Friday, September 27, 2013

Bruised Hearts

Few possibilities terrify parents more than the loss of a child. Guilt, grief, helplessness, anger, and immobilizing fear mingle to create an emotional stew with a mix of ingredients that varies just enough from person to person to reveal the cracks in once-solid relationships, leaving individuals struggling alone—and often against each other. If the parents are, in addition, early twentieth-century missionaries in a great and ancient land hidden from them as much by their own cultural arrogance and misperceptions as by the unfamiliarity of the terrain, such a crisis raises additional questions: Has my God forsaken me? Have I sinned against Him? Is the husband I considered the master of my soul capable of guidance, or does he in fact require my assistance to find his way home?

Thus begins my blog post introducing my interview with Virginia Pye, about her debut novel, River of Dust. The podcast is now available at New Books in Historical Fiction.


When Grace Watson follows her husband, the Reverend John Wesley Watson, to northwest China in 1910, she does not expect a luxurious life. The Boxer Rebellion a decade before turned peasants against missionaries, and many Europeans died. Moreover, northwest China even in the best of times is a beautiful but barren land, and in 1910 the area has already suffered from drought for more than a year. Grace has miscarried at least twice and is struggling not to do so again when the story begins. But she and the Reverend have one beautiful boy, a toddler, and she trusts her husband to guide them and protect them in the unfamiliar landscape that is their new home. He is such a capable man, so charismatic and committed a preacher. Surely the Lord will uplift and uphold His dedicated servant, even in a place so unfamiliar to Grace.

Grace can see evidence of the Reverend’s concern for her and for their son in the vacation home that he has built with his Chinese servant and convert, Ahcho. The family has not even had time to settle in at this rural refuge when a pair of nomads swoop in from the distant hills and abduct Grace’s son. The Reverend immediately sets out in pursuit of the missing boy, leaving Grace behind to nurture their unborn child with the help of her nursemaid, Mai Lin. As River of Dust unfolds, we see Grace and her husband wrestling, within the limits of their individual natures, with the loss of their precious child. And as they push and pull in different directions, Grace discovers her own inner strength and realizes that the man she counted on to save her may need saving himself.

New Books in Historical Fiction now has an independent Twitter presence at @NewBooksHistFic. Follow us there, and like us on Facebook, to stay up-to-date on the interviews. I also post cover pictures and links on Pinterest as the interviews go live. You can find me on Twitter as @cplesley, on Facebook and Pinterest as Catriona Lesley, and on Goodreads as C.P. Lesley. For more information, see my website (

Northwest China, Setting for River of Dust
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution/ShareAlike license
© 2005 author (no name provided)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Church and State

The Teutonic Knights Force the People of Pskov to Convert, 1240
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
This picture is in the public domain.

In last week’s post, The Kremlin Beauty Pageant, I mentioned that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Russian rulers did not marry foreign princesses. I promised to explain why.

In brief, it was because of the Great Schism of 1054. Yes, I know, that happened long before the sixteenth century, but it had created two churches, each of which believed that it had a lock on the means of salvation. When the Eastern and Western churches split, their leaders excommunicated one another. That tends to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Catholic Church actually mounted a crusade in the east, converting Orthodox Christians as well as Lithuanian pagans at the point of a sword, wielded by the chivalric orders of the Livonian Knights and the Teutonic Knights. (The film Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, is about one stage in this crusade.) The Russian Church did not forget.

So tensions ran high. Although today we have many Christian denominations and moving from one to another is not that big a deal, medieval and early modern Europeans took a much more serious view of the matter. A convert risked imperiling his mortal soul in the eyes of the denomination he left (while saving it in the view of the denomination he joined). In 1505, the Catholic Church was still a single entity in the West, but that would soon change. The resulting struggle at first raised the stakes even more, imbuing every individual choice with global significance—especially if made by a ruler. The religion of a prince or king still determined the religion of the realm. (Think Henry VIII.)

In the East, Byzantium had fallen to the Turks in 1453, leaving Russia as the last sovereign Orthodox power. Moreover, the Russians, to put it bluntly, were feeling their oats. They were just finishing up a successful campaign to reunite their disparate principalities under a single administration. They had launched a series of challenges against the Tatars, who had ruled their lands for  two centuries—some of which succeeded, if not always for long. And they had begun to claim the role of heir to Byzantium, itself the last remnant of the ancient Roman empire. Although the dating is murky and the provenance unclear, the phrase “Two Romes have fallen, a third [Moscow] stands, and a fourth there shall not be” nicely captures the attitude of the Russian government in this period.

The Russians wanted recognition, and they wanted respect. That included respect for their religion—which, like pretty much everyone else in the sixteenth century, they saw as the one true path to Heaven. If they sent princesses abroad, they did their best to guarantee that those princesses need not convert to Catholicism. If their rulers—or even the ruler’s family members—married princes or princesses from abroad, the church required those prince(sse)s to be re-baptized as Orthodox Christians.

But most foreign royal families felt just as attached to their own branch of Christianity as the Russians did to theirs. They didn’t mind marrying their sons to Russian princesses or their daughters to Russian tsars, but they wanted their rites respected as well. When the Russians demurred, the foreigners refused to cooperate; and the few who toyed with the idea had a tendency to renege on the deal.

As a result, from 1505 until 1698, Russian grand princes (later tsars) married young women raised at home. No foreign customs getting in the way, no worries about re-baptizing and secret pressures to convert, no troublesome squabbles between diplomats hell-bent on securing this or that alliance and clergymen worried about the state of the ruler’s soul. How this system worked is the subject of Russell Martin’s book and summarized in my last post.

But wait, I can hear you asking if you have read The Golden Lynx, what about Elena Glinskaya? Wasn’t she Lithuanian? Yes, she was. But first, many Lithuanians were Orthodox, including the Glinsky clan. And second, Elena’s immediate family had brought her to Russia when she was little more than a baby. So she was still, more or less, a home-town girl, picked through a bride show—although perhaps a tad more cosmopolitan than most.

The last question I’ll tackle today is: what changed in 1698? That’s an easy one: Peter the Great. Russia’s first self-proclaimed emperor had little use for the Orthodox Church and none whatsoever for Muscovite customs. He had married his first wife, Evdokia, in a bride show to please his mother, but they never got along. She believed in the old ways; he couldn’t wait to see Russia become a spiffed-up version of Sweden. When he returned from his Grand Tour of Europe in 1698, he barely let the mud dry on his boots before repudiating Evdokia and sending her to a nunnery. A dozen years later, he married his long-time mistress, scandalizing the court, and changed the laws of succession so she would rule after his death (as Catherine I, not to be confused with Catherine II, another “the Great”). Before and afterward, he arranged marriages
to a foreign aristocrat for every royal personage he could get his hands on, basing his choices purely on his diplomatic aims and not worrying about the religion of either party, never mind the wishes of the bride and groom. Thus the Kremlin beauty pageant ceased to play a role in politics.

I had a great interview today with Virginia Pye about her new novel, River of Dust. That should be live on the New Books in Historical Fiction site early next week. So make sure you check back here next Friday to find out more. I’ll have the live link by then.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Kremlin Beauty Pageant

I have spent the last week and then some reading about marriage politics in the Kremlin—no, not Vladimir Putin’s affair with the gymnast, but the political and administrative heart of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Moscow. As a result, my friends on Facebook and GoodReads barely hear from me, the unhappy side-effect of my having agreed to write an academic review of Russell Martin’s wonderful A Bride for the Tsar.

No matter. Soon I will have written the review and can return to social media. In the meantime, I am collecting stories to enliven future books in the Legends of the Five Directions series. The Vermilion Bird (4: South) looks like the best candidate.

But marriage politics already rears its head in The Golden Lynx, where it is in fact the central element driving the story. You might even say that marriage politics was the reason I set out to write Legends of the Five Directions in the first place. When historians recognized the importance of marital alliances and royal wedding ceremonies in early modern Russian society, it revolutionized our understanding of how the political system worked in the centuries before Peter the Great came to the throne in 1682 (or 1689, depending on how you count). But since that understanding has yet to find a reflection in most textbooks, I thought that writing a series of novels would be a great way to show marriage politics in action.

So what is marriage politics? Those of you who enjoy reading books about the Wars of the Roses, such as Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen—now a television miniseries—are probably aware that Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV of England and heroine of Gregory’s book, created a huge scandal by taking advantage of her position to benefit her relatives. She advanced the careers of the men and arranged good marriages for as many relatives, male and female, as she could. Her brother-in-law, the future Richard III, was supposedly so put-off by this behavior (and Edward’s lax morals) that he high-tailed it for the North and didn’t come back until appointed Lord Protector after Edward’s unexpected death. The Woodvilles did not rejoice at his return.

In an English setting, Elizabeth’s behavior was unusual, not least because English kings usually married foreign princesses—or at a minimum high-ranking aristocrats whose male relatives were already ensconced in power. But Russians would have greeted such behavior with a shrug. Political power in Muscovy (a common name among specialists for Russia from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries) can best be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, with the grand prince (after 1547, tsar) at the center. The closer you could get to the grand prince, the more influence you wielded—and marrying your daughter to the current ruler put you closest of all. This was the ultimate prize, and every family (boyar clan) in the inner circle competed for it. The family that won controlled all the goodies in the state; play its cards right, and it could continue to marry its daughters into the royal family for several generations—leaving the other clans out in the cold.

Constant squabbling does not make for good government. So in 1505 Grand Prince Vasily III (father of Ivan the Terrible) came up with a new idea. (Actually his Greek adviser, who just happened to have a marriageable daughter of the right age, seems to have suggested the idea, but Vasily grabbed it and ran with it.) This idea was the bride show. Rather than marry a girl from any of the insider families, Vasily sent a summons throughout the land demanding that his gentry servitors produce their daughters for his inspection. The insider clans then vetted the prospective brides for looks, general health (i.e., fertility), virginity, and—most important—genealogy. They wanted a girl from a good background but not so exalted that her relatives could challenge the clans at court, and one who came from healthy stock but not so healthy that she would arrive with a host of hungry male relatives looking for sinecures. Once the courtiers had narrowed down the available candidates to a dozen or so, the grand prince/tsar had his pick.

This system took a while to get off the ground. Vasily had to send out three or four rounds of stern letters saying things like, “I know you have daughters, so produce them pronto or I’m going to have do something mean.” Eventually he scared up enough candidates to choose a suitable bride, and he was happy enough with the results that when things didn’t work out with that one and he forced her into a convent, he used the same procedure to select his second wife, Elena Glinskaya—who, as the mother of and regent for Ivan the Terrible, appears in The Golden Lynx. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had become the usual means of selecting a bride for the tsar—and his male relatives, too.

Marriage politics Kremlin-style had a number of interesting features. First, women played a big part in the winnowing of candidates. The wives of high-ranking courtiers and the ruler’s female relatives were the ones who examined girls to be sure they were virgins, commented on their health and personalities, and so on. Elite women in Muscovy lived secluded in their households and did not associate with unrelated men of their own class, so the male courtiers and even the grand prince/tsar would see a candidate for a few minutes, perhaps an hour. If an aristocratic or royal woman announced that a particular bridal candidate was unhealthy or bad-tempered, that girl was out. The brides had no say in the process, but the older women had plenty.

Second, with the stakes so high, marriage politics gave rise to scenarios usually restricted to fiction. Favored candidates developed mysterious illnesses, died within weeks of their selection, fell victim to smear campaigns and accusations of epilepsy caused by their hair being braided (or their tiaras attached) so tightly that they fainted. Michael Romanov, first of the famous dynasty, saw the betrothed he had selected sent away in disgrace because she began vomiting, an illness that cleared up two days after she left the court. When he recovered enough from that experience to order a second bride show at what was then considered the ripe age of twenty-seven, his wife fell ill at the wedding and died four months later. He then held a third bride show, only to endure a screaming row with his mother before he finally acquired a wife who pleased him. Thus the limitations on the tsar “having his pick” of the candidates.

Yet the system endured until the gradual Westernization of the court in the late seventeenth century made it obsolete. The bride show became a symbol of Muscovy (if under-appreciated until Russ Martin came along), and as such it attracted the attention of some of Russia’s finest painters. I’ve attached two examples here by Konstantin Makovsky, whose work I’ve featured before on this blog. The one at the top, Choosing a Bride (1886), shows an actual bride show (the grand prince/tsar is the young man standing by the chair, with one of the candidates bowing during her presentation). The one below (1884) shows preparations for a wedding—not necessarily a royal wedding, but the bride having her hair combed looks so much like my Nasan that I just had to include her.

And if you want to know why Russian grand princes (tsars) didn't just marry foreigners as the English did, I will take that up next week.

Images: Konstantin Makovsky, Choosing a Bride (1886), and Preparations for a Wedding (1884), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Spinning the Web

Clipart no. 14848025
One thing you will not find me talking much about in this blog is marketing. That’s because even with two novels in print, I still haven’t a clue how it works. 

Seth Godin, whom I mentioned in “Speaking of Faith,” emphasizes the importance of identifying and appealing to your niche. Just today, I received an e-mail blog post from him urging his followers not to waste time trying to go viral, because chances are the effort will fail. Instead, he said, find a small community and focus your energies on that. Eventually, the word will spread, but it takes patience.

Patience I have in abundance, but with the current deluge of books published by authors, small presses, and independent presses I’m less convinced than ever that time alone will lift my books above the surge. Nonetheless, I have noticed the importance of “local,” whether we use that term to mean the independent bookstore that just opened up ten miles from my house or the Goodreads groups where I spend much of my time talking about books other than my own. The talk at the town library, the presentation at the Rotary Club down the street, the friends who recommend my novels to their book clubs—these are the venues where I have sold books. Even New Books in Historical Fiction has generated a sale or two. Altogether, the result resembles a trickle more than a flood, but it’s a reasonably steady trickle—enough that I can hope it will become a streamlet one day.

There’s more I could do, I’m sure, but that’s not the point of this post. Marketing has a learning curve, just like writing—and one I’m far less motivated to master. If Five Directions Press could afford it, we’d hire a publicist. Until then, each author has to do the best she can with help from the others.

But if we can’t control word of mouth, except in the obvious way of producing books worth talking about, we do have a say in how we present ourselves. Improving that presentation has been my focus this week.

The appearance of this blog has pleased me from the beginning. My website, not so much. I’ve tried half a dozen designs, and the best I’ve been able to say is that each one seemed marginally less putrid than the one before. But as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, I do spend a lot of time looking at other writers’ sites. Finally, this week, I came up with a theory of why theirs looked so much better than mine. 

Fixing the problem took more than a little trial and error, with help from Photoshop and somewhat less help from Google Apps—which seems to assume that people have nothing better to do with their time than figure out where the controls governing various elements have hidden themselves this month. Still, I think I’ve come up with a design I can live with for a while, or at least until the next gorgeous site has me feeling like an amateur again. If you’d like to take a look, you’ll find the redesigned home page at

And if you happen to stumble over the horizontal navigation controls, do drop me a line. (Joke: I did find them. Otherwise the site would refer to pages that no longer exist.)