Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When George Met Emma - Author Jo Manning on The Life of George Romney

Decidedly a horse of a different color was the artist George Romney (1734-1802). In the parlance of the 18th century, he would be termed an Original, a description used for people who were truly different, as unique as that horse described by Frank Baum in The Wizard of Oz. Whilst there were, for sure, commonalities with Romney’s fellow painters Reynolds and Gainsborough in the area of their very great artistic talent, there were singular differences as well in personality and temperament that made Romney different from the usual run of talented artists. One such example would be the strange story of his 30-year estrangement from his wife; another would be his life-long obsession with another man’s mistress.

Indeed, if a film were ever to be made of the artist George Romney’s unusual life, an apt title might be Obsession, for he was a man too obsessed with beauty. Not abstract beauty, but beauty made flesh. His obsession with a beautiful woman who was no better than she should be -- and arguably the most gorgeous woman of the period – might have played a part both in damaging his career at its outset and, later, hastening the onset of the depression that ultimately led to his death. He painted this woman many, many times, leaving sketchbooks full of unfinished drawings of her incomparable face. She was to call him her “friend and more than father,” but the passionate artist may have desired a bit more than that from her… Was he in love with her? I think so. Were they lovers, however briefly? Possibly.

This unfinished portrait of George Romney circa 1781/2—at about the time of the first meetings with his beautiful sitter -- is at London’s National Portrait Gallery. He was to leave a number of paintings unfinished and many more in badly damaged condition.

Romney could never catch a break. Though extremely talented and not totally bereft of friends, he was basically an eccentric and a loner, and, by undercutting the fees of other portrait painters – especially those who were members of the Royal Academy – he made himself anathema to their circle. Some RA members were openly, vehemently, hostile to him. His was a brooding, nervous, morbidly sensitive personality, to the point of melancholy, or, to use the modern term, depression. He was tall and stocky and had broad, strong features, dark hair, and eyes that seemed to bore into the eyes of others with great ferocity. His self-portraits show his direct, almost challenging gaze. Contemporary accounts witnessed that he could be quite forceful in expressing his opinions. Some, though, described his personality as weak, and he did tend to cry easily. His biographer and closest friend, the poet William Hayley, said of him that his inner feelings were “perilously acute”. Romney was a man perched on the razor’s edge of his emotions.

In his old age, alas, Romney became mentally unstable and his mind simply slipped away. He was for a very long while the foremost of Britain’s lost artists, quite unknown, a forgotten genius. His association at the time with that great beauty had not done his reputation a great deal of good, though today his portraits of her are among the most exquisite in his large oeuvre and among the most respected examples of his work.
Like Reynolds and Gainsborough, Romney came from a modest background and there were no practicing artists in his family. Romney’s father – the boy was one of his eleven children -- was a Lancashire cabinet maker. Romney’s father sent him to study with a local Cumberland artist, an itinerant painter named Christopher Steele, in 1755, when he was about 20 years old. He began his career as a journeyman artist/itinerant painter in the Lake District, to this day still one of the more remote areas in England’s northwest. During a spell of illness, Romney convalesced in a Lake District inn and was nursed back to health by the landlady’s daughter, Mary (Molly) Abbott. She was eight years older, not an educated woman, and odds are that he made her pregnant. He married her – the story goes that he instantly regretted it -- but they had at least two children, a boy, John (who went on to be a don at Cambridge and subsequently the well-off landowner of Whitestock Hall in the Lake District), and a girl, Ann (who died at the age of three). There are no known portraits by his hand of his wife.

He left them all behind in 1762 when he took himself off to London; he was two years shy of 30. He’d held a lottery in Kendal’s town hall of 20 of his historical paintings and landscapes which garnered him 41 guineas. He shared this money and his savings with his wife and then left her and his children for the bright lights/big city to the southeast that was soon to become a metropolis of a million people. London beckoned!
Romney saw early success in the burgeoning metropolis and was noticed by and actually invited to join the new Royal Academy, where Reynolds and Gainsborough reigned supreme. He declined the invitation, in retrospect a bad decision, for he was never again invited to join this prestigious group. (His excuse was that he already belonged to – and was on the board of -- the Incorporated Society of Artists, and felt it was bad form to leave them to join the RA, which the RA demanded he do.) At this time, however, he made a fortunate acquaintance of the Duke of Richmond, who was to become a life-long patron of his work. In 1772 his yearly income had risen to £1200.

Romney spent two years in Italy, returning to London in 1775. He lived alone, working out of a studio/dwelling at 24 Cavendish Square. The Cavendish Square studio was where he first met Emma Hart, as the young woman with whom he’d become obsessed was then calling herself. She was living at the time with her protector, Charles Greville.  A deal was struck, with Emma Hart at its center, a money-making scheme that was to make use of his mistress’s great beauty. The resulting paintings would be sold to the highest bidder, and would be an income-generator for both men, though not, alas, for Emma. But for Romney, it became more than that: meeting Emma was to forever change his life. He was then over thirty years older than his model and soon fell completely under her spell.

Sittings for portraits were customarily in one-hour segments, perhaps requiring no more than 2-3 sittings at best. It is estimated that over the years Emma Hart was to sit for Romney more than 300 times. (There’s some quibbling about how many times she sat for him. Some sources say 100 times, others 180 times. I think the highest number is most likely.) That’s 300+ hours, if one goes for the standard one-hour posing, but this was not the case with her sittings with Romney. They took a good deal more than one hour and were not the usual painter-sitter occasions.

Later, Romney’s son was to insist in his Memoirs that there was always a chaperone present, but this was probably to dispel those ever-present rumors that Romney and Emma had indeed indulged in an affair; he was obviously trying to protect his late father’s reputation, already damaged by the scandal attached to those long years of living apart from his wife. One has to understand that sitting for an artist was, for the subject, a social occasion. Friends dropped in. Women dropped in. Men dropped in. Greville wanted NO ONE to drop in; he forbade it. He knew that flirting could take place, and that it could lead to other things. But I think that for Greville it was more a case of him exercising complete control over his young mistress than jealousy. Charles Greville was truly a control freak.

Emma as Circe the seductress in a study for the final painting, circa 1782-6, Tate Britain London

Her protector apparently took great pleasure in Emma inspiring lust in other men, but he was extremely secure in his relationship with her. He was domineering, somewhat mean, not at all physically attractive or terribly charming, but he’d schooled the vulnerable young girl (traumatized, no doubt, by her recent pregnancy) into giving him absolute obedience. He was a sharp contrast to Sir Harry, who’d encouraged her to visit London on her own, taught her to ride horses and had her entertain his friends. If young bucks the likes of Sir Harry had been allowed to drop in on Emma’s sittings with Romney, she might have met a more generous and less overwhelming man who could have set her up in better style and with whom she might have been happier, but she was stuck with Greville, completely cowed by him. Such a beautiful girl; it was a pity.

Her complexion was enviably flawless (one writer, obviously discarding the cliché phrase to denote the complexions of English beauties, roses and cream, called it a “velvet skin of lilies and roses”); her auburn hair was thick and cascading (think of today’s hair models on television, with their glossy, flowing tresses); and she was tall, with good square shoulders and a substantial bosom.

Emma Hart In A Straw Hat

So, solitary sittings, no visitors, and unlimited time to pose and to paint... Consider…had Greville really thought this out? He’d made sure that his ladybird, his mistress, was alone with an up-and-coming artist who was rather well known for his passionate emotions. Was this really wise? Actually, it would have been odder if there was no affair – or, at the very least, some hanky-panky – between them. I think that Emma, being Emma, and Romney being Romney, something had to have occurred.

Of course we shall never know for sure what transpired between painter and model during those many hours of sittings, but one biographer noted Emma reveled in the opportunity to pose and act, and that she sang and danced for Romney as well as posed, that she was thoroughly uninhibited. She apparently felt relaxed in his company and free to give full vent to her artistic side, as the many and varied expressions she struck for Romney bear witness in his sketches and completed paintings. She was an entertainer.

Whilst Greville sat in Portman Square rubbing his hands raw in glee, anticipating the many thousands of guineas he’d make from the allegorical portraits Romney was churning out for him – of all the paintings Greville commissioned, he was only to pay for one, the cheapskate -- the artist was no doubt in ecstasy in Emma’s free and easy company. She was being herself, remember, a self she could rarely be with the disagreeable, often disapproving Greville, and that self was an entertainer out to please and a natural seductress. Romney probably thought he’d died and gone to heaven. (Remember, too, that the wife he’d all too easily abandoned was hardly a beauty.)

The first sketches Romney made of Emma – recall his skill with line and imagine him drawing away – eventually became the painting called Lady Hamilton as Nature. Over the centuries many men continued to be obsessed with this beautiful creature brought so vividly to life by George Romney. He was neither the first nor the last.

Lady Hamilton as Nature, from 1782

She was brimming with youth and health in those portraits, having the big-eyed looks of a baby-faced young girl and the voluptuous body of a grown woman. A dazzling combination.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, 1785, is at the National Portrait Gallery in London

Within ten years, everything in the lives of these three people had changed. The sittings had ceased for a time, but the existing paintings further reinforced the celebrity of Emma Hart and the painterly reputation of George Romney. They did not, however turn into the gold Charles Greville had been seeking when he commissioned Romney, and the painter, in turn, did not receive what he expected monetarily, either. Emma, though apparently in love with her parsimonious protector, was becoming tired of living so frugally. Greville, on his part, began to find her cloying and was ever more anxious to find a rich wife. In 1783, Sir William came to London and met his nephew’s mistress. He fell under her spell and immediately commissioned further paintings of her, from Sir Joshua Reynolds as well as Romney. And he paid.

During this time, according to a pupil of Romney’s, he was also painting Emma’s face into a number of history and allegorical works, as his sketchbooks were filled with her face in its changing nuances of expression to slot into various characters and poses. She was still his muse as well as his great obsession.
By 1792, with the demise of his greatest rivals Thomas Gainsborough (1788) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1792), George Romney had at last achieved the first rank of portrait painters in England. Though he never became a member of the Royal Academy, he was now in the position of having to turn prospective clients away, and could charge on a scale comparative with RA painters. George Romney was to see Emma only one more time, when she returned to England just before her marriage to Lord Hamilton. She once again sat for him – many were the sittings -- but we can imagine that the circumstances were very different from those first halcyon days in the early 1780s. So, there ends the tale of the painter and his beautiful, unattainable muse.

In England’s Mistress, the most recent biography of Emma Hamilton, Kate Williams writes "Romney’s obsession with Emma pervaded his work for the rest of his life. He filled dozens of sketchbooks with pictures of her nude, clothed, and in various poses. Even when he painted other women, he made them look like her. He showed her exuberant, sensual personality and her pleasure in life and he never equaled the vibrancy and grace of his portraits of her in his other work." I would add some further comments, though Williams’ remarks are thoughtful and true, in my opinion. Like Reynolds and Gainsborough, Romney was a slave to beauty, but, as his was a more extreme personality than either of those two artists; he was to suffer for beauty in the extreme. Reynolds loved the actress Fanny Abington and painted a number of portraits of her; he might well have had a sexual affair with her. Gainsborough painted the courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott twice (and had sketches for a third portrait), the second painting so alluring it caused a good deal of talk; she was doubtless one of the beautiful sitters who so aroused him that he had to hie himself off to Covent Garden after a sitting to slake his lust, a virtual affair, at best.

Of the three, given the temperaments of both artist and model, the close intimacy of the sitting arrangements, with no one else present, it is difficult not to believe that sexual activity took place. He painted her in the nude; she sang and danced with inhibition; she was probably the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The portraits of Emma pop out with passion. Of course there was lovemaking!

But what did it mean? For him, probably everything; for her, not as much. Emma Hart was a product of the rural English countryside, as was Romney. Emma had had a smattering of lessons, in riding horses, in how to please men, and became more and more savvy in the ways of society, but she was forever characterized by those who met her as “vulgar” and “coarse”. The sow’s ear did not produce a silk purse. But it did not matter to the men who were overwhelmed by her beauty. All else was irrelevant. Men had to have her, and a wealthy aristocrat finally did marry her, the ultimate possession. Emma, being Emma, then lost it all by falling in love with a national hero.

What did Romney think about all this? Another thing, alas, we shall never know, but anyone who looks at those portraits and does not sense the love radiating from those brush strokes is a hardened character indeed. He, like Lord Hamilton, lost Emma, too, but those paintings remain and they signify quite a lot.
George Romney’s decline was swift once he left London in 1799. He died in 1802, the only one of the Gainsborough-Reynolds-Romney trio to survive into the 19th century. There are hints throughout his son’s book that Romney, his father, and his brother Peter all suffered from a possibly inherited tendency to clinical depression that brought upon their demise. It’s possible; too, that George Romney’s death was hastened by the loss of his beloved Emma, who was not to sit for him again after that one last time in London.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: DRACULA IN LOVE by Karen Essex

I have been a fan of Bram Stoker's DRACULA, ever since I first read the book in high school. And I've seen pretty much every adaptation known to man including the last BBC miniseries that had Dracula as a cure for syphilis (don't ask, it didn't make sense to me either. Something about him draining the nasty syphilitic blood and replacing it with his blood). My favorite will always be Frank Langella in DRACULA based on the Balderston and Deane play. So I'm pretty particular about other adaptations of the book. As an old friend once said, "if it ain't broke," but I jumped at the chance to review Karen Essex's DRACULA IN LOVE because I'm a huge fan of her previous books. I'm happy to say that she didn't disappoint me, and in fact exceeded my expectations.  The book is being touted on the back cover as TWILIGHT for grown-ups, which is almost an insult, because it is so much better than that and better written (I'm not a huge Twilight fan although I can just imagine the T-shirts saying Team Jonathan and Team Dracula!). Just look at that fabulous cover, a woman in a gorgeous Victorian dress, running through a graveyard,  with a look of fear and anticipation on her face. This book will send shivers up and down your spine and in a good way.  Lush, mysterious, and unabashedly sensual, Essex pulls out all the stops and actually, in my opinion, improves on Stoker's novel.

WARNING:  I plan on gushing like a crazed fan girl about this book without hopefully giving away any spoilers. The book is narrated solely from Mina Murray Harker's POV, unlike the original book which included multiple POV in diary entries. The book is Mina's journey from the somewhat conventional Victorian woman in the beginning of the book to a woman who is a little more aware of herself and her power at the end of the book. Essex mentions in her Author's Note that Stoker's novel can be seen as a 'cautionary tale against the unbridling of female sexuality at the end of the 19th century.' When Stoker wrote the novel, women were finally beginning to acquire higher education and agitating for political rights. Essex turns this notion upside down and explores what is really going on behind men's fears of women. She also delves a bit deeper into the mythological background of Stoker's novel.

At first all Mina Murray wants is to create the family that she never really had with Jonathan, buying a little house in Pimlico and having two children, the Victorian dream. Mina has secrets however, the biggest being that she sleepwalks which gets her into a dicey situation at the beginning of the novel when she awakens outside away from the school where she teaches about to be raped by a stranger. She's rescued by another stranger, although one who is familiar to her. Her other secret is that as a child she could talk to animals, and hear people's thoughts, talents which appalled her parents who stuck in her in boarding school in England. Essex grounds Mina by having her come from Sligo in Ireland (the same part of Ireland that Stoker's mother hailed from). 

The biggest change in the book is Lucy's story.  I had several WTF moments while reading but as it progressed, I totally got what she was trying to say about ways in which Victorian women are punished for having what we would consider today normal sexual desires.  Seward and Von Hesinger as he is called here are not heroes in DRACULA IN LOVE, far from it, which is another change that might spook readers who love the original novel. They are not necessarily villains either.  There is no black and white in this book as much as there are shades of gray, particularly in Jonathan Harker.

Jonathan starts out as a traditional Victorian gentleman, although one with more modern sensibilities than the average Victorian man. He's willing to consider new ideas and new thoughts, but he's challenged throughout this book to live up to those expectations. Mina has to face some harsh realizations about her fiance as does he about Mina. It's how they deal with these revelations, and whether or not they can go forward that are some of the most intriguing things about DRACULA IN LOVE.  Jonathan is not the innocent being preyed on by the women in Dracula's castle, the way he is portrayed in Stoker's book. Mina is no innocent either, she makes choices that might startle readers who are familiar with Stoker's tale. And what about the Count himself?  Well he's definitely not the bad guy that he's portrayed in Stoker, nor is he a good guy. He's just a man in love with a woman that he's waited centuries for, who he will do anything to have.  I found myself sympathizing with Dracula. Mina, the woman he has loved forever, has made choices throughout the centuries that have torn them apart.  By the end of the book, I wasn't sure who I wanted Mina to be with. With Dracula, she would have an adventurous life, full of travel and danger what with people wanting to cut off his head or trying to stake him.  With Jonathan, it would be a more placid life but no less valid.

The scenes that are the most horrific in this book take place at the asylum where Dr. Seward and Von Hesinger work. There is no Renfield eating insects, no mention of 'Children of the Night.'  The asylum that Essex depicts has mainly female patients. Yes, female. Back in the Victorian era, a man was allowed to dump his wife there for no reason other than she was unruly, thought for herself, committed adultery and a host of other reasons. That's not to say that there weren't people who were seriously mentally ill in asylums but the cures were often worse than the illness. Essex gives us vivid descriptions of the so-called 'water cure' which is nothing really but torture. Seriously it sounds suspiciously like water boarding, a method of torture that has been in the news over the past few years.

Essex adds an interesting new character, Kate Reed, who is another friend of Mina's. While Mina is focused on creating the family that she never had with Jonathan, Kate is a prototype of George Bernard Shaw's 'New Woman," an investigative journalist making her way in a male dominated world. She senses in Mina that there is more to her than just the traditional Victorian female facade that she presents to the world. In a sense, Mina, Kate, and Lucy are three archetypes of Victorian womanhood, and all three end up being punished in a sense for stepping outside the proscribed boundaries of the 19th century.

Verdict:  Hie thee to a bookstore in August and pick up a copy of DRACULA IN LOVE

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Announcing the Winner of The Scarlet Contessa Giveaway

The winner of Jeanne Kalogridis' THE SCARLET CONTESSA is


Pricilla, I will email you to get your address. I want to thank everyone who entered, and I hope that you will enter the FOR THE KING giveaway. And stay tuned for more giveaways and some fascinating women coming your way.

Scandalous Interview with Catherine Delors & Giveaway of FOR THE KING

Happy Bastille Day! I'm so pleased to have gotten the chance to interview Catherine Delors about her wonderful new novel FOR THE KING (Dutton, July 2010). I had the pleasure of meeting Catherine this past winter, and found her delightful. I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy of FOR THE KING!

From the inside cover:  The Reign of Terror has ended, and Napoléon Bonaparte has seized power, but shifting political loyalties still tear apart families and lovers. On Christmas Eve 1800, a bomb explodes along Bonaparte's route, narrowly missing him but striking dozens of bystanders. Chief Inspector Roch Miquel, a young policeman with a bright future and a beautiful mistress, must arrest the assassins before they attack again. Complicating Miquel's investigation are the maneuverings of his superior, the redoubtable Fouché, the indiscretions of his own father, a former Jacobin, and two intriguing women. Based on real events and characters and rich with historical detail, For the King takes readers through the dark alleys and glittering salons of post-revolutionary Paris and is a timeless epic of love, betrayal, and redemption.

FOR THE KING is much more than just a historical thriller, it's more of a hearty beef bourgignon that you wash down with a good glass of pinot noir.  The novel is almost a coming of age story for the protagonist Roch Miquel. He starts off the book, determined, ambitious, a bit pugnacious but still rather trusting, particularly of his superior Fouche, but by the end of the book, his illusions have been a bit shattered. His mistress, Blanche Coudert, is definitely a Scandalous Woman, beautiful, with many secrets that are slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. Surprisingly I found myself not hating her, perhaps understanding her a bit more by the book's end. Perhaps I'm just a hopeless romantic, but I believe that despite everything, she really did develop feelings for Roch. Roch has another woman vying for his attentions, Alexandrine who is the light to Blanche's dark. It is to the author's credit that she gives us two incredibly complex women who are more than what they seem.

Anyone who has ever read a police procedural novel will recognize that although the science of police work has advanced, the politics and the personalities tend to stay the same over the centuries. Roch has to deal with superiors he finds incompetent, jealously from others who despise him because he came from nothing but has managed to rise quickly through the ranks, and how politics can sometimes override and sometimes hinder a case. Roch is also an outsider, he's from Auvergne, he grew up poor, speaking another language.
Paris is almost a third character in the book. It's fascinating to read about a Paris pre Baron Hausmann when the city still retained much of its medieval character although that's rapidly changing with not just the revolution but Napoleon's rise to power.  The little general is not seen in the novel but his presence is definitely felt throughout the book. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Welcome to Scandalous Women Catherine. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started writing?

Thank you, Elizabeth, for having me here! Since my childhood I have always cherished the dream of becoming a writer, but it only took shape a few years ago. It began with a conversation with my father about the small mountain town whence our family comes, and before I knew it, I had started researching and writing my first novel.

Your first book MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION was set during the French Revolution but your next book picks up six years later. What had changed during that time?

So many things… Time was moving in fast-forward mode during the years of the French Revolution. True, MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION concludes with the fall of Robespierre and the execution of dozens of Jacobins leaders in 1794. An era of political corruption, runaway inflation and continuing civil war in the western provinces (the famous Chouan insurgency) ensued. Then in 1799 Napoléon Bonaparte seized power in a bloodless coup. His regime was already authoritarian, but the events that are the backdrop of FOR THE KING would allow him to eliminate his enemies on the right and left and strengthen his position.

Your book FOR THE KING has been described as a historical thriller. What interested you in what happened on Christmas Eve 1800 and the Rue Nicaise attack?

I believe “historical thriller” is the appropriate description for FOR THE KING. What drew me to this event was its similarities with the 9/11 attacks. Not in the number of casualties, of course (“only” a few dozen in the Rue Nicaise bombing) but the popular outrage, and its clever exploitation by politicians.

One of the things that I loved most about FOR THE KING was the way that you managed to interweave historical information without stopping the flow of the story. Where did you start in researching the Rue Nicaise attack?

Well, I found tantalizingly little in scholarly works. All Napoleonic historians mention the Rue Nicaise bombing, but in a few sentences, as if it were a hiccup of history. There was nothing of interest there if I wanted to learn what had really happened. I had no choice, if I wanted to “get” the details of the conspiracy, but to delve myself into the deposition transcripts and other records of the investigation.

Roch Miquel is a very much an outsider in FOR THE KING. He’s from Auvergne and comes from a poor background, yet he’s intelligent and filled with ambition. He’s not afraid to talk back to his superiors and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Did you base him on anyone in particular?

No, Roch is purely fictional. He is still very young, very naïve at the beginning of the novel. Then he learns much in the few weeks of the investigation, about those around him, and about himself. Maybe he is reminiscent of what I was at the same age.

I was intrigued by the two different factions: the Chouans and the Jacobins. Can you briefly tell us a little about them?

They had divergent political aims: the Chouans were Royalists and wanted to restore King Louis XVIII to the throne, while the Jacobins yearned to return the ideals of liberty and equality promoted by the Revolution. Their goals couldn’t have been further apart, but they both wanted to eliminate Napoléon Bonaparte. Thus, after the Rue Nicaise assassination attempt, it was not obvious at all who, of those two groups, were the culprits. Many of their members were jailed together at the Temple as political prisoners, and I describe the camaraderie between them. I didn’t make this up, but found it described in the Memoirs of the Marquis de La Maisonfort, a Royalist secret agent who spent some time at the Temple himself.

In your other life, you are an international lawyer, who lives in between London, Paris and Los Angeles. How do you carve out the time to write?

Good question! Frankly, at times this dual career feels a bit overwhelming. Between my legal work, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and all the promotion work at launch time, I have trouble finding time to write. I look forward to returning to my literary projects in a month or so.

You are a huge fan of Jane Austen. How has her work had an impact on your writing? What other authors do you enjoy reading?

I like to say that Jane Austen taught me to read English. I discovered her in my first years of college in Paris (she is not as popular in France as in the English-speaking world) by reading Pride and Prejudice in a French translation. This prompted me to read her novels in English. This was my first experience reading English literature, and was extremely influential on my own writing. I greatly admire Jane’s unsentimental take on life, and her extraordinary sense of irony.

I have read some works by Balzac, in particular the wonderful Eugénie Grandet, dozens of times. Flaubert is also a favorite of mine. On the Russian side, I am not too fond of Tolstoy, whose ideas on women I find repulsive, but I greatly admire Dostoevsky, and the recently departed Alexandr Soljenytsine.

What are you working on next?

I am working on the prequel to MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION. It too is a historical thriller, the story of a serial killer in the mountains of Auvergne, twenty years before the French Revolution. And I am also researching a book on Jane Austen. This one requires a tremendous amount of sleuthing in far-ranging archives, so the thriller/prequel will probably be completed first.

I have one copy of FOR THE KING to giveaway. Here are the rules: This giveaway is only available to American and Canadian readers. The giveaway is open from today until 12 p.m. on Wednesday, July 21st. The winner will be announced on Thursday, July 22nd.

1) Just leave your name and email address in the comments if you wish to enter the giveaway
2) If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry

3) If you tweet about it, you get an extra entry

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July Giveaway - The Scarlet Contessa

This month, Scandalous Women is giving away a copy of Jeanne Kalogridis new novel, THE SCARLET CONTESSA.  Daughter of the Duke of Milan and wife of the conniving Count Girolamo Riario, Caterina Sforza was the bravest warrior Renaissance Italy ever knew. She ruled her own lands, fought her own battles, and openly took lovers whenever she pleased.

From the inside cover:
Her remarkable tale is told by her lady-in-waiting, Dea, a woman knowledgeable in reading the “triumph cards,” the predecessor of modern-day Tarot. As Dea tries to unravel the truth about her husband’s murder, Caterina single-handedly holds off invaders who would steal her title and lands. However, Dea’s reading of the cards reveals that Caterina cannot withstand a third and final invader—none other than Cesare Borgia, son of the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, who has an old score to settle with Caterina. Trapped inside the Fortress at Ravaldino as Borgia’s cannons pound the walls, Dea reviews Caterina’s scandalous past and struggles to understand their joint destiny, while Caterina valiantly tries to fight off Borgia’s unconquerable army.

Here are the rules: This giveaway is only available to American and Canadian readers. The giveaway is open from today until 12 p.m. on Tuesday July 13th.  The winner will be announced on Wednesday, July 14th, Bastille Day!
1) Just leave your name and email address in the comments if you wish to enter the giveaway

2) If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry

3) If you tweet about it, you get an extra entry

Friday, July 2, 2010

Babbling About The Brontes:

The Brontes are catching up to Jane Austen (no one seems to want to write about George Eliot!) in terms of number of books being published about the sisters. No less than 3 historical fiction novels have been published this year alone, following on the heels of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James (which I read and liked) and Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler (which I haven't yet read).
Here are brief previews of the current Bronte books. First up:

St. Martin's Griffin
From the back cover:  From an obscure country parsonage came three extraordinary sisters, who defied the outward bleakness of their lives to create the most brilliant literary work of their time. Now, in an astonishingly daring novel by the acclaimed Jude Morgan, the genius of the haunted Brontës is revealed and the sisters are brought to full, resplendent life: Emily, who turned from the world to the greater temptations of the imagination; gentle Anne, who suffered the harshest perception of the stifling life forced upon her; and the brilliant, uncompromising, and tormented Charlotte, who longed for both love and independence, and learned their ultimate price.

Denise Giardina
W.W. Norton & Company (July 2010)

Enigmatic, intelligent, and fiercely independent, Emily Brontë refuses to bow to the conventions of her day. She is distrustful of marriage, prefers freedom above all else, and walks alone at night on the moors above the isolated rural village of Haworth. But Emily’s life is turned upside down by the arrival of an idealistic clergyman named William Weightman. A heart-wrenching love story, Emily’s Ghost plumbs the depths of faith, longing, and romantic solitude.

Laura Joh Rowland
Ovelook Books
Following the notable debut of The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë, beloved author Laura Joh Rowland offers her legions of fans the next installment in the Charlotte Brontë mystery series... with more to come. On her last escapade, Charlotte unintentionally witnessed a murder and found herself embroiled in a dangerous chain of events. Now, Charlotte returns in a stunning sequel that takes the reader into the most sinister institution in London: Bedlam. With the death of her siblings and far from home, Charlotte has few people to trust. Struggling with romantic entanglements and her stressful rise to prominence on the literary scene, she is more alone than ever. On a visit to London, Charlotte goes on a tour of London's most famous hospital for the mad, Bedlam. She is sure she recognizes a struggling Mr. Slade, her long-missing ex-lover, strapped to one of the stretchers. Charlotte starts digging, and soon finds herself trying to reveal a secret that high-powered men would (and do) kill to protect. It is up to Charlotte to find the truth and expose a plot of global proportion. But what if the conspirators get to her first?

Juliet Gael
Ballantine Books
In this astonishing novel, a brilliant mélange of fact and fiction, Juliet Gael skillfully and stylishly captures the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters—and imagines how love dramatically and most unexpectedly found Charlotte Brontë. During the two years that she studied in Brussels, Charlotte had a taste of life’s splendors—travel, literature, and art. Now, back home in the Yorkshire moors, duty-bound to a blind father and an alcoholic brother, an ambitious Charlotte refuses to sink into hopelessness. With her sisters, Emily and Anne, Charlotte conceives a plan to earn money and pursue a dream: The Brontës will publish. In childhood the Brontë children created fantastical imaginary worlds; now the sisters craft novels quite unlike anything written before. Transforming her loneliness and personal sorrow into a triumph of literary art, Charlotte pens her 1847 masterpiece, Jane Eyre. Charlotte’s novel becomes an overwhelming literary success, catapulting the shy and awkward young woman into the spotlight of London’s fashionable literary scene—and into the arms of her new publisher, George Smith, an irresistibly handsome young man whose interest in his fiercely intelligent and spirited new author seems to go beyond professional duty. But just as life begins to hold new promise, unspeakable tragedy descends on the Brontë household, throwing London and George into the background and leaving Charlotte to fear that the only romance she will ever find is at the tip of her pen. But another man waits in the Brontës’ Haworth parsonage—the quiet but determined curate Arthur Nicholls. After secretly pining for Charlotte since he first came to work for her father, Arthur suddenly reveals his heart to her. Romancing Miss Brontë is a fascinating portrayal of an extraordinary woman whose life and work articulated our deepest human longing: to love and be loved in return.

While new adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are planned, there hasn't been a major biopic of the sisters since the 1947 movie Devotion (which was on TCM to celebrate Olivia de Haviland's birthday). Devotion stars Ida Lupino as Emily, Olivia de Haviland as Charlotte, and Paul Henreid as Arthur Bell Nichols. The film imagines a love triangle between Emily, Charlotte and Arthur.

What is it about The Brontes that make them so appealing? Is it that they died young? If you were casting a movie about the Brontes who would you cast? And have you read any of the most recent historical fiction novels about them?