I am welcoming to the show today, Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger, the author of “The Girl from the Mountains” and the Reschen Valley Series of books, such as the award-winning collection “Souvenirs from Kiev”, to discuss her thoughts on her writing life.
The Girl from the Mountains by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is a haunting reminder how things can progress from idyllic to horrific in the blink of an eye. First off, the first few chapters flowed slowly but methodically, setting the stage for Magda’s transformation of enjoying her serene family life with her parents and brothers to the captivating rush of the last chapters and her full-on resistance against the Nazis. The beauty of any story is to recognize the author’s desire to demonstrate contrast. Christina does this with skill. I liken this story to the movie “A Hidden Life” contrasting love against hatred, morality against immorality, and innocence against guilt. To put this into visual terms, this book is a visual fire, a flame sparked in the beginning, slowly burning in the initial chapters as more and more fuel is added until, finally, the story bursts into a bonfire. Magda never believes she is a warrior, a hero, but she is; a woman who is relatable to women today as well as being true to the time period in which Chrystyna writes. My favourite lines from the book:
“….where Swastika stamped flags snapped salutes to the wind.” (Great alliteration and visual)
“Everything about love requires an act of courage. Absolutely everything. But loving yourself perhaps the most heroic act a person can perform.” (Great line!)
“We all understand the difference between right and wrong. But what if wrong is the law?” (Hmmm, makes you think, huh? Especially in our modern day!)
“I believe a soul can die a thousand times before the body does. That’s a good thing because it means you have the chance to recover. So, today, right now, we must choose to live.” (I have lived this so many times, after losing my kids in death, so this profound statement will stay with me a long time.)
“We are shaped by our circumstances, and marked by our choices.” (Simply put, yes!)
I give this book five stars and highly recommend. Well done, Chrystyna!!
The Girl Who Escaped Auschwitz is another poignant and captivating story from the brilliant mind of Ellie Midwood. What can I say? After reading her first novel, The Violinist of Auschwitz, I must admit I had high expectations for this one. First and foremost, I was not disappointed and neither will you be if you choose to read any of her books! I am so astounded at her ability in writing words that flow with such ease over the deplorable settings she writes about. She doesn’t transport you to another time and place, she lives there and invites you to sit next to her in the death camp while she tells these stories. I think another reviewer said “brutally authentic” and I have to concur. And the way love is portrayed as a contrast to the evil in the camp is stunning. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating – Ellie Midwood is a genius wordsmith, an old soul bringing these people back to life in her words. Mala and Edek, another inspiring couple, and another five-star heart-wrenching story worthy of reading again and again. Highly recommend!!
A Comfortable Alliance by Catherine Kullman is a beautifully written historical novel set right after the Napoleonic Wars. From the start, I could tell this was a gentle read, in other words, a peaceful-evening-sitting-by-the-fire-with-a-glass-of-wine kind of book. Ms Kullman does not disappoint in her ability to transport you with her true-to-the-era dialogue and situations. The overall story is quite lovely, giving you enough romance while not being gratuitous in anyway which, to me, gives credibility to the time period in which she writes. The dialogue is easy, not cumbersome, except for a few out-of-place descriptive passages which I thought a person might not ordinarily say in regular conversation. But, then again, sometimes we read with a more modern eye. I think of this book as a meandering river, flowing along with Will and Helena’s relationship as their characters develop over the course of the book – a comfortable alliance becoming a very sweet romance. The title is perfect in that respect! Along with the historical backdrop, which Ms Kullman portrays with great skill, this book is a great read for anyone wanting a well-told Regency story. Very recommended!!
I received this book through Netgalley.
The book will be released on March 25, 2021 and is now on pre-order here:
I’d like to welcome Naomi Miller to the blog today for a guest post.
Dr. Naomi Miller is a professor of English and the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. An award-winning author of books on Renaissance women and gender, she teaches courses on Shakespeare and his female contemporaries, as well as on modern women’s adaptations and reinventions of Shakespeare. Her debut novel, Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby, November 2020), focuses on Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: https://naomimillerbooks.com/.
After thirty years as a scholar of early modern women’s studies, she realized that her work wasn’t close to being complete as long as the wider public had no awareness of the extraordinary women authors who were published and read in the time of Shakespeare. Imperfect Alchemist is the first in a projected series of novels centered on these authors, called Shakespeare’s Sisters – celebrating Renaissance women not simply for their relation to men (like the wives of Henry VIII), but for their own voices.
She was interviewed by the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast “Shakespeare Unlimited” – a great interview if you wish to listen here:
Many popular novels about Renaissance women picture them in relation to powerful men. One need look no further than the steady stream of novels about the wives of Henry VIII, perpetuating a phenomenon that I have named the “Noah’s ark approach,” which positions women in dependent relation to famous men. Contemporary readers of historical fiction have missed out on an extraordinary array of women’s voices that were heard in their own period – both acclaimed and reviled – but then silenced over time and excluded from the canon of accepted classics.
My own projected series, Shakespeare’s Sisters, comprises six interrelated historical novels that imagine the stories of early modern women authors from their own perspectives. These novels offer fictional engagements with an array of early modern figures, from queens to commoners. Historical women, including Mary Sidney Herbert, the protagonist of Imperfect Alchemist, are at the center of the narratives, bringing their voices and experiences to life for modern audiences.
Shakespeare’s Sisters centers on women whose lives and voices both shape and are shaped by women, many of whom appear in each other’s stories. Spanning generations and social classes, the series paints a multi-hued portrait of Renaissance England, seen through the lives of courtiers, commoners, poets, playwrights and, above all, indomitable women who broke the rules of their time while juggling many of the responsibilities and obstacles faced by women worldwide today.
Imperfect Alchemist, the opening novel in the series, is an imaginative reinvention of the remarkable life of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke – friend of Queen Elizabeth, visionary scientist, advocate for women writers and scandalous lover of a much younger man. One of the earliest women authors in Renaissance England to publish under her own name, the Countess successfully forged a place for herself in a man’s world.
A member of one of England’s leading families, she carved out space for herself as a daring and often controversial figure in a royal court riven by jealousies and intrigues. Her pioneering literary and scientific experiments challenged many of Renaissance England’s established conventions – one of the things that most strongly drew me to her.
As an influential literary patron as well as author, she convened a literary salon of writers whose membership included Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson and other authors interested in testing the limits of literary forms. Her own play about Antony and Cleopatra is believed to have influenced Shakespeare.
Responding to the Countess’s role as mentor to a cohort of women writers – including Mary Wroth, Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary and Anne Clifford, all of whom will play lead roles in the Shakespeare’s Sisters series – I have imagined these women into her circle, their interaction with the male authors inspiring visions of new possibilities.
In Imperfect Alchemist, the fictional Mary Sidney Herbert is mediated through my knowledge of her real-life circumstances and her writings. She was also a scientist, practicing alchemy in her private laboratory to prepare chemical and herbal remedies. Although the Countess was a well regarded alchemist, no manuscript records of her alchemical recipes or experiments survive. I have drawn on historical accounts documenting the detailed practices of other female alchemists of the period present an authentic, if conjectural, account of her scientific work.
As the acclaimed historical novelist Sarah Dunant observes, fashioning historical verisimilitude, “like a pointillist painting,” lies in the details. Indeed, Dunant describes historical details as “gold dust,” giving her readers confidence that they’re encountering worlds that actually existed, thus grounding the novel’s inventions in a “multicolored” world.
To lend a broader perspective than Mary’s point of view alone, I introduce an invented character, Rose Commin, her lady’s maid – a country girl who brings an entirely different outlook to their intersecting lives. Trained to serve and observe, Rose proves to be both a keen judge of character and a skilled artist whose drawings give new dimension to Mary’s own life and writings.
Most of the characters in the book are fictional renditions of real historical figures whose roles combine elements of their actual lives with my own inventions. The “supporting cast,” both real and invented, adds three-dimensionality to the fictional storyline.
Once I embarked on the first draft of the novel, I had to guard against my tendency, as a scholar, to plunge down historical or literary “rabbit-holes,” enticed by fascinating details that would interrupt the writing process and might obscure rather than illuminate the story – dust rather than gold dust. The most valuable advice I received came from a novelist friend who reminded me that “as a novelist, your responsibility is to the story, not to history. Just tell the story that matters!”
So what is the story that matters in Imperfect Alchemist? Most of the novel is written from two alternating points of view: Mary’s, in the third person, and Rose’s, in the first person. As I was writing, the story that came to matter the most was about both of these women, driven by sometimes conflicting imperatives of creative expression and desire – one a quiet artist, the other an outspoken author – who come to connect across class lines, learning truths from each other that they never expected to discover about themselves and their world.
The celebrated novelist Hilary Mantel maintains that “you become a novelist so you can tell the truth,” and observes that “most historical fiction is … in dialogue with the past.” My driving aim is to “tell the truth” that becomes visible in these historical women’s writings, and to put my own fiction into dialogue with theirs.
My goal has been to tell a story that imagines the perspectives of historical women in a world that encompasses both known facts and imagined possibilities, illuminating the historical record without being limited by it. I like to think that the real Mary Sidney Herbert, alchemist and author, would appreciate my transmutation of her story.
My new work-in-progress “Kingfisher” is now out into the world of querying and agent-seeking!!
This is my first venture into historical time-travel after having published four books in the standard historical and alternate historical field. I must say, it was a challenge and continues to be as I delve into the second and third novels in the series. Keeping timelines and ages and eras separate and linked involves a lot of note taking and organizing this brain of mine, which is not an easy feat!
But, after all is said and done, I am super proud of this book. The characters and storyline has taken me into depths I never imagined and I hope that when fans have the opportunity to read it that they will be as swept away as I was in writing it. After all, the stories are for you!
Here is a synopsis and an excerpt of “Kingfisher”:
While the chaos of WW1 overshadows Wales, Vala Penrys discovers a secret linking her family to the story of Camelot, fuelling her obsession with the legend. She craves escape. Yet, with a father gone to war and a mother going mad, she takes the lead in supporting the war effort and finds an unexpected attraction to Taliesin Wren, a mysterious young Welsh Lieutenant. Adding to the intrigue of her ancestry, a whispering voice beckons her in Merlyn’s Cave while on holiday in Cornwall.
After returning home, she investigates the same voice near a rowan tree on her estate, stumbles through the roots and falls into what she thinks is a well. Suddenly, she is transformed into Vivyane, Lady of the Lake ― the Kingfisher ― in ancient Britain clamouring for a High King. Taliesin awakens her and reveals himself as the Merlyn; then, takes her to Avalon and teaches her the magic and science of time travel. A quest for peace sparks in Vala’s heart when she discovers Morgayne le Fae is her sister, and she links with two powerful allies, one in each era ― Uther Pendragon, the High King; and H. G. Wells, the author of The Time Machine and a member of The Round Table Society of 1914. Wells reveals a hidden truth about Vala’s mother and the legend of the Kingfisher.
As the story behind her mother’s insanity emerges, each of Vala’s sisters melds into their roles as the other powerful women of the Kingdom. Vala’s twin, Isla/Igrayne, gives birth to Arthur, but who is the father? Gwynna/Gwynevere marries a German deserter, yet loves a handsome knight. Eilwyn/Elayne teeters on the edge of instability but hides a secret about Gwynna’s lover. Maegen/Morgayne le Fae weaves a spiderweb of lies, revealing her hatred for her sisters and her lust for power. Vala/Vivyane embarks on a journey to rewrite history, one spanning across the past, thru WW1, and onward to WW2.
WHO AM I?
My name is D. K. Marley (Dee) and I specialize in historical fiction, as well as alternate historicals, Shakespearean-themed, and time travel novels. After working on my first novel, Blood and Ink, for fifteen years, and taking three research trips to England, I joined the Shakespeare Fellowship and started writing blog posts for the Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, with the intent of finding an agent. I attended a 10-day intensive writing retreat founded by Gary Provost to hone my skills and make connections. Then, tragedy struck my family. I lost my daughter, son-in-law and grandbaby to a drunk driver in 2015. In an attempt to regain my lost power and self, I used writing to heal, writing three more novels and self-publishing all four. My first novel won a Bronze Medal in 2018 and a Silver Medal in 2019 for Best Historical Fiction from two top book blogger/reviewers. The experience strengthened me in ways beyond words. Now, with my current novel and the four following in this time travel series, I hope this generational time travel story will do for Wales what Diana Gabaldon did for Scotland, and what Poldark did for Cornwall. I am ready to traverse the traditional route of publishing, knowing that sometimes adversity moulds you into a better writer with a stronger voice. I have an active FB page, FB group of over 1500, a growing Twitter account, and my own blog where I review books for Netgalley and Goodreads.
In the beginning, a madwoman created Camelot; and in the fall of 1914, at the violent convulsion of the Great War, the legendary story sucked me into the past through the roots of an ordinary tree. I say ordinary, but sometimes first appearances deceive. Oft-times alluring with awkward beauty, yet hiding a vacuous secret in the depths.
People and trees, how very similar in form. At first glance, nothing special to gawk at, such as the lonely Rowan overlooking our manor home, Tyalwyn; save for the gnarled trunk twisted to one side, a cluster of white berries brightening the grey branches, and a tangle of roots spreading over the ragged rocks. At the base, oozing from the depths, a slight bubbling spring etched a path down the cliff face, connecting with the River Usk snaking though the Brecon forest. The tell-tale liquid indicated the watery heart pumping deep below the entwining roots; and yet, as with most people, the signs passed unnoticed. Except by me.
And how do I know this tale? I sometimes wonder if I am the insane orchestrator . . . or did I inherit the story from my mother . . . or even, my grandmother? Who was this madwoman obsessed with King Arthur?
Isla, my identical twin, and I celebrated our twenty-eighth birthday on the 28th of June 1914, the same day as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, as ordinary girls hiding an echo in our rooted souls.
Our father, Ian, gifted us a new gown, each, on that day. Mine, a flowing tea gown in white voile with sheer inserts across the breast, puffed sleeves to the elbow and narrowing to the wrist, tiny mother-of-pearl buttons cascading down from the nape of the neck to the waist and French lace edging the high neckline, the prevailing fashion of the day. Isla danced round the drawing-room with her white eyelet lawn dress, and we made plans to wear them to Ascot come springtime, along with appropriate straw hats and parasols. Those innocent pastimes we devised the month hell vomited across Europe, spilling all the way to our once bright home boasting over the rolling Welsh moors. The details of a simpler, languid time; a time we expected to continue. How wrong we were and, dare I say, how naïve.
One month and a few days after our celebration, my father sat at the breakfast table on August 5th, performing his familiar ritual of reading aloud the headlines from a freshly ironed page of the London Times, while my mother scanned over the society column of the Glamorgan Gazette. My sisters and I waited, church mouse quiet, as the minute sounds of routine accented his words like tiny accompaniments—my mother’s breathy sighs, Maegan scraping a spoon along the side of her teacup, Eilwyn muffling a giggle as Gwynna hummed, Isla whispering a hush with a finger against her coral lips, and then, the rustle of the newspaper as Father silenced us with a firm cough.
I must admit, my mind drifted. Talk of battles on the European continent made me yawn, as well as the fact that my head pounded after a restless night’s sleep. Another incessant dream, the same since childhood—an aggressive raven and courageous kingfisher locked in battle; flapping wings, bloody beaks, and the ever-present suffocating sensation of crashing waves over my head, which always woke me with a start.
Two iridescent blue tit birds fluffed their wings on a holly branch outside the opened window, and my eyes followed my mother’s stare towards them. Their sweet chirping and hopping from one limb to another enlivened the dull words of impending war, yet my father’s voice sparked, almost hopeful, upon the news. The brief and strained conversation or rather, performance, followed the daily script. Father’s curt remarks. Mother’s drained replies.
“The Times announces we are at war,” he announced. “The buggers soundly rejected the ultimatum, can you believe it? This aggressive attack from Germany, first against the royalty of Austria and now against Europe, should strike a chord through the noble houses of England. Russia is supporting Serbia, so who knows what else may develop. War is upon us, and we must prepare to support in any way we can.”
“Surely, this will pass,” I said with another yawn.
“No, Vala, this is quite different,” he replied, sternly.
“What does the politics of Europe have to do with us here in Wales anyway?” My mother questioned in her faint distracted words.
Father folded the paper, tucking it underneath the lip of the gold-edged Crown Derby saucer in front of him. He crooked his finger in the handle of the teacup and held the edge to his lips, pausing to answer before he sipped.
“A significant amount, unfortunately. Countries are taking sides in this strife. Great Britain remains a loyal ally of France and Russia, and though she sustained diplomatic relations with Germany, she chooses to side against the Kaiser. We have a civic and patriotic fidelity to the Crown, and since my former service in the Boer conflict in South Africa, I must return to active duty,” he said.
Mother sighed, once more, and touched her fingertips to her forehead. “No more talk of war, Ian. Please,” she said. As she covered her face with her hands, small teardrops slid down her wrists along with her unmistakable whisper. “O, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts . . . “
I knew the remark, so often I had heard her quote the line from Keats. She lived forever looking out windows to the horizon as if in search of some lost secret in the past. Father usually ignored her words but this time, he slapped the rolled newspaper against the table top causing all of us to jump in succession, all six pairs of eyes fixing on his reddened face.
“Isla, fix your mother some of her medicine.” He snarled.
My sister rose and stepped over to the long burled walnut sideboard, popped the cork on a squat green bottle, and poured a dram of brown liquid into a jigger, then walked round to hand her the glass. Mother threw back the “liquor” as if she slugged Scottish whiskey, although I knew better. When younger, perhaps twelve or so, I received a swift slap across my face after touching my tongue to the edge of the bottle, so I learned the bitter gall of ‘mother’s medicine,’ as well as the daily, almost hourly, odour of laudanum on her breath.
Father took a deep breath, steadying himself as he drank his tea and then, motioned for Eilwyn, Maegan, and Gwynna’s dismissal. “You may leave, girls. “
All three stood in a hurry, curtsied, and left us. Mother rose, as well, and placed her palm against her tight, corseted stomach. With her other hand, she fingered the black pleated edging round the scooped neck of her simple grey silk day dress.
“I will be in the orangery. I think the orchids are dying,” Mother said, as she meandered out of the room leaning on Isla and leaving my father and me alone in the dining room.
Father stared out the window, the sun breaking in brilliant streaks through the mullioned glass. I sensed the anxious thoughts weighing upon him, darkening the shadows beneath his eyes and thickening the air, but I remained quiet. We played out the circadian pattern in the Penrys household—silent understanding, silent knowing, but no deep discussion at or beyond the breakfast table.
Daring to tear down the impenetrable wall, I reached across and brushed my fingers on his sleeve.
“Father?” He grunted a ‘yes’ but did not greet my inquiring stare. “Are you all right?”
He answered my question with silence, to which I continued. “I had another one of those dreams last night, the one of the raven and the kingfisher. Do you suppose it is still from when you saved me from drowning in the Usk when I was eight?”
“Yes, most like,” he answered, abruptly.
“But, Father . . . this time there was more. This time I saw a wondrous island in the mist and a sword rising from the waters . . . as clear as day. More like a memory than a dream.”
He gruffed in his throat, finished off the remainder of his tea, tucked the paper under his arm, and strode towards his private study. As his hand gripped the handle, he looked over his shoulder, working his jaw as he searched for the proper answer to give me.
“Vala, I’ve told you before that you must stop this silly dreaming nonsense. Leave it alone or else you will end up like your mother.” He held up the newspaper. “Don’t we all have more important things to focus on than flights of fancy about birds and swords?”
The door slammed, leaving me alone, and the two tit birds startled into the sky. I sighed and poured another cup, drawing the edge to my lips and blowing the steam across the surface with my breath.
Father disliked me, or perhaps disliked the burden he saw looking into my face. He lived in a house full of marriageable girls still sitting at his table and supping his bread. The two of us, my twin and I, at our age teetered on the spinster life, a substantial weight to our parents with no prospects in sight for fifty miles in any direction, especially with the onslaught of this war. After spending several seasons in London from the age of seventeen, we vied for the attention of every viable young gentleman with a worthwhile income and estate, fighting an impenetrable queue of suitable and elegant young ladies backed with their strong-willed mothers.
Regrettably, we lacked the necessary sort of mother and, according to the gossip which reached our ears, Isla and I both lacked those flourishing adjectives: suitable and elegant, with disparaging comments such as:
“. . . too freckled . . . unruly mousy curls the likes of a bird’s nest . . .” and the final blow, “. . . the gloomiest blue eyes . . . so much like their sad father . . . and no wonder his sadness for happens every time a Welsh boy marries an English girl.” (It was true—while my mother was half-Welsh, half-English, she leaned more towards her London-bred father in looks and in disposition; a sort of highbrow arrogance acquired while rubbing shoulders with the swells of Grosvenor Square.)
And then, there were the words whispered behind Maegen, Gwynna, and Eilwyn, such as:
“. . . their white skin and golden hair is their only saving grace . . .“
and the clincher, “. . . pale as a ghost with soulless eyes . . . like that unhinged mother of theirs.”
In truth, we all favoured her in different aspects, Isla and me, most of all, the same face save for our dark hair and freckles. The other girls all leaned more towards the dangerous unstable personality rather than acquiring Mother’s features.
Our unhinged mother, Isobel Penrys, was a blonde will-o’-the-wisp with nary any of the will, portraying the ever ailing tragic Victorian woman on the verge of collapse at any moment.
And as we all grew older and more aware, the knowledge of our mother’s sickly ways made us realise that she leaned more towards madness than desuetude. Her turmoil led to the negligence of not only her daughters but of her husband and herself.
In truth, I detested the word, the label, vowing to safeguard her from the rumours murmuring through the nearby villages of Crickhowell, Abergavenny, and Llanginadyr, and praying not to notice any signs of the trait in myself or my sisters. Yet, even in my vowing and praying, I could not change the fierce rage coming upon Britain or our house, however much I prayed.
I looked over to the closed study door. My father’s neglect affected us differently. He abandoned all emotion when he lost his wife to the depths of her mind; and now, with the start of the war, he vacated us physically, as well.
A hand squeezed over my right shoulder and my sister, Isla, sat down in Father’s chair. In rote, I poured her a cup. She smiled and tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear.
“Your hair never wants to stay in place,” she whispered, sipping the Darjeeling.
I snickered. “Perhaps if I used twenty pins as you do.” We giggled and clasped our hands together.
“You seem distracted this morning, Vala,” she noted.
I lifted my right eyebrow, a habit Isla revealed to me one day as she plucked the tiny hairs into an arch. “Distracted? Well, I suppose I am with all the war talk.”
“Is that all? I know you better than anyone, Vala, and something else occupies your mind. Am I wrong?”
I squeezed her hand. “No, I mean . . . yes and no. I am discovering the nearer I approach thirty, the more I long for escape from . . . well, everything.”
Isla sighed and rested her chin on her opened palm. “Understandably, sister. By now, we should be married with children of our own. The security of a husband and motherhood keeps a woman’s mind grounded, I suppose.”
I huffed through my nose. “Not according to Mother’s actions and words. Nothing about her life here grounds her mind. Distracted is her forté, and ‘give me my medicine’ is her mantra. Perhaps I am jealous of her escaping mechanism, or maybe I am searching for a way to run away, or desperate for things to stay the same.”
She wrinkled her pert nose and I wondered if I looked the same when she spouted nonsense.
“I know how it sounds, Isla, a complete contradiction of sorts. I want escape but I want things to stay the same. Odd, is it not? I think the only way to explain it is . . . “
She tilted her head in a combination of understanding and sympathy, patting my hand. “You don’t have to explain it to me, Vala, I understand all too well. Our minds were set on simple things such as attending Ascot in the spring, or the new window displays at Harrods . . .” she took a sip of tea and giggled. “Do you remember, we were only three or four, I think, when Mother took us for a ride on the moving staircase there? Such a treat!”
“Yes,” I replied. “We made faces in the plate-glass balustrade.”
“I remember!” Her smiled disappeared, returning to the previous conversation. “Vala, I’m afraid those idyllic days will never return, especially with this war. And then, what shall we do about our situation?”
Our situation. I knew what she meant. Ascot and the Queen Charlotte’s Ball had been the best chance of finding a suitable husband since attending from the age of seventeen. Approaching thirty, our chances faded with each passing year. Now, I wondered if the ravishments of the war ripped away all the excitement of a new Selfridge gown or the awkward virginal introductions at Buckingham Palace. How might one reclaim innocence lost?
I must admit I will not miss the painful moments of standing alone and rejected at the edge of the ballroom, or fanning my flushed cheeks as my ribs ached from the ever-restricting corset. And yet, there is one thing I will miss—the sheer delight of sudden independence from the imprisoning walls of our home, Tyalwyn, . . . from Father’s disapproving glare, and Mother’s hollow stare.
I poured out the remaining tea into my cup, the droplets dripping from the spout edge and popping on the surface. Like a mirror, both Isla and I sipped at the same time. She was right. More inundated my mind than whether or not we might attend another London Season.
“Yes,” she replied, setting her cup on the table.
“Do you remember when Mother used to tell us the story of Camelot?”
“Of course, she was obsessed with the story,” she answered, her gaze drifting off towards the window captured by a long-ago memory. I followed her eyes with my own and the tit birds returned, chirping merrily.
“Sometimes,” I said, closing my eyes to recall the dream. “I wish we could hide away in some faraway land. Imagine, you and I, on our own, independent and self-reliant, without any care of wedding days, or corsets, or absent parents, or wars; watching the rustling Autumn leaves dance against the gentle breeze blowing across the Usk.”
Isla turned her head towards me. “I will say the same thing Elinor Dashwood says to her sister, Marianne—‘it is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves’.” We both snickered and Isla patted my arm.
“Please, dearest, do not let your fanciful daydreaming morph into Mother’s likeness,” she said.
Reaching across, I pinched my sister’s cheek and smiled. “Never mind, me, Isla, dear. Your sensible view keeps me in check. Queen Victoria and Father would be proud of you.” A thought seized me and I grabbed hold of her arm, lowering my voice to a whisper. “Isla, but, what if? I know you as well as I know myself, and I’ve seen your romantic performances in the attic room. Your fairy-tale notions run as deep as mine even if you try to hide it behind a conventional demeanour. What if we escaped, you and I, together?”
Isla’s eyes widened and she pressed her hand against her heart. “Escape? Whatever do you mean, Vala? Leave Tyalwyn?”
“Yes,” I said, breathlessly, half-hoping she might reply with a quick ‘let’s go’. Instead, she placed her palm across my forehead and clicked her tongue to gauge the heat rising in my cheeks.
“Well, you feel all right; no fever. And where do you propose we go, sister, dear? India? Jamaica? Or America?”
Narrowing my eyes, I answered a reply she did not expect.
The word silenced her and her eyelashes fluttered as she searched for the correct response to my outlandish whim. She cleared her throat, imitating Father, and tilted her head intimating her worry and fear. Wrapping both her hands round mine, she shook her head.
“Vala, listen to yourself. Avalon? We really must curtail our play-acting in the attic. If you don’t collect yourself, how in heaven will any of us get along with Father gone and Mother, well, essentially gone, as well? Please, Vala, you know how we all rely on your strength. Now is certainly not the time for fantasizing about mythical worlds when our own world is falling into chaos.”
I gripped her hands in return. “Now is the perfect time. How else can we brave the day ahead of us than to fall down rabbit holes?”
“Stop it, Vala.”
“No,” I pressed. She rose up from her chair to leave, but I held her fingers fast. “Wait, please, Isla . . . I promise to stop if you indulge me for a moment. Will you?”
She lowered herself back onto the chair and gnawed on her lip. “When have I ever been able to deny you anything, my dear sister. Of course, I will listen.”
I stood and offered her my arm, which she took, and I steered her out of the dining room towards the library at the end of the hall beyond the staircase.
“Where are we going,” she whispered as a conspiratorial accomplice, accompanied by a nervous giggle.
Touching my finger to my lip, I opened the door and ushered her inside, pausing for a moment to suck in the inspiring aroma of leather and ink. Isla did the same, both of us incurable bibliophiles. Father’s library, his second sanctuary, was a sight to behold, a two-storied wonder with a spiralling ornate staircase in mahogany. Shelves stretched from floor to ceiling with every yard packed with books on every subject, some more favoured than others, such as: atlases and geography, archaeology, and two cases full of books about India, Sanskrit, and Rudyard Kipling. The pads of my fingertips tingled as I ran my hands along the spines, finally resting on the certain one I wanted to find.
“We aren’t suppose to be here,” Isla whispered.
I said nothing, but she was right. Father sternly demanded his sanctuaries off-limits unless invited. Only once in my lifetime had he extended a welcomed invitation. On my sixteenth birthday, he allowed me to select a book of my own from his libraryand without hesitation, I withdrew Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. He baulked at first, asking me to choose something different, with a spark of anger in his eyes I did not understand, nor did he offer an explanation. After much pleading, he relented but made me promise to never ask him about the “damnable story”.
The second unwelcomed invitation included a reprimand before the desk in his study after he discovered one of his Kipling books missing from the collection. Still, even after the scolding and a night without supper, the spell of books and stories lured me again and again. The game of stealth and of snitching the books without discovery thrilled me.
Wrapping my fingers round Isla’s dainty wrist, I urged her towards the centre oak table and the stack of books adorning the top.
“Look,” I directed, and her eyes followed my fingers tracing across the gold embossed lettering on three large leather-bound manuals of sorts.
“What is it?” She leaned forwards and read. “Mabinogion . . . I am sure I’m suppose to know what this is, Vala, but unfortunately, I do not.”
Opening the front cover, I pointed to the cover page. “The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest. This first one is Volume One, consisting of the Arthurian romance of Geriant and Enid; and then, this one,” I fanned open the third volume, “holds the stories Four Branches of the Mabinogion and and the Book ofTaliesin.”
Isla crossed her arms and crinkled her nose. “Again, what am I suppose to understand?”
“Well,” I replied, “Mother used to tell us the stories of Camelot, don’t you remember? Beneath the rowan tree? And now, here Father owns the Mabinogion, the translation of the earliest Welsh legends of King Arthur, the stories Tennyson himself based his Idylls of the King on.”
Isla waved her hands outwards, encompassing all the books in the room. “If you haven’t noticed, Father owns books of all sorts. Why do you think are these so special amongst his collection?”
I tapped my toes against the parquet floor, the irritation rising in my stomach. “Surely, you recall, Isla. You cannot be so daft . . .” I waited as she searched her mind, then continued as she shrugged. “Lady Charlotte Guest? You don’t remember her grandson, Oscar Guest, five years ago at Ascot? The one with the flourishing moustache and puppy-dog eyes who followed you round for most of the day?”
Isla gasped, touching her fingers to her chin. “Of course, I remember him. And this is his grandmother, the author?”
“The translator,” I answered. “The original works are in Welsh, which were mostly just outlines since the stories were never written down, only passed down by word of mouth by Bards who travelled from village to village, swapping tales for food and lodging. Most of the stories were embellished as they spoke them, the details flowing from their imaginations.”
“They were cyfarwyddiaid, just like us,” she added as she flipped through the pages, stopping a moment at an elaborate illustration of a man handing over a baby boy to another seated on a horse.
“Yes, exactly,” I replied.
Our mother prided herself on insisting that while her own father was a very English commander with the British Raj, her mother was as Welsh as the waters of the Wye, and a storyteller, or cyfarwyddiaid, to boot. While she never directly admitted, I suspected my grandmother, Illya, was a sort of gipsy, or traveller of some kind, dispensing fortunes and stories as the ancient Bards, until the day she caught the eye of Lord James Thackeray. In short time, they married and left for India, living near Lahore along the Ganges River. This small bit of knowledge of my grandparents was all I possessed of either of them, collecting with the other things not discussed in our family.
Isla closed the book and eyed me with curiosity. “And what, pray tell, is your interest in these particular volumes?”
“Well, curious, is it not, that Mother used to tell us the stories all of the time, that Father owns these books, and we live only a half a day’s horse-ride away from Caerleon, the supposed site of Camelot?”
Isla shrugged. “What of it, Vala? We live in Wales, dearest, we cannot help being surrounded by all things Arthurian. I think you are making more out of this than is there. Perhaps your desire for escape is luring you down this rabbit hole.”
She turned and set off towards the door but I stopped her with a small passage from The Book of Taliesin.
“Wait . . . before you go. Listen—
A coiling serpent, Proud and merciless, On her golden wings, From Germany.
She will overrun England and Scotland, From Lychlyn sea-shore To the Severn.
Then will the Brython Be as prisoners, By strangers swayed, From Saxony.
Their Lord they will praise, Their speech they will keep, Their land they will lose, Except wild Walia.
Till some change shall come, After long penance, When equally rife The two crimes come.
Britons then shall have Their land and their crown, And the strangers swarm Shall disappear.
All the angel’s words, As to peace and war, Will be fulfilled To Britain’s race.”
Isla stopped and looked over her shoulder. “That sounds like a prophecy.”
“Yes, a prophecy,” I said, arching my eyebrow. “A bard spoke these words centuries ago, and Lady Guest translated them in the mid-1800s, a long while before any hint of this war, this coiled serpent from Germany.”
I set the book down and urged her towards the cushioned seat beneath the large arched window. “Isla, you and I both know there are secrets in this house, do we not? What if some of the secrets relate to the stories of Camelot? What if we are all linked in some way? I feel it in my bones; there is something more to this story.”
In connection with The Historical Fiction Club’s Author Takeover, I am happy to welcome to my blog and podcast today, Drema Drudge, author of Victorine. To follow the author takeover on Monday, March 15th, you can go to this link: The Historical Fiction Club and join.
Drēma Drudge suffers from Stendhal’s Syndrome, the condition in which one becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art.
As an interesting aside, I had to look up this rare disorder and was amazed in reading about this occurence.
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Although psychologists have long debated whether Stendhal syndrome exists, the apparent effects on some individuals are severe enough to warrant medical attention. The staff at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to tourists suffering from dizzy spells or disorientation after viewing the statue of David, the artworks of the Uffizi Gallery, and other historic relics of the Tuscan city.
Though there are numerous accounts of people fainting while taking in Florentine art, dating from the early 19th century, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed over a hundred similar cases among tourists in Florence. There exists no scientific evidence to define Stendhal syndrome as a specific psychiatric disorder; however, there is evidence that the same cerebral areas involved in emotional responses are activated during exposure to art. The syndrome is not listed as a recognised condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The knowledge of this affliction, if you can call it an affliction, I sort of think of it as a spellbinding intoxication with the beauty of art. I can understand this since I feel that same overwhelming feeling whenever I am near anything relating to Shakespeare.
Back to our guest, Drema, she attended Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she learned to transform that intensity into fiction.
Drēma has been writing in one capacity or another since she was nine, starting with terrible poems and graduating to melodramatic stories in junior high that her classmates passed around literature class.
She and her husband, musician and writer Barry Drudge, live in Indiana where they record their biweekly podcast, Writing All the Things, when not traveling. Her first novel, Victorine, was literally written in six countries while she and her husband wandered the globe. The pair has two grown children.
In addition to writing fiction, Drēma has served as a writing coach, freelance writer, and educator.
For more about her writing, art, and travels, please visit her website, www.dremadrudge.com, and sign up for her newsletter. When you do, you’ll get a free historical fiction story about artists Olga Meerson and Henri Matisse and their alleged affair.
Drema’s always happy to connect with readers in her Facebook group, The Painted Word Salon, or on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Victorine Meurent is a forgotten, accomplished painter who posed nude for Edouard Manet’s most famous, controversial paintings such as Olympia and The Picnic in Paris, paintings heralded as the beginning of modern art. History has forgotten (until now) her paintings, despite the fact that she showed her work at the prestigious Paris Salon multiple times, even one year when her mentor, Manet’s, work was refused.
Her persistent desire in the novel is not to be a model anymore but to be a painter herself, despite being taken advantage of by those in the art world, something which causes her to turn, for a time, to every vice in the Paris underworld, leading her even into the catacombs.
In order to live authentically, she eventually finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy, and further tested when she inches towards art school while financial setbacks push her away from it. The same can be said when it comes to her and love, which becomes substituted, eventually, by art.
By Pirate Patty Reviews – “Victorine Meurent. You may not know the name, but you know her. Take a look at Manet’s Olympia or Picnic on the Grass. Victorine models for many artists. She is living in Paris, posing nude or clothes. But her secret desire is to be the painter, not the model. In 1863, a woman artist is laughable. It is not a career that is encouraged by parents or society. But Victorine is no ordinary woman. No. She is a force of nature, steamrolling her way to her dreams. She doesn’t want someone else’s life, she wants to live her life. And she does.”
“She endures the horror of the occupation of Paris. She makes do with nothing. But she is always kind and loving. Victorine is one of the most interesting women I have had the pleasure to read about. She is smart, curious, and determined. Her personality is so strong and the author portrays her so well, you can feel her emotions. This is not something I come across every day. I wanted it to last longer. I honestly don’t have words for the energy this work of art is. Victorine came to life with the language the author used. I have a feeling we shall see more!”
*Author of Victorine, a novel about the iconic model of Manet’s Olympia turned painter, virtually forgotten by history, until now. Sign up to my newsletter, Artful Fiction, at: www.dremadrudge.com. Podcast: Writing All the Things
A special welcome from The Hist Fic Chickie today’s guest: Juliane Weber. I must admit, just reading her bio piqued my interest immensely since I also am a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon. While I cannot claim the lofty degrees of a science major, I respect the field after doing research for my next time travel novel in which many aspects of physics and time paradoxes are a part. I have added her new book, Under the Emerald Sky, to my to-read list and can’t wait. Keep an eye out for my review!
While science is just a hobby for me in relation to my writing, Juliane is actually a scientist. She holds degrees in physiology and zoology, including a PhD in physiology. During her studies she realised, however, that her passion lay not in conducting scientific research herself, but in writing about it. Thus began her career as a medical writer, where she took on all manner of writing and editing tasks, in the process honing her writing skills, until she finally plucked up the courage to write her first historical novel, Under the Emerald Sky. The book is the first in The Irish Fortune Series, which is set in 19th century Ireland around the time of the Great Famine. Juliane is inspired by Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander Series of books, who also happens to be a scientist turned novelist. Juliane lives with her husband and two sons in Hamelin, Germany, the town made famous by the story of the Pied Piper.
A few more interesting things from Juliane: “Hi, I was born in Germany but lived in South Africa for most of my life, where I met my husband and had our children. And just to make things a little more interesting: my husband is Serbian and has lived in Serbia, Libya, Russia and South Africa. He now lives in Germany with us, of course, but works for a company that’s based in the Czech Republic. Needless to say, we have plenty to talk about with people we’ve just met!”
Synopsis of Under the Emerald Sky
He’s come to Ireland to escape his past. She’s trying to run from her future. It’s 1843 and the English nobleman Quinton Williams has come to Ireland to oversee the running of his father’s ailing estate and escape his painful past. Here he meets the alluring Alannah O’Neill, whose Irish family is one of few to have retained ownership of their land, the rest having been supplanted by the English over the course of the country’s bloody history. Finding herself drawn to the handsome Englishman, Alannah offers to help Quin communicate with the estate’s Gaelic-speaking tenants, as much to assist him as to counter her own ennui. Aware of her controlling brother’s hostility towards the English, she keeps her growing relationship with Quin a secret – a secret that cannot, however, be kept for long from those who dream of ridding Ireland of her English oppressors. Among the stark contrasts that separate the rich few from the plentiful poor, Under the Emerald Sky is a tale of love and betrayal in a land teetering on the brink of disaster – the Great Famine that would forever change the course of Ireland’s history.
Alannah O’Neill is an Irishwoman who lives with her brother on their family estate. The O’Neills are one of few Irish families to have retained ownership of their land, the rest having been supplanted by their English conquerors over the course of Ireland’s bloody history.
Kieran O’Neill is Alannah’s brother, who keeps her firmly under his thumb, planning on marrying her off to someone of his dubious choosing. Kieran hates the English and has become entangled with those who seek to rid Ireland of her English oppressors.
Quinton Williams is an English nobleman who has come to Ireland to oversee the running of his father’s ailing estate. Here he meets Alannah O’Neill, but can she and Quin find happiness?
He led me along the path, which ambled away from the manor house and grounds, down into a small valley of luscious green countryside that bordered the small river. The grasses and delicate flowers of the hills gave way to reeds and lilies at the edge of the gently flowing water, which we traversed over a small wooden bridge. Orange-breasted robins flew around us while wrens whirred from bush to bush, breaking into surprisingly loud but sweetly melodious song. I closed my eyes, enjoying the sunshine on my face and relishing in the beauty of a sky that was bright and blue, with not a cloud in sight.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Quin’s voice was soft and filled with wonder.
I opened my eyes and found that both horses had come to a stop on the other side of the stream, my mare nibbling contentedly on the succulent grass, nose to nose with Quin’s brown gelding. “It is,” I said. “It’s wonderful. It’s…home.”
He smiled at me and looked around him, shielding his eyes from the sun. “It’s rather unlike my own home,” he said after a moment, turning back to me.
“Do you miss London?” I asked.
“Yes…and no,” he answered, and laughed. “I do miss the comforts and familiarity of my own house, of course. Not to mention the pleasure of being able to speak to everyone in English! But…right now…I wouldn’t trade places with anyone,” he said softly, holding my gaze.
I swallowed and looked down onto my hands. When I looked back up, he was still looking at me, but with a good-natured smile on his lips. “Mind you, I would trade my best pair of boots for a good old-fashioned traditional English meal, one that doesn’t involve potatoes!”
Facts and fiction, history and romance, light and darkness – all in one novel!
A beautifully written novel. The historical facts are well researched, indicating the onset to a dark era in Irish history. The tale of two people with high hopes to make a better life for the less fortunate as well as for themselves give the story an amorous touch – a passionate love story for the ages! I look forward to reading the next installment!
Thank you to Juliane for stopping by The Hist Fic Chickie today! And for more on her and her book, come by The Historical Fiction Book Club and type her name in the ‘Search’ box to find her postings during her author takeover on February 15, 2021. And don’t forget to go to Amazon to purchase her book today!!
Congratulations to Bruce Bishop for his debut novel, Unconventional Daughters! Bruce W. Bishop is a veteran travel and lifestyle journalist who is based in Nova Scotia, Canada.
It’s 1922 in a coastal town in Nova Scotia, Canada. A naïve Eva Carroll marries her stepfather with her controlling mother’s consent. The community is shocked, and when her aunts arrive from Sweden, a dangerous mix of family secrets and lies reaches a crescendo. If you love family sagas, historic locales, and surprising plot twists, you’ll become immersed in Unconventional Daughters.
One recent review (from the U.K.):
“***** FANTASTIC!!! If you love Historical Fiction full of drama, betrayal, feminism and true life events, this is for you.
Following three sisters from a very young age, you get to see how they grow up after being adopted when their parents died. They get separated from their brother, who they get to finally meet again years later. You have so much drama going on with the sisters and then when you get introduced to Eva, you’re hit with more. I don’t want to give too much away, but this is one incredible book, I felt emotional, angry, annoyed and I was so invested in the stories. I’m excited to read the spin off book that’s soon to follow.” – E.J. Palmer, England, 07 March 2021
Welcome to The Hist Fic Chickie! Today I am featuring the artistic and dignified stylings of Christian Historical Fiction author, Rebecca Duvall Scott.
Rebecca is an accomplished author and the recipient of numerous awards. Her first published work and best-selling memoir, Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences, chronicles the research, interventions, and mindset shifts that successfully brought her family through her son’s SPD diagnosis. While she values her special needs initiative, her heart has always been with Christian historical fiction. Her best-selling and #2 Amazon Hot New Release novel, When Dignity Came to Harlan, is based on her great-grandmother’s childhood. Rebecca lives with her husband and their two children in Kentucky and plans to write more in both the Dignity and Sensational Kids series.
Skillfully written and sure to draw you in to its pages, When Dignity Came to Harlan is set in the early 1900s and follows twelve-year-old Anna Beth Atwood as she leaves Missouri with her family dreaming of a better life in the coal-rich mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky. Anna Beth’s parents lose everything on the trip, however, and upon asking strangers to take their girls in until they get on their feet, Anna Beth and her baby sister are dropped into the home of Jack and Grace Grainger – who have plenty of problems of their own. Anna Beth suffers several hardships during her time in Harlan, and if it wasn’t for her humble and wise old friend who peddles his wisdom along with his wares, all would be lost. Based on a true family history, this is a story of heartbreak and hope, challenges and perseverance, good and evil, justice and merciful redemption. It exemplifies the human experience in all its many facets and shows what it means to have real grit. Take the journey with us and see how, with the unseen hand of God, one girl changed the heart and soul of an entire town.
“A reminder of our forebears’ sacrifices and strength, this exquisitely-told story proves that no amount of poverty or pain are a match for fierce faith.” Lizbeth Meredith, award-winning author of Pieces of Me: Rescuing My Kidnapped Daughters
Author of Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences & When Dignity Came to Harlan
I’d like to thank Rebecca for her amazing author takeover at The Historical Fiction Club last Monday, and if you haven’t had the chance to check out her postings, they are still there and you can read more about her book and her life at the Club. Join here: The Historical Fiction Club