Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: historical novel (Page 1 of 4)

The things I never meant to achieve

This week my first novel will be published. My eldest son, an academic, bemused by my mounting excitement, said: It’s only a book mum (he’s written a few). But to me it is more than simply a book. It is a dream come true. I feel immensely proud of the achievement. Yet against that pride is a growing list of the occurrences I didn’t envisage from the outset. You could call them accidents, or failures. But those are not quite the right words. The truth is simply a list of all the things I never meant to achieve.

I didn’t intend to write a book set entirely on an emigrant vessel

I set out initially to write a saga, spanning several decades, that followed the fortunes of a group of immigrants in the early days of the Port Phillip district. I did some generalised research and then, because the topic was so large, I broke up the task and began researching the voyage to Australia. I’d never written a novel before. So when characters turned up – characters with hurts, fears and secrets, I listened. Turns out they had a lot to say. By the time we reached the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision. Did I pull back and try to write the saga I’d initially envisaged? Or follow the story where it was leading? I chose the latter. I still haven’t written the saga.

I didn’t intend to have Welsh characters

The first character who presented herself to me was a young girl who’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. Her father had been a musician. She needed someone to help her reconcile her grief. A young creative  couple seemed the perfect fit (the book is not a romance). But initially they were Irish. However, I had a research trip planned and would be relying on long-lost-family accomodation (as we Aussies do). I didn’t have any Irish relatives. But mum was Welsh. Hmm… my creative young couple could be Welsh? I knew very little about Wales apart from rugby and male voice choirs. Rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and, even if I could have created a scenario in which a whole choir emigrated en-mass, I wasn’t sure a fifteen-year-old girl would find it inspiring. I’d read How Green Was my Valley and knew that Wales had an industrial heritage. Some quick research told me that Wales also had a strong bardic culture. At which point, my Welsh characters became storytellers and, basically, hijacked the novel.

I didn’t intend to write a crossover novel

I didn’t think about my book’s market when I started writing. I wasn’t sure whether I could write fiction, only knew I wanted to give it a try. It wasn’t until much later, when it was far too late to turn back, that I realised I’d written a coming-of-age story with a strong female protagonist, which also included her stepfather’s viewpoint. Close on the heel of this realisation, came the knowledge there weren’t many books with that mix in the teenage section of the library, let alone ones with embedded Welsh fairy tales and fantasy elements. My book belonged everywhere and nowhere and in today’s cautious publishing market, let’s just say that was, risky.

I didn’t expect the book to take so long to write

We are not going to be explicit about how long The Tides Between took to write. At least, not without dropping our heads and muttering the numbers one and two without any spaces. I knew nothing about writing fiction when I commenced this project – nothing about voice, or character development, or viewpoint, or plotting or story arcs. The Tides Between has been my university. Added to which, when I started researching, we had four (sometimes five) teenagers still living under our roof. Since then, we’ve suffered young adult crises, mental and physical illnesses, watched children partner and marry, sold the family home, moved to the other side of town and welcomed two grandchildren into the world. We’ve also worked, travelled and, I hope, been productive members of our community.

I never set out to fall in love with Wales, learn her language, or make best friends on the far side of the world

It dawned on me recently that some people thought I’d written a novel with Welsh characters because I had a strong connection with Wales and spoke the language. In fact (as you’ve probably realised), it happened the other way round. When I finished the final draft of The Tides Between (while living in Wales) and wrote The End at the bottom of the page, I wasn’t sure that anyone would want my whimsical little novel and, I can tell to you, on that day, in that moment, with the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia around me, it didn’t matter. My Aussie immigration saga had turned into a shipboard novel and been hijacked by Welsh characters. Meanwhile, I’d been falling deeper and deeper in love with a language. I’d failed, on so many levels, yet achieved more than I ever hoped for. I’d found my voice while writing the manuscript, connected with my heritage, and made friends on the far side of the world and somehow in the process of all the reading and writing and realising, I’d found my way home.

***

The Tides Between will be published by Odyssey Books on 20 October 2017. You can pre-order your copy from Novella Distribution, the Odyssey Books website, Amazon, iBooks or through your local bookstore. Here are the bibliographical details you will need to order from your bookstore.

Panels, publications and Arthurian legends

I am new to author panels. So far, I’ve chaired one and sat on three. I generally come up with great answers around four o’clock in the morning, after the panel is finished. My most recent panel was at Conflux13, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference where I felt more out of depth than usual. Why? Because speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy) is not my natural domain. But the theme of Conflux was Grimm Tales and, as I’ve written a historical coming-of-age tale with embedded Wales fairy tales and fantasy elements, I slipped in under the razor wire.

The first panel, I participated in was entitled:

WTF is “crossover” anyway? Crossover, genre mashup, what is it? Why do we love it? What are your favourite examples?

I was fine on that panel. I’m a librarian. I can talk categories – their limits and uses –  for hours. The second panel was called:

Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. Cultural appropriation. What is it? What are the impacts? What can we do to avoid it?

This was a topic in which I also have some insight as prior to writing The Tides Between, I knew little about Wales. Through my research, I’ve fallen in love with Welsh history, it’s myths and fairy tales and learned to speak the language. I’m not sure whether that counts as cultural appropriation? It feels more like I’ve been culturally appropriated. I sure do hope I haven’t @#!!*#@ed it up

I could easily have discussed cultural appropriation in works of historical fiction. But had less confidence in terms of speculative fiction. I therefore turned to the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group and asked for examples in which Wales history and culture had been well represented, particularly in relation to the Arthurian legend, as this fell under the Speculative Fiction banner.

A group member suggested Bernard Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles handled the British history elements well. Perfect! Cornwell is an Englishman, who lives in America, and no doubt, he didn’t consider his books as cultural appropriation. (Wales is after all part of England, isn’t it!? :-)) However, I downloaded the first book, started reading, and, after declaring the source of my information (Heritage and History of Wales), gave the trilogy as example of a culturally sensitive representation of Wales’ early history.

Now, thanks for your patience, here’s where the thinking of good panel answers in the middle of the night comes back into the story. I was challenged on the panel. Someone asserted that Cornwell had misrepresented the middle ages – by portraying it as non-religiously and ethnically diversity. Of course, the Warlord Chronicles are not set in the middle ages. They are set in the sixth century. But I didn’t think of that at the time (I think I may have just sat there slack jawed). But I have thought about the assertion a great deal since and, now, having read the complete trilogy  (which was magnificent, by the way, in terms of pace, character, story and voice). I am ready to give the answer I wish I’d given on the panel.

Religion

One of the things I enjoy about Cornwell’s writing, is his depiction of religion. The Warlord Chronicles are narrated through the first person viewpoint of Derfel, a Saxon child captured in a raid and raised British. Derfel, is proudly pagan and follows a pantheon of British Gods as well as Mithras, the warriors god. Derfel is not fond of the Christians. However, through his eyes, Cornwall gives us good druids, and evil druids, good Christian priests and evil Christian priests, faithful adherents to the Saxon Gods, as well as their opposite. We get a picture of a religiously, pluralist society in which religions both clashed and co-existed.

Race and Culture

I am not expert enough in the era in which the the Warlord Chronicles is set to say whether its depiction was ‘accurate’. But Cornwell makes a point of showing us black men, Irish men, and the British Kingdoms (in all their dynastic diversity). The Saxons are, likewise, not depicted as an ethnically homogenous group but a mixture of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. He gives us characters that believe in the ethic purity of Britain and want that purity restored and those who believe in the political unity of Britain but realise they can’t turn back the ethnic clock.

Women

Women didn’t do too well in this era of history. Cornwell doesn’t shy away from the facts. War involved rape, women were pawns in dynastic power struggles, and they had little opportunity to exercise power. However, within the constraints of that reality, he gives us strong women, flawed women, evil women and wise women. Although, their plight in this era was bleak, and the policies and attitudes towards them often appalling, there is an underlying respect for women throughout the trilogy and a sense that Cornwell is not using their subjugation as sexual titivation (as some current TV series seem wont to do).

Non-cliche

Cornwell’s characters are delightfully non-cliche. Merlin is a mischievous old man full of idiosyncratic ill-humour, Arthur is strong and fearsome but also shy of power and deeply flawed, Derfel is loyal, yet forced to make compromises, Guinevere is hard and ambitious, yet, also beautifully intelligent, Aelle, the Saxon King is fierce and blood thirsty, yet not without honour, Cerdic, more sinister, even Niume, the most single minded proponent of an ethnically pure Britain, evokes our sympathy, though her choices are often evil.

These books are amazing. A great example of: Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. I didn’t do them justice on the panel. But hopefully I’ve now corrected that omission. They are officially on my favourite-books-to-be-re-read-often pile.

HNSA 2107 – my subjective wrap-up

Last weekend, I attended the 2017, Melbourne, Historical Novel Society of Australasia conference. It was fun, informative, encouraging, and utterly exhausting. I can’t begin to imagine how shattered the organisers must feel. It’s taken me days to recover. Partly because my library service has a shortage of casual librarians at the moment and I am doing more than my usual number of shifts. Partly, because I’m that kind of girl. While my writing buddy, Chris, was banging out a blog the day after the conference (no, I didn’t even like her anymore :-)), I sat tufty haired in my desperately-in-need-of-laundering dressing gown, hands curled around multiple cups of strong coffee, in an attempt to re-boot myself for the week ahead. Only now, a week later, am I ready to do a wrap-up.  So, this blog isn’t exactly hot off the press.

The 2017 conference was the second HNSA conference and, although the inaugural conference in Balmain, Sydney was amazing, I enjoyed this one more. Why? Need you ask? We all know Melbourne is best. Okay, so that is a little subjective. But I’ve started now so I may as well continue in that vein.

Friends

In 2015, my (now, ex) writing buddy, Chris, and I booked our accomodation, met at the airport, purchased bus tickets, found our hotel, clacked along the footpath to the NSW State Library in high heels and cocktail dresses, and attended the opening night together. I vaguely knew a few people through reviews and articles I’d written for the Historical Novel Review. Chris knew others through the Society of Children’s Book Illustrators and Writers. But, I’d have to say that first evening, friends were a  bit thin on the ground. I don’t think we were alone. It was the first ever conference. The first time we’d met under the banner of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Over the weekend, we met loads of people face-to-face for the first time. Through social media, we’ve kept in touch. As a consequence, there was a genuine sense of community at this second Australasian conference. Bron, a Kiwi I’d met briefly in 2015, shared a Welsh heritage. We swapped manuscripts, did seperate stints at Stiwdio Maelor, and took part in shared discussions on the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group. It was wonderful having her stay with me during the 2017 conference weekend.

Involvement

They say, you get out of life what you put in. Although, I’d be wary of advocating this principle universally, I have no hesitation in applying it to conferences. I was thrilled to be part of the 2017 conference social media team and also to help out with the HNSA blog in the lead up to the conference. Through the 2017 AWW Challenge, I’ve also been reading heaps of historical fiction by Australian women. I was therefore ready to immerse myself in topics such as authenticity and accuracy, whether you can defame the dead (apparently not in Australia), the tightrope of cultural appropriation, the use of sensitivity readers (I will definitely need this with my next novel), research methods and how other authors found inspiration. I was part of the social media team during the conference and enjoyed posting live from within each session. Here is how I wrapped up the keynote address by indigenous memoir writer, Lesley Williams:

 

Wagging

A couple of weeks before the conference, I received a message from my Welsh speaking, originally German friend, who’s been living in Sydney, to say she was coming to Melbourne for a final visit before heading back to the UK. I explained it was the HNSA conference that weekend but, if she could get to Hawthorn, I might be able to slip away for an hour or two. When our friend Karla (recently returned from two months in Wales) agreed to join us, the date became set in cement. As the weather was fine, we sat out on roof-top of a bar on the corner of Glenferrie and Burwood roads, laughing, chatting, sipping wine and butchering plurals* in God’s own language. At one point, the waitress, a backpacker, judging by her accent, said:

‘Oh, you’re not speaking English.’

‘No.’

‘What Language are you speaking?’

‘Welsh.’

She laughed, relieved. ‘No wonder I couldn’t understand a word you were saying.’

The Next Step

One of the final conference sessions was a panel of agents and publishers. I recall at the last conference, this session and the First Pages Pitch Session, plunged me into a pit of despair. See, it had begun to dawn on me that I’d written an unusual novel – an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth, set entirely in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel, which had embedded Welsh fairy tales and was written from both adult and young adult viewpoints. Like, where was it going to sit on the book shop shelves?

As I sat in the 2017 conference, listening to agents and publishers talk about their selection process, I was struck by the same overall impression – the publishing scene in Australia is small, exclusive, and completely market dominated. Yet I didn’t experience the same level of despair as I had in 2015. Because although I didn’t get much interest from mainstream publishers, I’d had interest in my manuscript from more than one small press. The book was eventually picked up by a feisty, innovative publisher called Odyssey Books and will be published on October 20th, 2017. For me, this took the whole desperate I’ve-spent-ten-years-of-my-life-writing-a-book-no-one-will-ever-read sting out of the experience. So, if you were sitting in last Sunday’s auditorium, thinking: this is hopeless! Don’t despair. There is a whole new publishing world emerging  – one that is not nearly so conservative, or market driven. One that is ready to take a risk on outliers. I’m lucky enough to be part of that world. Maybe you will be too! Meanwhile, we have HNSA 2019 to look forward to.

***

The Tides Between is available for pre-order  through Novella Distribution.

*In Welsh you don’t simply stick an S on the end of a word to create a plural. A plural version of a noun can end in: au, iau, ion, on, i, add, odd, add, ed, od, iaid. Not to mention words where a vowel changes in the middle to indicate a plural, or simply gets truncated (eg. coeden – a tree, coed, trees). If Welsh is your mother tongue, you simply learn these plurals, without thinking, through hearing them used in everyday conversation. However, when three second language Welsh speakers (albeit fairly fluent second language speakers) get together there are inevitable moments of plural confusion. We run through various possible word endings, trying to decide which sounds right, until one of us eventually caves and looks it up.

An interview with Rachel Nightingale author of Harlequin’s Riddle

I first came across Rachel Nightingale at the inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia  Conference in Sydney. As a writer with a background in re-enacting, she was selected to read segments of the first chapter pitches for assessment by a panel of industry experts. Mercifully, I hadn’t submitted a first chapter because the fall-out was brutal. But I can remember thinking Rachel had the best job, simply reading out the entries. Since then, we’ve both had our debut novels picked up by Odyssey Books and, as we’ve presented together at events, and sat together on an Odyssey Books table, and, as I’ve picked Rachel’s brain about what to expect from the editing/launching/marketing process, I couldn’t wait to interview her about Harlequin’s Riddle. Let’s start with the blurb:

The Gazini Players are proud to present

For your Edification and Enjoyment

Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe

Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.

On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.

Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?

What historical era/place is this story based on?

Harlequin’s Riddle is based on events and life during the Italian Renaissance. The Commedia dell’Arte were travelling players who roamed the country performing improvisational theatre during that time. The Punch and Judy show that still survives today is a fragment of the original playing. There are theatre troupes around the world who still train actors in Commedia techniques. And of course the masks of Venice’s famous carnival are linked to Commedia characters – you can still see people dressed as Harlequin or Pierrot during Carnivale today.

Would you call it historical fantasy, or simply fantasy?

If I’m being very specific, I think it’s officially second world historical fantasy. Second world, in that the story takes place in a country very like Italy, called Litonya, which bears many of the hallmarks of the country but has its own geography and customs. Historical in that the events are based on the lives of performers and other artisans of the time, and the descriptions of buildings, costumes and food are based on the Renaissance world of Italy. Fantasy, because there is a mystical element that overlays everything and drives the story. Tarya is a realm that sits beside the real world setting – a place where artists who are in flow can uncover unexpected powers and create change in the world through their art.

Can you tell me the point at which the history ended and the fantasy started?

I have to be careful what I say here because my answer could give away spoilers for the third book! As with any writing, Harlequin’s Riddle is a mix of many influences, including research into the setting and artforms of the time, my own experiences as a performer and audience member, my lifelong fascination with Pierrot and with masks, and of course letting my imagination roam. The idea for Tarya itself grew out of reading an interview with Alan Cumming, the Broadway and Hollywood actor, who spoke about that moment before you go onstage as offering a chance to enter another world – I asked the question ‘what if this place was real?’ and my world building grew from there. This otherworld was crucial to the story, so I made the choice to step away from the real Italy, and the real Renaissance era, because it would make it easier for readers to accept the mystical aspects of the story. That said, I still researched and incorporated aspects of Renaissance Italy to create the setting. One of my characters, Isabella, is based on a real Commedia actress of the time (although I’ve taken liberties with her personality!) and some of the player families’ names can be found in Italy’s theatrical history. I could describe it as similar to building an old-style animated movie – the historical research allowed me to paint the backgrounds, whilst letting my imagination roam in service to the story (the fantastical aspects) created the movement in the foreground.

What inspired this novel? How has your outcome veered away from the initial conception? How has it stayed true to your original vision?

As I mentioned, the idea of Tarya grew from the interview with Alan Cumming, but I have collected masks most of my life – they intrigue me in the way they conceal or change identity, so that became part of the way people can reach Tarya, for everyone except Mina, my central character. And there’s a wonderful musical called The Venetian Twins, by Australians Nick Enright and Terence Clarke, which is based on the Commedia dell’Arte, and which I was lucky enough to see in Sydney with the incredible Drew Forsyth and Johnathon Biggins. That was what first showed me the magic of the living Commedia, beyond the romantic images that people are familiar with. I recently looked back at my early notes for the first book and saw how much had changed – and how some ideas that were there at the beginning remained through many edits. What has remained have been core ideas about theme. Change is very much an organic process as you keep writing and editing, and then again as you get others to read your work so it can be difficult to realise how much has shifted unless you do look back.

What did your research process look like?

I use a range of processes for research, as I mentioned in an earlier question, but probably the most fun is being a re-enactor. One of my hobbies is making late period garb, as in Renaissance and Tudor dresses. I was probably influenced by watching Zeffirelli’s lavish movie version of Romeo and Juliet in high school, because Italian Renaissance dresses are my absolute favourite. I’ve made three dresses and two overdresses so far. This sort of research involves looking at portraits from the time and trying to work out how garments were constructed, as well as reading about how things were worn, the sorts of fabrics used and so on. I avoid commercial patterns because they tend to add in things like darts or shaping that weren’t used at the time. There are patterns available that are far more historically accurate. Wearing a boned corset or walking around in a skirt with three petticoats is a really good way of getting inside a character’s head, because you have to move differently, hold your back straighter and possibly overheat!

Tell me about the Inamoratas and their costumes and the type of theatre you are depicting in general?

To understand the Commedia dell’Arte my critical resource was an actor’s handbook by John Rudlin, although my background in improvisational theatre allowed me to understand what I was reading at an experiential level, which was important in being able to get inside the actors’ heads. The name Commedia dell’Arte roughly means ‘comedy of the artists’ but the ‘Arte’ part also signified that this group of actors had official approval to perform, which is important in the Tarya trilogy, where the question of who has the right to make art becomes increasingly important as the books progress. Rudlin says the Commedia began around the mid-16th Century as an entertainment in market places, so those involved had to be good at drawing a crowd. The performers take on stock characters such as the trickster Harlequin or the rich banker Pantalone, and these have standard costumes, movements and speeches so the crowd can easily recognise who is who. Of course, as with movies and books, love is a central concern, and the two young lovers, the Inamorati, are always at the whim of fate, trying to find a way to be together regardless of the many characters and events that conspire to keep them apart. You could say I took a Commedia approach with the book, because I too used a framework (the Renaissance and the history of the Italian players) and then improvised a fantastical world and events around them.

Harlequin’s Riddle was a delight to read – well structured, historically robust, yet  inventive in its fantasy elements – and above all compelling. I can’t wait to read the next instalment. It is available though Odyssey Books, all good bookstores, and in the usual online locations.

 

The Fourteenth Century by May McKisack

I have been doing some plotting for my work in progress – an historical novel written from the point-of-view of Mared Glyn Dŵr. Meanwhile, I am working my way through the reading materials I amassed while in Wales. In addition to plundering the National Library’s wealth of resources, I took advantage of the UK’s cheap postage and somehow managed to get a pile of second-hand books home without paying excess baggage. The Fourteenth Century: 1307-1399 by May McKisack is my current tome of choice.

I am slowly gaining a better understanding of the the Hundred Years War, the tensions on the Scottish border during this era, war and chivalry in general (like society was built around the need to go to war, sound familiar anyone?). I also have a rudimentary understanding of the crisis and revolution that occurred during the reign of Edward 2nd, which finds its echoes in some of Richard 2nd’s later attitudes. I have also read about trade, industry and towns (all that stuff I learned about guilds as an undergraduate makes sense now) and the changing dynamics of feudalism. I am about to read about The Good Parliament, the Peasants Revolt and then the usurpation of Richard 2nd. There is so much to learn, so much more to read. But I am beginning to get a clearer understanding of this era in general. Meanwhile, is a segment about the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) that caught my attentions, just to get your red-hot, revolutionary juices flowing. 🙂

‘… the English colony is limited to the district that was coming to be known as the English Pale and ‘Irish enemies’ becomes the official designation of the native Irish living beyond its borders. They are excluded from ecclesiastic office; the king’s lieges have nothing to do with them; they are not to parley with them, nor to marry them, nor to sell them horses or armour. But the concern of the statutes is less the ‘mere’ Irish than the descendants of the English settlers, and their principal intention is to arrest the process of ‘degeneracy’ in the areas of English influence. Recourse to Brehon Law is forbidden; Englishmen may not entertain Irish minstrels, story-tellers, or rhymers: all Englishmen and Irishmen dwelling inter anglicos must use English surnames and the English language and follow English customs; Englishmen are to forsake Irish sports such as hurling and quoits and are to earn the use of the bow and ‘other gentle games’ which pertain to arms.’

Edward 1st, issued similarly race-based statutes at Rhuddlan in 1284. Royal Castellated Boroughs (like Caernarfon where I recently did an SSiW bootcamp) were established as bastions of Englishness. The Statutes of Rhuddlan became more racially restrictive after the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn. I have a copy of the later additions in Latin which I intend to type into Google some time (unless anyone out there reads Latin?). The Statues of Wales were applied to varying degrees throughout the fourteenth century and reinforced by Henry IV after revolt broke out in 1400. In 1432, the marriage of Sir John Scudamore to Glyn Dŵr’s surviving daughter, Alys, came to the attention of the King Henry VI. Scudamore was subsequently stripped of his honours (for having secretly married a Welshwoman). The Statutes remained in place as a constitutional basis for the government of the Principality of North Wales until 1536.

Anyway, back to the Good Parliament.

Hwyl!

A review of Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns

I love a novel based on fairy tales. In fact, I may just have written one. My nineteenth century Aussie immigration tale having been hijacked by its Welsh storyteller. For surely the archetypes found in age-old tales have stood the test of time, many of them having been told in various guises around the world. The fairytale is storytelling in its most primeval form.

I wrote an article on this topic after reading Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens. Since then, my pleasure in her work has not diminished. I devoured The Beast’s Tale, set in Nazi Germany, and am I even now rubbing my satisfied belly after feasting on her latest work: Beauty in Thorns.

Here is what the Penguin website has to say about the novel:

A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Beauty in Thorns is written five parts – each starting with an excerpt from the Memorials of Edward Borne-Jones, which were written by the artist’s wife, Georgiana. Initially, this lead me to believe the novel would essentially be Georgie’s story (though in keeping with Forsyth’s other work there would be interconnecting story lines, which had their own arcs). However, after an opening chapter from the point-of-view of the youthful Georgie, we switch to the viewpoint of Lizzie Siddal, Gabriel Dante Rosetti’s tormented muse, mistress and eventual wife. We have a few intermittent chapters from Georgie’s viewpoint, sketching the growth of her relationship with Edward Burne-Jones from her childhood, to their eventual betrothal and inclusion in the pre-Raphaelite circle. Forsyth then sets up the historic competition for Rossetti’s affections by introducing Jane Burden. As we move through the various viewpoints – Lizzie, Jane, Georgie and eventually Burne-Jones’ daughter Margot, we begin to get a sense that although Georgiana’s life is the over arching beam of novel, Edward Burne-Jones’ celebrated Sleeping Beauty paintings, could not have occurred in isolation. They emerged from a complex web of relationships.

Forsyth takes us deep into the heart of Lizzie’s tragic relationship with Rosetti, Jane Burden’s unfulfilling marriage to William Morris and the resulting jealous insanities, Georgiana’s helpless misery as her own relationship is caught up in the passions of the pre-Raphaelite world and the confusion and disillusionment of a child born to such a world. Forsyth does not shy away from the fact that Lizzie and Jane were poor working class women plucked out obscurity by the artists’ obsessions. Spurned by polite society, they lived at the mercy of their patrons’. Siddal, who gained Ruskin’s patronage, had a chance to make her own way. But her tumultuous relationship Rossetti, ruined her health. Georgie, as a spurned wife, had no recourse in a court of law, no hope of keeping her children, no means of living independently. The subject matter of this novel is not for the faint hearted. At its heart of hearts, it is a deeply feminist novel.

Despite its subject matter Beauty in Thorns never quite becomes bleak – passionate, charged with emotion, insanity, jealousy, and heart break – but never bleak. For this is above all a novel about beauty. Forsyth’s prose gives as a tactile sense of that beauty:

It seemed to Janey that happiness was not a gift she had been given. Everything seemed to weigh on her more heavily than it did the others. Each evening, as she kissed her daughters goodnight, she feared she might not see them again. As if death’s sickle might cut their delicate thread.

As do her descriptions of the artworks themselves:

He was working on a design inspired by the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. A girl in a white night-gown lay on the bed, swirls of roses behind her. A peacock spread its gaudy tail on the far wall. The girl’s golden-red hair rippled out across the pillow On his knees beside her was a knight with long, dark curls, bending to kiss her.

Beneath the drawing were pasted the words in a flowing scroll, written in Tospy’s elegant scrawl. Of a certain prince who delivered a king’s daughter from a sleep of a hundred years, wherein she and all hers had been cast by enchantment.’

The next sketch showed the knight and the awakening maiden hurrying through the castle on their way to the wedding. The knight looked like a young Gabriel, while the glowing haired princess was the image of Lizzie before she grew so sick and sad.

With its magnificent descriptions and turbulent passions, Beauty in Thorns makes a magnificent read – sumptuous, well structured, captivating – the story behind  an iconic set of paintings. It takes the ordinary mire of women’s lives and illuminates them, giving us a sense of the bigger picture in all its tragedy and triumph, which must surely be the purpose of all good art  – and indeed fairy tales.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Set in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel it is an historical coming-of-age tale about fairy tales and facing the truth.

The wrap up – affirmation, extreme generosity and the Welsh language

Over the last two months, I have stayed in London, Bowness-on-Windermere, Caernarfon, Corris, Llangollen, Y Bont Faen, Llandysul and Y Borth. I have worked in the British Library, the National Archives and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I’ve received so much help and affirmation. I have also crossed the line which all Welsh learners yearn to cross – having friends with whom I relate solely in the Welsh language. But how to sum it all up?

Let’s start with the generosity.

I caught an inkling, Mared, wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, would be the subject of my next novel while living in Wales. My friend Aran lamented that there had not been a major film about Owain Glyn Dwr.  I read some books, realized he’d had a wife, and thought, what would it have been like to be that woman? The idea for a novel was born. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote to academics. One of them, Dr Gideon Brough, was particularly encouraging.

At the time, his affirmation was massively important. See, back then, I wasn’t sure I had a right to tell Mared’s story. This uncertainty has been borne out during a number of my recent meetings. From people tentatively asking: so, Liz, what made you want to write about Mared? Er…you do realize this is a contentious topic? Or simply the startled faces of people who have recently moved to Wales: Oh, God, what barrow is she trying to push here? 

I get this tension. When a country has been conquered, annexed and incorporated, when it’s language is fighting for its life, when academics drop in for flying visits and act like they know everything, when Owain’s name has been hijacked by various political causes, or when you’ve simply moved to Wales and want to feel welcome, the idea of an Aussie interloper coming in and stirring the pot is alarming. Yet, Gideon, never once questioned my right to tell the story. He simply said: go for it! This project is long overdue. He also spent a whole day of his kids’ half term holiday (like all day) answering my lame questions.

The day I spent with archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith and his wife Megan (also an archaeologist) was similarly incredible. I wrote asking a for information and ended up being given a full guided tour of the Glyn Dwr sites (during which I asked an alternate string of lame questions). Because of Spencer, I spent my last day in the library trawling through the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, unearthing all manner of articles by Derek Pratt. I braved English roads and drove to Lower Brockhampton so that I could see the type of home in which Mared would have lived. I also faced octopus-on-steroids roundabouts in South Wales and learned that SatNav’s work best when you are paying attention – not when you are re-writing story scenes in your head. But that is another story…

In Llandysul, I spent a day and a half with Dr John Davies, a man with an impressive beard, an even more incredible library, and a keen interest in Owain Glyn Dwr’s mother’s family. John drove me around the borders of Owain’s southern estates, answered multiple questions, gave me CDs and memory sticks bursting with information. He also gave me the precious gift of assuming my Welsh was up to the task of discussing history – which it was. An incredible milestone.

Add to the above, the countless people who made time to catch up with me – too many to list but you know who you are – my friend Lorraine who listened to me ‘think aloud’ for a week in Llangollen and, of course, the incredible Veronica Calarco who, through setting up Stiwdio Maelor, has made it possible for me to spend extended periods in Wales. I stayed overnight with my friend Carolyn in Y Borth more times than was polite, took my brand new friend Anne up on her offer of accommodation in South Wales, had the fascinated company of Dee and Iestyn on the John Davies’ magical history tour, got shown around the Senedd Dy by Neil McEvoy and met up with an amazing group of SSiWer’s in the Mochyn Du.

On top of all this, my friend Aled in Australia suggested I catch up with Carys Davies (wife of the late Sir Rhys Davies, author of the incredible The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr) and Gruffudd Aled Williams (author of Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyn Dwr). I felt nervous about phoning the above. I hate cold calling people – especially in Welsh. Added to which, this was Cymru Cymraeg and all the old doubts about my right to tell this story came flooding back. But I took a deep breath, dialed their numbers (rather than confess a lack of courage to Aled), and, as a consequence, enjoyed two lovely dinners in Caffi Pen Dinas. With Carys, I chatted about my mother’s family, how I’d learned Welsh, and my recent Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Before long, we were chuckling over the pictures of me clambering onto that pillar on top of Twt Hill (thanks Aran). After lunch, we attended a lecture in the Drwm where I was introduced to people as, Liz, who is writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. I thought: okay, maybe, this is going to be alright.

While having lunch with Gruffudd Aled Williams a few weeks later, we discussed history and winced over some of Glyn Dwr’s more anachronistic portrayals – like taking tea with his family in the fourteenth century and Iolo Goch drinking blood from a skull. At some point, I don’t know when, I decided it was safe to share the outline of my story. It is a fragile thing, a story concept, without the build up you put into developing it on the page, and not easily shared but, for some reason, it all came tumbling out. In Welsh. But strangely I didn’t need  language to understand Gruffudd’s response. I saw it in his eyes, the way he smiled, leaning back in his chair. O, hyfryd…

In flight entertainment – a review of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies

I boarded flight QF 9 to London with lofty intentions (I always do), reading journal articles about Welsh soldiers in the Hundred Years War as I waited to board our delayed flight. I even pulled out my battered paperback copy of Life on an English Manor and started making notes in the margins. But there is something mind numbing about a long-haul flight and after I woke from my first crick-necked sleep and realized there was nothing I fancied on the inflight entertainment, I gave myself over to the pleasures of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies.

Set at the turn of the century, on the eve of Australia’s Federation, Berylda Jones has passed her first year at Sydney University with flying colours. She is returning to the home of her despised uncle Alec for Christmas. Meanwhile, botanist, Ben Wilbery, fulfills his mother’s dying wish by heading to Bathurst in search of a rare wildflower. Perpetually awkward with women, Ben is enraptured on meeting Berylda and agrees to accompany her on a journey to the old gold rush town of Hill End, little realizing the excursion is part of a desperate plan to free her sister from their guardian’s sadistic clutches

“How odd, it’s no man I have ever seen before, here or anywhere, yet there is something strangely familiar about him. Long flaxen hair like a traveling minstrel, tweed britches and a haversack, he’s travelled of the pages of some great, strapping Walter Scott adventure and up to our yard.”…

… “I lose my way on the words as I look back at the girl and see she is not a girl at all but a young woman, compactly made. She is wearing a blue dress, a blue gown; she is a piece of the sky drifted down onto this chocolate box verandah.”

Inspired by the misogyny experienced during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, Paper Daisies is a mesmerizingly meditative novel about the powerless of women that is set against the backdrop of the early Australian struggle for women’s franchise. Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Berylda and Ben, Kelly manages to capture the male-dominated political atmosphere of rural Australia, the violence and abuse against women that ofttimes went unchecked and the courage of those who fought to overcome their desperate situations. The relationship between Ben and Berylda is a necessary silver thread against the dark subject matter of this novel yet despite its tenderness the narrative is never in danger of becoming a tale of about a man rescuing a woman.

Once embarked on this novel, I couldn’t stop its pages from turning. Though I did allow myself a few writerly sighs of envy at the fiercely drawn characterization, the unique viewpoint voices and the delightful freshness of Kelly’s prose. As we begin our descent into Heathrow, I can honestly say that the hours spent on this flight have not been wasted, even if I did not fulfill my lofty intentions. I am also painfully aware that as a writer I have a long way to go.

Another first time event – chairing an author panel

At the beginning of March, I sat on my first ever author panel. Mid-March, I did my first ‘real’ author talk. On April 9, I will chair my first panel. After which, I’m going to flee the country.

I won’t be idle in the U.K., of course. I have three days in London (for research). Followed by a week of Mam-gu duty with my son and his family (pushing swings, rocking my new baby grandson and playing trains with his older brother). After which, I will spend a Welsh-language-only week in Caernarfon with members of the SSiW community. Then I will be busy researching my next novel. But prior to all that fun, I have this one final author event to look forward to.

So far, I’ve read the three designated historical novels for young readers (yes, I’m putting my YA librarian’s hat back on), perused the websites of the participating authors, read the bios provided and have slept with Gabrielle Ryan’s helpful notes on how-to-prepare-for-an-author-panel under my pillow. It’s time to write up a riveting list of questions. However, I don’t know about you? But I never know what I think until I have written about it. Which gives me a perfect excuse to tell you about the three participating authors and their books.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose – by Pamela Rushby

Lizzie and Margaret Rose tells the story of ten-year old London girl who is orphaned by an enemy air raid and evacuated to the safety of her aunt’s family in Australia. As Margaret Rose makes the perilous sea journey to Townsville, her cousin Lizzie has mixed feelings about the imminent arrival of her cousin, especially one as needy as Margaret Rose. As Lizzie faces the displacement of sharing her life with a stranger and war makes its mark on the communities of northern Queensland, Margaret Rose wonders whether she will ever feel safe again. In the end, both girls must learn how to adjust and belong.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose begins with a prologue and is subsequently told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Lizzie and Margret Rose. Lizzie’s pique is drawn in a way that does not make her unlikeable. Margaret Rose’s character evokes sympathy without her being too perfect. The experience of war in northern Australia is portrayed with an age appropriate realism that is not too terrifying. The result—a heartwarming book, handling a difficult topic, that is perfectly pitched to its primary school aged readership. This is hardly surprising. Pamela Rushby is the author of over two hundred books for children. I am very much looking forward to meeting her on April 9th.

Within these walls – by Robyn Bavati

Miri and her family live in Warsaw. Her father, a hard working tailor, speaks Polish well enough for the family to live outside of the Jewish quarter. Their innocent lives are made up of food, family, riding bikes and coloured pencils. But when the Nazi’s invade Miri’s family are forced to move into a tiny apartment in the Warsaw ghetto. Group-by-group people are rounded up and secreted away to work camps. As starvation, desperation and separation tear this family asunder, Miri must find the will to survive. Even though, at times it would be easier to give up and die.

As part of the Melbourne Jewish community, Bavati felt a personal connection to the Holocaust, even though her ancestors had left for England long before WWII began. But Within these Walls is her first foray into historical fiction. Bavati was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to write a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. Told in Miri’s first person voice, the novel gives a realistic portrayal of the ugly, desperate reality of Nazi occupation and, although the subject is grim and most of Miri’s family are obliterated, she manages to enthuse the novel with a sense of hope and belonging. This novel will make a great springboard for classroom discussions about the evils of mindless prejudice.

That Stranger Next Door – by Goldie Alexander

The Stranger Next Door tells the story of Ruth, a 1950’s teenager who has won a scholarship to a private college and longs to study medicine at university rather than conform to her family’s expecatations that she will marry a nice Jewish boy and raise a family. In Eva, a mysterious Russian woman who has recently moved into their apartment block, Ruth finds a perfect alibi for her liaisons with the Catholic school boy, Patrick O’Sullivan. But Ruth’s father was once a member of the communist party and Patrick’s father is working for the anti-communist, B A Santamaria. As Ruth tests family boundaries in the strained political atmosphere of 1950’s Australia, even the helpful Eva is not who she seems.

Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Ruth and Eva, The Stranger Next Door is essentially a coming-of-age tale in which the political tensions of 1950’s Australia form an interesting backdrop to Ruth’s rebellion against the expectations of her family. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how the two strands connected but the links became clear eventually making the ending of the novel quiet satisfying. I was intrigued to imagine how much of the author’s own journey was tied up in Ruth’s experience and will look forward to asking Goldie Alexander how much the novel reflected her own coming-of-age in Melbourne’s 1950’s Jewish community.

So, those are my three designated novels. Thanks for listening to my thoughts. If you want to hear more from these authors and their work, why not join us at the Mail Exchange Hotel on the 9th of April.

Bookings are essential.

 

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact – a review of Alison Goodman’s latest book

Confession, I don’t generally read paranormal fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of era-appropriate mysticism within well-researched historical novel. But not a complete cosmic struggle that has no basis in reality. However, having enjoyed enjoyed Alison Goodman’s first paranormal Regency adventure novel, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, I decided to dip my toe in the alternate genre-pool for a second time. I wasn’t disappointed. Why? I will list my reasons below. But first, let me set the scene.

Having come into her full Reclaimer powers, on the eve of her presentation ball, in a most scandalous manner, Lady Helen Wrexhall has been banished from her family and forced to take up residence in the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton. Under the pretext of a restorative holiday, Lady Helen is in fact being trained to fight dangerous energy-wielding Deceivers under the auspices of the Dark Days Club. But the Dark Days Club is riven by tensions. The most alarming being the violent and erratic behaviour of Lady Helen’s Reclaimer mentor Lord Carlston. When Lady Helen is given a secret commission by Mr Pike of the Home Office, she is unsure whether her actions will pull the afflicted Lord Carlston back from the brink, or lead to his complete destruction.

Enticing? Indeed! Here are some reasons to take the plunge:

Historical authenticity

Despite its paranormal elements, the Regency setting of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact and, indeed its predecessor, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club,  are impeccably researched. The  voice is third-person narrative voice is well pitched, the Regency manners exquisite, and the description of the clothes tactile. You can almost hear the rustle of the women’s dresses. Despite the fact that, Lady Helen has supernatural abilities that take her into most unladylike situations, she never  loses her Regency sensibilities. Here is a section from when she meets Mr Pike from the Home Office:

No bow from Mr Pike. Not even an acknowledgement of her arrival. She knew this game: her uncle used to ignore people when they came into the room too. A way to assert his authority.

She crossed to the damask armchair set opposite its matching sofa and noted a portable mahogany writing box on the low marble table, with trimmed pen, inkwell and sand pot laid out. Mr Pike had come prepared but for what?

‘Geoffrey,’ she said over her shoulder to the footman. ‘Tea please.’

‘No,’ Pike said. ‘No tea. I do not want interruptions.’

Helen paused in taking her seat. The man was a boor. ‘As you wish. No tea, Geoffrey. You may go.’

The footman bowed and withdrew, closing the door. At the corner of her eye, Helen saw Mr Hammond take up a position beside her chair — an unmistakable declaration. The lines were drawn.

Skilful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Far from being divorced from history, the deaths, scandals, and political tensions attributed to the Deceivers are linked to real events, such as the rise of Napoleon, Luddite demonstrations, the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and even unexplained violence associated with real members of the nobilty —such as the Comte and Comtess ‘dAntraigues. Although, I did not for a minute believe these forces actually existed, the skilful interweaving of fact and fiction enabled me to suspend disbelief for the duration of the novel.

Non-cliche paranormal elements

I’m not big paranormal reader, as stated, but, I’ve read enough to have a fairly good idea of the tropes — an encroaching darkness, the rise of a redeemer with special powers, cursed artefacts, forbidden bonds, mentors, secret initiation ceremonies, special training…I could go on. Goodman’s talent is to render these tropes in tactile and non-cliched forms. To take a string of pearls, for instance, and to bring them to life as she did in her Eon/Eona duo-logy. Or craft an enchanted knife with curved glass blade and ivory handle made by Josiah Wedgwood.

URST (that’s unrequited sexual tension in writers speak).

Take two handsome, well dressed upper-class men, one with a dark troubled past and a dead wife, whom he is accused of murdering, the other kind, protective and determined to save Lady Helen from the fate of the aforementioned wife, and you have a situation. Add in supernatural powers, a forbidden bond and the constraints of well-bred Regency society and you have dynamite. Having lit the fuse, Goodman lets it sizzle towards an agonizing conclusion, which left this reader crying no! no! no! As a consequence, I will now be hanging out for the next instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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