History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 April 2015

WOLF HALL -- From the Page to the Stage -- and Screen

I was an early adapter (as they say in the tech world) of WOLF HALL, In fact, back in 2010, Hilary Mantel's publicist sent me a letter asking if I would review the novel for my blog. I rarely posted to my blog at the time, being a busy author myself, and I told Ms. Mantel's publicist that as a fellow author I felt uncomfortable about giving a review of a colleague's work. However, because I had indeed written about Henry VIII and his many love affairs and marriages in my nonfiction books ROYAL AFFAIRS  and NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (which is why they wanted me to review WOLF HALL in the first place, I told the publicist that I would be delighted to read the novel and if I loved it, I would be certain to write about why I loved it, and let all my readers and colleagues know that.

P.S.: I loved it and did end up writing a blog post that was more or less in the form of a rave review. I adore voice-y fiction and Mantel has one helluvan author's voice. Many like it; many don't, but I'm one who does. I'm not personally fond of Thomas Cromwell the man, but as someone who writes about history's "bad girls" -- women who have gotten a bad reputation most often from centuries of propaganda delivered to us as truth instead, I'm fascinated by the choice of Cromwell as protagonist and grateful to see the Tudors through eyes other than one of Anne Boleyn's handmaidens for a change.

The prose is meaty and muscular, gristly at times, but delicious.

And I enjoyed Ms. Mantel's second novel in the trilogy, BRING UP THE BODIES as well. By then I found it a quicker read than WOLF HALL and the minor quibble I'd had about the first novel (the same minor quibble shared by hundreds of others, evidently -- namely that of applying the pronoun "him" every time she referred to Thomas Cromwell when there were so many other males in the room often created confusion) had been pretty much resolved.

So, what would happen, I wondered, when Ms. Mantel's novels, which for the most part are faithful to the historical record -- except for my other minor quibble -- when she does not need to stray into Philippa Gregory territory to make things up (like attributing Henry's sons to Mary Boleyn, which (a) is not true and (b) he got a perfectly good one off another royal mistress Bessie Blount) were translated to the stage--and then be transformed into a BBC miniseries? Would the author's voice get lost as is so often the case with that other oft-adapted author Jane Austen?

I am SO glad to have seen the Broadway plays before I saw the first part of the bloated and miscast miniseries. Oh, did I tip my hand too much just now? For the Broadway/Royal Shakespeare Company production (presented in 2 parts as 2 separate plays: Part 1 is WOLF HALL and Part 2 is BRING UP THE BODIES -- both titled for ease of comprehension as WOLF HALL) is everything the miniseries should be. It is brilliantly cast. The pacing is swift and sure. Each play is nearly 3 hours with an intermission. And the first play, in particular speeds by. There are pacing issues with the lumbering first act of the second play. Too much exposition. Replacing the author's voice on the page (in the stage play) are humor and wit. Just enough. In the right places. The plays are by no means comedies. But life is a human comedy. And we are witnessing whip-smart people.

Many of the same lines in the mouths of the miscast actors in the miniseries fall flat. I found the teleplay to be utterly humorless. The first episode flatlined for me. While I sat in my seat at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and couldn't wait for more, and leapt to my feet for each curtain call in what is truly an ensemble cast, I nearly fell asleep during the droning delivery of the actors on television.

How could the same material be presented in two such different iterations -- one so lively and one so dull? The stage set for the theatrical event is big and gray. The miniseries takes you into a zillion Tudor-esque locations, so faithful to what we imagine the originals must have been -- and yet that version is the least interesting!  On Broadway, even though the actor playing Henry (Nathaniel Parker) has a dark beard, he is a tall man (and his costume is increasingly padded as time goes on). When he thunders, you quake in your boots. When he smiles you melt. When he dances (as in the opening of the play), you want to take your clothes off and throw yourself at him. THAT is Henry VIII in his prime. Not the small voiced, mewling guy, redbearded though he is, in the miniseries. A small performance that wouldn't frighten (nor seduce) anyone, nor is he, like the Broadway Henry -- a worthy adversary for Cromwell, who on Broadway has every other line, and is probably way too charismatic -- but that's Ms. Mantell's Cromwell, and she co-wrote the plays, so it's her prerogative.

Perhaps therein lies the vast discrepancy between the stage and screen versions. Ms. Mantel ultimately had a vast deal of input into the scripts for the stage. Whoever wrote the teleplays was trying so hard to be earnest and faithful to the novels that the production became a crashing bore.

And the novels -- and the stage adaptations -- are anything but boring.

As I saw the Broadway plays in previews. Ms. Mantel herself was there. She signed my Playbill. I congratulated her on another great success but afterwards I wished I could have given her a note: I would have liked to have seen more of Anne Boleyn's vulnerability. I felt she was a little too one-note shrewish throughout the 2 plays. I wanted to see more of what made Henry fall in love with her and be willing to wait 7 precious years for her.

Have you read WOLF HALL and/or BRING UP THE BODIES? What was your impression? Have you seen either the Broadway/RSC productions or the miniseries? Care to compare and contrast your opinon of them to the novels?

08 April 2015

Mayfair Memories

Getting ready for the May 15 release of my next Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch mystery, The Mayfair Affair, I've been revisiting some Mayfair locations that feature in the book. Here's a brief photo tour from some wonderful trips I took over a decade ago.

Here I am in Berkeley Square, the beautiful square in the heart of Mayfair, where Malcolm and Suzanne live.

This house in Berkeley Square is my model for the Rannochs' house. I love sitting in Berkeley Square and looking at it and imagining them:

This is the Albany, where many well to do bachelors lodged (Ernest/Jack lives there in The Importance of Being Earnest). My fictional characters David Mallinson and Simon Tanner share rooms here:

 This is Brooks's the famous club in St. James's Street that the Whigs frequented. The Mayfair Affair opens with the fictional Duke of Trenchard found murdered in his house in St. James's Square, not far away.

Do you like to visit locations in favorite books? Writers, what are your favorite research trips?

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26 March 2015

Letter Home from Waterloo

This is absolutely brilliant and not to be missed (this kind of stuff is why I troll The Daily Mail and know more than I every wished to about a certain family whose name begins with "K"). A letter home after the battle of Waterloo has been found and is set to be auctioned. It is from a corporal in the Household Heavy Brigade. It reads in part:

"We had very hard fighting and with men of no despicable size or appearance. I received a cut on my bridle hand, had a sword run through my jacket in the shoulder. We drove them under their own cannon into their own lines and stay'd their (sic) too long, for the infantry began to play upon us. I had my horse shot in a charge against a solid column of infantry...he received another ball, he tumbled over another horse... about 20 yards from the face of the column of 15 hundred or 2 thousand men. I struggled to get clear, they saw me and sent some musket shot at me but they struck the horses. My poor horse had a great many balls in him. I got my legs clear looked over his neck, and saw more approaching to bayonet me. I mustered all my strength and run off faster than I ever went to school in my life, their flankers fired after me ... This was a Glorious Charge we returned and was Huzza'd by the infantry which they had threatened with destruction. Our swords reeked with French Blood."

I love this kind of stuff and am always happy when I stumble across it, it makes everything so vivid. And military stuff like this always makes me think of Heyer's brilliant An Infamous Army...I really need to reread that.

08 March 2015

The Perfect Girl is Gone

Growing up I loved fairytale. The only Disney princesses in my childhood were Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (which definitely dates me). I liked all of them, had books and records with their stories (dating myself again) and was particularly attached to my Aurora and Phillip paper dolls. But from a young age I also always liked flawed heroines like Emma Woodhouse or Barbara Childe or villainesses  like Achren in Llyod Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain or Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers. As I said in my a blog on my website, "for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes :-) (only compare Emma with Fanny Price or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance). But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions." As a child, I liked them because they *did* things instead of waiting around to be rescued. Conventional heroines tend to be too perfect. Which tends also to go with a lack of inner conflict.

When I started writing, my favorite of my heroines tended to be those who pushed convention the most. Until I got to Suzanne in my current series, definitely flawed and conflicted, definitely a rule breaker, and definitely not the sort to wait around to be rescued.

Fast forward a few decades to the holiday season of 2013 when I heard about a new Disney movie that was supposed to have heroines outside the traditional mold. It seemed like a good time to take my daughter Mélanie, then two, to her first movie in a theater. We settled into seats with peppermint hot chocolate, and there was Anna, who is sweet but also human enough to make mistakes and brave enough to try to fix them and who saves herself by committing an act of love instead of being the passive recipient of a true love’s kiss. Anna is an interesting heroine in her own right. But she isn’t the one who sings that song, the song little girls are singing on countless playgrounds. Elsa apparently was originally going to be a villain in the mold of Maleficent or Ursula or Snow White’s stepmother. Her character evolved as the movie was being made. In fact when "Let It Go" was first written, they weren’t sure whether Elsa would be singing it as a heroine or a villainess. But instead of a wicked queen she ended up a Disney princess who is also a tortured heroine, struggling with her powers and her identify, trying to be perfect, facing the fact that she has to be herself.

Mélanie likes both Anna and Elsa for Halloween she wanted to be Anna and wanted me to be Elsa (picture above), but we saw far more Elsas than Annas out trick or treating. The Elsa toys are by far the hardest to find it stock. Mélanie sings all the songs from Frozen but she particularly loves to belt out “Let it Go.” “The perfect girl is gone” is a long way from “Someday my prince will come” or “Someday I’ll be part of your world" (Ariel is probably Mélanie's other favorite Disney princess). No matter how ubiquitous the song has become, i don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing my daughter sing “Let if Go.” Or of hearing it on our CD, or our video, or her singing Elsa doll or her Frozen karaoke microphone…I'd much rather have my daughter strive to be herself than to be perfect.

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24 February 2015

They keep a man servant, do they ...

One of the discussions I see rather frequently on social media is about the lack of servants in a lot of books. I think a lot of modern people (especially Americans) are uncomfortable with the idea of servants. But our characters wouldn't have been! Basic living was HARD. Cooking was HARD. Cleaning was HARD. Caring for your clothing was HARD. See the theme here? Anyone who could afford to pay someone else to do all these menial tasks, did. And not just because they were HARD, but because they were time consuming and a person can only do so much themselves.

An aside: my best friend from college is half Turkish. Until recently, his family still had a place in Istanbul. The first time I went, I was uncomfortable with the servants. Several of them didn't even seem necessary, which made me even more uncomfortable. Then my friends dad said something that really stuck with me: They didn't have servants because they needed them; they had servants because as wealthy people (he's a cancer surgeon) they had a duty to employ people. That really stuck with me and made it easier to understand the mindset my characters might have had.

So, I was flipping through my copy of The Complete Servant before loaning it to a friend and I found some very frank discussion of costs and how many servants (and what type of servants) various households would be expected to keep. Someone with only 100 pounds a year would have still kept a maid. Elinor and Edward after their marriage in Sense and Sensibility would have had several (a cook, a maid of all work, a man servant to act as footman and groom, and perhaps a gardener). Bingley and Jane would have had a full complement, and Darcy and Lizzy, still more.

09 February 2015

A Visit to Houghton Hall

Over the holidays, my daughter Mélanie and I made two delightful visits to Houghton Hall, an English country estate built by Robert Walpole. But we did it without leaving the San Francisco Bay Area. The Legion of Honor Museum had a wonderful exhibit (currently touring the United States) which brought Houghton here. The exhibit included furniture as well as art treasures from the estate. And by projecting photographs on the walls, they actually recreated rooms so that one had the experience of walking through the estate (or castle, as Mélanie called it).

We arrived and had the experience of strolling up the house.

We explored the marble hall.

And strolled into the library.

Mélanie was delighted by a child's bed in the bedchamber.

And by coronation robes.

It was wonderful writing inspiration - like walking into one of my books. Watch for the exhibit to come to a city near you.

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03 February 2015

Fabulous 18thC Dressing Presentation

I'm testing out the Blogger App ... a friend posted this very cool video to FaceBook today, and I thought you might all enjoy it. Not sure the app will embed it properly though. My apologies if you have to follow the link to youtube.


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