New Voices: Anne Cleeland, Joanna Hickson, Carol McGrath & George Willis Tate
by Myfanwy Cook
Debut novelists Anne Cleeland, Joanna Hickson, Carol McGrath & George Willis Tate introduce us to the historical periods that inspired them.
Anne Cleeland and George Willis Tate share a common source of inspiration in the period that they have chosen to write about. Cleeland’s Tainted Angel (Sourcebooks) and Tate’s Twice a Princess (Xlibris) are both rooted in the Napoleonic period.
“I’ve always loved the Regency era because it’s a great time period for storytelling, with so many possibilities to choose from. The Napoleonic Wars were a watershed moment in history, with the fate of the world literally hanging in the balance,” Cleeland explains. She adds that Tainted Angel is the first book in a new historical fiction series, and can be best described as “a Regency version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” Her novel opens in 1814, with Napoleon exiled on the island of Elba after his first defeat and surrender: “He’s about to escape and try to conquer the world again, so the enemy is trying to gather together enough money to fund the next war. Each of the stories features British agents who are battling French agents behind the scenes, to thwart this treasure hunt.
In Tainted Angel, the heroine is supposed to be trying to discover who is stealing the shipments of gold that are slated for Wellington’s army — until, that is, she realizes that her spymaster believes she is ‘tainted,’ a double agent working for Napoleon. Her love interest has his own dark secrets — unless his affection is feigned and he is actually setting a trap to reveal her own treason. The story offers up a compelling game of cat and mouse as the net tightens around her.”
Tate, who is a “history nut,” uncovered a story that he couldn’t believe had never been retold. He had “caught glimmers of the story from his youth” and was “mesmerized as family genealogists spun the tale of how Prince Achille Murat, the son of Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Bonaparte, met and married the great grand-niece of George Washington, Catherine Daingerfield Willis. In that marriage, blue-blooded American native Catherine Willis became princess of a Napoleonic kingdom. When in her later life Emperor Napoleon III invested her as a princess of France, she indeed became ‘twice a princess’.”
Tate was surprised that the story “about a Napoleonic princess who descended from the family of George Washington, yet despite the temptations offered by Napoleon III to join his court, returned to the US and lived out her (amazing!) life on the rustic frontier of territorial Florida” had not already fired the imagination of other authors. He felt that “the convergence of the families of Washington and Bonaparte represents one of the most unique and powerful marriages in history, and the lives of adventure which that marriage spawned rival the best of mythology.” Tate is “a collateral descendant of Washington” and, as a consequence, was “honored to represent George Washington at the bicentennial of the US Constitution, an event which motivated his search for more information regarding the enigmatic Washington-Bonaparte connection.” In recent years, Tate’s research for a history of his hometown of Pensacola, Florida revealed another “serendipitous nugget: Princess Murat spent most of her life as a fellow Floridian, having lived in Tallahassee and, for a brief period, also in Pensacola.”
Tate’s quest continued: “The more I dug, the more the story cried out to be shared with a broad audience. Though I may have familial connections to the story, the merger of the houses of Washington and Bonaparte is a tale for the ages and belongs to history, not just to me. Using the historic novel format to tell Princess Murat’s story, rather than a pure history or biography, appealed to me as likely to reach that wider readership…As first and foremost a history major, I have always felt passionate about the amazing tales handed down to us to us by our forebears. Though Princess Murat’s husband has been written about fairly extensively, her personal story as an American-born princess had lain dormant under the dust of the ages. I didn’t want to write a traditional history book or biography, so in keeping with my belief that history is passionate, I wrote Twice a Princess in the first person. You don’t just read it, you live it.”
The Agincourt Bride (Harper) by Joanna Hickson brings to life the story of another princess. Hickson says, “I first encountered Catherine de Valois as a schoolgirl, when my class was shown Laurence Olivier’s classic film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Of course, I fell head over heels for the dashing and chivalrous King Henry and was transfixed by the scene between him and the Princess Catherine. I thought it intensely romantic and completely failed to appreciate the politics and power-play behind it. A year or so later I read the chapter on Catherine in Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England and was struck by the rather judgmental Victorian tone of this account. I came to realise that history had done her no favours and that there must be more to this French princess than merely a simpering court damsel or a flighty queen-dowager. And so, in between carving out a career in the BBC and establishing my own family life, I set about researching her more thoroughly.
“I confess that it took me a few decades. Catherine was only interesting to contemporary scribes as one king’s wife and another king’s mother. Yet the more I read of events surrounding her life, the more I realised how much violence and intrigue she must have experienced in her girlhood and how this could have shaped a fierce determination to achieve a fulfilling adult life despite the male prejudice that prevailed at the time. Every mention of Catherine described her as beautiful, but none mentioned her wit or her wisdom, and yet she has a place in history as a founder of the most dynamic dynasty to sit on the English throne. Without giving too much away, I think I have shown in The Agincourt Bride and its sequel The Tudor Bride (due out in October of this year), that Catherine de Valois was one of the more intriguing Queens of England and probably the most ingenious.”
Carol McGrath’s The Handfasted Wife (Accent Press) was, as McGrath says, “inspired by my interest in and study of medieval women and their hidden histories. I read medieval history at University. The Handfasted Wife tells the story of the Battle of Hastings and its aftermath from the royal women’s point of view, an unusual and unique perspective. It is inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry and a theory concerning it, held by Tapestry historians — for example, Andrew Bridgeford — that the woman fleeing with a child from The House that Burned, a vignette depicted on the Tapestry before the Battle of Hastings, could be Edgyth Swan-neck, the handfasted wife of Harold II.
“According to The Waltham Chronicle account, Edgyth (Elditha) recognised King Harold’s broken body on the battlefield at Senlac Hill by certain marks known to her. Edgyth is set aside by Harold when he becomes king in favour of a political marriage that will unite North and South against invaders. After the Norman take-over, Edgyth loses everything dear to her: her king and lover, her home, her youngest child, and potentially her freedom. When her youngest son is taken hostage and the enemy propose a marriage for her, she sets out from Winchester, fights for her children’s survival and, with Harold’s mother, Gytha, withstands the Conqueror’s assault on Gytha’s dower city during the siege of Exeter. But will she survive, and how? This was the historical question that perplexed me. I wrote the novel on an Mphil programme at Royal Holloway, University of London. It is a thoroughly researched fiction in primary sources where the women have a slight mention and in a multitude of secondary sources. There is also, of course, as with most historical fiction, an element of invention. The Handfasted Wife is the first in a trilogy called The Daughters of Hastings. The other novels in this trilogy concern Harold and Edgyth’s daughters.”
What is noteworthy, and links all the featured novelists in this quarter’s column, is that their central characters are women, women who were, until now, hidden in the shadows of history, but whose stories have been brought to light in order to intrigue, inform and entertain.
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is captivated by the creativity of debut novelists in unearthing settings, plots, and characters. Please do email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists who have captured your imagination.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 65, August 2013