This Monday morning, I learned with both shock and sadness—on social media, of all places, a venue that so often appears trivial—that the writer Ann Swinfen had died unexpectedly the day before. It says a great deal about her family that in the first flush of their grief they thought to reach out to her many friends, followers, and readers to let them know of her passing. I’m not sure that under the same circumstances I could have mustered that much consideration. But I’m very grateful to them for making the effort.
Ann Swinfen is not yet a household name, although she was on her way to becoming one and certainly deserves that status. We never met in person, but I considered her a friend. Back in February 2015, I interviewed her about The Testament of Mariam, an early novel that she had reissued under her own imprint, Shakenoak Press, not long before. She really wanted to talk about her most recent book, This Rough Ocean, a novel about her husband’s family in seventeenth-century England—or at least about the Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez, set in the Elizabethan period—but as always during the few years we knew each other, she was gracious, in this case about the fact that so few novels about biblical times came my way compared to those set in the sixteenth century and later.
Ann had published at least half a dozen novels with a commercial publisher before the company decided that no one wanted to read historical fiction. An accomplished editor and proof reader as well as a gifted writer, she responded by starting her own press, devoted to reissuing those older novels and producing, at a pace that left the rest of us reeling, more than fifteen new ones in the years between 2014 and now. Particularly remarkable, given the rate with which she churned them out, the books were good: meticulously researched, well written, well edited, with beautiful covers designed by JD Smith and excellent formatting. She exemplified everything a self-published author can be, even mastering the art of marketing in an online world. I had no need to match her in speed, but the consistency of her output impressed me, especially as I widened my acquaintance with her books.
Despite my temporary focus on Mariam in the interview, I soon followed up on the story of Christoval, née Caterina, and known to all and sundry as Kit. I read the first book, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, and fell in love with the main character: a gifted Portuguese doctor, trained by her father, who dresses as a boy for her own safety and so that she can practice her profession, who befriends a young actor named Simon, and who is in every sense a kindred spirit to my Nasan. I read the four or five titles already published and gobbled down the new ones not long after they came out. I even acted as historical consultant on the sixth book, Voyage to Muscovy. In return, Ann read the first three Legends novels and wrote an endorsement for The Swan Princess that I still treasure.
After a while, Ann developed a second series, The Oxford Medieval Mysteries (these are not her only books, just the ones I followed most closely). As counterparts to Kit and Simon, whose relationship naturally develops slowly because even in book 9 it’s unstated whether Simon knows of Kit’s masquerade (I’ve assumed he does since at least book 6), the second series presents Nicholas and Emma, living about five years after the arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348.
As explained in the opening to The Bookseller’s Tale, Nicholas lost his wife to the plague and is now rearing their two children with the assistance of his sister, who lives with them. Emma, a reluctant resident in a convent whom we meet in The Novice’s Tale, soon comes to return his affections, but they both know that her social standing far exceeds his, which in the fourteenth century poses a serious barrier to their chances of marrying. As the series continues, one local mystery after another throws these two together, but where they will end up remains uncertain. I had just purchased book 6—the last, as it turns out—when I heard the news of Ann’s passing, so I have that installment still to look forward to, but I regret that I won’t have the pleasure of following their story further.
The sense of community is strong among writers, especially among self-published or small-press and coop-published writers. There’s surprisingly little competition, perhaps because the world always has room for more good books, and a great deal of support. Ann exemplified that element of authorship, too. I will miss her.
And as a reader I will miss her too. I’d love to see Kit and Simon’s long friendship resolved. Maybe a half-written sequel will emerge, waiting for the right person to finish it. I’d offer to complete it myself if no one else wanted to step up to the plate. But that seems like too much to hope for.
So rest in peace, Ann, knowing that you leave your characters behind to carry your name forward. And farewell, Kit and Simon, Nicholas and Emma, and all the other wonderful creations you gave us. As Nasan would put it, may their journey continue in the worlds beyond this one, under the grandmothers’ loving eyes.
Image: Russia, Starry Sky, from Pixabay (no attribution required).