Category Archives: History

A Woman Entangled Giveaway

Cecilia Grant’s third book, A Woman Entangled, is out in the world. Huzzah!

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Cecilia on this blog, because her writing is an inspiration. She also wrote one of my favourite posts from my guest series last year – the one that called romance fiction “a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair”.

I’d read quite a few mixed reactions to A Woman Entangled, so I wasn’t certain whether it would grab me the way A Gentleman Undone did. In the end it was a completely different reading experience – and I loved every minute of it.

The first thing I love is how Grant evokes a sense of time and place. I’ve said before that my favourite kind of historical fiction creates a character moving into their own projection of the future that is based in what they know of the world, not what we know of the world.

The first time we meet the barrister hero, Nick, he is standing in the Inns of Court, and–

Actually, let me interrupt myself and say that the first time we see Nick is thusly: Round the landing, down the stairs, and through the heavy oak front door, Nicholas Blackshear spilled out into the cold sunlight of Brick Court, black robes billowing in his wake.

Then he stands out on the street and thinks:

Blackstone and Oliver Goldsmith had each surely stood here – he had only to glance up at Number Two Brick Court to see where the jurist and the writer had slept and studied a few generations ago.

But so it was throughout the Inns of Court. Just as he always had to stop at the sundial, so must he quietly marvel, every time he took a meal in the Middle Temple Hall, at the serving table whose wood came from the hull of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. So must he always attempt, mid-meal, to picture all the details of the evening, some two hundred years ago, when the benchers and students had been privileged to witness the very first performance of Twelfth Night in that same room.

To be a London barrister was to live surrounded by the best of everything England had to offer, all from men who’d charted their own courses to greatness. A fellow might end up anywhere, who began here.

Gah, the loveliness and depth of that passage! The historical writer in me despairs. The reader in me rejoices.

The next thing I love about A Woman Entangled is that when we meet Nick we’ve just come from meeting our heroine, Kate, who also aspires to greatness – she intends to marry into the aristocracy and lift her family back to their rightful place in society. And it is so heartbreaking to see the difference in what she is allowed to aspire to, compared to this grand dream of Nick’s that stretches back through time and all the great men that came before him.

Grant has done an extraordinary thing in this book: she has embedded it deeply, and without overt commentary, in the sensibilities of the time. Kate isn’t a feminist heroine placed anachronistically back in time to fight against all the constraints placed on women; she is an intelligent, warm-hearted woman living unselfconsciously within the world she knows. Nick respects and admires her – and treats her accordingly. But he also hands down judgement (and advice) on her actions in a very Knightly-ish fashion, because as a man he naturally knows more of the wider world and how it works.

What an incredibly fine line this is to walk! To fully evoke the sensibilities of a time that was more constraining and unequal than ours, and to believably write a man and a woman meeting as equals.

As far as I’m concerned, Grant succeeded.

There are many, many more things I loved about this book, but I’ll just discuss one more before proceeding to the giveaway.

I utterly adored Grant’s previous book, A Gentleman Undone. It grabbed me in some visceral, emotional place and left me feeling scrubbed clean and quiet. When the heroine of that book, Lydia, says to Nick in this book, “The first thing I want you to know, Mr. Blackshear, is that I love your brother. My attachment to him is fiercer than my attachment to life.” I believed her without hesitation.

But A Woman Entangled shows Nick suffering because of his brother’s decision to marry a courtesan. Almost no briefs come his way anymore, and he doesn’t feel welcome in the society he needs to impress, in order to become a politician.

The unequal marriage is a romantic notion – the duke and the serving girl, the countess and the steward. But in romance we never see the cost of these marriages, because then we would have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: is love worth this? It’s a question that runs counter to the whole premise of romance.

Grant didn’t back away from that question. She forced me to wonder whether Lydia and Will – who I believed in so thoroughly – should have put family before love. Not a comfortable feeling. But one that feels closer to the real choices we make around love – and the real triumph love can be – than I usually find in romance.

Fortunately, she attacks the same question from the other side in the romance between Nick and Kate, and comes to – no surprises here – a happy conclusion. Not easy, but happy.

Neither Nick’s aspirations nor Kate’s are served by them marrying; each has connections that will cast a shadow over the other. But as they fall in love, each comes to feel how genuine, fulfilling human relationships make up the real stuff of life. They are still driven by what drives them, but they come to understand that aspirations are dreams that don’t take into account the daily living of life.

It’s a joy to read about the difference real human connection makes – and Grant answers her own question about love by suggesting that fulfilling relationships not only make life bearable, they give us strength to see ourselves clearly and pursue, in the long-term, what we really want from life.

I’m giving away a print copy of this wonderful book to one commenter! (All countries welcome.) Leave any comment you like, from “Gimme” to a thesis on literary analysis. I’ll be drawing the winner’s name on Monday morning, Australian time.

ETA: I have just done my usual, highly scientific names-from-a-hat, and the winner is Londonmabel! Congratulations! I hope you enjoy this wonderful novel. Thanks to everyone else for entering your names. I encourage you all to get your hands on the book without delay :-) .

my love for you is deathless

ANNA

This one is really quite simple: I want to be Meredith Duran, when I grow up.

Julia Quinn got me hooked on historical romance. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels was the first romance to just blow me away. But when I read Meredith’s books I realised what romance had the potential to be, and it thrilled me. It inspired me to push myself as hard and as far as I could in my own writing.

Her worlds are dark and complex. Her characters have wine-stained teeth and opium habits. They’re sometimes vain. They’re always wonderful. Her writing edges onto the literary end of the romance scale, and is a joy to read.

It is, needless to say, a huge privilege to have her on the blog. This is the last post in what has been an amazing series.

***

MEREDITH

For five nights in autumn 1990, along with a good portion of the rest of America, I became obsessed with the American Civil War. The Ken Burns documentary that aired that month has left a lasting impression on a lot of people, not least through the haunting strains of the song “Ashokan Farewell.” Indeed, a mountain dulcimer instructor once told me that this is the most requested song amongst her students. It has the power to raise goose bumps even if you’ve never seen the documentary.

Yet while the song itself is haunting, I suspect that it has such a powerful effect on so many of us because of a single moment (among many) in which it appeared in the film: as the background score to the reading (by a gifted actor named Paul Roebling) of a letter that was written by a husband to his wife on the eve of battle in 1861.

I copy the letter below, with the original punctuation. But I strongly urge you to listen to Roebling’s reading here.

July 14, 1861

Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

As noted in the documentary, Ballou died a week later, killed in battle at Bull Run. But as Solomon sang so many centuries ago, love is, indeed, strong as death. Through this letter, Ballou’s love for his wife remains powerfully alive, bringing tears to my eyes more than a century after he penned his words…more than a century since this letter was first read, by a woman whose heart no doubt was breaking.

When we talk about heroes, we often mean people whose actions were shaped by choices like Ballou’s—choices that pitted love against honor, ideals against safety. We are horrified by the tragedies that precipitated those choices, and humbled by the sacrifice of those who rose to answer the challenge. And we recognize that love is often the wellspring from which their unthinkable courage arose.

What is the romance genre if not a celebration of such courage? We dream of happy endings, yes; in our books, love not only survives the unthinkable choices that our heroes and heroines must make, it also becomes the means by which they triumph. Certainly we all would like to dream up a happier ending for Sullivan Ballou and his wife.

But in pausing here to reflect on his letter, we, romance readers and writers alike, also do what we, of all people, do best. We are witnesses to their love. In the act of witnessing that love, we deny time and forgetfulness their vitiating power. And by witnessing, we also take strength and inspiration from the love that created this letter—a love made eternal through the words that expressed it.

Love and the written word: two of our most powerful hopes for immortality.

This holiday season, I wish you love and peace. And a very good book or two.

Meredith

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some of the world is fetched back from the nevernever

ANNA

Earlier this year I read The Black Hawk by Jo Bourne. It was at a point when I was starting to feel confident in my own book. I felt I was putting the final stitches in, that make stitching invisible; I felt it had become a complex narrative told in pretty serviceable writing. Then I read The Black Hawk.

I remember so clearly that feeling, part joy, part despair. Joy, because writing at that level is always a joy to read. Despair, because reading Jo’s writing was like realising that moon I’d thought was so close I could touch it was on the other side of a window and a couple of hundred thousand kilometres away.

My post about writing inside a genre tradition sparked an excellent conversation on twitter about historical accuracy. (This is something historical writers love to talk about on twitter, I am coming to realise.) Jo made this one comment that set off lightbulbs. “If you’re going to describe Almack’s,” she said, “describe the moth on the window.”

In an attempt to discover all of her secrets, I asked her to elaborate on that thought.

***

JO

One of the Really Hard Bits of writing historicals is that we can’t just go visit the past and see what it looks like.  There’s no bus tour to Regency London.  I can’t catch the next plane to Revolutionary Paris.

We want the sounds, the smells, the colors and the gritty reality of 1802 beneath our characters’ feet and under their hands. So what do we do?

– We visit what’s left.  The Marais quarter in Paris has survived the mischances and ‘improvements’ of centuries.  I can walk those stone streets and put my hand on walls three centuries old, everywhere.  This is what the Paris of 1789 looked like.

– We study art — always a good idea for its own sake, of course, but I’m talking about taking a magnifying glass to a Cruikshank print or a Hogarth painting.  (Oh how I wish they’d invented photography earlier than they did.)

– We gather in universal human experience.  I once had a character staring up at the sky, watching a meteor shower.  There are these great falls of meteors that come back every year.  The Leonids. The Perseids.  I’ve lain back on the hood of my car, rested my head on the windshield, and watched meteors draw white lines across the sky.  So I set my man in 1802 to do the same thing, minus the car hood of course.

I remember once, lighting a candle and seeing it reflected in the window glass, with my own self holding the light and night outside seeming to be all around me.  So I make my character do the same.   How many women have stood at how many other windows through the centuries.  Maybe somebody who’s reading my story remembers doing that same thing.

– And finally, of course, we cheat.

We make stuff up.  We guess.  We extrapolate — that’s a kinder word than cheating.  If I need a public house on a square in the city of London, I don’t wait for history to spawn me a pub.  I invent the square.  I create the tavern, with its long benches and scarred tables.  I select a view to see from the window.  I decide how their beer tastes.

(After a while, the pub and that square, or the parlor of a townhouse, or a cottage in the countryside take on a life of their own.  Now I’d find it hard to change them.  Weird.)

When you first become a writer, they issue you a laminated card that says, ‘Literary Permit, Licensed To Make Things Up.’  That’s this Literary License you hear about.

The fine print on the back goes into detail about ‘shall hold harmless’ and ‘may cause damage in an academic setting’ and ‘not for use as a flotation device’.  But basically this gives writers a Get Out Of Jail Card when it comes to telling tales.

Our fictional world is more than period literature and pictures.  More than the remnants left behind by time and the life we share with everyman and everywoman. Some of the world we create is fetched back from the nevernever.  It’s spun from whole cloth.

It’s pure fiction.

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the immortal and the immoral: the romance, the novel, and the romance novel

ANNA

I met Jodi McAlister when I flew to Sydney to have high tea with Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches. I was lucky enough to sit at a table with her and hear tantalising snatches about her PhD thesis on virgin heroines in romance novels.

The conversation turned that way at one point and she said, “Don’t ask me about it, though, or I’ll be talking for hours!” All I could think was, Please start talking. I think and talk about romance in a casual way on here and with my writing peeps, but Jodi has studied this stuff for years. I wanted to crack into her brain and bask in it.

As that is, um, not a thing you do, I did the next best thing and asked her to write me a post about it. Then Sarah Wendell beat me to it. If you haven’t yet, you should head over and read the interview – it really is fascinating stuff.

This paragraph in particular grabbed my attention:

(One thing I think is really interesting is that you’ll often read that Samuel Richardson invented the novel when he wrote Pamela, or maybe Daniel Defoe, but this is doing a great disservice to the ladies who were writing it first: people like Aphra BehnEliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, who has one of my favourite author names of all time. These authors – Manley in particular – implictly rejected the idea that if you lost your virginity in the wrong way, you were automatically a bad person. They’re really fascinating works, and it bums me out that a bunch of dudes get the credit for inventing the novel when the ladies pretty clearly got there first.)

so I asked Jodi to write about this instead, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I’m thrilled to have her on the blog!

***

JODI

When people ask me what I study, I usually tell them “romance novels”. However, if I’d said those two words together in the eighteenth century, people would definitely have looked at me funny. “But a romance and a novel are the same thing!” some might have said. “But they’re completely different things – you can’t just put them together like that!” others might have said. (I am totally paraphrasing my hypothetical eighteenth century people: language, like genre, has changed profoundly from then to now!)

The terms “romance” and “novel” have a very complicated history. The novel became an increasingly popular form in the eighteenth century, at which point the romance had been around for a very long time. Both were works of extended prose: what, then, was the difference? what made the novel a new form? Maybe it was the length, or the characters, or the morals. Maybe it was the setting, or the titles, the poetic vs prosaic focus, or any number of things. In reality, the line between the two could be very, very blurry. As the meaning of the two terms evolved, they often came to be applied retroactively. There is a lot of debate out there as to what the first novel in the English language actually is. The reality is that there isn’t an easy answer, because the boundary between the novel and the romance is not clearcut.

To make something complicated simple, the most common trope used to (retroactively) separate the novel from the romance was realism. In her 1785 work The Progress of Romance, Clara Reeve argued that the romance portrays “what never happened nor is likely to happen”, while the novel “gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves.” We might also tie this to the growing separation between “high” and “low” (or popular) culture – Bradford K Mudge talks about this in terms of “immortal” and “immoral” works of literature. For the novel to become a literary or immortal form, he argues, it needed another immoral form against whom its merits could be judged. For Mudge, this other form is pornography, but I think it can be argued that the “romance” was also othered in this way. Indeed, for some cultural commentators, there was not a lot of difference between romance and pornography as far as the effect on the (female) reader was concerned: a letter to the editor in a 1730 edition of The Universal Spectator read:

“And now, as to the Ladies favourite Collection, Romances. It grieves me to say it, they ruin more Virgins than Masquerades or Brothels. They strike at the very Root of all Virtue, by corrupting the Mind.”

We can see here just how very dangerous female fantasy was considered to be – the romance, an explicitly fantastical genre, ruins more virgins than brothels? This particular letter is decrying the “lewd Inventions of H—–d and M—-y”: Eliza Haywood and Delarivier Manley. And yet did these two authors really write “romances”?

Haywood and Manley are not names that come up a lot in discussions about what the first novel was. They are two of the three female writers that make up “the fair triumvirate of wit”: the third, Aphra Behn, sometimes gets a mention, but usually, the first novel badge is usually pinned on Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson, shunting the works of these three authors into the pre/non-literary “immoral” category. But if we use the idea of realism to distinguish between the immortal and the immoral, which is really more realistic? In Richardson’s Pamela, a penniless servant girl marries her aristocratic master, basically as a reward for her not succumbing to his aggressive physical, financial, and psychological attempts to seduce/rape her previously. Compare this to what Manley says in the preface to The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazinians:

“It wou’d in no wise be probable that a Young Woman fondly beloved by a Man of great Merit, and for whom she had Reciprocal Tenderness, finding herself at all Times alone with him… cou’d always resist his addresses.”

Manley argued in this preface that female readers wanted to see characters more like themselves represented on the page: more realistic heroines, we might say. (Certainly more realistic than Richardson’s Pamela!) And she was certainly not averse to representing real(istic) people on the page – at least one of her books was noticeably based on real people, something for which she stood trial. What is noticeable in her books are her passionate female characters: for example, in the novella ‘The Wife’s Resentment’ in The Power of Love,  Violenta is seduced and then discarded, so she stabs her seducer to death, dismembers him, and tears out his tongue (so he can no longer use it to seduce young women) and his heart. There is an implicit protest against the virgin/whore dichotomy in a lot of her work, and a recognition that the world is not fair for women: Violenta’s story ends with her recounting the events leading up to her violent crimes at her trial, with everyone in the court “Amazed at [her] Courage and Magnanimity”.

Manley is not alone in her portrayal of strong, passionate, unconventional female characters who break both laws and social norms. The following passage is from Eliza Haywood’s Life’s Progress Through The Passions Or, The Adventures of Natura. (For context, Natura is the main character, and, intending to marry, he has been courting a girl named Maria. Someone has just tried to kill him, and it is very strongly suggested that Maria was behind it.)

“The assassin was soon after brought to a public trial, where tortures making him confess the truth, he acknowledged, that having been a servant in the family, the beauty of Maria had inspired him with desires, unbefitting the disparity between them; – that emboldened by an extraordinary goodness she shewed to him, he had declared his passion, and met with all the returns he wished; – that she became pregnant by him, and had made a vow to keep herself single, till the death of her father should leave her at liberty to marry him; but that an unlucky accident having discovered their amour, he was turned out of the house, and the grief Maria conceived at it occasioned an abortion; but that after her recovery she contrived means to meet him privately, and to support him with money, that he might not be obligated to go to service any more… and he learned from her the addresses of Natura, and the positive commands laid on her by her parents of marrying him, in order to retrieve her honour and reputation; that as besides the extreme love he had for her, his own interest obliged him to hinder the match, if by any means he could; and finding no other than the death of his rival, he had attempted it by the way already mentioned…”Maria’s lover is executed, and Maria herself descends into madness and is sent away to live in a convent. However, Natura, the protagonist, finds that he “could not avoid feeling a very tender commiseration for her”. This illicit love affair, taking place across class differences and definitely counter to popular morality, is portrayed sympathetically.

The reason that the books of Manley, Haywood and Behn got thrown in the immoral rather than the immortal basket was not because of some arbitrary distinction between the romance and the novel but because they were dangerous. Their literary form is the form Richardson was trying to remake in a moral form when he wrote Pamela. Social anxieties about what women read and what they took from it were rife, as demonstrated in that letter to the editor quoted above. Female fantasy, whether or sex or violence or revenge or passion, taking place as it did outside the controlled bounds of patriarchal society, was considered frightening and perilous.

Modern romance fiction are also repositories of female fantasies, and when thinking of the way the genre is often treated by cultural commentators, it’s not difficult to see parallels. What if romances give women unrealistic expectations? What if women can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality? We’ve all read this before. ‘Romance’, as a generic term, is often still a dirty word.

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some history lessons from the masters

Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.

Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.

Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!” that emanates from the couch.

But really, I want to talk about writing history.

In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.

And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:

You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.

Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.

It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.

This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.

One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.

I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.

In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.

I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.

I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.