For the Love of Words

My father passed away this summer after a long, valiant battle with a Parkinsons-like illness. He lost so much and endured great suffering, but I can’t help but think the hardest thing for him was the loss of his ability to use words.

My dad wasn’t a writer, but he was the greatest lover of words I’ve ever known. Every morning started with a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle and most nights ended with a scotch old-fashioned and another crossword.

Growing up, we had one of those ancient, unabridged dictionaries on a bureau in the hallway. Sometimes, I’d find Dad standing hunched over the enormous book, thumbing through pages just for love of the words.

He was kind of like a walking dictionary. If I ever came across a word that interested me or I didn’t know the definition of, a quick call to Dad was all it took. Without a hint of hubris, he would rattle off the definition and usually the root and origin of the word.

As his illness progressed, the words would often get stuck somewhere in his addled brain before they could make it out of his mouth. It was supremely frustrating for Dad, but he handled it with grace and his easy-going laugh, and would usually find another word to get his meaning across. But even that got more and more difficult for him to do, until he was unable to say much of anything.

I think he would roll his big brown eyes at this, but I’ve been thinking of words to describe him: elegant, optimistic, intelligent, reserved, circumspect, steadfast, devout, kind and fearless.

He would probably know just the right word to describe how much he is missed, but I can only feel it in my heart.

Requiescat in pace, Dad.me and dad-1

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My Take on Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

It’s no secret that I am not fan of Hilary Mantel’s take on Thomas Cromwell. He is a big player in my novel, Mine Own Good Daughter, and my research led me to a very different conclusion about Cromwell’s character. 

I thought it might interesting to share an excerpt of MOGD to introduce the Cromwell of my novel, based on historical record. In this scene, Sir Thomas More’s beloved daughter, Meg, has been summoned to meet with Thomas Cromwell to discuss her father’s imprisonment in the Tower of London. She recounts the meeting in her journal:

When I entered Cromwell’s darkened chamber, heavy with Flemish tapestries and gold plate scattered about, a wave of sickness washed over me. I swallowed hard and prayed fervently for strength, knowing that weakness now would do my father no good.

The man before me looked differently from the one who visited Chelsea two years ago. He had the same raven hair and beadlike eyes, but sitting behind the immense oaken desk, he appeared more powerful, more menacing.

“Oh, Mistress Roper, it is a true pleasure to see you again.” His voice was reassuring, even kind.  “And you are even lovelier than at our last meeting.” He stood from behind his desk, and did not take his eyes off me as he spoke. “Master Rich, you may excuse us.”

“My pleasure, Master Secretary,” he said, with a pronounced bow and a furtive glance at Cromwell, closing the heavy door behind him.

Cromwell sat back down and seemed to get lost in the paperwork before him. I stood most uncomfortably in the awkward silence. Engrossed in a document, he cleared his throat and said, “I know these past weeks have been especially difficult for you and your family.” He glanced up and seemed perturbed to see me still standing. “Please, sit.”

I took a seat in the ornate French chair facing his desk. He began again to go through his papers. My nerves were wrought, and yet there was nothing I could do but sit patiently.

After what seemed to an eternity, he raised his eyes to me. “I have asked you to come this long way because I wish to help you.”

“I thank you for your concern for my father,” I said. He looked at me for a length of time, how long I cannot say, but surely long enough for me to again feel uncomfortable.

“Yes, your father,” he said with a sigh, as if that was a subject of frustration. “There are many fine things that can be said of your father. But to my mind, you are by far his finest achievement.” He rose to walk towards the small leaded window at the far side of the room. It was hot and I hoped perhaps he might open the widow to let some fresh air into the stifling room, but he only looked out upon the river below.

“I have always believed that women should have the opportunity to learn, and I think you are an example of the virtue that education breeds. Some have said, many in the clergy, that education breeds wickedness in women.” He turned around, his small dark eyes, like polished coal, daring me. “What say you about that, Mistress Roper?”

All of this had nothing to do with my father and I had to force myself to keep the frustration and contempt from my voice. “I think it must be men of very little intellect who would think that women should not be educated. Perhaps they fear a learned woman pointing out their ignorance.”

I had said more than I wished and stopped myself from going on. He assured me that I should not be afraid to speak my mind for that was why he called me thus.

“Well, then, Master Cromwell, if I may speak my mind, I must be truthful that my thoughts are preoccupied with the reason you have summoned me here. I am certainly most flattered that you would care to hear my thoughts on the erudition of women, but I believe the reason you have asked me here today is to discuss my father’s circumstances?”

“Oh, yes, Mistress Roper, of course, of course. You do not wish to dilly-dally with high-minded discussions with me while your father rots away in the Tower.” At that crude comment, I winced and his face changed and became softer. “Oh, forgive me for sounding flippant. I can assure you that I am anything but flippant when it comes to the fate of your father. We both share the same desire. Believe me, I wish nothing more than to see your father go free.”

He began turning the strange blue ring on his thick forefinger and said nothing further. Again, the silence grew uncomfortable and I felt the need to say something, anything.

“I am most grateful for your consideration, Master Cromwell. I simply wish to know how I can be of help.”

“I am glad to hear it, Meg,” he said, a hint of a smile flashed across his broad face. I was shocked by his familiar use of my name, but was in no position to protest, as he knew well.

“I desire that you work with me to convince your father to sign the Oath,” he said, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

“I have tried to bring his mind to that point on numerous occasions, but I see no sign of his reversal. He refuses to tell me why he will not sign the Oath. He says it is a matter he will speak of only to the King himself.”

“You know, Meg, that I have the King’s ear. With one word I can make things better for your father, yes?” I nodded my head in agreement. “So I will get you permission to visit your father in the Tower, but you will use your time there to make him see what he must do.”

“I shall do all in my power,” I said without thinking of the consequence, so desperate to see father at any cost.

“I am pleased to hear it,” he said, striding over to his desk. “Since your father refuses to do anything to help your family’s situation, perhaps you will.” He shuffled through a number of papers, taking his time to look over each one. “Ah, yes, here it is.”

He walked from behind his desk slowly and placed an ivory sheet in front of me. It took me only a moment to realize the parchment, crowded with uneven signatures, was the Oath.

“You will sign here.” He pointed with his meaty finger, stained with black ink. I was taken aback and angry by his unexpected and direct challenge.

“Why would anyone wish to know my opinion? I am but a woman and even then, not of nobility. It matters not what I think.” I looked at him directly, my anger giving me more courage than I truly possessed.

“Meg, please do not insult me with your humility. It is said you are the most learned woman in all of England. His Majesty himself has asked where you stand on the matter.”

I felt trapped, like a bird caught in the thicket, and I saw no way out of the suffocating room.

“You must convince your father to sign this Oath. Do you not think it would have more weight if you yourself sign?” I could not speak but stared directly into Cromwell’s cold black eyes with a fury that I did not know I was capable of.

“You have tricked me, Master Secretary,” I said, unable to contain the scorn in my voice.

“Meg, do not be angry with me. Trust that I am trying to protect you,” he said, sounding sincere. “There are those who wish to topple not only your father, but your entire family.”

“With all due respect, Master Secretary, I will leave the protection of my family to my husband.”

“Your husband,” he said, the strange smile returning to his face. “He is no match for me — or for you, for that matter. I have seen the way he waffles in Parliament, how he used your father’s position for his advancement. I have been sickened by his conduct at court . . .” He stopped. What did he mean? But I had little time to wonder for he leaned in close to me.

“Did you tell him of our meeting?” I was uncomfortable with his closeness; with his breath on my face, with his questions.

“Of course he knows that I have come to meet with you. My husband believes you have the best interest of my father in mind. I am sorry to hear you speak so ill of him.”

He, mercifully, pulled away. “Oh, I harbor no ill will toward Roper. I am a plain-spoken man and I am sorry if I have offended you. It was truly not my intention. I simply find it hard to believe that you think a man like Will Roper can offer any protection from the wolves circling your family. Now, I believe you have a decision to make.”

I could not think clearly. With trembling hand, I took the quill and signed my name, all the while asking for God’s mercy.

“And now, you will meet regularly with me,” he said, raising one eyebrow. “These matters are not safe to be written of.”

I felt ill and weak. I was now a traitor, colluding with Thomas Cromwell against my father’s conscience.

I cannot recall coming down the stairs to the barge, but I do remember the relief of the strong, cold wind stinging my face and the comforting smile of Dorothy. So glad was I to be away from that man that the roiling Thames caused me no anxiety. The thought of that horrible taste stays with me even now. It is the taste of corruption.

When I returned to Chelsea, Will was waiting in the garden for me. His eyes were full of concern and I felt pity for him. Those people he has so long tried to impress think him a fool. He wished to know all about the meeting. I told him that Cromwell would allow me to see Father. I did not tell him that I signed the Oath.

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Friends + Bacon= LOVE

I am blessed beyond description with generous, caring, wise, hysterically funny and loyal friends. I do not deserve a one of them, but please do not let them know.

Case in point, the magnificent Holly Conner. Holly wrote a beautiful guest post about my writing journey for the very savory literary blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf . Please go take a look!

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Hilary Mantel, I Beg to Differ

Now that this season of Downton Abbey has concluded in the US, I’m already feeling a little out of sorts and lonely. During the gray, cold days of January and February, I’ve had Downton to look forward to each Sunday night. If only for an hour, I could lose myself in the Yorkshire countryside with the Crawley gang. So, normally I would be setting my sites on the next Masterpiece, but I have mixed emotions about the upcoming Wolf Hall.

I’ve no doubt it will be a spectacular presentation (aren’t all Masterpiece productions?) but the book upon which it is based gives me heartburn. It may be a bit presumptuous on my part, as a fledgling writer of historical fiction, but I am just going to say my piece: Hilary Mantel has got it terribly wrong.

Yes, Mantel received critical acclaim and two Booker Awards for her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Yes, her prose is oftentimes brilliant and her grasp of the English language is enviable. I’ll even agree that the genre historical fiction does allow for, well, fiction. But the premise upon which she writes–that Thomas Cromwell was the thoughtful, caring New Adam of modern society is really too much to stomach. Maybe I could even let that slide, if in the process she did not slaughter the character of Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell

I have spent more years than I care to add up researching Thomas More for my novel, Mine Own Good Daughter. It is a novel told from the perspective of More’s eldest daughter, Meg. I wanted to explore this “man for all seasons” from the eyes of his daughter, whose fortunes and future rose and fell on her father’s decision to defy Henry VIII.

There are literally thousands of pages of extant writings, letters and peer accounts of Thomas More. None of them point to the cruel, cynical misogynist that Mantel presents. Instead, I found a man who loved his children intensely, ensured that they (including his daughters) received a stellar education and was a brilliant writer of humor, satire and theology. When he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, it was to Meg that he wrote of his fear and weakness. He depended on her advice and counsel. Does that sound like a man who detested and subjugated women?

Was Thomas More perfect? No. He lived in a violent time of unspeakable brutality and shifting alliances. While he served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII he did allow four men to be burned at the stake for heresy. Is that hard to reconcile with today’s mores? Absolutely. But it is only one part of a very complex man living in a violent time.

When I was beginning my novel, a priest counseled me to write the truth and show Thomas More “warts and all.” That advice has stayed with me. I am not in the business of writing hagiography, but historical fiction that remains true to the facts. Whether or not we care to accept it, I believe there is a responsibility in writing historical fiction. These are actual people we write about. Just because they are not here to speak for themselves does not mean we have carte blanche to commit slander. Playing games with the truth to push a particular narrative or just for sport does nothing to raise the bar of historical fiction. It does everything, in fact, to lower it.

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To Write a Blog Post or a Chapter? That is the Question

Obviously, by the stunning lack of posts here, my answer to this question has been to write a chapter. The fact that I’ve been experiencing some technical difficulties with this blog has made that decision easier, but I think I need more balance.

One day last week, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time researching the word fisticuffs to see if it  would have been used in pre-Civil War America. That’s the kind of rabbit hole I often find myself lost in as I write my second historical novel. It makes me think I need to get out more.

Writing is a lonely pursuit–anyone who has written so much as a long letter realizes that. But a novel is a whole different level of lonely. You slog around with characters and scenes all day. You wrestle with dialogue and trying to keep the pacing just right. Sometimes all that wrestling leads to virtual fisticuffs with characters that refuse to play along with your plans.

This blog gives me the chance to leave Tudor England or Civil War Virginia or whatever other period I’ve dropped my anchor in. I can reenter a world where I don’t have to worry so much about etymology. I can write something and actually FINISH it in a day. A thought. An idea. There is a definite beginning, middle and end to a blog post. There is something very satisfying about that.

In future posts I plan to delve into the Wolf Hall brouhaha (let’s just say Hilary Mantel and I don’t see eye to eye on Sir Thomas More) and give a review of All the Light We Cannot See. Thank for stopping by.

 

 

PS–Fisticuffs first known usage was in 17th Century, so I used it:)

 

 

 

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What the Pope Reads

You can tell a lot about person by what they read.

Since the moment he shyly greeted us from the Vatican balcony and asked for our prayers a mere 18 months ago, the world has been trying to understand the phenomena that is Pope Francis.

Last year, he gave an far-ranging interview that ended up making international headlines. Much was made about the Pope’s comments on some hot-button issues (comments that were mostly taken out of context in the media). The article itself is 24-pages and, for anyone willing to invest the time to read it, a lot can be learned about Jorge Bergoglio.

I read the interview shortly after it was published, and was touched by the Holy Father’s view of  the Church as a “field hospital” for a suffering world and other insights into this fascinating man. But, as a writer, I was particularly excited by this little-reported gem:

“I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….’

 

The Betrothed has been on my TBR list ever since, and I finally got to it. First published in 1827, it is considered a masterpiece of Italian literature and historical fiction. The Betrothed is long and sometimes a slog–it bears the imprint of being written in a time of greater attention spans– but it is a beautiful novel of love, suffering and mercy.

The novel takes place in 17th Century Italy, before the unification of the Italian states, during a tumultuous time of famine, plague and societal unrest. The story centers around a young peasant couple, Renzo and Lucia, who want little else than to be married and live their simple lives. But a powerful, lustful noble has his eye set on the pious, lovely Lucia and sends his henchmen to threaten their parish priest with death if he performs the ceremony. The cowardly priest’s acquiescence to the nobleman’s evil intentions puts in motion the couple’s struggles to be united in matrimony.

The injustice of the rich and powerful against the poor is certainly a theme throughout the book. Yet, The Betrothed is not a rich vs. poor story, but rather a story about the power of mercy and forgiveness over hatred and vengeance. Each of the characters–including the vilest–are portrayed with a certain sympathy, as if even Manzoni is hopeful that they might, at some point, respond to grace and seek redemption.

It is almost impossible to read The Betrothed today without seeing the likeness of Pope Francis in the character of Cardinal Frederigo. Believed to have been based on a real 16th Century prelate, Frederigo leads his flock through the times of war, famine and plague by his example of humility and his personal involvement with their sufferings. He visits homes, fearlessly ministers to plague-victims and goes without food so those in most need might be saved. Yes, he is saintly, but Manzoni gives us a man who is still fully human. Cardinal Frederigo’s dress-down of the weak-willed parish priest is not too be missed.

Pope Francis said, “Manzoni gave me so much.” Could he perhaps mean that in Frederigo, he saw the kind of priest he wished to be? Do we have Manzoni, in some small way, to thank for this amazing pontificate? After reading The Betrothed, I think yes.

Manzoni surely never dreamed that his book would inspire a Pope almost 200 years in the future. That, my friends, is the power of good historical fiction.

 

 

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Taking Long Looks

People without hope not only don’t write novels…they don’t read
them. They don’t take long looks at anything. —Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

I detest most games, especially board (or is it bored?) games. Even as a child, as the rest of my siblings and cousins eagerly gathered around our Aunt Bubba’s card table to play a riotous game of Monopoly or Gin Rummy, I would skulk away and find something else to do. Usually I’d write a story or draw cartoons.

Maybe it’s that I lack the patience to wait my turn. Or, more likely, its that I just don’t see the point to most games. I won Park Place! Big deal. Whatever the reason, most board games drive me batty.

Sometimes I feel badly about it for my own kiddos. Not surprisingly, “family game night” hasn’t really been a priority for me. So I am a bit thrilled that I actually found a game that seems to make everyone happy.

As a writer I try to be aware of my surroundings and sometimes find myself staring at things for an inordinately long time. My children will often break my trance with a frustrated “Mommmmmyyyyyy!” So, one day I invited them into my interior space and asked them to choose three words to describe the magnolia bloom that had caught my eye.

After a few moments of silent observation they came up with : “Creamy.” “Soft.” “Pure.” How great is that?!

Later that day, I was mesmerized by a patch of moss crawling up into the woods behind our house. But this time, instead of ignoring my children, I said, “OK, three words!” They hopped off their swings and set about studying the patch:”Velvety.” “Carpet-like.” “Greeny-gold.”*

We’ve had fun with tree bark, peonies and lightning bugs among other things. Even my husband has gotten in on the action, though sometimes his descriptive words are a little (as my Great Aunt Irene would say) rich, rare and racy.

I can already see how this little game is helping my writing by challenging me to find ways to be more descriptive. And I wonder if this will help them if they are bitten by the writing bug. But above all, I’m hopeful that it will encourage each of us to stop and take good long looks at the little everyday wonders of this wondrous world.

*Yes, yes, I know that greeny-gold isn’t a real word, but still, it’s pretty descriptive for a 7 year-old.

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