New Voices: Mari Coates, Janice Hadlow, Denise Heinze, & Miranda Malins

WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK

Creating mosaics from history, literature, & art, Mari Coates, Janice Hadlow, Denise Heinze, & Miranda Malins incorporate intriguing characters into history’s “big picture.”

The Other Bennet Sister (Pan Macmillan/Henry Holt, 2020) by Janice Hadlow had its origins in her reading and re-reading of Pride and Prejudice ever since she was a teenager. “I loved everything about it—but it was its brilliant heroine who really kept me coming back again and again. Who wouldn’t want to spend their time in Elizabeth Bennet’s company? She’s handsome, clever, and witty and never afraid to say what she thinks. Jane Austen wants us to fall in love with her, and I did, hook, line, and sinker.

“Indeed, Lizzy sparkles so brightly that her dazzle inevitably puts the other characters into the shade. They’re the supporting players to her starring role; so perhaps it isn’t surprising that it was a long time before I noticed Mary Bennet at all.”

However, as Hadlow points out, “Mary doesn’t appear to have much to recommend her. The only plain girl in a sisterhood of beauties, Mary has added to her difficulties by her clumsy attempts to improve her mind; her studies have only made her seem stiff and pompous. Everyone around her raises their eyes in exasperation or yawns with boredom.”

Hadlow emphasizes: “Jane Austen allows Mary no redeeming features, but I found myself feeling sorry for her. I’d been a bookish girl myself, and didn’t find her lonely quest for knowledge ridiculous. Her awkwardness seemed pitiable rather than comic, a result of the disdain with which she is universally treated. No-one cares for her; in so large a family she is completely alone. Who wouldn’t feel some sympathy for a young girl in such a sad situation?”

As a consequence, Hadlow says, “I couldn’t get Mary out of my head. What, I wondered, would life at Longbourn look like if viewed through her eyes? Who might she be if she could throw off the identity created for her by her family? Could she ever persuade herself she too was worthy of finding happiness? And what would that mean for a woman like her?

“I knew if I wanted the answer to these questions, I would have to imagine poor, sad disregarded Mary’s life for myself—and The Other Bennet Sister is the result.”

Whereas Hadlow drew her inspiration from a cherished novel, Mari Coates’ The Pelton Papers (She Writes Press, 2020) originated from a childhood in which she was surrounded by works of art.

What inspired her to write a novel about an artist most people have never heard of? How did Coates discover her? For Coates that part was easy. “I grew up surrounded by her paintings. The portraits, that is, and the landscapes. Agnes Pelton was a close friend of my maternal grandparents, and she painted both of them and my mother and my uncle when the two of them were children.”

In Coates’ childhood home, they had two of the portraits and a gorgeous view of her Long Island windmill studio, “my favorite as a child,” she says.  “I had no idea ‘Aunt Agnes,’ as my mother referred to her, also painted spectacular abstracts, which were a spiritual practice for her. That discovery came by chance. In 1996, the curator Michael Zakian mounted a Pelton retrospective at the Oakland Museum, right across the bay from where I live.

“Entering her world of color and light and spirit sparked an interest in writing about her. Learning about her complicated life from Zakian’s catalog made writing about her a necessity. But the driving force was her voice itself, which seemed to arrive unbidden, while I was riding the train to work one morning. I had been ‘free writing’ on a yellow legal pad when I heard a quiet voice confide, ‘I want to draw big pictures on a big piece of paper!’ Was that really Agnes herself? We’ll never know, but it was a beginning. I love research and started reading. I kept inspiration alive by following her footsteps. I sought out and found the Brooklyn house she grew up in. From there I explored as many of Agnes’s places as possible: Long Island, New York; Ogunquit, Maine; Taos, New Mexico; South Pasadena, California; and, of course, Cathedral City, California, where I met the two men who had unknowingly bought her house and who fell in love with her art.

“She has carried me in the writing of this book, and she has carried them to restore and dedicate her original studio as a small museum. She is at home there, with them, and in the comforting shadow of her beloved Mt. San Jacinto.”

Denise Heinze’s debut historical novel is The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew (Blackstone, 2020). Heinze, who was following a career analysing other authors’ fiction, then decided it was finally time to write her own. She explains: “If I read or learn about a thing that, as Emily Dickinson says, feels ‘as if the top of my head were taken off,’ that’s the beginning.”

For Heinze, that “beginning” and “first spark” of inspiration was “a documentary about Jamestown and the period known as the Starving Time. To survive, the settlers ate just about everything. That horrific revelation captured my imagination; I had to find out more.

“Digging deeper into Jamestown, I learned about Temperance Flowerdew, one of the first women to settle in Jamestown, and the wife to the first two colonial governors of Virginia. She had a remarkable life, defying gender norms of the day by, among other things, becoming a wealthy woman in her own right, and witnessing the will of John Rolfe.

“I also became intrigued by the Powhatan tribe, the Native Americans who inhabited the Chesapeake Bay, especially another remarkable woman of early American history, Pocahontas. Though she has become a part of American lore, very little is actually known about her interior life. John Smith was there as well, in the Jamestown historical record, burly, blustery, and ultimately brought down. By whom? Theories abound without a conclusive smoking gun.

Given this cluster of fascinating figures, the plot, as they say, thickened.”

Heinze describes the moment at which she knew her novel was born: “A recent archeological dig at Jamestown had uncovered the bones of a teenage girl in a refuse pile off the original Jamestown kitchen. Who she was and how she got there was a mystery to the historians and the archaeologists, a team of whom were able to reconstruct her face and the cause of death, but next to nothing about her life.

“It was the opening I needed—all historical novelists need—to imagine that which can never be known for certain. I could not stand the thought of this young woman remaining a nameless, voiceless footnote in history. She was as much a part of Jamestown as its celebrated founders—perhaps even more. I had to give her a story.”

Miranda Malins’ The Puritan Princess (Orion, 2020) pieces together the tessare, tiles of her historical research, to build a picture of the time and place in which her novel is set. Malins, who studied at Cambridge University, leaving with a PhD, and is Trustee of the Cromwell Association, describes herself as “a historian specialising in Oliver Cromwell and the Interregnum when Britain was a kingless Commonwealth following the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. The period is my passion: Roundheads and Cavaliers; a monumental clash of ideas; a king executed and a world turned upside down. A long-term lover of historical fiction, I always wondered if I could use my historical research to write compelling stories of my own. It was when I began to look beyond Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell to the women in his family that I decided to try.”

Malins continues, “Fiction gives me the freedom to recreate the relationships within this close family and to imagine the women’s perspectives on the extraordinary events they experienced. Their lives were unique: an ordinary, obscure, family unexpectedly elevated to become Britain’s new ruling dynasty.

“My doctoral research had focussed on Parliament’s attempts to make Cromwell king in 1657. When I realised how closely his youngest daughter Frances’s marriage prospects were tied to this crisis, I knew I had found the personal but political story I wanted to write: a tale of kingship and courtship with a fascinating, brave young woman at its heart. That was the moment The Puritan Princess was born.”

Frances, the central character in The Puritan Princess, “lives in a world familiar enough to appeal to fans of medieval and Tudor courtly fiction, yet with the excitement of new historical realms and heroines for them to discover. Only a century after the Tudors, we travel back to the familiar palaces of Hampton Court and Whitehall to plunge again into power politics, diplomatic tussles and the whirlwind of court life.”

Malins draws attention to the fact that “you can almost feel Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell watching his great-great-great nephew Oliver from the shadows. Oliver Cromwell’s rule is usually portrayed as grey, kill-joy and repressive. In fact, he ruled over a colourful, fashionable court where Puritan rules relaxed, the arts flourished, and ambassadors gathered to pay homage to the Cromwell family at its heart. The Puritan Princess explores this revolutionary time from the inside, challenging accepted wisdoms and bringing one of Britain’s most unique ruling families to life.”

Illuminating the lives of their chosen periods and characters both real and fictional, Coates, Hadlow, Heinze and Malins have provided readers with the opportunity to enter fragmented past worlds that they have glued together with their words to create stories that provide both entertainment and factual historical information.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see brought to the attention of other lovers of historical fiction.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)


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