Monday, August 24, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Maggie Humm, author of Talland House

Historical Retelling 
War Era Historical

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Maggie. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about TALLAND HOUSE.
Thank you so much for inviting me. 

Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story, as a prequel and in the interstices of Woolf’s novel, interwoven with fictional versions of Woolf’s life, friends, and family. Lily lives through one of the most momentous periods in UK history, falling in love with her artist tutor, becoming an independent woman artist, a suffragette, and a nurse in WW1. Mourning her dead mother, Lily loves her surrogate mother Mrs. Ramsay while painting her portrait. Later, finding out that Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Lily must solve the mystery of the death, and decide if love or art is more significant in her life. Talland House combines a detective story with romance and history with echoes of the present moment and solves a literary mystery which has puzzled twentieth-century readers.

What about Lily appealed to you as a writer? Why did you feel her story worth expanding?
I chose Lily because she is almost certainly present in many scenes To the Lighthouse but not actually described as being so by Woolf. For example, I asked myself ‘where is Lily’ in the opening scene in which Mrs. Ramsay watches James cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy catalog (Lily could be en plein air painting Mrs. Ramsay indoors using a window as a frame while being unable to hear what Mr. Ramsay is saying) and then in subsequent scenes. My aim was to create a character rather like Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz or Guildenstern who deserved a novel of their own. Also, she is the one character in Woolf’s novel who would most want to know how Mrs. Ramsay died. In a larger sense, Lily realizes that she needs to put her own dead mother’s presence, as well as Mrs. Ramsay’s, behind her, to become an independent woman artist and that requires finding out how Mrs. Ramsay died.

Lily is an independent woman at a fascinating historical moment – in many ways a new woman whose life needed telling.

Were you intimidated writing in Woolf’s shadow?  
Yes – terrified! In my first draft, I situated the reader inside each character’s consciousness as does Woolf. Luckily, on my Diploma in Creative Writing course the wonderful tutor Gillian Slovo, the novelist, and dramatist, told me to stop being a second-hand Woolf and focus on Lily. I am still very worried what Woolf scholars will think of my interpretation but hopefully, since Talland House stands alone as a mystery and romance novel in its own right, they will be intrigued.

What can you tell us about the friendship Lily shares with Mrs. Ramsay?  
In my novel Lily admires Mrs. Ramsay from the moment she first sees her (looking exactly like Woolf’s own mother Julia Stephen) when Mrs. Ramsay buys Lily’s painting at the Studio Day. Mrs. Ramsay becomes Lily’s surrogate mother and they share an empathetic understanding. And Lily is very defensive of Mrs. Ramsay especially when her sometimes violent and always abrasive husband Mr. Ramsay appears.

Do you have a favorite scene in TALLAND HOUSE? 
Too many! Some are moving like the scene where Lily first meets her tutor Louis Grier and falls instantly in love. Other scenes are very intriguing – particularly the opening when Lily meets Louis after several years and hears about the suspicious circumstances of Mrs. Ramsay’s death.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing TALLAND HOUSE?
Talland House is just a little longer than Woolf’s original - approximately 93,000 words. My first manuscript was 125,000! Lily’s first friend in St Ives, as a student, is Emily Carr the Canadian painter, who did visit St Ives but later than is possible in Talland House. I would have loved to spend more time with Emily. Mrs. Ramsay introduces Lily to Eliza Stillman who then becomes her best friend. Eliza, or ‘Lisa’ Stillman, was an actual friend of Woolf’s. Marie Spartali, Lisa’s stepmother, also in my novel, was a Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ and painter although my description of Eliza and Marie Spartali’s house is taken from an art journal’s description of Holman Hunt’s house (who was also a friend of the Stephen family). Marie is such a striking figure she threatened to take over my novel and had to be reined in.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of TALLAND HOUSE, who would you cast?
My dream is that Emma Thompson or Eileen Atkins would play Mrs. Ramsay and Emma Watson play Lily. Louis Grier is so dashing, witty, and handsome it would have to be Rufus Sewell for the older Louis and for the younger Eddy Redmayne

I love everything about these casting choices.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of TALLAND HOUSE?
That female friendships matter. As I say about Lily ‘She felt supported by her friendships, sometimes thinking friendship as good as marriage, perhaps even better. She and Eliza were two women who saw each other daily, and were together not from a physical attraction but by a shared love of painting, their agreement to continue in a life devoted to art as best they could without complaints, encouraging each other whenever possible, and for as long as they might need to’. And that being an independent woman can be fun!

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
I continue to write papers about Bloomsbury – two chapters out this year. My next novel is about another artist – Gwen John - and her tumultuous affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The style is somewhat different – written in the present tense, and the content differs too – there is a great deal of sex in Rodin’s Mistress!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Finola Austin, author of Bronte's Mistress

Biographic Fiction

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Finola. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about BRONTE’S MISTRESS.
Thank you so much for having me! Bronte’s Mistress is my debut novel. It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte—the only Bronte brother, who was sibling to famous writerly sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. History has very much painted Lydia as the villain, accusing her of corrupting her son’s innocent tutor and leading to the demise of the entire Bronte family. Now, for the first time, I tell her side of the story.

Branwell is not the most well-known Bronte sibling. What about him appealed to you as a writer? 
I have always been interested in the tragedy of Branwell’s life. As the sole boy, a lot was expected of him, but, although he had aspirations to be a novelist, poet, and painter, Branwell never achieved the greatness his family had predicted, while his sisters are still celebrated today. More than Branwell though, it was Lydia herself who fascinated me. Bronte heroines, especially Charlotte’s, are often poor, plain, young and virginal. Lydia Robinson was wealthy, beautiful, older, and sexually experienced (she had given birth to five children). But she was still a woman trapped by the confines of nineteenth-century society. I believed hers was a story worth telling.

At forty-three, Lydia Robinson is older than most historical heroines. Do you feel it important to write stories about older women?   
Very much so. Women in their forties are so often invisible in our media today. They’re seen as “too old” to be the romantic lead, but too young to be the matriarchal wise woman. Yet, guess who the biggest readers of historical fiction are? That’s right, women in their forties, fifties, and sixties. I don’t want to only read novels about eighteen-year-old debutantes, and I had a hunch that I wasn’t alone in this. Lydia herself feels this invisibility keenly. She has little recourse to fight the physical signs of aging (it’s not like she can even cover her gray hairs!) and she increasingly believes that she’s only invited to social occasions because of her teenage daughters. The affair she enters into is partly a result of this feeling of her life slipping away from her.

What do you believe Lydia and Branwell saw in one another? 
I don’t see Bronte’s Mistress as a love story. Branwell and Lydia fall in love with the idea of each other. He is looking for a grand passion to serve as inspiration for his writing. She is suffering from boredom and the suffocating fear that, at just forty-three, her sex life is over, since her husband refused to have sex with her. Lydia and Branwell are in some ways very different. He’s an idealist, while she is pragmatic to a fault. But they share a reckless streak, which means they find a dangerous match in each other.

Historically, Lydia is often blamed more harshly for the affair than Branwell. Did this bias influence your approach to the material? 
Yes. I started writing the novel after reading how Elizabeth Gaskell, another Victorian novelist and the first Charlotte Bronte biographer, characterized/assassinated the character of Lydia Robinson in her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. She calls Lydia “wretched” and “profligate.” She even says that, in this case, “the man became the victim.” Women’s sexualities in the nineteenth century were strictly policed and we still see this gendered double standard today. In what way is Lydia worse than Branwell? What other options does she have? It’s not like she can get divorced.

Do you have a favorite scene in BRONTE’S MISTRESS? 
This is such an interesting question. I think it is probably the scene that was the most painful for me to write—the one where Lydia finds herself the only woman at a dinner party held by her cousin’s husband, Sir Edward Scott. She feels at such a disadvantage. She can’t contribute to the discussion, as she knows nothing of politics and current affairs. The men make a great show of behaving chivalrously towards her but when she leaves the room and listens at the door, they speak about her in an incredibly demeaning way. Lydia at times in the novel has the petulance of a teenager, but what else could we expect given that the men around her treat her like a child?

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
Unusually, I think, for a writer, I write short, not long. So the revising and editing process for me often involves adding material vs. cutting it away. That means there were no scenes or chapters I cut wholesale, although I did play around with several prologue ideas before settling on the newspaper clipping that now begins the novel. However, I did make the early choice not to include some characters. Working on a book about real people is hard, as in real life we know some many individuals! In particular, I had problems with having too many Williams and Ann(e)s, and I wanted to avoid confusing readers. I would have loved to dive more deeply into the maidservant Ann Marshall’s feelings towards Lydia. She was an Ann I did choose to keep in the novel but, while the mistress/lady’s maid relationship may read as romantic or sexual at moments, we have no way of knowing whether this potential attraction was one-sided. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of BRONTE’S MISTRESS, who would you cast?
I always struggle with this as they are such real people in my mind! One thing is for sure—I would want the casting to be age-appropriate. 

For Lydia, maybe Rachel Weisz or Winona Ryder today, or Kiera Knightley or Emily Blunt in eight to ten years time. I could see Timothée Chalamet or Harry Styles making a believable Branwell if the movie was made in 2020. I’d cast a very dressed down Florence Pugh as Anne Bronte, who was Lydia’s daughters’ governess—her eyes are just so judgmental! Judi Dench, who’s Honorary President of the Bronte Society, would be perfect as Lydia’s awful mother-in-law. Andrew Scott (the hot priest from Fleabag) would be a great Dr. Crosby, and I’d love to work with Phoebe Waller-Bridge to adapt the novel for the screen.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
Even if they don’t agree with all of Lydia’s choices, I hope readers understand the difficulties of Lydia’s position and have empathy for the lives she and so many women were forced to lead.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
I’m working on a new novel! I can’t say too much yet but it is also historical fiction, although set in a different country and time period. My characters are based on real people again and the research has been really fun, although challenging when not all sources are written in English…

Sunday, August 9, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Janet Wertman, author of The Boy King

Biographic Fiction

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Janet. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about THE BOY KING and its place in the Seymour Saga.
First, I just have to say how thrilled I am to be here. I have followed your reviews for a long time - and especially appreciate your comments on my own books!

The Boy King is the final book in my Seymour Saga trilogy, the story of the unlikely dynasty that shaped the Tudor era. The Seymours have been overlooked and ignored – but they were central players in just about every key story of the time. From Jane Seymour who married Henry VIII just ten days after Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped-up charges, to Edward Seymour who managed to grow his power during Henry’s crazy years, to Edward VI who took the throne at age nine and was forced to execute two of his uncles. They started out as a relatively common family (even though they could trace their ancestry to Edward III) that almost added their bloodline to the crown lineage. The trilogy is the story of that attempt.

Can you tell us a bit about how you approached characterizing Edward VI? 
Edward VI lived a highly public life from birth, so I had the benefit of a number of contemporary reports. We know he was on the skinny, delicate side; we know he was serious and a little pompous. We know he had this incredible sense of duty and can guess that he must have been overawed by and little scared of a father who was larger than life. So I started with that. 

We also have this additional insight into his personality: he kept a diary. Admittedly, its entries were still part of his “public-facing” façade, but they do tell us more than he intended to reveal. Like the way he begins his Chronicle with the equivalent of “Once upon a time.” Or the chilling entry that everyone uses it to sum up his character: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off at Tower Hill at nine this morning.” To me, giving the right context to that single sentence was the key to his whole story. 

Both of your earlier novels, JANE THE QUENE and THE PATH TO SOMERSET, feature adult members of Henry’s court. THE BOY KING shifts perspective to that of a nine-year-old boy. As a writer, did you find it challenging to adopt the voice and views of an adolescent? 
It did take me a while to settle into his voice! It helped that close friends have a nine (now eleven) year old boy that I could squint at for inspiration. But really, it was all about showing how incredibly young he was to be dealing with the stuff that came up – and that was about showing him puzzling through the different events, sometimes analyzing things correctly and sometimes not. 

That was actually the harder challenge: to have readers discern a different truth than what the point of view character believed! For that, I needed careful descriptions of people and events to help discern the flaws in Edward’s logic… 

Edward died young, but I have to ask, what kind of king do you think he’d have been if he’d lived long enough to rule in his own right? 
It could have gone either way, actually. Edward was smart, committed, and sincere – but he was also somewhat myopic and stubborn. Still, I think overall he could have been really good for the country. 

Admittedly, the whole Jane Grey episode shows a lack of judgment, but he was only sixteen. Similarly, he was terribly manipulated during his time on the throne, but most of that occurred during the earliest years, and the people who did the manipulating were people he should have been able to trust. By the end, he had a healthy dose of the skepticism he would have needed to manage his own court, so he really had the chance to be one of the greats…assuming of course, that circumstances didn’t conspire to thwart him as they did his father, turning Henry VIII from an idealistic young man into the Nero he was in the end!

Edward’s older sister, Mary, plays an interesting role in the story. What can you tell us about her character and the challenges she faces in THE BOY KING? 
Mary was principled, stubborn, and very brave. She was basically the flip side to Edward, the Catholic to his Protestant. The two siblings were equally fanatic in their own points of view, they both saw the divine hand in many of the events of the times…they just drew different conclusions. 

The thing is, Mary was convinced she was right – and most of the world (well, Europe – the world they knew) backed her up. Because of her powerful Spanish relatives, she was convinced that she had the right to stand up to her brother on religious matters…at least until he turned eighteen. She was not about to give up her faith a second before then (and actually, she would have figured out how to keep her faith even after that – it was more than just a form of worship, it was her very identity: to Catholics, she was Henry VIII’s only truly legitimate child since Edward’s mother was married by the Church of England).  

Do you have a favorite scene in THE BOY KING? 
I have two. My very favorite one is where I give Edward the puppy. The universe gave me an incredible gift: as I was writing the scene, someone brought a tiny ten-week-old puppy to my house and so I got to describe it in real-time. The softness, the puppy smell, the curling up to sleep in my lap…. My various critique partners loved the way I captured the moment, they also thought it humanized the boy and was just a wonderful, warm episode to include right then. Meanwhile, my Tudor fans will experience a sudden flash of recognition…

I also am proud of the scene where Somerset makes Edward promise that he will sign the next death warrant presented to him…

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing THE BOY KING?
Sigh. I wish I could have spent a lot more time with pretty much everything in The Boy King, but I forced myself to focus everything on the basic story. Even with that, I was on the hefty side of how long a book should be. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of THE BOY KING, who would you cast?
I have always had a problem with this question because my characters live inside my heads, and they are unlike any actor I have seen. Except for Keith Mitchell, he will always be Henry to me, and Glenda Jackson will always be Elizabeth – but that’s cheating. 

Still, because it was you, I tried. It was hardest to come up with an actor for Edward – not a lot of child actors could do this (no offense to Macauley Culkin but…). The closest I came was Danny Lloyd, the boy from The Shining (he quit acting and is now a college professor – seemed appropriate given Edward’s intellectualism!). Then it got easier. I decided Trudy Styler – cool and badass – would make a great Katherine Parr…though a young Trudy Styler could also make a great Elizabeth. Since I was hiring Trudy, it was a small step to bring in Sting in as Edward Seymour – he’s got that intensity and that reserve. Then it hit me that Kevin Spacey (as he was in House of Cards) would make a great Northumberland (except I don’t want to work with him anymore after the #metoo revelations…). And best of all, Tim Curry for Tom Seymour – the ultimate seductive villain. 

I can see Frank Underwood (the character, not Spacey) as Northumberland, but I have to say, love your selection of Tim Curry. Fabulous casting choice. 

What do you hope readers take from their experience of THE BOY KING?
I want people to realize that Somerset’s signing his own brother’s death warrant reflected compassion for his young nephew. I want people to understand that the cold diary entry (“The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off at Tower Hill at nine this morning”) shields overwhelming emotion. But bottom line, I really just want readers to HAVE the experience. Somehow, this is the first time anyone has told Edward’s story from his own point of view (well, the story of his reign anyway – a hundred years ago, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper showed us the boy right before he acceded the throne). Given everything that happened to him, his story should have been told long ago.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
My original thought was another trilogy: the story of Elizabeth Tudor, picking up where the Seymour Saga leaves off. I even have a rough first draft of the first book that I am working through, thanks to National Novel Writing Month. But as I get deeper in, I realize that her story has to begin earlier…so when I say I’m in the middle of a total rewrite, I am literally taking it apart and starting again – and it is incredibly exciting.

As a creative soul and a fan of the written word, I completely understand the desire to get it right, but as a fan, the word 'rewrite' is agonizing! That said, I wish you the best of luck with the new book and can't wait to read it. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

#BookReview: Bronte's Mistress by Finola Austin

Biographic Fiction

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This dazzling debut novel for fans of Mrs. Poe and Longbourn explores the scandalous historical love affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, giving voice to the woman who allegedly corrupted her son’s innocent tutor and brought down the entire Brontë family.

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.

But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.

Meticulously researched and deliciously told, Brontë’s Mistress is a captivating reimagining of the scandalous affair that has divided Brontë enthusiasts for generations and an illuminating portrait of a courageous, sharp-witted woman who fights to emerge with her dignity intact.

I had mixed feelings jumping into Finola Austin’s Bronte’s Mistress. I love that the story takes its inspiration from a lesser-known chapter of Bronte history, but I was not convinced a novel centered on an alleged affair would work for me. I was hesitant, but I was curious, and the latter ultimately won out. I drown my nerves in my coffee cup, set the radio to Simon and Garfunkle, and jumped on in.

The truth of the affair between Mrs. Lydia Robinson and Branwell Bronte is shrouded in mystery, but the most common variations of the story imply it was the lady who brought the young man to ruin. Austin feels otherwise, and I was grateful for that. It takes two to tango after all, and I do not think possession of a Y-chromosome and a revered surname merits denial of that fact.  

For the record, I was not particularly fond of any cast member, but life is full of challenging people. At the end of the day, I think Austin captured something real her character, something that played to the complexities of unhappy unions, the burden of unrealistic expectations, and the tragic realities of a society that did not allow women their own agency.

Having said that, I was drawn to what Lydia represents on a larger scale. At forty-three, she is older than most historical heroines. Her maturity allowed Austin to play with a unique perspective, and I liked the dynamic brought the narrative. I am younger than Lydia and living in the modern age, but one doesn’t have to look farther than the supermarket tabloids to see how women of a certain age are pushed to the periphery. Social invisibility is a relevant concept, and I admired Austin for tackling it as she did.

Bronte’s Mistress was a little slow for my tastes, but I do not regret the time I spent with it and would have no trouble recommending it to Bronte enthusiasts or fans of biographic fiction.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 5, 2020