their courage, and their accomplishments. I hope they’d feel that I portrayed them accurately.”

“I’m sure they would,” my friend said, smiling.

“It’s so much fun to climb into their heads, view the world from their perspective, and bring them to life on the page,” I replied with enthusiasm. “But to see them in person! I have so many questions. I’d love to ask Jane about her mysterious seaside romance. I’d love to learn more about Edward Taylor, the remarkable young man who she adored in her youth, and who I wrote about in my new novel Jane Austen’s First Love.”

“What would you ask Charlotte Brontë?”

“Where do I start? I’d ask her about Mr. Nicholls, who loved her for eons before he had the nerve to propose. I’d love to chat about her brilliant sisters, Emily and Anne. It astonishes me that these three sisters who lived in the wilds of Yorkshire and didn’t have a single connection in the literary world, managed to get published at the same time, and wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, two of the most beloved novels in the English language. That journey is what inspired me to write The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë.”

“One of my favorite books,” my friend said. Suddenly she added: “Wait, would it be a problem to put Jane and Charlotte in the same room together? Didn’t Charlotte make several unflattering remarks about Austen’s work?”

I laughed. “Yes, she did. She also said a few nice things, but nobody remembers that. Still, there’s a good chance that sparks would fly—like in the play I did.” (I’ve had the honor of playing Jane Austen in a theater piece written by Diana Birchall. You can watch a video highlights reel here.)

“But let’s not forget Shakespeare,” I added. “He would round out the conversation at this dinner table, and could mediate those sparks. Let’s face it: he was the greatest literary genius of all time.”

“Unless, of course, he didn’t actually write those plays himself,” my friend pointed out.

“I’d love to pick his brain and learn the truth, once and for all!” I replied, as I finished my iced tea. “What fun it would be to tell all three of these incredibly talented writers about their legacies. What a fascinating evening of conversation it would make. Just think: I’d get enough material to keep me busy writing books for a lifetime!”

Readers, what famous people from the past would you like to have dinner with, and why? 


In the summer of 1791, fifteen-year-old Miss Jane Austen is determined to accomplish three things: to do something useful, write something worthy, and fall madly in love. While visiting at Goodnestone Park in Kent for a month of festivities in honor of her brother's engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bridges, Jane meets the boy-next-door—the wealthy, worldly, and devilishly handsome Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons Park, and hopefully her heart! Like many of Jane’s future heroes and heroines, she soon realizes that there are obstacles—social, financial, and otherwise—blocking her path to love and marriage, one of them personified by her beautiful and sweet tempered rival, Charlotte Payler.

Unsure of her own budding romance, but confident in her powers of observation, Jane distracts herself by attempting to maneuver the affections of three other young couples. But when her well-intentioned matchmaking efforts turn into blundering misalliance, Jane must choose between following her own happily-ever-after, or repairing those relationships which, based on erroneous first impressions, she has misaligned.


Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.


Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen's First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books! 

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie's unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Downstairs Maid by Rosie Clarke, an early 20th-century romantic saga

The author’s biography says she “has penned over one hundred novels under different pseudonyms.” A little research reveals that Rosie Clarke is the newest pen name for novelist Linda Sole. Spanning 1907 through WWI, her latest is a comfortable read in the romantic saga mold.

Emily Carter is the much-loved daughter of a farmer and secondhand goods salesman living near the English market town of Ely. Though times are hard, she tries to remain upbeat but must contend with her resentful mother and lecherous uncle, a classic villain. Although the blurb promises a Downton Abbey-style experience, the plot goes beyond this description. A full third takes place before Emily goes into service at nearby Priorsfield Manor to pay for her sick father’s medical expenses. This provides a more complete picture of Emily as a person.

At a social event, Emily shares a dance with Nicolas Barton, the younger grandson of Lady Prior of Priorsfield, and makes a strong impression on him (and vice versa) despite her tawdry homemade dress and unfashionable boots. He continues to admire her even after she applies to work at his home. The novel realistically shows Emily’s adjustment to her place of employment – the ornate and old-fashioned décor, the women’s beautiful gowns, her amazement at the family’s rich meals – and her accompanying loss of independence. She makes friends there and moves up in status over time.

Included periodically are the viewpoints of the two Barton daughters: beautiful, snobbish Amy, who has more depth than first appears; and kindly Lizzie, who loves Austen’s novels as well as her sister’s beau. The action unfolds against a backdrop of changing social attitudes and the encroaching specter of war. Despite the author’s tendency to repeat facts and an overabundance of soap opera drama in the last 50 pages, this is an appealing story.

The Downstairs Maid was published by Ebury in 2014 (£5.99, paperback, 445pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review and is based on a personal purchase.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, an uncommon Tudor wife novel

Suzannah Dunn’s latest novel is narrated by Jane Seymour, the unassuming maid of honor who became the third of Henry VIII’s six queens. That said, if you’re hoping to read a standard tale about political scheming and juicy scandals at the treacherous royal court, head elsewhere.

The May Bride is refreshingly unlike most fiction of the Tudor wife variety. It’s a quieter sort of tale, at least on the surface, and it moves along at a leisurely pace. (In an interview, the author said – maybe in jest, maybe not – that her biggest challenge in writing it was staying awake.)

Dunn knows what she’s doing, though. Her character-centered story is full of sharp yet subtle observations that keep readers alert to the shifting relationships among her characters – even when her young, innocent heroine doesn’t notice them herself.

As the eldest daughter among the eight living children of Sir John and Margery Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, Jane is a sensible, introverted teenager who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. The Seymours are of the gentry, with servants to help them out, but everyone gets involved in keeping the estate running. Jane’s days are spent in domestic pursuits: embroidery, laundry, mending her brothers’ torn clothes, gathering fruit for jam, making pastry in the kitchen. One highlight for the Seymours is their twice-yearly trek to the fair at Great Bedwyn.

The novel offers many scenes showing these aspects of country life, and the details are fascinating. In fact, you’ll find it easy to forget all about Jane’s illustrious marriage, still years in the future, because it seems so unlikely.

Although everything is seen through Jane’s eyes, the plot’s focus is actually Katherine Filliol, her older brother Edward’s golden bride, a local heiress who makes her entrance while “fresh as a daisy in her buttercup silk.” Katherine’s cheery, casually lighthearted ways enchant her in-laws, Jane in particular, and they become good friends at first. As time passes, it becomes clear that Edward and his wife are horribly mismatched. His accusation, several years into their union, that she was unfaithful to him with his father shocks them all.

This is the same incident that runs through the background of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, of course, but here it’s explored in depth. In imagining the lead-up to this rumored episode, The May Bride tells an affecting story about the sidelining of women and a family torn apart in the aftermath of a dreadful mistake. And finally, although the final segments set at court feel a bit muddled with their multiple time-shifts, it provides a believable context for Jane Seymour’s unanticipated rise in status.

The May Bride was published in November by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 308pp). The UK publisher is Little, Brown. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Public Gaze: A guest post by S.K. Rizzolo, author of Die I Will Not

Today S.K. Rizzolo is here with an entertaining post about political scandals, early 19th-century style.  Die I Will Not, third in her Regency mystery series, was published in November by Poisoned Pen Press (279pp, $14.95 pb/$24.95 hb).


The Public Gaze
S.K. Rizzolo

Nowadays we are all too familiar with living under the public gaze, but this phenomenon is not new. Set in 1813 London, my novel Die I Will Not explores royal scandal, early 19th-century journalism, and dirty politics. As I researched these topics, I became fascinated by the idea of individuals struggling to preserve their privacy under the ubiquitous modern gaze—a gaze feeding voracious scandals that often refuse to die. Perhaps in our own era of 24-hour news cycles trumpeting the latest brouhaha, readers can relate.

I learned that “spin” is by no means a modern concept. It was common in Regency England to insert a “squib,” a short, satirical paragraph, in the papers to lampoon one’s enemies, or one could purchase a “puff,” extravagant praise designed to polish up one’s image. The royals were not immune from this scramble for positive press. Indeed, the Prince Regent (later George IV), who was very sensitive to public perception, often sent his secretary Colonel McMahon to the newspapers to bribe or browbeat the editors into withholding or publishing information.

No one experienced the glare of scrutiny more relentlessly than the unpopular Regent and his detested wife Caroline. Both sought to manage their reputations in “the public mind,” and I would argue that both ultimately failed, though, as we shall see, Caroline scored some notable triumphs over her husband. My character Penelope Wolfe also struggles with scandal and a tarnished reputation, at one point waking “to find herself notorious.” Penelope is the daughter of a radical philosopher suspected of treason and murder. She is also the target of sly innuendos about her rocky marriage to a spendthrift artist as well as her relationships to my other sleuths, barrister Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. I found it interesting to parallel her experiences to Caroline’s: two women, two “injured mothers” attacked in the press for a presumed loss of virtue.

In Caroline’s case, the Prince had instituted an inquiry into her conduct, which came to be known as the “Delicate Investigation.” Well, it’s hard to imagine anything less “delicate” because the agents were busy interviewing her reputed lovers and accusing Caroline of having borne an illegitimate child. The investigators even grilled the poor woman’s laundry maid and other servants to find out what she’d been up to. But in the end the Regent’s attempt to divorce his wife had failed when she was cleared of the primary charge. Her defender Spencer Perceval summed up what may have been the general view at the time: “I believe the princess to be playful, and incautiously witty, in her deportment; but I prefer that to secret intrigue and infamous practices." In other words, she had become the sympathetic victim of her royal husband’s scheming. One hack writer even made her the heroine of a Gothic romance.

This Cruikshank caricature depicts George and Caroline as the plump green bags that contained the evidence collected against Caroline in preparation for her trial in the House of Lords.   As the caption aptly puts it, “Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by nature.”  One notices, however, that George is rather more rotund than Caroline.

So the nasty scandal that erupted in the spring of 1813 was only the latest salvo in a long-running war between Caroline and George—but this time she fired the first shot. Despite having earned a somewhat qualified verdict of innocence in the Delicate Investigation of 1806, Caroline’s contact with her daughter Charlotte, heiress to the throne, continued to be restricted. In response, Caroline wrote the Regent a letter, and when he declined to read it, she sent this letter to the newspapers, sparking a national uproar. The “Regent’s Valentine,” published on February 10, 1813, masqueraded as an appeal to her husband’s better nature but was actually a wily move on Caroline’s part to drum up public support. By the way, Henry Brougham, the opposition lawyer and politician, was said to have composed this letter for Caroline—for, of course, the Regent’s political enemies, Whigs and radicals alike, were all too eager to make use of his domestic discord for their own purposes. Excerpts from the letter were even printed on commemorative china!

When the furor finally subsided, Caroline was the undisputed victor in the publicity battle, the Times having declared her “complete innocence” and the Lord Mayor having organized a proclamation and procession in her honor (according to one source, “the Prince Regent, foaming with impotent rage, found it convenient to go out of town that day”). Amid rumors that he had been planning to revive the Delicate Investigation in yet another vindictive attack on his wife, he essentially slunk away in shame. But by 1814 Caroline had left England for the Continent, where she shocked Europe by frolicking with her Italian servant Bartolomeo Pergami, before returning to England in 1820 to face divorce proceedings in the House of Lords. She beat her husband this time too. After passing the Lords, the divorce bill was abandoned because of the enormous public outcry in her favor. Sadly, Caroline died a few weeks later after trying and failing to storm Westminster Abbey in order to join her husband’s coronation.

And what has been history’s verdict? Dr. Steven Parissien titles his article for the BBC “George IV: A Royal Joke” and quotes from an obituary, which states, “At an age when generous feelings are usually predominant, we find him absorbed by an all-engrossing selfishness, not merely careless of the feelings of others but indulging in wanton cruelty.” Though George is often acknowledged as a patron of the arts, his poor reputation has refused to die, echoing down the centuries, labeling him bloated, dissolute, profligate, and ungrateful. How’s that for an image problem? And though I think that Caroline has fared better under the public gaze, probably because she figures as a persecuted woman, she too has image problems. With some justice, she is often said to have been vulgar, smelly, and promiscuous. I’ve often wondered why anyone could wish for immortality when so often one is left with mud all over one’s face. I wonder too how many of our own 21st-century scandals will live on to become the subject of historical novels.


S.K. Rizzolo is a longtime Anglophile and history enthusiast. An English teacher, Rizzolo has earned an M.A. in literature. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Set in Regency England, The Rose in the Wheel, Blood for Blood, and Die I Will Not are the three titles in Rizzolo’s series about a Bow Street Runner, an unconventional lady, and a melancholic barrister.

About Die I Will Not: Unhappy wife and young mother Penelope Wolfe fears scandal for her family and worse. A Tory newspaper editor has been stabbed while writing a reply to the latest round of letters penned by the firebrand Collatinus. Twenty years before, her father, the radical Eustace Sandford, also wrote as Collatinus before he fled London just ahead of accusations of treason and murder—a mysterious beauty closely connected to Sandford and known only as N.D. had been brutally slain. Now the seditious new Collatinus letters that attack the Prince Regent in the press seek to avenge N.D.’s death and unmask her murderer. What did the dead editor know that provoked his death? Her artist husband Jeremy being no reliable ally, Penelope turns anew to lawyer Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. As she battles public notoriety, Buckler and Chase put their careers at risk to stand behind her and find N.D.’s killer. They pursue various lines of inquiry including a missing memoir, Royal scandal, and the dead editor’s secretive, reclusive wife. As they navigate the dark underbelly of 1813 London among a cast driven by dirty politics and dark passions, as well as by decency and a desire for justice, past secrets and present criminals are exposed, upending Penelope’s life and the lives of others.