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03 May 2015

Dolls & Storytelling




 

Recently my daughter Mélanie and I were at the Stanford mall, passing some time before heading to a party nearby. I worked in a café for a while, then we decided to walk around. We passed by the America Girl Doll store which I’ve been resisting visiting, both there and our recent visit to New York, mostly because I was afraid *I* would want to buy everything in the store. But the afternoon was warm, the store was right there, air conditioned and inviting. I asked Mel if she wanted to go in.  She did.

Mélanie has three Götz dolls from Pottery Barn Kids, which are the same size as the American Girl dolls. We had one of them with us that day, Laura. ( Mélanie still lets me name most of her toys. Usually I resort of literary characters, my own or others. Laura is name for Laura Dudley, governess to the Rannoch children in my series and a central character in my forthcoming The Mayfair Affair).  One of the American Girl dolls is from 1812. I couldn’t resist her fabulous collection of Regency clothes. Fortunately, Mélanie was excited when i asked her if she wanted to pick out an outfit for Laura “like the clothes in Mummy’s books.” (I’m not sure what I’d have done if instead she’d asked for an outfit from the 1970s :-). Mélanie selected the pelisse and hat above. Which is perfect, because in The Mayfair Affair Laura Dudley wears a dark blue pelisse trimmed with black braid. Laura Dudley is titian-haired and considerably older (35) than Laura the doll, but above is a glimpse of an ensemble not too far off from what she wears in the book.

We wandered through the rest of the store, drinking in the detailed worlds. In addition to dolls and doll clothes, there were several rooms or other settings to go with different dolls, including a beautifully detailed Regency era parlor. Before we left, I checked the price, so I’d know if it was possibility for a birthday or Christmas. Only to find it was well over half off. Which meant it was affordable and most likely discontinued. 


Needless to say, we left with the parlor. I was going to keep it for the next gift occasion. But when we got home from the party and Mélanie was asleep, I couldn’t resist setting it up. And then I couldn’t deists keeping it up, Mélanie loves it. It’s better than doll house because she can sit down in it herself and play so that ti’s almost like a playhouse. I can envision scenes from my books happening within those pale blue walls. It’s funny, in The Mayfair Affair several of the rooms in different houses are blue; I was actually going to change some, until I decided it was a nice commentary that the color runs through the lives of different characters, in difference social classes. It seems to go with the period.

When I posted about Laura’s pelisse on my own website, I learned that several readers of my books also love dolls. A lively and fascinating discussion ensued. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that people who like historical fiction would also like dolls, particularly period dolls. I loved acting out stories with my dolls when I was little. I often think that I do the same thing now, I just write stories down (and now that I’m, a mummy i get to act them out with dolls as well :-).







Are you a doll enthusiast? Readers, do you connect it to your love of period fiction? Writers, have you ever found inspiration from dolls and doll furniture and accessories?

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28 April 2015

Travels in England, 1782: St. Paul's

First I must apologize for missing last week's post. I had some real life drama (not personal, but bad stuff for a good friend) that got in my way and then I go horribly sick.



Today we follow Herr Moritz to St. Paul's Cathedral, which he does not seem to like at all, but the view from the dome is apparently not to be missed. What a wonderful excursion that would make for a  hero and heroine ...






"I must own that on my entrance into this massy building, an uncommon vacancy, which seemed to reign in it, rather damped than raised an impression of anything majestic in me.  All around me I could see nothing but immense bare walls and pillars.  Above me, at an astonishing height, was the vaulted stone roof; and beneath me a plain, flat even floor, paved with marble.  No altar was to be seen, or any other sign that this was a place where mankind assembled to adore the Almighty.  For the church itself, or properly that part of it where they perform divine service, seems as it were a piece stuck on or added to the main edifice, and is separated from the large round empty space by an iron gate, or door.  Did the great architects who adopted this style of building mean by this to say that such a temple is most proper for the adoration of the Almighty?  If this was their aim, I can only say I admire the great temple of nature, the azure vaulted sky, and the green carpet with which the earth is spread.  This is truly a large temple; but then there is in it no void, no spot unappropriated, or unfulfilled, but everywhere proofs in abundance of the presence of the Almighty.  If, however, mankind, in their honest ambition to worship the great God of nature, in a style not wholly unsuitable to the great object of their reverence, and in their humble efforts at magnificence, aim in some degree to rival the magnificence of nature, particular pains should be taken to hit on something that might atone for the unavoidable loss of the animation and ampleness of nature; something in short that should clearly indicate the true and appropriated design and purpose of such a building.  If, on the other hand, I could be contented to consider St. Paul’s merely as a work of art, built as if merely to show the amazing extent of human powers, I should certainly gaze at it with admiration and astonishment, but then I wish rather to contemplate it with awe and veneration.  But, I perceive, I am wandering out of my way.  St. Paul’s is here, as it is, a noble pile, and not unworthy of this great nation.  And even if I were sure that I could, you would hardly thank me for showing you how it might have been still more worthy of this intelligent people.  I make a conscience however of telling you always, with fidelity, what impression everything I see or hear makes on me at the time.  For a small sum of money I was conducted all over the church by a man whose office it seemed to be, and he repeated to me, I dare say, exactly his lesson, which no doubt he has perfectly got by rote: of how many feet long and broad it was; how many years it was in building, and in what year built.  Much of this rigmarole story, which, like a parrot, he repeated mechanically, I could willingly have dispensed with.  In the part that was separated from the rest by the iron gate above mentioned, was what I call the church itself; furnished with benches, pews, pulpit, and an altar; and on each side seats for the choristers, as there are in our cathedrals.  This church seemed to have been built purposely in such a way, that the bishop, or dean, or dignitary, who should preach there, might not be obliged to strain his voice too much.  I was now conducted to that part which is called the whispering gallery, which is a circumference of prodigious extent, just below the cupola.  Here I was directed to place myself in a part of it directly opposite to my conductor, on the other side of the gallery, so that we had the whole breadth of the church between us, and here as I stood, he, knowing his cue no doubt, flung to the door with all his force, which gave a sound that I could compare to nothing less than a peal of thunder.  I was next desired to apply my ear to the wall, which, when I did, I heard the words of my conductor: “Can you hear me?” which he softly whispered quite on the other side, as plain and as loud as one commonly speaks to a deaf person.  This scheme to condense and invigorate sound at so great a distance is really wonderful.  I once noticed some sound of the same sort in the senatorial cellar at Bremen; but neither that, nor I believe any other in the world, can pretend to come in competition with this.

I now ascended several steps to the great gallery, which runs on the outside of the great dome, and here I remained nearly two hours, as I could hardly, in less time, satisfy myself with the prospect of the various interesting objects that lay all round me, and which can no where be better seen, than from hence.

Every view, and every object I studied attentively, by viewing them again and again on every side, for I was anxious to make a lasting impression of it on my imagination.

Below me lay steeples, houses, and palaces in countless numbers; the squares with their grass plots in their middle that lay agreeably dispersed and intermixed, with all the huge clusters of buildings, forming meanwhile a pleasing contrast, and a relief to the jaded eye.

At one end rose the Tower - itself a city - with a wood of masts behind it; and at the other Westminster Abbey with its steeples.  There I beheld, clad in smiles, those beautiful green hills that skirt the environs of Paddington and Islington; here, on the opposite bank of the Thames, lay Southwark; the city itself it seems to be impossible for any eye to take in entirely, for with all my pains I found it impossible to ascertain either where it ended, or where the circumjacent villages began; far as the eye could reach, it seemed to be all one continued chain of buildings.

I well remember how large I thought Berlin when first I saw it from the steeple of St. Mary, and from the Temple Yard Hills, but how did it now sink and fall in my imagination, when I compared it with London!

It is, however, idle and vain to attempt giving you in words, any description, however faint and imperfect, of such a prospect as I have just been viewing.  He who wishes at one view to see a world in miniature, must come to the dome of St Paul’s."


13 April 2015

WOLF HALL -- From the Page to the Stage -- and Screen

I was an early adapter (as they say in the tech world) of WOLF HALL, In fact, back in 2010, Hilary Mantel's publicist sent me a letter asking if I would review the novel for my blog. I rarely posted to my blog at the time, being a busy author myself, and I told Ms. Mantel's publicist that as a fellow author I felt uncomfortable about giving a review of a colleague's work. However, because I had indeed written about Henry VIII and his many love affairs and marriages in my nonfiction books ROYAL AFFAIRS  and NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (which is why they wanted me to review WOLF HALL in the first place, I told the publicist that I would be delighted to read the novel and if I loved it, I would be certain to write about why I loved it, and let all my readers and colleagues know that.

P.S.: I loved it and did end up writing a blog post that was more or less in the form of a rave review. I adore voice-y fiction and Mantel has one helluvan author's voice. Many like it; many don't, but I'm one who does. I'm not personally fond of Thomas Cromwell the man, but as someone who writes about history's "bad girls" -- women who have gotten a bad reputation most often from centuries of propaganda delivered to us as truth instead, I'm fascinated by the choice of Cromwell as protagonist and grateful to see the Tudors through eyes other than one of Anne Boleyn's handmaidens for a change.

The prose is meaty and muscular, gristly at times, but delicious.

And I enjoyed Ms. Mantel's second novel in the trilogy, BRING UP THE BODIES as well. By then I found it a quicker read than WOLF HALL and the minor quibble I'd had about the first novel (the same minor quibble shared by hundreds of others, evidently -- namely that of applying the pronoun "him" every time she referred to Thomas Cromwell when there were so many other males in the room often created confusion) had been pretty much resolved.

So, what would happen, I wondered, when Ms. Mantel's novels, which for the most part are faithful to the historical record -- except for my other minor quibble -- when she does not need to stray into Philippa Gregory territory to make things up (like attributing Henry's sons to Mary Boleyn, which (a) is not true and (b) he got a perfectly good one off another royal mistress Bessie Blount) were translated to the stage--and then be transformed into a BBC miniseries? Would the author's voice get lost as is so often the case with that other oft-adapted author Jane Austen?

I am SO glad to have seen the Broadway plays before I saw the first part of the bloated and miscast miniseries. Oh, did I tip my hand too much just now? For the Broadway/Royal Shakespeare Company production (presented in 2 parts as 2 separate plays: Part 1 is WOLF HALL and Part 2 is BRING UP THE BODIES -- both titled for ease of comprehension as WOLF HALL) is everything the miniseries should be. It is brilliantly cast. The pacing is swift and sure. Each play is nearly 3 hours with an intermission. And the first play, in particular speeds by. There are pacing issues with the lumbering first act of the second play. Too much exposition. Replacing the author's voice on the page (in the stage play) are humor and wit. Just enough. In the right places. The plays are by no means comedies. But life is a human comedy. And we are witnessing whip-smart people.

Many of the same lines in the mouths of the miscast actors in the miniseries fall flat. I found the teleplay to be utterly humorless. The first episode flatlined for me. While I sat in my seat at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and couldn't wait for more, and leapt to my feet for each curtain call in what is truly an ensemble cast, I nearly fell asleep during the droning delivery of the actors on television.

How could the same material be presented in two such different iterations -- one so lively and one so dull? The stage set for the theatrical event is big and gray. The miniseries takes you into a zillion Tudor-esque locations, so faithful to what we imagine the originals must have been -- and yet that version is the least interesting!  On Broadway, even though the actor playing Henry (Nathaniel Parker) has a dark beard, he is a tall man (and his costume is increasingly padded as time goes on). When he thunders, you quake in your boots. When he smiles you melt. When he dances (as in the opening of the play), you want to take your clothes off and throw yourself at him. THAT is Henry VIII in his prime. Not the small voiced, mewling guy, redbearded though he is, in the miniseries. A small performance that wouldn't frighten (nor seduce) anyone, nor is he, like the Broadway Henry -- a worthy adversary for Cromwell, who on Broadway has every other line, and is probably way too charismatic -- but that's Ms. Mantell's Cromwell, and she co-wrote the plays, so it's her prerogative.

Perhaps therein lies the vast discrepancy between the stage and screen versions. Ms. Mantel ultimately had a vast deal of input into the scripts for the stage. Whoever wrote the teleplays was trying so hard to be earnest and faithful to the novels that the production became a crashing bore.

And the novels -- and the stage adaptations -- are anything but boring.

As I saw the Broadway plays in previews. Ms. Mantel herself was there. She signed my Playbill. I congratulated her on another great success but afterwards I wished I could have given her a note: I would have liked to have seen more of Anne Boleyn's vulnerability. I felt she was a little too one-note shrewish throughout the 2 plays. I wanted to see more of what made Henry fall in love with her and be willing to wait 7 precious years for her.

Have you read WOLF HALL and/or BRING UP THE BODIES? What was your impression? Have you seen either the Broadway/RSC productions or the miniseries? Care to compare and contrast your opinon of them to the novels?




08 April 2015

Mayfair Memories

Getting ready for the May 15 release of my next Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch mystery, The Mayfair Affair, I've been revisiting some Mayfair locations that feature in the book. Here's a brief photo tour from some wonderful trips I took over a decade ago.

Here I am in Berkeley Square, the beautiful square in the heart of Mayfair, where Malcolm and Suzanne live.




This house in Berkeley Square is my model for the Rannochs' house. I love sitting in Berkeley Square and looking at it and imagining them:



This is the Albany, where many well to do bachelors lodged (Ernest/Jack lives there in The Importance of Being Earnest). My fictional characters David Mallinson and Simon Tanner share rooms here:




 This is Brooks's the famous club in St. James's Street that the Whigs frequented. The Mayfair Affair opens with the fictional Duke of Trenchard found murdered in his house in St. James's Square, not far away.



Do you like to visit locations in favorite books? Writers, what are your favorite research trips?

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26 March 2015

Letter Home from Waterloo

This is absolutely brilliant and not to be missed (this kind of stuff is why I troll The Daily Mail and know more than I every wished to about a certain family whose name begins with "K"). A letter home after the battle of Waterloo has been found and is set to be auctioned. It is from a corporal in the Household Heavy Brigade. It reads in part:


"We had very hard fighting and with men of no despicable size or appearance. I received a cut on my bridle hand, had a sword run through my jacket in the shoulder. We drove them under their own cannon into their own lines and stay'd their (sic) too long, for the infantry began to play upon us. I had my horse shot in a charge against a solid column of infantry...he received another ball, he tumbled over another horse... about 20 yards from the face of the column of 15 hundred or 2 thousand men. I struggled to get clear, they saw me and sent some musket shot at me but they struck the horses. My poor horse had a great many balls in him. I got my legs clear looked over his neck, and saw more approaching to bayonet me. I mustered all my strength and run off faster than I ever went to school in my life, their flankers fired after me ... This was a Glorious Charge we returned and was Huzza'd by the infantry which they had threatened with destruction. Our swords reeked with French Blood."




I love this kind of stuff and am always happy when I stumble across it, it makes everything so vivid. And military stuff like this always makes me think of Heyer's brilliant An Infamous Army...I really need to reread that.

08 March 2015

The Perfect Girl is Gone





Growing up I loved fairytale. The only Disney princesses in my childhood were Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (which definitely dates me). I liked all of them, had books and records with their stories (dating myself again) and was particularly attached to my Aurora and Phillip paper dolls. But from a young age I also always liked flawed heroines like Emma Woodhouse or Barbara Childe or villainesses  like Achren in Llyod Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain or Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers. As I said in my a blog on my website, "for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes :-) (only compare Emma with Fanny Price or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance). But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions." As a child, I liked them because they *did* things instead of waiting around to be rescued. Conventional heroines tend to be too perfect. Which tends also to go with a lack of inner conflict.

When I started writing, my favorite of my heroines tended to be those who pushed convention the most. Until I got to Suzanne in my current series, definitely flawed and conflicted, definitely a rule breaker, and definitely not the sort to wait around to be rescued.

Fast forward a few decades to the holiday season of 2013 when I heard about a new Disney movie that was supposed to have heroines outside the traditional mold. It seemed like a good time to take my daughter Mélanie, then two, to her first movie in a theater. We settled into seats with peppermint hot chocolate, and there was Anna, who is sweet but also human enough to make mistakes and brave enough to try to fix them and who saves herself by committing an act of love instead of being the passive recipient of a true love’s kiss. Anna is an interesting heroine in her own right. But she isn’t the one who sings that song, the song little girls are singing on countless playgrounds. Elsa apparently was originally going to be a villain in the mold of Maleficent or Ursula or Snow White’s stepmother. Her character evolved as the movie was being made. In fact when "Let It Go" was first written, they weren’t sure whether Elsa would be singing it as a heroine or a villainess. But instead of a wicked queen she ended up a Disney princess who is also a tortured heroine, struggling with her powers and her identify, trying to be perfect, facing the fact that she has to be herself.


Mélanie likes both Anna and Elsa for Halloween she wanted to be Anna and wanted me to be Elsa (picture above), but we saw far more Elsas than Annas out trick or treating. The Elsa toys are by far the hardest to find it stock. Mélanie sings all the songs from Frozen but she particularly loves to belt out “Let it Go.” “The perfect girl is gone” is a long way from “Someday my prince will come” or “Someday I’ll be part of your world" (Ariel is probably Mélanie's other favorite Disney princess). No matter how ubiquitous the song has become, i don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing my daughter sing “Let if Go.” Or of hearing it on our CD, or our video, or her singing Elsa doll or her Frozen karaoke microphone…I'd much rather have my daughter strive to be herself than to be perfect.

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24 February 2015

They keep a man servant, do they ...

One of the discussions I see rather frequently on social media is about the lack of servants in a lot of books. I think a lot of modern people (especially Americans) are uncomfortable with the idea of servants. But our characters wouldn't have been! Basic living was HARD. Cooking was HARD. Cleaning was HARD. Caring for your clothing was HARD. See the theme here? Anyone who could afford to pay someone else to do all these menial tasks, did. And not just because they were HARD, but because they were time consuming and a person can only do so much themselves.




An aside: my best friend from college is half Turkish. Until recently, his family still had a place in Istanbul. The first time I went, I was uncomfortable with the servants. Several of them didn't even seem necessary, which made me even more uncomfortable. Then my friends dad said something that really stuck with me: They didn't have servants because they needed them; they had servants because as wealthy people (he's a cancer surgeon) they had a duty to employ people. That really stuck with me and made it easier to understand the mindset my characters might have had.




So, I was flipping through my copy of The Complete Servant before loaning it to a friend and I found some very frank discussion of costs and how many servants (and what type of servants) various households would be expected to keep. Someone with only 100 pounds a year would have still kept a maid. Elinor and Edward after their marriage in Sense and Sensibility would have had several (a cook, a maid of all work, a man servant to act as footman and groom, and perhaps a gardener). Bingley and Jane would have had a full complement, and Darcy and Lizzy, still more.








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