Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Indomitable Uhtred

I’ve had the great good fortune to interview the bestselling novelist Bernard Cornwell several times for New Books in Historical Fiction, most recently in reference to his War of the Wolf, which came out last year. I was supposed to interview him again yesterday, but as I reached the midpoint in Uhtred’s latest adventure, Sword of Kings, I realized it would be difficult to talk for 30–35 minutes without either giving away spoilers or forcing Bernard to repeat points he’s already made more than once.

This difficulty has nothing to do with the novel itself, which is another page turner, well worth your money and your time. But at no. 12 in a series, every relationship we might discuss has a past, and at this point even naming new characters or mentioning what has happened to old ones robs readers who begin at the beginning from following these developments for themselves.

As it turns out, there was a practical reason for canceling the planned interview and substituting this blog post—one I couldn’t have anticipated at the time. Suffice it to say that the arrival of workmen with hammers and saws and electric drills, however welcome in terms of acquiring a deck that didn’t threaten to collapse under the next person intrepid enough to walk on it, would have severely obstructed our conversation.

So what I have to offer instead is a quick look at the setup of Sword of Kings, which I hope will circumvent the spoiler problem while still encouraging Uhtred fans to pick up the latest installment and those who haven’t yet discovered our favorite Saxon warrior (reared as a Dane and steadfastly pagan despite pressure from all sides to convert to Christianity) to seek out The Last Kingdom in print or on Netflix and get themselves up to speed.

In Sword of Kings, Uhtred is at home in Northumbria, which by the beginning of this novel in 924 has become the last holdout against the campaign of King Alfred the Great’s descendants to reunite all the Saxon kingdoms into a single country that will one day be known as England. Danes still raid the coasts and, when possible, settle in wilder parts of the island, but for the most part the once-separate territories of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia have established themselves as a more or less unified Christian nation under the rule of King Alfred’s son Edward.

But after twenty-five years on the throne, Edward dies, leaving an adult heir, Aethelstan, whose legitimacy Edward has placed in question by denying that he was legally married to Aethelstan’s mother; a boy named Aelfweard, whom few people in the kingdom like or respect but who has powerful support from his uncle, who also happens to be a mortal enemy of Uhtred; and Edward’s last wife, who responds to her husband’s death by fleeing with her two children and Aelfweard’s uncle in hot pursuit, determined to put an end to the three of them.

Naturally, Uhtred has to intervene, although at sixty-four he’d much rather remain by his own hearthside and let the English work out their own problems. He knows full well that their unification sets up the conquest of his beloved Northumbria. But Uhtred has sworn an oath, and oaths are serious business for a tenth-century warrior, especially one who hopes to spend his afterlife roistering, drinking, fighting, and wenching in Valhalla. So Uhtred goes south, and in so doing, he again plays a part in realizing King Alfred’s great dream.


The novel releases on November 26, 2019—which is why, as compensation for having to cancel the interview, I’m running this post on Tuesday rather than Friday.

Friday, November 22, 2019

You Want Romanovs with That?


In one of those odd cultural conjunctures that manifest themselves from time to time, perhaps because of the centennial of the Romanovs’ execution in 1918, the world’s attention has recently refocused on the long-dead Russian imperial family. Whether indirect—as in Alexei Uchitel’s film Matilda (2017) or Amazon Prime’s hit television series, The Romanoffs (2018)—or more direct (Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia [2018]; several Russian miniseries now being distributed by Jansen Media), the options available to Romanov buffs have seldom been richer.

It’s a cliché, of course, to point out that historical fiction often follows twisted paths that bear little resemblance to history. Whatever novelists say, fiction about the past can’t be historically accurate in the sense that scholars mean when they use that term. No matter how hard a novelist tries, the need for drama and immediacy and filled-in blanks leads to made-up characters, words put in people’s mouths, thoughts and dreams ascribed to them, and more. Scripts and screenplays, with their compressed time frames, lend themselves even more to a focus on emotional truth and messaging at the expense of the nuance and tolerance of ambiguity that are one of scholarship’s great benefits. 

But what ties many of these recent fictional portrayals together is their shoehorning of the Romanovs into stories that stand quite well on their own. There has long been a reluctance to accept that the Bolsheviks could in fact wipe out the entire imperial family and for the next seventy-five years not feel bad about it. But the lasting conviction that Grand Duchess Anastasia survived has now expanded to include other members of the dynasty.


The Romanoffs, for example, follows self-identified descendants of the family around the globe. The series lurches from an unspecified Romanov relative reminiscent of an angrier version of Grand Duchess Swana in the 1938 film Ninotchka—but who is at least not a surviving daughter and who lives in Paris under circumstances possible for unusually wealthy émigrés—to a boy in Australia whose sole connection with Nicholas II seems to be that he suffers from hemophilia. Along the way, it drops in on unhappy couples, a family curse, and a movie star fighting for her career while starring in a film about the Romanov murders, among other scenarios.

The series has received mixed reviews, but I found it well written, well acted, and generally enjoyable. Except for the movie star, though, why any of the characters need a connection to the historical Romanovs was no clearer to me at the end than at the beginning. You might think the directors had eight unrelated scripts and decided to throw in the Romanovs just to tie them together. The Windsors or the Astors could have served just as well.

I could make a similar point about Gill Paul’s two novels The Secret Wife (2016) and The Lost Daughter (2019). In these books, first Grand Duchess Tatiana, then Grand Duchess Maria, escape the cellar in Ekaterinburg and go on to live full and ultimately rewarding lives. Tatiana ends up in emigration; Maria remains in the nascent Soviet Union, where she endures revolution, civil war, the purges of the 1930s, and the Siege of Leningrad. The Lost Daughter ends with the postwar restoration of Peterhof in the 1970s, so it spans almost the entire Soviet period. In both cases, an additional contemporary story acts as a frame.


As novels about the Soviet experience, The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter are lovely. They don’t need the grand duchesses as hooks. The lives of Tatiana and her “husband,” Dmitri Malama, capture the reality of once-privileged émigrés forced to live hand to mouth after the loss of their property and their homes. Maria’s story is even more compelling as she struggles to find her way in a new world that views her family as the enemy, where everything she once valued makes her vulnerable. They could be Maria and Tatiana Ivanova rather than Romanova, but the novels are well researched and deeply thought through.

Yet I wonder: is the story of the Russian Revolution and its consequences not worth telling on its own terms? Do we need to postulate surviving Romanovs and Romanov descendants for people to care?

Perhaps we do. Gill Paul, in her interview with Jennifer Eremeeva on the New Books Network, notes that the Romanovs are “a fairy tale that ended the wrong way,” which she compares with Britain’s Princess Diana, whose death also led to an outbreak of conspiracy theories. There’s probably some truth to that notion. The Bolsheviks’ assassination of the entire family and its servants was bloody and brutal, almost senseless in its violence. We don’t like to think that human beings can act that way.

The sad reality, though, is that human beings did. DNA testing has accounted for the various family members, including Anastasia, Tatiana, and—most recently—Maria. If you want to know what really happened, and why the royal houses of Europe didn’t succeed in intervening in time to save Nicholas II and his family, especially the children, try Helen Rappaport’s The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family (2018). A historian with a fluid writing style, Rappaport offers a fascinating but ultimately chilling portrayal of an international system in which the all too human capacity for hauteur, indifference, incompetence, acrimony, and procrastination led to a tragedy that still haunts the imagination more than a century later.

Which, one would think, should be enough of a drama burger even for fiction. You want Romanovs with that?

This post first appeared on “All the Russias,” the blog run by New York University’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, on November 19, 2019.



Images: The Romanov Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Maria in 1914, public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Life between the Wars

Like many other readers, I first encountered Tracy Chevalier’s novels when I read The Girl With the Pearl Earring, an imagined story about the origins of the famous Vermeer painting that became a major movie starring Scarlett Johansson. I read The Virgin Blue, then somehow lost track of Chevalier’s novels until her US publicist approached me to interview her about the latest book, A Single Thread (Viking, 2019). Naturally, I leaped at the chance.

As it turned out—surprise, surprise!—a whole bunch of other people leaped at the chance as well. As of this week, it looks as if I won’t get to talk with Tracy Chevalier about this particular book, although I can hope to touch base with her some other time.

Never mind, I had a chance to read this perfectly lovely novel, which I might not have had time for otherwise, and now I have the chance to share it with you. 


Like several other books that have come my way this year, A Single Thread looks at the long-term effects of the First World War and the period leading up the Second. At the moment when this story begins, it seems inconceivable that another great conflagration could sweep across Europe, but by the end Chevalier’s characters are just beginning to dread that very possibility.  

A Single Thread centers around Violet Speedwell, a thirty-eight-year-old spinster living in Southampton in 1932. Violet is one of the “surplus women” of the 1920s and 1930s, unable to find another husband after the death of her fiancé in the middle of the First World War and still grieving the loss of her older brother. Her mother—who lives to complain, especially to and about Violet—assumes that her daughter will always remain at home to care for her. But Violet has other plans, which take her to Winchester, just far enough away for freedom.

There, as she struggles to survive on a secretary’s salary, a chance encounter with a society of stitchers set on bringing color into Winchester’s thousand-year-old cathedral by embroidering needlepoint kneelers, cushions, and alms bags opens a new door in her life. Despite never having sewn before, Violet soon learns the basic stitches while acquiring new friends and a satisfying hobby. And by following her single thread back into the past and forward into the future, she not only rights a few wrongs but discovers options she never imagined existed.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Interview with Georgie Blalock

Last night, for the first time, I watched the Netflix TV series The Crown, which explores the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, starting with her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947. Although the third season doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, word has it that it will pay particularly close attention to the queen’s fraying relationship with her sister, Princess Margaret. But Margaret and her scandalous involvement with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced former RAF pilot who served as her father’s equerry, is already on-screen in season 1. (Note that the scandal had as much to do with his divorce as his romance with the princess—times were different then, especially for British royalty.)

All this brings me to the subject of this week’s blog post, my Q&A with Georgie Blalock, whose historical novel, The Other Windsor Girl—based on Princess Margaret’s tumultuous teenage years, including her infatuation with Peter Townsend—came out just this week. On Guy Fawkes Day, no less, which the English celebrate as Americans do Halloween, but with fireworks and parties instead of Trick or Treat. And although Princess Margaret had no plans to blow up Parliament, at the emotional level her activities were at times just as incendiary where Britain’s rather staid royal family was concerned.

That said, I turn over the mike to Georgie Blalock, with many thanks to her for answering my questions. 

Until now, you’ve been writing historical romance under the name Georgie Lee. What made you decide to switch gears, to a degree, and write about Britain’s Princess Margaret?
 

I love history and there are so many different time periods to explore. I switched gears because I wanted to bring to life a new era in a different way than I’ve done in my past novels. Although there is a romance in The Other Windsor Girl, it isn’t a romance novel. It was fun new challenge for me to write in another genre.

Despite that wonderful and evocative title, your protagonist is actually Vera Strathmore, not Princess Margaret. Who is Vera, and how does she get involved in the princess’s Set?  

Vera is a young woman whose life was irrevocably changed when her fiancé was killed in World War II. In the years since the end of the war, Vera has tried and failed to find a new purpose and future. Through her wit and honesty, she catches Princess Margaret’s notice and is invited into the princess’ inner circle and a life she’d never dreamed possible. Her position as second lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret gives Vera a taste of glamour and respect but it comes at the price of great personal sacrifice, and insight into the less regal side of royalty. In the end, the once overlooked Vera must decide whether she wants fame by association or a life of her own making.

One of the interesting elements for me was to realize how traditionally “royal” the Windsors still were at the time of your novel. People can’t leave the party before the princess chooses to leave, for example. They have to call her “Ma’am” even when they’re acting like her drinking buddies. How did you research that culture? Is it still the case, and we just don’t realize it because of the tabloids?
 

I did a lot of research for The Other Windsor Girl. I read books about Princess Margaret, the queen, life in Buckingham Palace, firsthand accounts written by former ladies-in-waiting and equerries and anyone who was an intimate part of the day to day running of Clarence House and the royal households. In 1949, when the novel opens, the royals are still very set in the old ways of doing things. I can’t say whether that’s the way it is now. My research kept me firmly planted in the past, but I have to imagine that with Catherine and Meghan that things are not as formal as they used to be.

Yet despite the generally upper-crust/aristocratic atmosphere, Princess Margaret also surrounds herself with Americans, including a doctor who catches Vera’s eye. Who is he? What’s his role in the story?
 

Dominic, the doctor, is a fictional addition to the princess’s story. He’s a man who understands lineage and family tradition because he comes from a line of doctors. However, his lack of awe at the glamour of royalty provides Vera with a more grounded sense of the world. He challenges Vera to see herself as more than a lady-in-waiting, as a woman who could create a life and future through her own determination and talents.

Vera’s “job” in the story includes observing firsthand Princess Margaret’s love for Lord Peter Townsend and later Anthony Armstrong-Jones. What made you decide to use Vera as your point-of-view character on these events, which are well documented?
 

I decided to use Vera as the point-of-view character because she is close to Margaret but not so close as to see all the very intimate aspects of the princess’s relationships. Her slight distance allows the readers to watch with Vera as the two tragedies unfold and feel her frustration at being unable to stop the princess from being her own worst enemy. Through Vera, I offer readers a new take on how the events of Princess Margaret’s life played out.

What did the Royal Family/household know, if anything, about the novel while you were researching and writing it? What was their reaction? Did you have access to official records?
 

The Royal Family was not aware of my novel and I did not request access to official records. Although the novel is based on real people, places, and events, it is a work of fiction and I wanted the freedom to manipulate the facts to create the story I wanted to tell.

Do you already have another novel in the pipeline?  

My next novel is tentatively titled The Last Debutante. It centers on Valerie de Vere Cole, daughter of the famous prankster Horace de Vere Cole and the niece of Neville Chamberlain. It follows her during her 1939 London debutante season, the last glittering one before the start of World War II. Her unique position as a deb and a resident of No. 10 Downing Street gives her a distinctive view of the world at that moment in time and the coming war. 

 


Georgie Blalock is an amateur historian and movie buff who loves combining her different passions through historical fiction, and a healthy dose of period piece films. When not writing, she can be found prowling the nonfiction history section of the library or the British film listings on Netflix. Georgie writes historical romance under the name Georgie Lee. Find out more about her at http://www.georgieblalock.com.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Long Shadows

I’ve talked before about how World War I was, for almost a century, the “forgotten war.” The combination of sheer bloody-mindedness and posturing that landed the great powers of Europe in the conflict; the horrific loss of life, limbs, and sanity among those who fought; and the sense of pointlessness heightened by the even greater explosion twenty years later left little sense of triumph among survivors. If World War II was perceived as an epic struggle to defeat evil, its predecessor seemed more like a colossal act of miscalculation and folly.

The centennial of 2014–18 has gone a long way to restoring the balance of interest between the great wars, and in fiction many good works have appeared in the last five years. I’ve covered several of them on this blog, including Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, Cat Winters’ The Uninvited, the story collection Fall of Poppies, Hazel Gaynor’s Dancing at the Savoy,  Gaynor's and Heather Webb's Last Christmas in Paris, and Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead. Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread, also examines the aftermath of the war.

Charles Todd, however, occupies a special place in this literary arena. Long before most people paid much attention to the Great War, as it was then known, this mother/son team decided to focus on the experience and effects of the war in two beautifully written mystery series (and a pair of related stand-alone novels). One, featuring Ian Rutledge, examines the long-term effects on the combatants, most notably shell shock. You can find out more about these novels in my post, “The Black Ascot.” I’ll be revisiting Ian in his next adventure when A Divided Loyalty releases in February 2020.

The other set of books, through the persona of Bess Crawford, looks at the ways in which women’s lives and positions were fundamentally altered by the combat. Just as in World War II, women poured into factories, served as nurses, supported the troops in every way open to them—only to be thrown back into lives constricted by marriage, motherhood, and dependency when the fighting ended. As a result, women’s perceptions—and eventually men’s as well—about the capacities of the “fair sex” changed. The loss of an entire generation of young men only accelerated the trend. It’s not easy to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and that was as true in 1918 as it is now. Modern women owe a great deal to their intrepid great-grandmothers, of whom Bess Crawford offers such a good example.

Charles Todd and I talk about all these things and more—including the challenges of collaborating on thirty or more novels—in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. And as usual, the rest of this post comes from there.


Writing novels—never mind entire series—takes determination, persistence, imagination, and craft. Charles Todd has added to those natural challenges the joys and complications of creating a single persona from a mother/son team. In A Cruel Deception (William Morrow, 2019), the eleventh in their beloved Bess Crawford series, the strengths of their long collaboration are on full display.

Bess, a British nurse, worked with the wounded throughout the First World War. In A Cruel Deception, the war has ended, and Bess faces the future with some trepidation. So it comes almost as a relief when her former matron requests help finding Lawrence Minton, the matron’s son, missing from the peace talks in Paris.

The search goes well, and Bess tracks Minton to a rural farmhouse, where she confronts him with his addiction to laudanum. He wants nothing to do with her efforts to cure him. Despite his refusal to heal, she soldiers on, aided by a young Frenchwoman who loves him. Bess soon realizes that the root of Minton’s troubles lies in the past, but where?

Only then does it become clear that Minton has an enemy, one who will stop at nothing to settle old scores.