Honnish Historical Reads

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Like everyone else I read The Miniaturist, a clever piece of historical fiction, but I have to admit that its plot and setting were lost on me. I much prefer the interwar and mid-century era, and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Jessie Burton’s latest novel, The Muse.  Set in the mid-1960s, Odelle Bastien, an inspiring writer, has left her Caribbean home to settle in London but it is not the postcard life she had dreamt of. By chance, she leaves her job at Dolcis (British shoe retailer) and begins a post at an art gallery, where she is mentored by the mysterious Marjorie Quick. Woven into Burton’s prose are flashbacks to Fascist Spain on the eve of WW2, where Olive Schloss a talented artist works on her masterpiece and falls in love with Isaac Robles, an impoverished painter who helps Olive to conceal her talents – an act which will have severe consequences in years to come. Through mistaken identities, past secrets and a burning ambition to be something quite different from what society says we ought to be, Burton has created something wonderful. A beguiling piece of historical fiction.

 

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Infamy is merely an accident of fate . . . [but] infamy is no accident. It is a poison in our blood. It is the price of being a Borgia.

The Borgias are one of history’s most notorious families and today the name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up imagery of a wicked, blood-thirsty seductress. Presented as historical fiction, though based on fact, C.W. Gortner’s portrayal of the pope’s beautiful daughter is a sympathetic character study. From her upbringing at the Vatican, to her adulthood marred by accusations of incest and luring men to their doom with her arsenal of poison, has she been worthy of the reputation bestowed upon her or was she a pawn in her family’s game? Told from Lucrezia’s perspective and through his cast of characters, set to the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance, Gortner shies away from the well-worn clichés of Lucrezia Borgia’s legacy to rewrite her history.

 

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What a treat it was to receive this book! 2016 marks Margaret Lockwood’s centenary and my biography, Queen of the Silver Screen, will be published in July ahead of the big event. So, it’s great to see this gem from 1944 re-issued with the lady herself on the cover. For those of you who might not know, Magdalen King-Hall’s novel was adapted for the screen by Gainsborough and released in 1945, as The Wicked Lady, to a new post-war audience. Gripped by rationing and the horrors of conflict, this historical drama – or bodice rippers, as they were known – divided the opinion of both the audience and its critics. Queen Mary, however, was a big fan! Based on the real life aristocrat and highway robber, Lady Katherine Ferrars, King-Hall’s protagonist, Lady Barbara Skelton, steals her cousin’s fiancé, marries him, but grows bored of country life in a draughty mansion with her endless days spent entertaining her spinster aunts. With the news of the notorious Captain Jerry Jackson sweeping through the land, she disguises herself as a male highway robber and sets off to get her thrills elsewhere. Having fallen in love with Jackson, Barbara and he become a crime duo, a partnership which will have dire consequences. A product of its day, The Life and Death of Wicked Lady Skelton has stood the test of time and I hope more fans of historical fiction can discover its charms.

 

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Inspired by true events, this is the story of Lucia Joyce, the spirited daughter of the Irish novelist James Joyce, who was placed in an asylum by her father. Before her fate can be decided, she makes several attempts to escape the family home – she is the product of a mother who does not love her, and a father who, perhaps, loves her too much – but each effort is thwarted. When Samuel Beckett comes to work for Joyce, Lucia wonders if he might provide the escape she longs for. But there are family secrets, and letting Lucia out into the world threatens to expose them. Through her various sessions with Carl Jung, aspects of family life are explored, but it is not until the novel’s end, that the biggest secret of all is told. A study of a troubled young woman growing up in her father’s shadow in the Paris of the 1920s, Annabel Abbs brings Lucia Joyce to life. It is a haunting piece of historical fiction.

 

Book News

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Hello Mitties!

I am excited to share with you the news that my book on Margaret Lockwood, the British film star, will be published by Fantom Films in July. The book has been a labour of love and several years in the making, and it will be released ahead of Margaret’s centenary in September 2016. Although this is a new genre for me, it still fits on the spectrum of British heritage and is very much keeping within the era that I write about. My other forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne, is still on track for a November release.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen is available for pre-order. 

 

The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee

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Although we’re already two months past the centenary of Laurie Lee, this cradle to grave biography will have a long shelf life. I should confess now, that I am not overly familiar with Laurie Lee, but I do recognise a lot of his paramours (I am a big admirer of Elizabeth Joan Howard), which is what attracted me to this biography.
Another reason why I am so interested in Valerie Grove’s biography (it is a revised edition of her classic authorised biography Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger) is because I am tackling a similar challenge to mark the centenary of the British film star Margaret Lockwood in 2016. As with Lockwood, fans of Lee continue to celebrate his legacy.

There were many themes that drew me to Grove’s biography. I must admit that I was not overly familiar with Lee or his work, aside from begrudgingly reading his books on the school curriculum, something which I find is often wasted on unruly teenagers. But after reading this biography I am interested in reading his repertoire of novels. For those who are unfamiliar with his style of writing, Groves has helpfully added his poems in full. Letters, too, are included – so again, you can see the stylistic approach he used long before he composed his novels. Of course, his most famous novel was, and is, Cider With Rosie – a real life account of his rural boyhood in Gloucestershire.

What also attracted me to The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee was the similarities to the Mitfords. Yes, since this is being reviewed on The Mitford Society I feel I must draw some comparisons. Both Lee and all six of the Mitford girls were countrified children – they grew up in the Shires with the freedom of endless fields, handling animals and although the girls were the offspring of a Lord, they were money poor. And nurturing a vivid imagination, like the Mitfords, Lee was prone to bestowing nicknames on those he loved i.e. his second daughter (Lee also fathered a love child during his stint in Spain in the ’30s) was known as ‘The First Born’. He changed his wife’s name from Kathy to Cathy, of which she said: ‘[It] tells you everything you need to know about our marriage.’ His daughter, too, was given a variety of names differing from the original spelling. Jessy was baptised Jesse – not Jessica – but Laurie decided later that Jessy was nicer, so Jessy she stayed.

As romantic as he was, Lee had courage, and at the age of 19 he left by foot with his violin to busk his way around Spain, a country he would romanticise in his future writings. He later returned to join the International Brigade and became involved in the Spanish Civil War.

This is a balanced portrait of a man who fostered his own legend in Gloucestershire and Chelsea, and though gifted in art, music and literature, he disguised the complexities of his character beneath a cloak of secrecy.

Ecstatic!

It has been an exciting few weeks as I prepare to receive the proofs of my Mitford book. First of all, I was thrilled that my book was on display at The London Book Fair as part of their Autumn 2013 highlights. Mark, my editor, explained there has been a lot of early buzz about the book. What excites me most of all is that my book featured in the top 100 historical bio charts on amazon! This is exceptionally good news! Also, today it was no. 5 in amazon’s hot new releases, next to Jonathan Aitken’s forthcoming bio on Margaret Thatcher. I am extremely pleased and very grateful to those who have pre-ordered my book. I’ve also learned that the book will be released on Nov 1 in America, already it is doing quite well in their Irish history charts.

In the meantime I’ve been writing my biography on Margaret Lockwood, it has been going very well and has been a lot easier to write than the Mitford book, I suppose this is because it is in chronicle order. The first draft is complete and has gone off to the publishers for their review (fingers crossed!)

I’m planning my next project which will make use of the Mitford info I couldn’t use in my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life. It is of Diana & Bryan Guinness, so I am planning a bio on their life together which will also explore Diana’s early life. I feel a lot of bios gloss over this part of her life to (as one friend put it) “get to the good stuff” i.e. Mosley, prison, Hitler etc.

I’m very busy indeed but I’d love to hear from any of you regarding the new Diana project. If you have any info, material, stories that you’d like to share please email me at mitfordsociety@gmail.com