Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Book Review: Scoundrel's Kiss

Recently I had the opportunity thanks to author Carrie Lofty of reading an advanced copy of her new historical romance Scoundrel's Kiss published by Kensington Books. Normally I don't review historical romances on Scandalous Women but I was intrigued by the description of the book. Set in 13th century Spain, the heroine Ada is quite a Scandalous Woman for her time.

From the back cover:

Turning his back on his old life as a rogue, Gavriel de Marqueda has joined a monastic order in Spain and taken a vow of chastity. Before he becomes a monk, he must pass one final test: help a woman who has lost her way. But when he lays eyes on Ada of Keyworth, he is tempted beyond measure by her sultry beauty and dangerous curves. . .

Far from her home in England, Ada has been battling inner demons for more than a year. When she discovers that her only friend has abandoned her, she has no choice but to grudgingly accept Gavriel's help. But Ada is not fooled. Though Gavriel wears the robes of a monk, Ada sees that he is a virile man who looks at her with a hunger that matches her own—one that begs to be satisfied again and again. . .

Set in 13th century Spain, Scoundrel's Kiss is a perfect blend of historical fiction and romance. First off, the setting. There aren't many romances set in Medieval Spain and I don't understand why. The fight between the Spanish and the Moors for control of the country would seem to be the perfect backdrop and Scoundrel's Kiss is certainly proof of just how gripping the conflict can be. The sights, the sounds and the smells of Medieval Spain are ably depicted. The reader feels as if they are there. But what makes this book so special are the characters. Ada and Gavriel are both flawed individuals with secrets that torment them. I don't think I've ever seen two characters quite like this beffore. Ada is stubborn, strong, smart, snarky, and compassionate with the ability to use a dagger if necessary. And highly educated at a time, when most men and women were not literate. She's more than a match for Gavriel who is desperate to atone for the sins that he committed in his previous life before he joins the Order. What Lofty does so brilliantly in this book is to bring these two unlikely people together, and slowly have them fall in love, despite their better judgement. Ada and Gavriel earn their happy ending.

Lofty has also with a few deft keystrokes of her computer, created a compelling cast of secondary characters to support Ada and Gavriel. Blanca, Fernan and Jacob, and two memorable villains Pacheco and Joaquin de Silva, add depth to her novel. Just when you think you know who these characters are, Lofty reveals another layer to their characters. It's been a long time since I was sad to see a historical romance end, but I wasn't quite ready to leave the world of Scoundrel's Kiss.  I will definitely be seeking out a copy of her first book, What A Scoundrel Wants, and I look forward to reading future historical romances by Carrie Lofty.

For history geeks like me, Lofty also includes an afterword, where she discusses the history behind the book and what liberties she took. She also provides a list of resources on her web-site which is manna for someone like me.

Verdict: Highly Recommended/Very steamy

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Lonely Empress: The life of Elisabeth of Austria

I have been fascinated with the life of Empress Elisabeth ever since I first saw the Winterhalter portrait picture on the left. She looks over her shoulder at the viewer, with her glorious auburn hair covered in diamonds. Despite the sweet expression on her face, there is a hint of melancholia in her eyes, as if she's thinking about the suffocating atmosphere at the Austrian court, or planning the days until her next escape abroad, where she could breathe. Researching her life, I was struck by the parallels between Elisabeth and the late Princess Diana. And if I hadn't come to that conclusion on my own, Andrew Sinclair in biography Death by Fame emphasizes the parallels in the last chapter. Both women suffered from eating disorders, lack of self-esteem, were known for their great beauty, were trapped in unhappy marriages and royal protocol, sought fullfillment in beauty and holistic treatments, and both had tragic deaths. Both found even greater fame after their deaths, becoming icons.

Elisabeth was born on December 24, 1837, from an early age she was called 'Sisi' by her family. Elisabeth was never meant to be Empress. That honor was supposed to go to her sister Helene, who had been trained since birth to be an Empress. The marriage was meant to make up for the marital misalliance of her mother, Ludovica, the daughter of Ludwig I of Bavaria. While her sisters had made grand marriages, Elisabeth to the Prussian Emperor and Sophie to the Crown Prince of Austria, Ludovica had married her first cousin, Duke Max, who wasn't even a Royal Highness until he was elevated to that title.

Nor did Max have any real interest in being or acting like a Prince. He preferred to spend his time with artists, gypsies, and circus performers rather than at court. He even set up his own drinking club of 14 Knights of the Round Table, and then drank them under it.  He wrote poetry and rode horses, scattering bastards around the countryside from his romantic liaisons. Ludovica would get pissed off and freeze him out, moving the children to a different wing of the palace, until he charmed his way back into her affections (and her pants) leaving her with yet another child. By the time Ludovica was 40, she had given birth to 8 children. Elisabeth was her second daughter, a dreamy child who preferred spending time with her adored father and riding horses then sitting in a stuffy classroom at her lessons. Elisabeth adored her father, spending time with him, whenever he was around. Occasionally he would take her out to meet the people. "If you and I Sisi," he once said, "had not been princely born, we could have performed in a circus." Once they even performed as strolling players outside a beer garden.

When she was 15, Elisabeth, her mother, and her sister Helene went to Bad Ischl to stay with their cousin, the Emperor Franz Joseph, so that he could have a look at Helene. Instead, the young emperor fell in love with Elisabeth instead. Although not as beautiful as her sister, Elisabeth had almond shaped brown eyes, and  auburn hair which fell to her knees when unbound. She was shy and awkward around the Emperor but he was entranced. At a ball, he not only gave her a dance bouquet but all the flowers that were meant for all the other ladies. The next day, her mother told her that the Emperor wanted to marry her. Despite her own misgivings about her fitness for the role she was about to undertake, Elisabeth couldn't dare refuse the honor. And she was fond of Franz Joseph. If only he weren't the Emperor!

Back home, Elisabeth underwent a crash course in history and other subjects to prepare her for her new role as Empress. Finally on April 23, 1853 in St. Augustine's Church in Vienna, she and Franz Josef were married. From the beginning Elisabeth was absolutely miserable. She wrote to her mother, "I am on show like a freak in a circus.' Like Marie Antoinette when she married the Dauphin and had to leave everything Austrian behind her, Elisabeth was allowed to bring no one from Bavaria with her to Austria. The court protocal had become completely rigid, so different from the days when the Empress Maria Theresa reigned. She also had to deal with the mother-in-law from hell. The Archduchess Sophie was not particularly pleased with her son's choice. She constantly criticized Elisabeth, everything from her teeth (Elisabeth stopped smiling later on because the mercury treatments for venereal disease discolored her teeth), to Elisabeth's need to escape by spending hours riding horses in the park. When Elisabeth's first child was born, a daughter Sophie, her mother-in-law critized her for not bearing a son. Still, she made sure that Elisabeth had very little to do with her the raising of her children. She referred to her daughter-in-law as a 'silly young mother.' Her mother-in-law chose the Countess Esterhazy-Liechtenstein to be the Mistress of the Household, but she 'treated the young Empress in the manner of a governess.' She was constantly reminded that people in Southern Germany had no manners compared to Austrians who were perfect.

Beseiged by all sides, constantly critized, Elisabeth turned inward. Feeling out of control, she focused on the one thing that she could control which was her eating. Never very robust, now after bearing four children, she hardly ate at all. She was determined to keep her figure at all costs. At five foot six inches tall, Elisabeth made sure her weight rarely went above 105 pounds. She had a gymnasium set up in her apartments so that she could exercise. When she wasn't in the gymnasium, she rode her horses up to 8 hours a day. Some days though she was so depressed that she would just stay in her room crying. She had to fight to end the practice of throwing out her shoes after one wearing. And she refused to wear gloves when she ate despite the fact that it had been the fashion. When she was told that her bare hands were a deviation from the rule, she replied, "then let the deviation now be the rule.' She also made a cult of her beauty. Her pride and joy was her long auburn hair. A silk cloth was placed beneath her hair while it was brushed, and it was washed with a combination of brandy and egg whites. After her hair was brushed, Elisabeth would check to see how many hairs had fallen out. If it was too many, she had a meltdown.

Elisabeth finally gave birth to the requisate heir, Crown Prince Rudolf, but her relationship with her husband had deteriorated. Some biographers believe that Franz Josef may have given her a veneral disease picked up from the actresses that he had favored before his marriage, or that she discovered that he was having affairs. Whatever the cause, she suffered a nervous breakdown which necessitated her spending months traveling on a yacht loaned by the English Royal family. She traveled to Corfu which she loved. When she returned, a more assertive Elisabeth appeared. She had fallen in love with Hungary even before she became Empress, and a visit to that country increased her love. She began to surround herself with attendants from the Hungarian aristocracy, insisting that they only speak Hungarian to her. A castle, Godollo, had been given to the royal couple. Elisabeth made Godollo her primary residence. She also began to take more of an interest in her children, despite the Archduchess Sophie. In exchange, Elisabeth agreed to spend more time acting like the Empress at official court functions. She also encouraged the Emperor to make Hungary a seperate kingdom, giving the country a measure of independance, and that they should be crowned King and Queen of Hungary. She had been influenced by Count Andrassy, who was the foreign minister, in her views of Hungarian nationality. For the rest of her life, Hungary and its people would be important to her.

While in Hungary, Elisabeth started a riding school, spending many hours learning how to train the horses that she loved. She also began to spend time visiting hospitals and mental asylums, feeling a great affinity for the sick and the mentally ill, perhaps because she suffered from bouts of melancholy which she blamed on the Wittelsbach temperment. When she was back in Austria, Elisabeth suffered from increasing bouts of paranoia, she hated being looked at, and would hide behind parasols, a heavy veil or a fan to prevent people from getting too close a look. Still, she had an almost compulsive need to know what people in Vienna thought of her, which wasn't very complimentary. As loved as she was by the Hungarian people, she was hated by the Austrians, who felt that she neglected her duties as Empress while traveling abroad constantly on hunting trips to England.

After a brief reconciliation with the Emperor, Elisabeth gave birth to her fourth and last child, the Archduchess Marie-Valerie at Godollo. From then on the two would live seperate lives, only coming together for official functions and trips. She encouraged Franz-Josef's relationship with the actress Katharina Schratt. She even commissioned a portrait of the actress by the court artist Heinrich von Angeli as a gift to her husband, putting the royal seal of approval on the affair. Probably she reasoned that it was better for the Emperor to have an official mistress to keep him out of trouble. Katharina could be the wife to the Emperor that Elisabeth could not. Although she was not as beautiful as Elisabeth, she was a warm and loving woman. Elisabeth encouraged the relationship, she even spend time with Katharina hiking in the mountains, sharing beauty and diet tips. After Crown Prince Rudolf's death, Elisabeth encouraged Katharina to comfort the Emperor in his grief, while she continued her wanderings.

Elisabeth, while she had many admirers, seems to have been faithful to the Emperor. Given her paranoia that she was being spied on, it would have been impossible for her to have a lover.  Everyone in Vienna certainly would have known about it.  One of Elisabeth's admirers, was a Scottish soldier, George 'Bay' Middleton who Elisabeth met while hunting in England with the 5th Earl Spencer. But Middleton's role was strictly confined to horse racing and hunting.  He helped her find her mounts when she traveled to Ireland and England, as well as in Hungary. Viennese society was shocked that she preferred to spend time with someone who was not of noble birth. Her son Rudolf was particularly distressed by his mother's friendship and cut Middleton dead at a ball in London. It caused a rift with her son that was never healed.

As she grew older, Elisabeth became more obssessed with preserving her beauty. She began to live on a diet of meat juice, fresh milk (she brought her own cows with her whenever she traveled), and egg whites mixed with salt. She slept with hot towels around her waist, and wore a silk mask that contained raw veal. Proud of her twenty inch waist, she had her riding costumes sewed on. She also fenced as a way of keeping her weight down. To keep her complexion soft, she would cover her cheeks with purified honey, and then a protective ointment of strawberries crushed in vaseline. Onions and Peruvian balsam was added to the cognac she washed her hair with. Like Princess Diana in the 20th century, newspaper articles were written on her fashion sense, her diet and exercise regimes, her reputed lovers, and her passion for hunting.

When she traveled to Ireland to hunt incognito (although everyone knew what her alias was), she hailed as a heroine by the Irish because of her sympathy for Hungary. Unfortunately her trips to Ireland damaged England's relations with Austria. Home Rule for Ireland was a political hot potato at the time and the Empress's presence even though she was on holiday seemed to support the Irish. She also angered people by hunting on Ash Wednesday. Elisabeth didn't spend all her time hunting and exercising. She also wrote poetry, and began to study both Ancient and Modern Greek. When she had to give up hunting because of her sciatica, and took up walking instead, she would have lecturers walk with her while reading Greek to her.

In 1889, Elisabeth's world was shattered when Crown Prince Rudolf and his young mistress, Mary Vetsera were found dead at the hunting lodge Mayerling in an apparent murder/suicide. Elisabeth and Rudolf were still estranged. She had objected to his marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, seeing it as more of a political marriage than any real sympathy between the two. When she met the Princess, she found her to be stupid and lazy. Elisabeth was right to be concerned. The marriage broke down after the birth of their daughter Elisabeth. Rudolf went back to his opera singers and dancers. At the age of 30, he was kept from any real meaningful role by his father, leaving him at loose ends. Like Elisabeth, Rudolf was devoted to the idea of Hungarian independance, he wrote articles under a pseudonym for a radical newspaper. Feeling depressed, and facing years before he would be Emperor, he took his own life. After her son's death, Elisabeth told her daughter Valerie, "All the people who have had nothing but evil to say of me ever since I came here, now have the satisfaction of knowing that I shall leave this ife without a trace of myself remaining in Austria."

Elisabeth became convinced that some strain of madness in the Wittelsbachs and the Hapsburgs contributed to her son's death and that the family was cursed. She was aided in her belief by her cousin Ludwig II's death by drowning after being declared insane, and her sister Sophie's death in a fire in Paris. Wearing only black from head to toe, she continued her wanderings, constantly trying to find a sense of peace that eluded her. Her favorite places were Lake Geneva, Corfu, the French Riviera, and Bad Ischl in Austria where she and Franz Josef became bethrothed. Like Princess Diana, Elisabeth hated the idea of having security spying on her, and following her around. She often made it difficult for them by not alerting them to her plans, and exhausting them on her walks. Elisabeth didn't fear death. She was a fatalist, "I am always on the march to meet my fate. Nothing can prevent me from meeting it on the day on which it is writen that I must do so."

On September 10, 1898, when she was 60 years old, Elisabeth was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Lucheni had been alerted to her arrival by the press which announced her visit despite the fact that she was traveling under an alias. Her assassin had been waiting for the chance to kill a royal. When he was interrogated, he claimed, "I struck the first crowned head that crossed my way. I don't care. I wanted to make an example and I succeeded." She had been walking along the promenade in Lake Geneva, about to board a steamship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Sztaray. She had no protection, having asked  the police department in Geneva to remove the detectives placed around her hotel as a precaution. After Lucheni had run off, Elisabeth was asked if she was injured, she said she had not. "It is nothing." Not realizing the severity of her injury, she boarded the ship. Her corset had contained the bleeding until was removed. She was brought back to her hotel but she had died on the stretcher. She was buried in the Imperial crypt in Vienna.

Elisabeth of Austria spent her life yearning for peace and a measure of happiness but the tragedy of her life was that she never really found it. She would have been happier married to a minor princeling, but it was her fate to be Empress of Austria. If only she had found a way to reach ou to the Emperor, to find a way to help him ease his burdens, she might have found a purpose and been happier. It might have been possible for her to have forged a partnership like Victoria and Albert or The Crown Princess of Prussia and the Crown Prince.  Elisabeth, unfortunately,,had no role models on which to pattern a marriage. Certainly not her parent, or the Emperor's parents. Even her earlyy interest in politics and Hungarian independance waned, as she began to believe that there was no point. Elisabeth's life wasn't completely selfish, but she kept her acts of charity mainly private. She would often spontaneously visit hospitals in Austrial and Hungary. She had genuuine concern for the poor, the insane, and working women. Unlike Princess Diana, who was able to use the press to promote herself and her causes, Elisabeth didn't have that luxury, nor would she have sought out the press. While Diana was able to find a measure of fulfillment and satisfaction in her work and her children, Elisabeth spent her life fruitlessly searching for something that she never found.

After Elisabeth's death, she became the subject of numerous books and films including a popular trilogy of films starring the actress Romy Schneider, and the subject of a long-running musical.


Andrew Sinclair - Death by Fame: A life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.
Joan Haislip - The Lonely Empress
Brigitte Hamann - The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Barry Denenburg - The Royal Diaries: Elisabeth, The Princess Bride

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Movie Review: The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria
screenplay by Julian Fellowes
directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Produced by Graham King, Martin Scorsese, Sarah, Duchess of York, and Tim Headington.

Principal Cast:
Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria
Rupert Friend as Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Miranda Richardson as Princess Victoria, Duchess of Kent
Mark Strong as Sir John Conroy
Jim Broadbent as King William IV
Harriet Walter as Queen Adelaide
Paul Bettany as William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne
Thomas Kretschmann as King Leopold I of Belgium
Jeanette Hain as Baroness Louise Lehzen
Julian Glover as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Michael Maloney as Sir Robert Peel
Michiel Huisman as Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

I've been waiting it seems like forever to see this film. And I'm not the only one. Evangeline from Edwardian Promenade (where you can see the trailer), as well as Heather from the Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide and Susan from Writer of Queens have been waiting eagerly as well. The film was out when I was in the UK in March and I badly wanted to see it. Instead, I read Kate Williams dual biography of Princess Charlotte and the young Victoria. I almost bought the DVD from but my region free DVD player broke recently, so I decided to wait and see it in the cinema.  So on Friday, I went to the movies with two writer friends Hope Tarr and Leanna Renee Heiber who are also the founders of Lady Jane's Salon (the only reading series for romance in New York). When we got to the theater, we were given a copy of a new biography of Victoria and Albert called We Two by Gillian Gill. How cool is that? I'm dying to dive into it so that I can post a review. Hopefully I will get to it in January. Afterwards, the ladies and I retired to Telephone Bar and Grill in the East Village to eat Stilton fritters and discuss the film.

So was it worth it? Our general consenus was, in a word YES. Note:  Spoilers Ahead. This film is probably one of the best historical biopics that I have ever seen. The film opens with Victoria's coronation and then flashes back to the previous year when she is still the young Princess Victoria who has been kept under tight control by her mother, The Duchess of Kent and her mother's advisor Sir John Conroy, an ambitious man who seeks to rule England through Victoria. He tries to force her to sign a document that will allow her mother and him to act as regents if her uncle, William IV dies before she turns 18.

Victoria narrates the early section of the film detailing how her mother and Sir John have kept her away from other children, how she and her mother share a room, and how she is even forced to hold someone's hand to go up and down the stairs just in case of an accident. But the young princess is stronger willed than Sir John Conroy and her mother realize, and she refuses to sign the document. Victoria's cousin Albert and his brother Ernst come to England to visit. Victoria is aware that her mother and her Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians (widower of Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV) want her to marry Albert and she teases him.  They strike up a tentative friendship.  After he leaves, Victoria goes to Windsor for her William IV's birthday, where he insults The Duchess of Kent because she has taken over more rooms in Kensington Palace, who leaves the table.  William IV manages to live long enough for Victoria to turn 18, and then kicks the bucket the next month. Victoria soon asserts herself, banishing her mother to another bedroom. Victoria develops a tiny crush on her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (as played by Paul Bettany who wouldn't?) and becomes overly reliant on him. Albert comes back to Britain to woo her and they fall in love.  The film ends with the birth of their first child Vicky.

The difference between this film and the biopic of Amelia Earhart that came out earlier this fall is the script. Julian Fellowes (who wrote Gosford Park and Vanity Fair) allows Victoria to be three-dimensional. She's not perfect, she's stubborn and willful, she doesn't always take people's advice. She grows in the film from the tentative young monarch who is not sure that she has the experience or the capability to be Queen to a more assured woman. Emily Blunt looks nothing like Queen Victoria, she's taller and thinner for one thing, but she makes you believe that she is Victoria. She's nothing short of astonishing, it's hard to believe that this is the first film that she's carried. Her scenes with Paul Bettany as Melbourne (who should play the role again if they ever do a new biopic of Lady Caroline Lamb) are just magical.

Of course, she's surrounded by some of Britain's finest character actors from Jim Broadbent as William IV, Harriet Walter as Queen Adelaide, Miranda Richardson as the Duchess of Kent, and Mark Strong as Lord John Conroy. Julian Glover who plays The Duke of Wellington is made up to look so much like him that it's like Wellington's portrait come to life. The biggest revelation to me was the performance of Rupert Friend as Albert. Friend played Wickham in the Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen Pride and Prejudice and I didn't think he was particulalry good or memorable. He impressed me in this film, he plays Albert as a man who provides Victoria an anchor. He's shy, and awkward but he also doesn't flatter her unduly. Some of the most memorable scenes are when she begins to rely on him as not just her husband but also as someone who can shoulder the burden of power. There is one scene where Victoria and Albert have an argument, he doesn't raise his voice but he manages to get his meaning across. There are so many wonderful scenes, particularly when he is learning to waltz because she loves it, and when she realizes that he has been coached in her likes and dislikes. Blunt and Friend share a lovely chemistry and the viewer totally buys that this is a love story. There are some truly sexy and romantic scenes in this film.

The film isn't perfect, there are a few historical inaccuracies. Victoria was actually left-handed not right-handed. I would like to have seen some more scenes where Victoria deals with her other suitors besides Albert and her other cousin George. The film makes it seem like Albert was the only option. Also Leopold of the Belgians wasn't quite as pushy and selfish as they made him out to be, although he did send Victoria letters of advice. He was actually her favorite uncle. I found it odd that there weren't any scenes of him visiting England which he did with his family. Also, it would have been nice if they could have mentioned that Victoria had an older half-sister who she was particularly close to.

Albert never attended the Queen's coronation the way he does in the film, the Coburgs were not invited. And he traveled to England on all his visits to England with his brother. In the film he makes 3 visits to England, but in reality there were only two, once for Victoria's 17th birthday and then three years later when she proposed to him. The film makes their courtship much more romantic than it actually was. There's a scene at the end of the film where Albert takes a bullet meant for Victoria, which never happened, although there was an assassination attempt made on Victoria's life. Fellowes has said that he wanted to make Albert more heroic and to show that Albert was willing to give his life for Victoria.

I also have to give a shout out to the costume, hair and make-up designer for this film. The costumes were stunning, particularly a lavendar and black dress that Victoria wore when she was in half-mourning. And the hairstyles, well let's just say that looking at the huge white meringue on poor William IV's head made me glad that I live in the 21st century. It's very different seeing the hairstyles that you've seen in portraits in reality on someone's head.

So a big two thumbs up for this film. If you love historical films, particularly biopics, with a great cast, go see The Young Victoria. It's in limited release right now but it should open across the country in the next week. Glad to see that Emily Blunt was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.  FYI: If you are a royalty watcher, Princess Beatrice, the daughter of The Duke and Duchess of York, is in the coronation scene at the beginning of the film.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Winner of Nora Lofts The Lute Player

The winner of The Lute Player is:


I will be emailing you shortly to get your address to send your copy of The Lute Player.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christine de Pizan

One of the interesting side effects of writing this blog is when I stumble across a hidden gem like Christine de Pizan, who I discovered not only while researching the life of Joan of Arc but also from Vanora Bennett's novel Blood Royal. She was one of the first women to make her living solely as a writer. This was in the 14th Century before the printing press, when most people, including women, were illiterate.

Christine was born in Venice in 1363, but but she moved to France with her family when she was 5. Her father Tommasso di Benvenuto da Pizzano was a doctor, astrologer as well as Councillor of the Republic in Venice. Soon after she was born, her father accepted a position at the court of Charles V. No one knows how Christine received an education. There is speculation that she may have been allowed to sit in on lessons with the Dauphin and his brother. Or perhaps her father made sure that she was well educated. Due to his position, Christine might have been able to make use of the King's library. Charles V's library was if not the best, then one of the best, in Europe. It is clear from Christine's writings that she was familiar with all of the major writer's of the period.

At the age of 15, Christine married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary. Unusual for the time, Etienne seems to have encouraged Christine in her studies. It was apparently a happy marriage, Christine gave birth to 3 children, 2 boys and a girl. History probably wouldn't have hear of Christine at all, if she hadn't been widowed at the age of 24, when her husband died in an epidemic. With his estate tied up in lawsuits for the next 14 years, Christine need to find a way to support her 3 children as well as her mother and her neice. So Christine turned to the quill to make a living. "It is very difficult to keep one's pain bottled up….Fortune could not hurt me so deeply to keep me from having the company of the poets' muses. They induced me to write tearful complaints in rhyme, to lament my dead beloved husband"

At first she started off writing love ballads about her husband, which attracted patrons intrigued by the idea of a woman writer. While she established her reputation, she also worked copying and illustrating manuscripts. Illuminating and transcription were really the only two respectable professions that were available to women in the 14th century. Vicky Leon, in her book Outrageous Women of the Renaissance, writes that Christine established a workshop where she employed other women who had been impoverished like herself. So she wasn't just a writer, she was also a businesswoman, as well as an early feminist in an age when women were considered inferior beings. Soon she was hired to write custom work about her patrons romantic exploits. Over the next 20 years, she wrote 300 ballads along with many other shorter works. She also wrote a biography of Charles V called The Book of the Deeds and Good Manners of the Wise King Charles V. Many of her subsequent works are dedicated to the nobility including Isabeau, the Queen of Charles VI.

In 1402, Christine wrote a response to a piece by Jean de Meuin called The Romance of the Rose, in which he satrized courtly love, blaming women, calling them seductresses.She took him to task for the language that he used, calling it vulgar, and claiming that no woman would ever use such language. Christine's next work in 1405 was called The Book of the City of Ladies in which she defends women by gathering together a wide selection of famous women throughout history. They live in the 'City of Ladies.' Christine uses the women as building blocks for the city but also as a way to defend the rights of women. She also advocated that men and women should have an equal education. The book also contains a discussion between Christine and the 3 Female Virtues who are sent to help Christine build the city and to pick who will live within the city.  The 3 Virtues are Reason, Rectitude and Justice. Each woman chosen by the Virtues is to act as a positive role model for the other women who will follow them into the city.

Throughout her life Christine would continue to counter abusive literary treatments of women in her work. Some of the other works that she wrote include Christine's Vision, The Book of The Three Virtues (both in 1406), The Book of Peace in 1414 among others. In 1418, she entered the Abbe de Poissey where her daughter Marie lived as a nun. Christine's final work before her death was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc which was published in 1429. No one knows exactly when Christine died, but most scholars believe that it was probably around 1430. She was 65 and had accomplished a great deal in her lifetime.

Many influential women owned and read copies of de Pizan's work including Mary of Hungary (who was regent for Charles V, the future Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of Catherine of Aragon.) Christine was rediscovered in the late 18th century but it was 20th century writers and scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir and Charity Cannon Willard, who argue that she should be considered an early feminist who portrayed through her work that woman could play an important role in society if they were allowed to.

Christine de Pizan should definitely be included in the pantheon of interesting women who lived during the Middle Ages along with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc.

Vicky Leon: Outrageous Women of the Renaissance, John Wylie and Sons
Charity Cannon Willard Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works New York, Persea Press, 1984

Happy Birthday Jane Austen

Happy 224th birthday to Jane Austen! Even after all these years Jane is still relevant and selling books. Jane isn't strictly Scandalous (her cousin Eliza de Feuillide might qualify for that title), but she wrote a few women who would qualify like Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Although she only wrote 6 complete novels during her lifetime, there has been an explosion of sequels and prequels to many of her books, particularly in the last ten years. There's even a mystery series featuring both Jane Austen, as well as Elizabeth and Darcy.

If you want to read a review of Jane Austen as a Vampire, check out Reading the Past's review here. And don't forget Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which Natalie Portman will produce and star in.

In honor of Miss Austen's birthday, the Risky Regencies are hosting a week lost celebration here. Leave a comment on any post and be entered to win some groovy prizes.

Also, there is a currently an exhibition on Jane Austen in NYC at the Morgan Library called "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy." You can see an online exhibition here. You can also read a review of the exhibition over at The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the 18th century here.

Syrie James has written an excellent book called The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen which I highly recommend. You can read the first chapter of the book here.

Also Masterpiece Classics will be showing the new version of Austen's Emma starring Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai in January. You can check it out here on PBS's website here. Not a huge Jonny Lee Miller fan but I do adore Romola Garai so it should be interesting to watch.

If you have teenagers and younger children you want to introduce to Austen, pick up a copy of Marvel's graphic novel of Pride and Prejudice at or Barnes and

For everything Jane, don't forget to check out Jane Austen's World here or the Austen Blog here.

And there's always Netflix for films like Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Book Review and Giveaway: The Lute Player by Nora Lofts

Recently I received a copy of the reissue of Nora Lofts 1951 historical novel The Lute Player from the good folks at Simon &Schuster.

From the back cover:

One of the most renowned figures in medieval history, Richard the Lionhearted, inspired by a vision of the Holy Land, led his knights onto the battlefirelds of the Third Crusade.  During the years of fighting and intrigue, Richard's life was intertwined with the lives of two, strong, vibrant, and drastically different women who loved him - Berengaria, princess of Navarre, and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine.  While his marriage to Berengaria was ill-fated, Eleanor loved her son with a frantic, possessive pride. But it is Blondel, the king's lute player, who here steps forward from the shadows to tell this tale of romance, war, and betrayal.

I've been a reader and lover of historical fiction since grade school but this is the first time that I've read a Nora Lofts novel, and it won't be the last. The back cover is a little misleading because the book really involves the lives of three women, Berengaria, Eleanor and Berengaria's half-sister Anna of Apieta, not just two.  Anna is not only illegitmate but she is also a hunchback which means that she has no hope of ever marrying or having a family.  The events detailed in the novel are actually set off by a single action of hers, hiring Blondel, who she meets in the market place.  Anna falls in love with him, although she knows it is hopeless, Blondel in turn falls in love with the beautiful Berengaria who is out of his league. Berengaria falls in love with Richard the Lionheart at first sight and is determined to be his wife or no one's, while Richard only loves war and other men.

For Berengaria's sake, Blondel follows Richard on the ill-fated Third Crusade, and then is the only one who can locate him when he is imprisoned in Austria. The novel is told through his eyes, Eleanor of Aquitaine's and Anna's. Lofts was unafraid to reveal her characters to be flawed, three-dimensional human beings, you love them and hate them as you get to know them through the course of the novel. Lofts also deftly portrays the hard lot of women in the Middle Ages, no matter their status. Both Eleanor and Anna are intelligent women, something that was not particularly prized in the Middle Ages when women were seen as either angels or whores, and they suffer because of it. Women who are often at the mercy at the hands of the men in their lives. Lofts is also not afraid to show the more unsavory side of life at the time either.  Although Lofts manages to give a true and accurate portrait of the horrors of war, this was actually the least interesting part of the book for me.  I also wish that we could have been privy to Berengaria's thoughts as opposed to seeing her from other's view points. Her story is a classic example of 'Be Careful What You Wish For."

Berengaria generally gets short shrift in the life of Richard the Lionhearted.  Although they were married, they spent very little time together. The reader can't help but feel for this beautiful woman whose only wish is for her husband to, if not love her, at least show her the respect that she deserves. Watching her disallusionment with Richard is one of the most painful parts of the book. It was also enjoyable to watch Anna and Berengaria forge a real relationship as the book progresses.

I confess that the only thing I knew about Blondel was gleaned from the Tim Rice/Stephen Oliver musical of the 80's, who portrays him as a blonde Medieval pop-star in the making, trying to craft a song for Richard (He comes up with the ditty "I'm a Monarchist"), along with his back up singers, The Blondettes. Lofts crafts the story of a young man who is thrust into a world that he has no idea who to deal with and who tries to mute pain and the horror that he has seen. He forges a friendship with Richard but also with Anna, which hopefully will save him in the end.

This was an exhilirating and rich novel, filled with details that make the age come alive for the reader. A real triumph. Simon & Schuster will be re-releasing Nora Loft's novel on Eleanor of Aquitaine in Spring 2010, and I will certainly be in the bookstore buying a copy!

Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Since I enjoyed this book so much I'm giving away a copy.
Note this giveaway is only available to my American and Canadian readers. Here are the rules:
1) Just leave a comment with your email address at the end of this post
2) The contest ends December 17th 2009 at 12:00 p.m. and will be announced on December 18th.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Winner of the Harlot's Progress Giveaway

I'm pleased to announce that the winner of The Harlot's Progress is..........


Alexandrea, I will email you to get your address so that I can send you the book. And thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway.  I will be having two more giveaways hopefully before the end of the month. I also want to apologize for the state of the blog.  Something happened with the design, and hopefully my designer can fix it soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

And the winner of The Winter Queen is.......

The winner of Amanda McCabe's Harlequin Historical release The Winter Queen is..drumroll please.....


Congratulations! I will be emailing you to get your address so that you can receive the book.

For those who entered and did not win, I hope you will come back and enter the next giveway, The Harlot's Progress, Yorkshire Molly.

New December Giveaway: The Harlot's Progress

Happy December everyone! I can't believe how fast the year has gone by.  I have some special treats for you this month on Scandalous Women. The first Giveaway of the month is The Harlot's Progress: Yorkshire Molly which I received from Gaby at Carnevale Publishing. Here's a teaser:

After several years meticulous and heart felt labour the late Peter Motley, playwright and author finished writing the trilogy, the harlots progress and It was Peters dying wish that these books be published, but sadly he will not see his book in print, but his daughter Jocelyn Pulley is proud to be fulfilling his wish for him.

Meticulously based on William Hogarth’s paintings “The Harlot’s Progress - Yorkshire Molly” is a compelling journey of one woman’s misadventures in 1700s London. It is the first novel to bring these fascinating prints to life. Heroine Molly Huckerby arrives in London from Yorkshire into the exciting, vibrant and forbidding streets of the capital. A notorious bawd Mother Wickham, who cunningly seduces the heroine into a life of prostitution in a Cheapside brothel, soon approaches her. Mottley paints London with a colourful stroke, rich with historical accuracy that is the result of years of meticulous research.

One lucky winner will not only win this book but also a special gift that goes along with it!

Note this giveaway is only available to my American and Canadian readers. Here are the rules:
1) Just leave a comment with your email address at the end of this post.

2) If you are not a follower of the blog and you become one, you get one extra entry.

3) Twitter about the giveaway and let me know about it, and you get two extra entries.

4) The contest ends December 7th 2009 at 12:00 p.m. and will be announced on December 8th.