Serving QEI …Intimate Details from Whitelock’s “The Queen’s Bed”

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THE last Tudor bed in existence, made to mark Henry VII’s accession to the throne. This 527-year-old Paradise State Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was rediscovered in 2010. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field to take the English throne and found the Tudor dynasty. The Paradise State Bed is an unrivalled masterpiece of 15th Century oak carving which was commissioned almost immediately after Henry VII was crowned to celebrate his marriage to Elizabeth of York and the end of the War of the Roses.

Once she finally ascended to the English throne in 1558, Elizabeth I’s opulent lifestyle was in stark contrast to most of her early life.  “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock details what it really took to be “Queen Elizabeth” on a material, and perhaps on an emotional level.  Elizabeth was never alone, even asleep there was always someone in her room, even sharing those fantastic beds described in the book:

“... At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea-water green’ and quilted with light brown tinsel.  At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different colored woods and hung with Indian-painted silk.  Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.”

So much has been written about the life and times, love affairs and political maneuvers of Elizabeth I. Yet only a few books have approached Gloriana’s life from the behind the façade she presented to the world. Anna Whitelock succeeds in giving us Elizabeth with her best friends and confidantes. These women surrounded her and applied the make-up, gowns, and jewels each day to take her from mere mortal to dazzling queen. They served her well, kept her secrets, and did what good friends do: work on our behalf. There were even a few, like Kat Ashley and Dorothy Bradbelt, who politicked to help marry the queen. And others, who loaned Elizabeth their maid’s clothing or had private dinners so she could be with Lord Robert Dudley.  Whitelock reveals an Elizabeth who is in turns vulnerable, loving, inconstant, and even quite spiteful.

Elizabeth did a better job than anyone before her, and arguably after her, in creating a brand that even in her day became iconic and magical – which was of course the point. Against the backdrop of assassination attempts, marriage suitors, court scandals, favorites and power politics, Whitelock’s details of Elizabeth’s life do not get lost in the larger themes of Elizabeth’s reign but rather enhance our understanding this great queen and her Court.

A quick visit to the author’s website tells me that the BBC has optioned this book for a possible TV series, which would if done well would be terrific.  And let’s agree that the BBC does this type of program really well.  Bring it!

History Lady Review of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I 

Of Scotland, Selkies, and Survival: The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

I enjoyed this novel very much.  It’s Elisabeth Gifford’s first and she is a fine storyteller.  This one will sweep away the cobwebs and give you a look into the Scottish Island of Harris – wild, incredibly beautiful and high up on my bucket list.

If I could live anywhere, I’d live in a house with the sea at my door (maybe back just a little to allow for global warming). I’m never happier than when I’m by the sea or in the sea – no matter how cold the water. Yesterday, I even put ocean waves on my Spotify while I was working – because I live in the middle of America where there’s not much surf to be found.  If I could, I would live in Elisabeth Gifford’s Sea House on Harris in the Hebridean Islands.

I wonder if Gifford found an old run-down house on an island and used it as the catalyst for The Sea House? For me, it was a story about family, loss, and the struggle to survive.  Set both in 1976 and in 1860 it is really two stories, knit together by Selkie legends and a beautiful house.  What’s a Selkie? It’s the Scottish word for a mythical creature that resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on land. (For a great movie on the similar subject, see “The Secret of Roan Inish”)

In 1976 Ruth and her husband Michael are renovating the dilapidated Sea House on Harris.  For Ruth, the house and the island are a return to her mother’s birthplace, something of a homecoming to a home she never had.  While working on the house they find a body of baby with what looks like a fin, buried under the floorboards.  A Selkie child?  The dead infant haunts Ruth and adds to the dis-ease that Ruth experiences on the cusp of becoming a mother.  She carries a child, but she also carries the weight of a rootless existence as an orphan raised in the urban welfare system, the pain of the loss of her mother, and the abandonment by her unknown father.  Ruth clings to family lore that she is descended from the Selkies.  This belief leads her to learn more about the home’s previous inhabitants.  She finds story of Alexander Ferguson and Moira, his servant in his journals, church papers and historical accounts.

In 1860 Moira works in the Sea House – then the manse for the island’s Reverend Alexander Ferguson, who has saved her life after the loss of her family in the Clearances.  [Highland Clearances of the 19th century destroyed communities throughout the Highlands and Islands as the human populations were evicted and replaced with sheep farms.]  Moira is quietly devoted to the Reverend in a way that reminded me of a Dickens novel.  Alexander is a bit of a scientist – he is fascinated by the possibility of a missing race of people – Selkies – from whom he believes he is descended.  As much as Moira loves the Reverend from afar, she hates Lord Marstone – whose clearance of land led to the loss of her family.  She plots revenge on Marstone even as his daughter gets uncomfortably friendly with the Alexander.   And the baby?  I can’t spoil it for you.  But it is good.

How the author got her inspiration for the story, and more about Selkies

Fiction books set in the Hebrides 

Goodreads list of books about Selkies

Find out more about the Scottish Islands

Episode 4 The Gathering

Geri, The History Lady:

I believe Diana Gabaladon herself shared this post she found it so entertaining, and it is: A guy’s guide to “Outlander” — he is really funny and entirely on point!

Originally posted on One Guy's OutMander Blog:

WARNING: This blog uses adult language. You have been warned.

Finally got to watch the show after a couple of days, this time with my son. The reason it takes a few days to watch is because I have to wait for another person to view it, either my son or my girlfriend or my sister, because I watched the first episode by myself and everybody had a hissy fit because they wanted to watch with me. The only problem being everybody I watch the show with is a talker! And I hate that! Ugh! Stop asking me questions, and just watch it dammit. I’m going to clue everyone who does this in about something, and please hear me out.

IF YOU TALK DURING OUR FAVORITE SHOW OR MOVIE WE WILL CUT YOU!

Okay, you’ve been warned. That goes for husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, mothers, or anyone else…

View original 4,195 more words

Outlander: When Sam Heughan says “Mistress Beauchamp”

Screenshot 2014-08-26 16.20.52When Diana Gabaladon‘s “Outlander” first came out in print twenty-three years ago (damn, how time flies), I remember it took me just two days to devour the entire 600 page novel.  Outlander is the story of a Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English WWII nurse who finds magic in a Stonehenge-like Sarsen stone and is propelled back in time to the years before the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  There she falls in love and marries a Highland warrior, James (“Jamie”) Alexander Mackenzie Fraser.  Claire is the Outlander – or “Sassenach” in Gaelic: out of her time, her culture, and generally out-of-place.

When Gabaldon announced that Claire and Jamie would come alive on my 50-inch “small” screen, I was not sure I’d like the results, although I knew I’d watch anyway.  After three episodes, I am truly pleased with the adaptation, probably for the attention to detail in the filming and because they’ve stayed true to the original storyline.  Kudos to Starz Originals for buying the series.

Unlike other films supposedly set Scotland but filmed, say, in Ireland or Vancouver, the Outlander series is actually filmed in Scotland in Doune Castle in Perthshire (been there), Falkland and Culross in Fife (there too), Loch Rannoch in the Highlands, and less majestically, a warehouse off the M80 near Cumbernauld. I hear tell this production was the biggest film/TV investment in the country ever. Scotland is an astoundingly beautiful country and not before time that its beauty is captured on a wildly popular international series (the novels have sold at least 25 million copies.)  That’s a lot of eyeballs for the Scottish Tourist Board to convert to visitors.  Just saying.

There are so many fine Scots actors in the show including one of my favorites, Gary Lewis (“My Name is Joe,” “Merlin” (Alator), and “Billy Elliott”).  Love me Annette Badland (“Doctor Who” fame) as Mrs. Fitz.  Tobias Menzies (“Rome” and “Game of Thrones”) hits the right notes as Frank Randall — and so far does a creditable job as Black Jack. The Scots actors learned Gaelic, which is beautiful to hear and adds an authenticity to the Highlands in 1743.   And, they did a good job of casting.

But let’s to it – Claire & Jamie – do they cut it? Irish-born Catriona Balfe does a good job as Claire.  To be clear, that’s not damning her with faint praise.  Claire is a bit prudish, standoffish, independent and uncomfortable in the first few episodes, for all the right and obvious reasons related to finding herself in this very foreign land.  She is a well-brought up (if unconventionally so) Englishwoman in much less refined surroundings.  I’ll be interested to see how Catriona loosens Claire up as things between her and Jamie heat up. I’ve promised my sister Fiona that should happen next week or the week after.  Then, I predict a lot of heat up there in the Highlands.

About that heat – Sam Heughan – first, I’m so pleased the part went to a Scottish actor.  He has Jamie’s quiet heroism, disregard for his own safety, and matter-of-fact ways down perfectly. Not for nothing have kilt jokes been making the rounds of Facebook lately.   Aye, Sam is what my Scots cousins and friends would call a “verry braw laddie.”  It is NOT just the way he says “Missstrrrreessss Beauchamp,”  or carries himself in his kilt.  Sam has great screen chemistry.  I dunno if he has it with Catriona-as-Claire, but he has it with me, my sister Fiona and countless others watching.

We’re into episode 4 next week.  Claire is getting ready to escape…now things will get really exciting!   If you have read the novels, you will find the series is pretty faithful.  Diana Gabaldon has kept the series true to her vision, story lines and characters.  If you have not read the books, I’d say buy it, read ahead and enjoy all things Scotland.

http://outlander.wikia.com/wiki/Outlander_Wiki

My 2012 field trip to Scotland 

“Turn of the Tide” charts shifting currents of clan loyalties

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

It is hard to know where to begin, there were so many things I liked about “Turn of the Tide,”Margaret Skea’s debut novel about the feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghams set in 17th Century Scotland.   I have had this one in the queue for a wee while and was grateful for the US Labor Day weekend for uninterrupted hours of reading pleasure.Set in Ayrshire, the novel opens with main character, Munro setting plans in motion for a massacre of key members of the Montgomery clan.  He’s a loyal, albeit reluctant, member of the Cunningham clan who would rather be at home with his wife, bairns and farm.  He carries out this mission for the Earl of Glencairn with a seed of misgiving about continuing the 100-year-old feud that grows throughout the novel.

Retribution is swift for may of those involved in the massacre, but Munro has a handy alibi and escapes harm.  Still, his wife is horrified and his conscience nags him. A friendly encounter with a Montgomery makes him question further the blind loyalty to the Cunningham clan and its leader, the Earl of Glencairn.  Glencairn himself may have some reasonable qualities, but William, his son and heir is a dangerous man.

Auch, I’ll no spoil it for ye!   I will say that Munro’s conscience is the tide that turns, and the reasons behind it make for a captivating read.

I love that the novel shone a light on this feud, which ran for centuries in Ayrshire.  King James VI and his court do feature in the novel, but they are far from the main story.  It was a refreshing departure to find a 16th-17th century novel with a griping tale where royalty is on the fringe and not center stage.  That said, one of the issues in the feud was which clan leader took precedence at court.

This is an emotionally gripping story about a man caught between duty and conscience at a time in history when a man’s livelihood depended upon his loyalty to family and clan –theoretically those would be aligned.  While Skea could have chosen one incident to make Munro’s loyalties change, I’m glad she did not.  It would have had impact, but missed the nuances, the questioning and the soul-searching Munro went through.  And then of course, there was also impact (I willnae spoil it).

Skea clearly knows Ayrshire well, and writes with beautiful detail about the landscape, whether it is describing the miserable rain that can chill you to the bone, or the aconite flowers in a valley.   The dialect adds richness to the characters and is judiciously used.  Helpfully, there’s a glossary in the book so you can look up words like “wabbit” (no, not rabbit).

The Feud of Glencairn and Eglinton

Clan Cunningham (US)

Clan Montgomery (Electric Scotland)

Interview with Scots historical fiction author Marie Macpherson

Anniversary giveaway

My blog is two years’ old this month (time flies) and to celebrate, I’m giving away a copy of Marie Macpherson’s novel “The First Blast of the Trumpet.”  

Leave a comment  on what interests you about Scottish history or a question for the author on this post by Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 8:00 p.m. US Central time to be entered into a drawing to win this book.  One person will be chosen randomly using Random.org. Please make sure to leave an e-mail address with your comment.  (US, Canada and UK entrants only.) 

THE GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED. THANKS TO ALL WHO PARTICIPATED.    

About Marie Macpherson: Born in the historic town of Musselburgh, Scotland, Marie left the Honest Toun to study for an Honours Degree in Russian language and literature. She then went on to gain a PhD, spending a year in the former Soviet Union to carry out research on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer. Though she travelled widely throughout Europe, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her passion for the culture and history of her homeland of Scotland. Now retired from academic life, she has more time to pursue her interest in creative writing. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and was named ‘Tyne & Esk Writer of the Year’ in 2011.

About Marie Macpherson: Born in the historic town of Musselburgh, Scotland, Marie left the Honest Toun to study for an Honours Degree in Russian language and literature. She then went on to gain a PhD, spending a year in the former Soviet Union to carry out research on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.
Though she travelled widely throughout Europe, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her passion for the culture and history of her homeland of Scotland.
Now retired from academic life, she has more time to pursue her interest in creative writing. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and was named ‘Tyne & Esk Writer of the Year’ in 2011.

Interview with Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson is the author of “The First Blast of the Trumpet,” her first novel and the first in a trilogy about Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox.  Her novel, reviewed here, is a refreshing take on Knox, an individual somewhat vilified by popular history.   She shared with me how John Knox chose her, what her researched revealed that surprised her and some of the best and worst advice she received while writing the book.

(If you aren’t familiar with John Knox, Marie narrates a wonderful documentary on YouTube, where you will also find a quick video synopsis of the novel.)

Q.  What inspired you to write “The First Blast of the Trumpet?”

A.  The louring figure of John Knox has cast a long shadow over Scottish history and culture, but I never thought I’d be inspired to write about him. The founding father of the Scottish Reformation is not exactly the obvious choice for the hero of a novel and so I’ve the spooky feeling he chose me. With his 500th birthday looming perhaps he needed someone to sound the fanfare. For I was doing research on the Treaty of Haddington (which betrothed Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin in 1548), when I became side-tracked by Haddington’s most famous son, who was then a galley slave and perhaps even rowed her to France. What a coincidence, I thought, and became curious to know how Knox had ended up imprisoned in the galleys. And what I found out could only be written as fiction. 

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy, is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. Beginning just before Flodden in 1511 it ends in 1548 after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington that sends Mary Queen of Scots to France in a galley being rowed (possibly) by her nemesis, Knox.

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy, is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. Beginning just before Flodden in 1511 it ends in 1548 after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington that sends Mary Queen of Scots to France in a galley being rowed (possibly) by her nemesis, Knox.

Q. History has not been terribly kind to John Knox, was it hard to develop his character and get beyond bias?

A.  It depends on how you regard him – superman or bogeyman. For some Knox is the champion who brought the Reformation to Scotland but in the popular imagination he’s become a caricature of himself: a cartoon Calvinist, a pulpit-thumping tyrant who hated women and banned not only Christmas but football on Sundays. Whatever his legacy, Knox will always be remembered as the author of that misogynist rant, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which attacked contemporary female rulers: Marie de Guise in Scotland, Mary I in England and Mary Queen of Scots in France. Yet Knox was only voicing what most men of the time believed – that it was ‘monstrous’ or ‘unnatural’ for a woman to wear the pants never the mind the crown – though rather loudly and more vehemently.

So you can imagine my surprise to find out that Knox had a genuine regard for women – an affection that was mutual. Women loved him – not the three Marys, of course – but Knox was married twice and other men’s wives left their husbands to follow him. Did he, as one chronicler, claim… use the black arts to steal men’s wives from under their noses? All this made me reconsider the character and reputation of the Calvinist Reformer. No doubt as a preacher he had great charisma and his correspondence with women – especially his mother-in-law – reveals great patience, respect and even understanding. I even think other men were jealous as one said, ‘Whenever he makes a journey he takes around with him a certain number of women whom he uses to satisfy his lusts.’ Can you imagine! This is John Knox we’re talking about!

But why was this? It struck me that there might have been a strong female influence in his upbringing. Not his mother, for she died when he was very young, so who then?

English: The statue of the Scottish church ref...

Statue of John Knox in the quadrangle of New College, Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A. I can’t say that Knox was my favourite character but he certainly provides an interesting psychological case study. You can probably tell that his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn, the real-life Prioress of St Mary’s Abbey is my favourite. While searching for clues as to who might have influenced the young Knox I was excited to come across this feisty dame, forced into the wealthy convent to protect the Hepburn family interests. Prioress Elisabeth was the aunt of Patrick, 3rd Earl of Bothwell and great-aunt to his son, James the 4th Earl, who married Mary Queen of Scots.

Patrick, the Fair Earl as he was known, is a rather despicable character. He was a real traitor – in the pay of the English for most of his life and forever changing sides depending on the highest bidder. He even divorced his wife to woo the widow queen, Marie de Guise who – clever lady that she was – kept him dangling. His treachery, I’m sure, explains his son’s decision to remain true to the Hepburn motto: Keep Tryst, which means keep trust or faith. Whatever his faults, James Hepburn was loyal to Mary Queen of Scots.

Q. How long did it take you to research the novel? 

A.  It’s difficult to say exactly how long it took to research. For many years it was a labour of love – delving in the archives of the local library, unearthing scraps of information and putting together the pieces, like a giant jigsaw – until I had enough to create a story with a dark secret at the centre!

Q.  Did your research yield any surprises in terms of historical events or illuminate a character in a particular way?  

A.  I was surprised to find out how little was known about Knox’s early life and that most of the so-called facts had all been disputed. Since historians and biographers couldn’t answer satisfactorily questions that bothered me such as: Who were his parents? How did a poor orphan lad get an expensive education? – I didn’t feel so guilty about creating a fictional life for him.

Another surprise was discovering that Sir David Lindsay played a very important part in persuading Knox to become a Protestant preacher.  But the role of the playwright of Ane Satire of the Three Estates – a scathing attack on the Roman Catholic Church – is generally overlooked.

Q.  How long did it take you to write it (first draft)?  

A.  The first draft took me ages to write, gathering information and then discarding it. I lost count of the number of rewrites. All in all, it probably took five years.

Q.  What part of the novel writing process was most difficult?  Easiest? 

A.  The most difficult part was finding my novelist’s voice. That was a struggle. Coming from an academic background, I was more inclined to preach and teach and so had to drag myself away from ‘telling’ and learn to do lots more ‘showing’. But writing fiction has given me a tremendous freedom – to speculate about facts, make leaps of the imagination and, more importantly, create an inner life for my characters.

Q.  Where did you unearth all those terrific Scots phrases, some of which are not used too often these days?  

A.  Though many may struggle with the dialect I would defend my use of Scots. Especially after one of the publisher’s readers advised ditching the dialect as it might put readers off, so I did. But then, after I’d rewritten the whole novel in Standard English, it was returned with the instruction: ‘Put all the Scots words back in! It’s lost it’s magic, it’s lost its authenticity, its uniqueness.’ In other words, I had lost my voice!

I deliberately don’t use colloquialisms such as cannae, dinnae etc., but try to pepper the narrative with Scots words and phrases to give it a strong flavour. I would also advise readers to relax and go with the flow – it’s not essential to understand the exact meaning of every word – but I hope the sense can be grasped within the context.

For authentic vocabulary I sifted through Scottish literature of the 16th century (which I love) including David Lindsay’s play Ane Satire of the Three Estates, the poetry of the makars; William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas and Robert Henryson. And tales and ballads were a great resource, too.

Q.  How did you plan your outline — or did it evolve organically?  Did you use any of the writing tools, software out there?  

A.  I read as widely as possible for the historical background and because I can’t read my own handwriting I type out all the information I’ve gleaned.  Then I sift through my notes, looking out for pivotal points, inciting scenes, hinges of the narrative: life-changing events when decisions have to be made, challenges met, characters fall in love or fall out. Anything that will provide drama and conflict.

I try to visualise these pivotal points in a scene, like a film, and draft it like a screenplay, with each scene forming the basis of a chapter. To keep me on track, I have to give a title to each chapter e.g. Birth, Flodden, The Miracle. Then I fill in the gaps with dialogue, description, details.

I don’t have any fancy writing tools or software – just Word. I did investigate one or two but in the time it would take me to learn how to work it I could have written the novel.

Q.  If you had one piece of advice for new historical fiction writers with work in progress what would it be?

A.  Write every day. The brain is like a muscle and gets flabby if not exercised – even if it’s only half-an-hour. It’s amazing what can get done in that time.

Q.  What is the best and worst advice you got while writing?

A.  Stay true to yourself and don’t be waylaid by the naysayers.  Worst piece of advice – for me at any rate – was: Ditch the dialect!  But there won’t be as much Scots in the next volume as Knox spent most his time in England and Geneva and had to learn to speak like a southerner!

Q. When is the next book in the trilogy due to be released?

A.  The working title of the next book is ‘The Second Blast of the Trumpet’ and is planned for released in 2015.  It  will cover Knox’s life in exile from 1549 to 1559 when he returns to Scotland.

Some other posts on John Knox you might find interesting 

Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.