History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 September 2008

Divorce in the 6th Century?


When the Roman Empire disintegrated(5th century), tribes of Germanic and Celtic peoples flowed into what is now France, Germany, and Italy. Because they brought with them their pagan religions and culture, they ran into friction with the Christian Church as the Church fathers attempted to change things.

In defiance of the Church, old Burgundian and Roman Law did authorize divorce but only in certain cases: adultery (only on the part of the woman); use of potions to induce abortion or impotence; or grave robbing. But if a wife threw out her abusive husband, she could be strangled and thrown into a ditch.

The Romans thought in terms of equality between the sexes; the Germans placed the man above the woman, but neither civilization punished male adultery. The Gallo-Romans practiced divorce by mutual consent, but among the wandering barbarian tribes, a wife could usually divorce a husband only if he committed murder or robbed a grave.

The Merovingians (before Charlemagne) allowed married couples to separate with remarriage sanctioned, and, surprisingly, the Church tolerated it. Most barbarian tribes, however, found such mutually acceptable divorces immoral.

Once the church could prohibit divorce completely (9th century), it encountered another problem: Franks settled by Charlemagne in southern France during the Carolingian era had taken wives; upon their return to their homeland , they took second wives. Outside of the Church, many saw nothing wrong with keeping both wives, or renouncing one for political reasons.

Abbo of Fleury, writing about the Viking siege of Paris in 855, notes that “one reason for the invaders’ success was the nobles’ immoderate love of women and penchant for marrying kin” (translation: men were weakened by polygamous intermarriage). Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims (840-882), described how some great lords rid of themselves of troublesome wives: they were sent to inspect the kitchen, where the slave butcher slit their throats! This came to be known as a “Carolingian divorce"; after the husband paid a monetary compensation (wirgild) for the homicide to the woman’s family, the Church allowed him to enter a second marriage.

Obstacles to indissoluble marriage remained the polygamy practiced by Germanic tribes and the Gallo-Roman custom of taking female slaves as concubines. There were fines for rape, abduction, or intercourse with another man’s slave (even if she consented), but no law against a lord’s taking one of his own slaves. Gallo-Roman and Germans of all social ranks fathered children on their female slaves. Polygamy was practiced by the Franks and, later, the Vikings, who made such “Danish marriages” as late as the 11th century.

Slave wives had no power; woman was pitted against woman in battles for their lord’s heart, and, hence, power. These "harem" battles particularly affected royal families and nobility. From Clovis on, most Merovingian kings had several wives. Clotaire I (511-561), asked to find a husband for his wife’s sister, decided he was the best choice and made her his own concubine! [The Church regarded this as incest--having relations with a wife's sister.]

It was not until the Council of Mayence in 813 that the Church forbid marriage to relatives as close as second cousins on grounds of consanguinity. Monogamy and indissoluble marriage did not become general practice among Gallo-Romans and Franks until the 10th century, and it was the common people who adopted it; only later did the nobility follow suit. And with it came the tightening church laws against divorce.

Source: A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium; Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, editors..

24 September 2008

The Great-Granddaddy of All Financial Scandals

In my native New York right now, an air of apocalypse reigns. I haven’t seen four horsemen galloping down Fifth Avenue yet, but on the bus the other day, I overheard someone moaning that if Goldman went down, we’d all be fighting over long-term leases on caves, having reverted to something akin to a state of nature. I do hope it’s a Lockean state of nature. A Hobbesian one would be no fun at all.

But before we start negotiating our cave leases, it seemed like a good moment for a little shot of historical perspective. It certainly won’t be the first time we’ve gone wild on unsound speculations and lost our shirts. Nope, I don’t mean the Great Depression. I give you… the South Sea Bubble, my very favorite financial meltdown.

It all began, as one might guess from the name, with a trading monopoly granted by the Crown. In 1711, the South Sea Company was granted the exclusive right to trade in Spanish South America. This was a little optimistic of them, as they were in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession at the time, but, fortunately for the company, the Duke of Marlborough worked his usual military magic and the rich trade of the Spanish Americas lay open to the English merchant. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, the South Sea Company was granted the right to send one ship a year, as well as the lucrative “asiento,” the slave trade with the Spanish colonies.

All this is more than a little misleading. The South Sea Company, despite the glamorous images of pearls larger than your fist and spices untold conjured by its name, undertook its first voyage in 1717. That voyage was only marginally profitable. Despite its nominal guise as a trading company, the South Sea Company’s real money was to be had in ways that would be more familiar to us now: playing around with government debt.

Wars are expensive to run (also sound familiar?) and the War of the Spanish Succession was no exception. William and Mary had begun playing around with credit-floating and debt-financing during their reign, enabling England to hold out in the field against richer, larger but less financially creative France. Their successors, Queen Anne (who presided over the initial South Sea grant) and George I (who came to the throne in 1714) continued the experiment. A deal was struck. In exchange for taking on ten million pounds of short term government debt, the South Sea Company would be granted a perpetual annuity of nearly £600,000 a year. The debt holders would be granted shares in the South Sea Company, guaranteed against that government annuity. The government planned to raise the money for the promised annuity with a tariff on goods to be brought in from the South Seas (see only one marginally profitable voyage, above).

The real crisis arose in 1720. In France, John Law was making waves with his daring new finance schemes (the short version is that he issued paper money through the Banque Royale based on shares in his Mississippi Company, which held the monopoly on French overseas trade). Rumors abounded that he was turning France into the financial powerhouse of Europe. From the English point of view, this was very, very bad. (Anything good for France is always very, very bad for England. It’s just one of those laws of nature). England wanted in on the act. In 1719, the South Sea Company took over three-fifths of the English national debt, something in the order of thirty million pounds, a mind-staggeringly huge sum at the time. Under the South Sea Act of 1720, the holders of government annuities were offered the option to exchange their irredeemable fixed term annuities for either cash or South Sea shares. In the space of six months in 1720, between January and July, the price of South Sea stock rose from £128 to £950 a share. London had gone speculation mad.

As a token of quite how speculation mad they had gone, all sorts of companies were mooted and solicited investments in shares, including one (my very favorite) for the manufacture of square—yes, square—cannon balls. Brilliant idea, that. Everyone was involved, from the high to the low. Both of the King’s mistresses were deeply implicated in South Sea speculation (the Company had given them cheap shares), and members of both houses of Parliament were in it up to the tops of their elaborately curled wigs.

We can all see where this was going, right? The bubble burst. The scramble to sell began in August 1720. By September, the price had dropped to £150 a share. Ruin rippled across England, triggering countless bankruptcies, suicides, disgrace, and a government investigation, run by the First Lord of the Treasury, Robert Walpole. The same was happening across the Channel in France, where John Law, once feted and lionized, had had to flee in disgrace.

According to John Brewer, it wasn’t all bad. In his seminal work, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783, he writes that although “[i]n the short term, the South Sea Bubble was a major disaster… [i]n the long run, its consequences were more beneficial… changing the structure of the national debt” and thus making England a stronger state in the long run. As a side note, the South Sea crisis also consolidated the career of Robert Walpole, commonly thought of as England’s first real Prime Minister.

Empty speculation, rising stock prices, dodgy financial deals, bankruptcy and ruin…. As they say, there really is nothing new under the sun.

21 September 2008

To prove a villain

Happy Monday! I'm subbing today at the last minute, so I thought I would carry over a blog I just put up on my own website. It's on villains, so in an odd way I think it's a good follow up to Pam's fabulous post on vampires last Friday. In literature, vampires began as villains, morphed into seductive villains, and now are often heroes, albeit usually dark heroes.

If I tried to write a book with a vampire character, I have no doubt I would end up humanizing the character (talk about an oxymoron--a humanized vampire :-). I tend to humanize all my characters. I want to figure out what drives them, what forces made them the way they are, and in the process, I then frequently want to figure out a way to redeem them.

I’ve been working on character profiles for the book I'm starting, which means, among other things, I’ve been thinking about the villain. Or perhaps I should say antagonist. Because this process got me to ponder the whole concept of villains and which characters can properly be called villains.

My Oxford Dictionary defines a villain as Person guilty or capable of great wickedness, scoundrel; character in play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions are an important element of the plot; (colloq., playful) rascal, scamp.

When I think of villains, the key bit is an important element of the plot. When I think of characters who can be called “the villain” of a story, they’re the driving force behind much of the plot. I saw a fabulous Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last month. Iago is my definition of a villain, in that he’s at the center of the story and his scheming drives the plot (in fact, he drives the plot much more than Othello does).

So in a mystery or suspense story (which is what I write), defining a villain can be tricky. There tend to be multiple characters after the “McGuffin,” multiple people with motives to murder, multiple strands of intrigue and conspiracy. And of course in most mysteries the murderer’s actions are shrouded in secrecy until the denouement, so even if he or she is driving the plot, one likely doesn’t see it, except perhaps on a re-read. In thinking about the villain/antagonist in my new book, thought back to the previous books in the series. I realized I wasn’t at all sure whom I’d call the villain (or villains) in Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game. The character who, in mystery terms, is the murderer, is reacting to the unfolding plot much of the time.

The character who is the mastermind behind the abduction of the hero and heroine's son remains largely off camera and isn't involved in the denouement. The two people carrying out his orders play a much more important role in the book. They could be called villains, but I'd be more inclined to class them as desperate people who commit villainous acts. And none of these characters is the driving force behind one of the key arcs in the book, the conflict between Charles and Mélanie, the married couple who are the hero and heroine. In that arc, I suppose, Raoul O'Roarke, a character closely linked to both Charles and Mélanie, might be called the villain. He is certainly, at least in the past, the driving force behind much of what happened between Charles and Mel. But ultimately, as I think Charles and Mel would agree, their choices are their own as is the resultant conflict. And while Raoul's actions are distinctly ambiguous, I wouldn't call either his actions or his motivations villainous. Mileage definitely may vary (I know from some reader comments that they see him very differently).

When it comes to Beneath a Silent Moon, I find it even more difficult to tease out whom I would call the villain. And I'm not at all sure that whom I would call the villain correlates with the person who is unmasked as the murder. I’ve always had a difficult time with villains in general. Since I tend to paint my characters in a lot of shades of gray, it’s often hard to tease out who the villains are or to draw a line between villains and heroes. The characters are often driven not by grand schemes but by personal follies and foibles or perhaps the desire to protect those they love. My books are filled with spies, but often the scheming masterminds turn out not to be the murderers. I have written at least one character, though, whom I would unequivocally call a villain. Daniel de Ribard, whose machinations are a driving force in two of my historical romances, Shadows of the Heart and Rightfully His. Daniel is scheming, brilliant, ruthless, and quite unscrupulous. He is, hopefully, fairly complex, and there may even be one or two moments where one feels a twinge of sympathy for him. But he is undeniably a villain, both in his behavior and in the way he drives the action of both books. Interestingly, I think both Raoul O'Roarke and Kenneth Fraser (Charles father, an important character in Beneath a Silent Moon), in different ways, owe a bit to Daniel.

Do you have favorite literary villains? How would you define what makes a character a villain in a story? Do you prefer scheming masterminds or characters who blunder into villainous actions through circumstances or wrong choices? Do you like to see villains redeemed? Writers, how do you approach the villains in your books?

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19 September 2008

Will the Real Fiend Please Stand Up? Beginnings of a Tradition

Amanda’s post on eating and dieting reminded me of yet another cast of rich, thin, often aristocratic characters, who share what one might also call an eating disorder.

I mean, of course, all those vampires on our TV screens and in our TBR piles.

I don’t have HBO, so I haven’t seen True Blood yet. Nor have I gotten around to J.R. Ward’s Brotherhood series.

But I can quote you chapter and verse from Buffy. I gulped down Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight in one long overnight binge, in order to learn what had caused my then-eleven-year-old niece to draw little hearts all over its table of contents -- she’d read the book so many times the front cover had fallen off.

And I’ve got a half-finished vampire story on my hard drive and an idea in my head for a novella that will recast a particularly vexing novel from the literary canon as erotic vampire fiction (and no, I’m not telling which vexing novel).

Who opened the cultural door to this horde of blood-sucking fiends?

In the English literary vampire tradition as in so much else (including the roster of famous dieters) one central and indispensable figure is Lord Byron.

He isn't the first vampire writer. Other English writers (including Coleridge and Southey) referred to vampire myths in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the word appears in the OED some 50-70 years before Byron used it. But as Anne Williams, editor of Three Vampire Tales, points out, the word must not have been very widely used because Byron was able to milk it for its exoticism -- and to call attention to his own travels in Greece -- in an annotation to his 1813 poem The Giaour:

The Vampire superstition [he wrote] is still general in the Levant…. I recollect a whole family being terrified by a scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation. The Greeks never mention the word without horror.

Scary, foreign, exciting, and hinting here at a strange, quasi-incestuous eroticism, The Giaour was vastly popular; Captain Benwick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion fairly swoons over it while he grieves for his dead fiancée. The word “vampire” appears in the text as part of a horrid curse put on the hero, who has killed the murderer of his lover, a member of a sultan’s harem:

But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;

There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.


Byron was to write again about a vampire again -- this time in more extended form -- three years later, during the summer of 1816, as his contribution to that famous story-telling session at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in the company of Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Dr. John Polidori, and (needless to say) Mary Shelley.

It was the story-telling session that produced Frankenstein.

And just how astonishing is it that the vampire figure also made an important entrance into the English literary tradition that summer, during that same extraordinary meeting of… I was going to say of minds, but that would have been a bloodless, indeed an inaccurate, way to describe the overheated goings-on among this brilliant, passionate cast of characters, none of them older than twenty-eight (Byron), while Mary and Claire were still in their teens.

The events are generally known, but the details can still overwhelm an audience that might think itself jaded by Gossip Girl.

Mary -- at nineteen the mother of a baby son -- was really still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She’d run away with Shelley at seventeen, but wouldn’t marry him until some months after the story-telling summer, after Shelley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide.

Claire, Mary’s stepsister, had coolly initiated an affair with Byron the preceding spring, and was now pregnant with his child.

Shelley may or may not have slept with Claire, but certainly (and to Mary’s ongoing distress) continued to endorse the utopian ideal of group marriage.

Byron, who was tired of Claire and avoiding her (except when he wasn’t), had recently fled England to avoid his debts, his shambles of a marriage, the continuing notoriety of his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, and (according to biographer Benita Eisler) an incestuous love affair with his half-sister August Leigh.

While Polidori…

Poli-who?… Also, unkindly, called "PollyDolly"... or "poor Polidori," in Mary Godwin's account of the events:

We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron... The noble author began a tale, a fragment…. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole...

John Polidori was Byron's twenty-one-year-old private physician, secretary, and traveling companion, though Byron had begun to tire of him as well and they parted company soon after the story-telling summer. And actually, "tire of" is also a pretty bloodless way to describe this deteriorating relationship. In Eisler’s words, Byron and Shelley

...persecuted the thin-skinned “PollyDolly” with a savagery that seemed to replay all the torments they had suffered at Eton and Harrow.

Or might have suffered at Sunnydale High.

Neither Shelley nor Claire came up much of a ghost story, but of course we know that Mary created Frankenstein and changed the literary landscape forever. As for Byron's "fragment," it was the first chapter of a vampire novel, later published, as Mary said, at the end of his poem Mazeppa, in 1819.

But the interesting thing here is that by the time this fragment was published, it had been scooped by another, better, story -- The Vampyre, which had appeared in the New Monthly Magazine some months before. Published anonymously but with an introduction that refers to the episode at Lake Geneva and includes the vampire portion of The Giaour, The Vampyre has a villain called Ruthven (pronounced "Riven," this was Caroline Lamb’s name for Byron in her well-known -- and vindictive -- roman à clef, Glenarvon). The story even offers a paraphrase of Byron’s annotation of the word “vampire” that I quoted above.

It was wildly successful and most of its readers thought it was written by Lord Byron.

But it wasn’t. As was soon enough revealed, The Vampyre was written by Polidori. And while it follows Byron’s original, and probably owes a great deal to Byron’s plans for extending the original, it’s a far more compelling read than the one Bryon actually got into print -- largely, I believe, because of Polidori’s portrait of Byron as Ruthven was far more deeply etched than Byron could have done himself.

Partly this is because of the success with which Polidori’s story creates a foil for Ruthven. Resonating with the pain of adoration and rejection, The Vampyre creates an innocent hero, Aubrey, a young gentleman of “that high romantic feeling of honor and candor, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices.” It’s the sort of line Byron might have tossed off before breakfast (and perhaps did, in Geneva), mouthed by someone who so passionately imagines himself an Aubrey that he manages to convince me of the pathos -- at the very least -- of what it felt like to imagine this. What Polidori intuited (or perhaps invented) is the drama of prey and predator -- human and more (or less) than human, used and using.

The Vampyre is surely a plagiarism -- a mode of using, by a man who clearly felt himself used, drained, ruined (in a kind of “daily” way) by a man he must have adored.

But is it entirely a plagiarism? Where is the using and who was zooming who here?

Was Polidori’s contribution to our contemporary cultural figure of the vampire perhaps indispensable? Did the notion of the “couple” of vampire and victim originate with him after all and not Byron? Or does it perhaps owe something to another famous literary couple -- the creature and creator, both of whom we now call “Frankenstein,” in semi-conscious recognition of the inextricability of their two figures joined into perpetuity?

According to Wikipedia, “Polidori died in London on August 1821, weighed down by depression and gambling debts. Despite strong evidence that he committed suicide by means of prussic acid, the coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes.”

While throughout the nineteenth century, The Vampyre continued to inspire other vampire creations, especially in the theater, across Europe. And just last year, the Polidori/Byron story formed the basis for what sounds like an utterly fascinating novel -- Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits.

Do you read vampire fiction?

Watch the movies or TV shows?

What accounts for your attraction to it, what are your favorites and what relationship do you think it has to romanticism and to today's popular romance fiction?

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17 September 2008

Too Rich or Too Thin? A Slim History of Dieting

Henry VIII

It’s rare to meet someone who has a healthy relationship with food. And some of the most famous people in history, particularly royals, were passionate about maintaining a slim and trim physique, even during, well, lean times when getting enough food—not eating less of it—was on their subjects’ minds. Nowadays it seems that every week, there’s a new fad diet—its credibility bolstered by a bestselling book on the subject written by someone you never heard of until last week and who may have received their credentials from the equivalent of a Cracker Jack box.

Uh-oh—Cracker Jacks. Must. Not. Be. Distracted.

The granddaddy of them all, however, happens to be the world's oldest surviving medical document, the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 B.C. Egypt, which contains a recipe for an anti-diabetic diet of wheat germ and okra. Moving on, various early Greek and later European sages commented on the moral benefits of relative moderation and temperance, and also noticed some of the apparent health benefits. But until about 200 years ago, most guidelines on diet had mainly to do with custom and culture, particularly issues of religious observance.

Royals were notorious for their rich diets. Too often while the peasants starved their sovereigns ate so well that they had to figure out how to keep the weight off. William the Conqueror (1027-1087) was allegedly spurred by his failing riding abilities to attempt to lose weight, so he tried drinking extra wine as a substitute for food.

Henry II of England (1133-1189) had a tendency to stockiness, and rode horseback for hours on end in order to keep trim. Henry VIII (1491-1547) practiced the same regimen, as well as jousting until he was injured in a fall from his horse. His rich diet, vast appetite, and inability to take nearly as much exercise due to the recurring pain from that injury (and subsequent ones) turned him into an outsize blimp of a man. In 1540, his waist measured 54 inches and his chest, a whopping 57”.


In the late 1700s, social commentators began to notice a rising level of obesity in Europe and the U.S., this being the time of new wealth creation and the fast rise of new middle classes keen to acquire and flaunt their money. Until then obesity was a rarity, a curiosity, or generally a sign of affluence, reserved for the mighty of status and mighty in bulk of the state, church, or commerce. Think about the High Gothic renderings and Flemish paintings of women who look pregnant. With so many people dying of disease, plumpness—accompanied or not by fecundity—was considered the sine qua non of beauty.

Jan Van Eyck: the Arnolfini Portrait (1434)


In 1829, Connecticut-born preacher and vegetarian Rev. Sylvester Graham dispensed wholegrain advice and promulgated restraint in gourmandizing. Graham Crackers, anyone? Yup, he invented them. However, Graham's advice was heavily framed in Presbyterian moralism about lustings of the flesh.

Uh-oh—Graham crackers. Must. Not. Get. Distracted.

Rev. Sylvester Grham (1794-1851)

However, the man who is considered the Father of Modern Dieting is William Banting, a London undertaker who in late middle-age despaired of being able ever again to bend to tie his shoe laces or even walk down a flight of stairs. He then adopted a high-protein and high-fat diet, supplemented with some vegetables, as recommended to him by his doctor. By abstaining from “starch and saccharine matter,” he lost dozens of pounds over a period of a year or so and managed to keep it off. Galvanized by his own experience, Banting published the world's first dieting blockbuster, his Letter on Corpulence.



Banting was not so much concerned about any perceived major health risks of his obesity, more the sheer discomfort of immobility and the many minor associated ailments. Thus was born the first of the so-called diet gurus and the first to advocate a low-carb diet.

William Banting (1797-1878)

German doctor Felix Niemeyer very soon subtly altered Banting's system by adding in a low-fat prescription, thus sending the two strands of protein-and-fat-in-the-diet and restricted-fat-in-the-diet on their divergent paths.

By the late 19th century, dawning health concerns over excessive overweight were being matched by high-Victorian moral prudishness. It was no longer fashionable to flaunt your wealth with an enormous pot belly. It is no coincidence that the first recorded characterizations of Anorexia were drawn at this time amongst the daughters of the rich.

The sylph-like 5’6” Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), known to the world as Sisi, was obsessed with her weight, stepping on a scale three times a day. She rarely ate solid foods, let alone a full meal. And if she weighed more than 50 kilos (approximately 110 lbs), she would refuse to ingest anything but orange juice and milk, or raw veal juice and milk, presaging all the popular (and dangerous) liquid diets that remain a staple for many Hollywood stars seeking a quick diet fix. Sisi, who would likely be diagnosed as an anorexic today, was also as paranoid about getting (or looking) old as she was about her weight. Raw veal figured again—this time in facial masks. Personally I would have opted for her other rejuvenating mask, comprised of mashed strawberries. Sisi was also an exercise buff. Her regimen included long horseback rides, fencing, and gymnastics (she had the gymnastics equipment installed in one of her sitting rooms at the Hofburg).

Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria

“You can never be too rich or too thin” was one of the credos of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor (1895 or 96-1986), the Fascist fashionista with a passion for both Mussolini and Mainbocher. Her husband, the former Edward VIII (1894-1972) who abdicated the throne so that he could marry Wallis, was a fitness enthusiast with a trim boyish physique (Wallis’s figure was nearly identical). During his brief reign in 1936 the Buckingham Palace cooks went nuts when Edward and Wallis insisted on the simplest of light meals, low in carbs and fats.

The Windsors on their wedding day, June 3, 1937

Just as Sisi’s unhappiness (which may also have been due to a chemical imbalance; many of her Wittelsbach relations were nuts, including “Mad King Ludwig”), an unfulfilling marriage contributed to the eating disorder (bulimia) of Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997). Some historians consider Diana to be Sisi’s spiritual descendant (okay, they were both tall, royal, and female); but there are vast differences between the women, their individual situations, and the way that their mania for dieting manifested itself. Sisi, an anorexic, starved herself. Diana, who by all accounts adored to eat, was a bulimic who binged then purged. Sisi’s husband adored her; Diana’s ignored her. Sisi wanted as little to do with her children as possible; Diana was an exceptional hands-on mother.

Diana, Princess of Wales

Have you ever written a character who has a mania for diet and/or exercise? Can you recall any literary characters—or any other real-life personages—who could never be too rich or too thin?

15 September 2008

Rest In Peace

What is the origin of that term? It must be from the Latin Requiescat in Pace but when was it first used? That question (as yet unanswered) made me wonder how and when humans began to regard death as a spiritual event or, to put it another way, when people began to see death as more than a simple event that marked the end of life. (Have you stepped on a bug lately?)

Since I turn to books to answer every question and am an acknowledged Anglophile I searched through my ill-organized library until I came upon the book with some answers. DEATH IN ENGLAND edited by Peter Jupp and Claire Gittings is a series of essays that “charts the history of death from the earliest known humans in England to the close of the twentieth century.”

What follows is a much abbreviated explanation of the ritual of death in England.

In the Neolithic period recognized burial was rare. Obviously all the information is gained through archeological exploration with few sites in England in pristine condition.

By the second millennium BC (the Bronze Age) there appeared to be burial in “cemeteries” with more whole skeletons and special markings for the wealthy or more prominent members of the community, wealth and social standing being a relative term.

The Iron Age which, in Europe, covers the period from 1000 BC to 400 AD, coincides in part with the Roman occupation of Great Britain. Is it any surprise that of the two more is known about the Roman way of death? How the people of the Iron Age handled death and burial is largely speculative based on the evidence of the Bronze Age. On the other hand, the Romans left behind a significant number of cemeteries and tombstone which have survived to this day.

There are no firm answers as to when and why the disposal of the body changed from cremation to inhumation (a new word for me: it means the act of placing the person into the ground. Thank you Wikipedia) but it became evident among the Roman burials in this period and eventually was established as the accepted ritual throughout Britain.

Anglo Saxon and Viking burial practices overlap with the introduction of Christianity in the period of 400BC to 1150. This period, primarily due to the influence of the Church, is rich with the representation of the growing concept and belief in an afterlife evidenced in a range of written material from illuminated manuscripts to wills.

The Church’s formalization of the doctrine of Purgatory in the 12th century added a new complexity to the period after death and also encouraged people to actively work to redeem souls through prayers, good works and the buying of indulgences. While I am sure this it not the first sign of the commercialization of death it is one that strikes me as very self-serving. (I feel compelled to add here that I am a very liberal but practicing Roman Catholic.)

The impact of the Black Death “intensified existing ways of thinking of death rather than transforming them.” The chilling images of death that we associate with the period were already a part of the culture. The Church had done a good job of teaching people that life was fleeting and the human body would decay as the soul never would. The Black Death gave them all the evidence needed on the transience of life.

The Reformation Protestants altered perception in a significant way by insisting that the actions of the living could not improve the afterlife of souls. This led to “less emphasis on the spiritual aspects of death and brought more prominence to eating and drinking.” Fewer people bought indulgences, lit candles or in other ways attempted to improve the departed’s place in heaven and more invited people into their homes to share their grief in a social setting.

A new belief that disease could be cured led to further changes in the emphasis on the dead between the Reformation and the reign of George III (d. 1820) As the death rate began to fall in the period up to and after 1850 the “likely time of death shifted from birth to old age.” And with that and the belief that disease could be conquered the early 19th century sees the beginning of the great monuments to the dead and the influence of commercial elements in funerary practices.

There was a decline in religious belief in the late Victorian Era (Really? Why?) which was exacerbated by the First World War when the elaborate rituals of the Victorians were impossible in the face of such great numbers of dead far from home.

With those major changes (decline in religious belief, death from old age and WWWI) more varied interpretations of how to handle death grew with funerary practices shifting from a domestic responsibility to one handled outside the home by funeral directors. This was finalized by laws and medical standards of the mid 20th century.

The last chapter states that private grieving was eroded by ease of communication and that more public expression of grief became common culminating in the outpouring of flowers and tears when Princess Diana was killed.

Admittedly this is one of my BIG picture overviews of the how humans perceive death. But I was intrigued enough to want to share it. Can you pick out an historical figure whose death you think has changed how people look at death, dying and honoring the dead?

12 September 2008

Characters: Deciding What They Look Like

As a historical author, I always keep my eye out for portraits of people who inspire my characters. I look for the right face, the hair, and if I can find it, an image that includes the clothes. I delve into magazines, old books, headshots of actors and actresses, and have been known to take photos of people at historical reenactments and medieval fairs (with permission of course).

In one of my reference books (The Reign of Chivalry, by Richard Barber), I came across the photo of the stunningly life-like 13th century sculptures of Margravine Uta and her husband, Margrave Ekkehard II. They were amongst the twelve nobles who contributed funds to build the Naumburg Cathedral in Germany, c 1250.

A "Margrave" was originally the head of an important state, is equivalent to a Marquis in the Anglo-noble pecking order.

These statues were reputedly “re-discovered” by an intrepid photographer who went exploring for interesting subject matter in an abandoned section of Naumburg Cathedral in the early twentieth century.

What strikes me about Uta and her husband is how real they look—mismatched by a romance writer’s standards (she is so much better looking than he is), but still a real husband and wife. There is so much character in their faces. I look at her image in particular and wonder was she happy? Did she love her husband?

He looks rather unforgiving and very authoritarian. As was typical of the time, he was older than his beautiful wife. The shield and sword he is holding, the belt he wears and the ornaments on his clothes are of the most detailed representations from the 13th century I have ever seen. The pin on Utah’s beautiful cloak may be a heraldic badge. I can use these details when I need to dress my next medieval heroine and hero.

I cannot find much about the real Uta’s life, except that she was a powerful woman. She is supposedly the inspiration for the evil queen in Disney's version of Snow White and during WWII, was touted to be the pinnacle of German womanhood by the Nazis.

I look at Uta’s statue and see someone more complex than that. I see sadness in her face, and intelligence. My writer’s mind gives her a story about an arranged and unwanted marriage, a lost love and shattered hopes . . .

As a reader, how do you conjure the image of a particular character in a book, and as a writer, where do you find inspiration?

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10 September 2008

Libertine Heroes

Recently I blogged about Courtesan Heroines, both here and on my own website. Both posts generated a lot of fascinating discussion. The discussion touched on the fact that, as a literary archetype, the courtesan heroine has a great deal in common with the libertine hero. I think it’s particularly interesting that both types of characters are often portrayed as having known a number of lovers but never having actually been in love. I did a follow-up post on my own website that about Libertine Heroes that I thought it would be fun to repeat here, especially as so many of the similarities are differences between the Libertine Hero and the Courtesan Heroine are rooted in historical mores and double standards.

In the discussion of courtesan heroines, our own Pam Rosenthal commented, “I’m particularly taken with the notion (implicit in some of the comments) that the knowing courtesan is a female counterpart to the as-yet-untamed rake, and that both of these fantasy images may play parts in the romance marriage reconciliation — the erotics of an ideal marriage demanding a shadow/other/past to provide a sort of chiaroscuro modeling of its present.”

Of course there differences–the libertine hero is indulging in a life of pleasure. The courtesan heroine may be enjoying herself, but she’s also earning a living (hopefully a very good one). And in literature, though both tend to find their one true love, their fates tend to me quite different. As I wrote, “I think as literary archetypes there’s a definite parallel between the libertine (particularly the libertine who has yet to fall in love) and the courtesan (particularly the courtesan who has yet to fall in love). But I can think of far more stories where the libertine finds true love and settles down to a happily ever after than where the courtesan does (one reason I found the idea of Loretta Chase’s book so refreshing).”

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon commented, “It’s that old double standard, while it is fine in fiction and in real life for a man to be a bit of a male slut, it is not fine for a woman to use her body out of necessity or to enjoy too much sex.”

So while Marguerite/Violetta in La Dame aux Camelias/La Traviata is in a sense redeemed by falling love with the much more innocent Armand/Alfredo, much like many rakish heroes redeemed by the love of an innocent young girl, she doesn’t live happily ever after, she dies of consumption.

Rakish heroes are also much more prevalent in romantic fiction than courtesan heroines. In some ways, I think, it’s part of the fantasy. As Pam said, “One assumes that at the end of Pride and Prejudice, when D and E retreat behind the well-guarded gates of Pemberley, D has brought not only his riches, but a richness of worldly erotic experience — so Lizzy gets to spend her life clipping coupons, if I may call it that.”

Not that there’s anything implicit in Pride and Prejudice to indicate that Darcy has any more worldly erotic experience than Lizzy does (except that as an man he’d be more likely to be experienced). But I think we tend to assume he’s experienced. Just as I think we tend to assume Percy Blakeney has some past experience, though it is never addressed in the Scarlet Pimpernel books. As Dorthe wrote in the discussion on my website, “She [Baroness Orczy] never mentions Percy’s past (a fiancée - Mary de Courcy -appeared in her son’s biography of Percy). I find it hard to imagine Percy with another women, yet I don’t see him as a virgin….In a way Percy and Marguerite mirror Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Peter and Harriet also had this deep bond. Both had affairs earlier, but they never loved anyone the way they loved each other.”

And while I wouldn’t call Peter Wimsey a libertine, he definitely has a world of erotic experience. Far more so than Harriet, who had one, not particularly satisfying, lover. The difference in Peter’s and Harriet’s sexual knowledge comes through delicately but unmistakably in Busman’s Honeymoon.

Francis Crawford of Lymond spends six books indulging in every sort of erotic adventure (along with all other sorts of adventures) but doesn’t fall in love until late in book five (in one of the loveliest discovering love scenes I’ve ever read).

The worldly, rakish hero who finds true love can be a very powerful story. Venetia is one of favorite Georgette Heyer novels (largely because, despite the difference in their erotic experience, Venetia and Damerel are so very clearly well-matched soul mates). But sometimes I find myself longing for a hero who is a bit less debauched. I like Heyer’s Charles Rivenhall (The Grand Sophy) and Charles Audley (An Infamous Army) for that reason. My own Charles Fraser in my books probably owes his name a bit to both of them. Charles wasn’t a virgin when he married Mélanie, though he was a lot less experienced than she was. In fact, though I haven’t really dealt with this yet in the books, he was even less experienced than she realizes.

Perhaps because of this, Charles in a sense takes sex a lot more seriously than Mélanie does. He’s much more inclined to romanticize it and at the same time much less comfortable with desire. As Mélanie says in Beneath a Silent Moon, Lovemaking doesn’t always have to mean more than an exchange of pleasure. Surely there’s no harm if the pleasure is mutual.

To which Charles replies, That reduces us to rutting animals.

And Mélanie says, Perhaps animals have the right idea. They don’t try to think about everything so much.

Charles, of course, is inclined to think about everything, which is one of the things I love about him. He can’t separate sex from its emotional resonances, which is why he’s constitutionally incapable of being a libertine. As he thinks in Secrets of a Lady, Intimacy was difficult enough for him. He could never bring himself to pay for the substitute.

What do you think of libertine heroes? Do you like them better paired with innocent heroines or experienced women? What sort of assumptions do you make about the sexual history of characters like Darcy, whose erotic past is not touched on in the pages of the novel? Any favorite examples to suggest of heroes who are libertines or heroes who are quite the opposite? What makes these characters work?

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08 September 2008

Pets in Novels

I returned from Burning Man last week to discover that my ancient Staffordshire Terrier was gravely ill and had to be put down. Needless to say, this put me a bit off my game . . . I spent the weekend on the couch with a box of tissues and a pile of books that contain all my favorite literary dogs. This means I re-read a lot of Georgette Heyer and Rita Mae Brown (and a couple of Jennifer Crusie books). These authors write dogs that are memorable and funny and engaging.

When I write, my characters always seem to have pets (usually dogs). I assume this is simply an outgrowth of my own sensibilities: No house is a home without a dog. But I also try and have the dog serve a purpose, otherwise I’m quite ruthless with myself and the scenes with the doggy have to go! Cats and tame farm animals are the purview of dotty aunts (someday I WILL write about a dowager with a pet hen that lives in the drawing room).

So today I’m simply asking how you all feel about pets in novels? Do they need to serve a plot purpose? Is comic relief enough? Is the fact that they show us something about their owner reason enough to include them? Ulysses in Heyer’s Arabella serves to show that the hero really will do anything for the heroine, but he is also an immensely rich and loveable secondary character. The Balchistan hound in Frederica serves no purpose beyond comic relief, but I still love him. The wheezing pug in Friday’s Child serves no real purpose at all, but I still remember him.

Is a pet like a gun? If you show it in scene one, must you employ it by the story’s close?

05 September 2008

Contest for the Center of the World


What is it that gets me all teary-eyed about a tiny bunch of men fighting for their lives against a far superior force? Like the Spartan 300, who died to a man defending their mountain post. And the Siege of Malta in 1565.

When the Turks took over the Byzantine Empire in 1453, no one dreamed they would
expand into an Ottoman Empire which would threaten the portals of France (Marseille), Italy (Naples and Ravenna), Germany (Vienna), and Spain. But threaten they did. The Turks wanted control over Mediterranean shipping and ports, and planned to invade Europe through Italy. The stumbling block in their way was Malta.

Malta is a desolate island barely 4 miles wide, a neighbor of Sicily and an ally of
Spain and a crucial gateway between the Christian West and the Muslim East. In residence were 500 Knights Hospitaller of St. John (known as the Knights of Malta) and 5,600 assorted soldiers, servants, galley slaves, and Maltese natives.
Grand Master of the Knights, Philippe Villiers, claimed the island after the Turks shoved them off Rhodes. This was to be their last stand against the Ottomans, who numbered about 50,000, including cavalry, Janissaries (elite soldiers), adventures, corsairs, and "religious fanatics."

In 1551 a Turkish corair, Turgut Reis, had attacked Malta and destroyed the allied Christian fleet. Malta then becomes a fortified naval base, preying on Islamic shipping and taking 3000 Muslim and Jewish slaves. In 1565 the Turkish Sultan, Sulieman the Magnificent, resolves to wipe the Knights of Malta off the face of the earth.

Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette's spies inform him that invasion is imminent, and he immediately lays in stores of food, finishes repairs on the stone forts, and recruits troops from Italy. Then he orders all the crops harvested--ripe or not--and poisons the wells to deny the invaders food and water.

The Turkish armada, one of the largest armadas assembled since antiquity, comprises 193 galleys and transport ships. The Christian Maltese forces have only small boats and a few expert swimmers who serve as spies.

Orders at the fortress of St. Elmo are to "fight to the end" and pray for reinforcements from Sicily. St. Elmo crumbles within a week, but the garrison holds on for 14 days. All but 9 Knights are killed and these are captured by the Corsairs.

Long story short: The Knights of Malta manage to hold on to the other two forts with a battery of five cannons; when the Turks venture too close, two salvos sink all but one vessel and kill 800 attackers. Relief forces cross a floating bridge and save Malta for the day.

The Turks rally and retaliate, breach the town walls and just when it appears all is lost, they retreat to address a rear-flank attack! But the bombardment of Malta continues; the Turks devise a siege engine covered with shields and a full-blown siege tower. Maltese entineers tunnel out through the rubble and destroy these constructions.

The Turks launch assault after assault on the few remaining Knights of Malta and their fortress, which is all but leveled, but somehow the small band of desperate, thirsty, brave men hold on. An eye-witness reports: "Our men are in large part dead... the walls have fallen; it is easy to see inside, and we live in danger of being overwhelmed by force."

According to another account: "When [Grand Master] La Valette hears a suggestion that the Knights retreat to the tip of the peninsula to make a last stand, he has its drawbridge blown up. There would be no retreat.'

By September, the weather is turning and the Turkish troops haven't the stomach for another assault. The Ottomans retreat, leaving burning villages behind, and the enraged Christians attack the retreating forces. Turkish deaths mount to 30,000. Malta loses one-third of its Knights and one-third of its inhabitants. More than 9,000 Christians had withstood a siege of 50,000 Turks for more than 4 stifling hot summer months.

The Turks never attempt to attack Malta again. The Siege of Malta is the first real defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a century.

Sources: Empires of the Sea, Roger Crowley; Wikipedia.

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02 September 2008

Will the Real Scarlet Pimpernel Please Stand Up?

That demmed elusive Pimpernel has been part of the literary landscape for so long that he has attained a status that few fictional characters can hope for, that of being popularly taken for a genuine historical personage. I’ve heard numerous people make the casual claim, “Well, the Pimpernel was a real person, of course—wasn’t he?”

He wasn’t.

The Pimpernel may not be real, but if we seek him here and seek him there, one can find a few historical progenitors. In stark contrast to our fictional image of the veddy, veddy British fop, drawling his way through the drawing rooms of Paris, only one of those proto-Pimpernels, Sir Sidney Smith, was actually English.

A naval man (and first cousin of William Pitt), Sir Sidney Smith originally covered himself in glory in 1793 when, in a move of which Sir Francis Drake would have approved, he burnt the larger part of the French fleet as it sat at dock in Toulon. Armed with his own floating squadron of eighteen boats, some manned by French Royalists, Smith hovered along the French coast, smuggling messages to and from Royalists in France. Incarcerated in the Temple Prison, he continued his clandestine correspondence. After his escape from the Temple, he sailed his way to Constantinople with a picked crew of Royalist officers, where he was on hand to scuttle Napoleon’s Egyptian escapade, romantically attired in Turkish dress and enormous mustachios. According to Elizabeth Sparrow’s Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1813, Napoleon blamed Smith for his defeat, writing later in life, “That man [Smith] made me miss my destiny.” Heady stuff. Smith, however, was no Sir Percy Blakeney. Arrogant and much disliked, he loses points in the swashbuckling stakes by having conducted a well-publicized affair with none other than the Princess of Wales, who wins the Least Likely Heroine Award, partly due to her disinclination to change her linen (cleanliness is a must in a heroine).

Sparrow also puts forward Richard Cadman Etches as another candidate for Pimpernel, citing “his skill in flitting unnoticed from country to country, entering and leaving the Temple prison in Paris at will, and all without leaving any trace of a nom de guerre”. In fact, it was Etches who was instrumental in effecting Smith’s escape from the Temple in 1798. His handicap? He was Danish. He might also have been a double agent in the pay of Catherine of Russia, who provided him with funds and a rank in the Russian navy, although he later turned against his Russian patroness, recommending an invasion of Russia.

There were characters who did exactly what legend would require, scattering behind them little cards emblazoned with the crimson petals of a flower—but they weren’t English either. It does stand to reason that the most effective agents in France (and the ones with the most romantic code names) would be, well, French. The Poix family, four brothers and a sister, all used the codename La Rose, along with the corresponding illustration, although the primary Poix, Pierre Marie Poix, had fifteen additional aliases, many non-horticultural. Others of his gang, however, did use flower names, including an unidentified individual who was referred to in the group as Le Mouron, the Pimpernel. La Rose also teamed up with a female agent, Mlle Nymph Roussel de Preville, who worked under the nickname La Prime-rose, a pun on primrose.

Personally, I prefer to think of the Scarlet Pimpernel as none of these, but simply as Baroness Orczy herself described him: a character created whole and entire rather than a fictional screen for an actual individual.

Do any of your favorite characters bend that line between history and fiction?

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