Friday, November 27, 2009

Queen Isabella

Often referred to as the ‘She-Wolf of France’, the 14th century English queen, Isabella, has been a poorly understood historical figure – her motivations and actions tainted by the biased pen-stroke of past chroniclers.

Isabella was born in 1295 in Valois, France, to King Philip IV of France and Queen Jeanne of Navarre. In 1308, she married King Edward II of England at Boulogne, France. He was 23 and she was not yet 13. It was a union meant to secure peace between the two most powerful kingdoms in Christendom; instead, it ended in the greatest scandal of their time.

Isabella’s life cannot be understood without first examining the men who played a part in it. From the beginning, more than the age difference separated Isabella and Edward, for when they arrived in Dover, the king was effusively greeted by his ‘favorite’, Piers Gaveston. Three times in the years to come, parliament decreed that Gaveston had corrupted the king and exiled him. When Gaveston returned the third time, without their consent, he was pursued, taken into custody and then executed. Despondent, Edward turned to Isabella, who thus far had displayed nothing but the utmost loyalty toward him. She bore him four healthy children: Edward, John, Eleanor, and Joan.

It may have seemed as though all was now well between the king and queen; however, a new sycophant had entered into the picture following Edward’s humiliating defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. His name was Hugh Despenser the Younger.

Just as he had with Gaveston, Edward soon began heaping titles and possessions upon Despenser. Ultimately, Despenser too was exiled. Embittered, Edward gathered an army and pursued Sir Roger Mortimer, a formerly loyal Marcher lord who had risen in protest. At Shrewsbury, Mortimer gave himself up, believing he would be pardoned, but he was promptly imprisoned in the Tower of London. With his enemies subdued, Edward recalled Despenser.

In desperation, Isabella wrote to her brother, King Charles of France, for help.

Sometime during 1323, it is believed that Isabella visited Mortimer in the Tower. Then, in August, after the castle garrison celebrated the Feast of St. Pater ad Vincula and imbibed a sleeping potion, Mortimer escaped and found his way to France.

Now under heavy suspicion, Isabella was confined to the Tower and not allowed to see her children. When a dispute over French possessions began to brew, the Pope suggested Isabella be sent to France to negotiate a treaty. Reluctantly, Edward allowed her to go – a very shortsighted move on his part.

In Paris, Isabella and Mortimer met again… and began an affair which they increasingly found it hard to hide. Meanwhile, they collected funds and made plans for an invasion. In September of 1326, Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk with a mercenary force. They were welcomed by the people of England with open arms. Edward and Despenser fled west to Wales, but were eventually taken into custody. Hugh Despenser was brutally executed in Hereford. King Edward was sent first to Kenilworth, where he was persuaded to abdicate, and then later to Berkeley Castle.

Isabella and Mortimer were effectively ruling in the name of the young King Edward III. More than once, an attempt was made to free the deposed king. In September of 1327, an announcement proclaimed that the former king had died of natural causes. For centuries, rumors persisted that Edward II was murdered by applying a hot poker through a horn to his innards through his anus. However, letters uncovered in the last century suggest that he may have escaped to the continent and assumed the identity of a holy man.

Meanwhile, Isabella and Mortimer had accrued a great deal of wealth and were under increasing criticism. Despite the fact that England was now at peace with both France and Scotland, they were gaining many enemies. Young Edward himself bristled at their hold on power and just before he reached his eighteenth birthday in October of 1330, he had Mortimer arrested at Nottingham. Isabella was kept under house arrest at Berkhamsted Castle and learned, after the fact, that Mortimer had been tried and executed.

Isabella spent the next two years in virtual confinement at Windsor, deeply aggrieved by Mortimer’s death. Although she later joined her son’s court, relations between them were strained. She lived long enough to see the births of her thirteen grandchildren – and to see Edward III reverse Mortimer’s sentence of treason on the grounds he had not been allowed to speak in his own defense. After taking the habit of the Third Order of Saint Francis, she died in 1358. Edward II’s heart (or a heart purported to be his) was buried with her.

(This post was originally published on History and Women.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's here! Free Kindle for PCs

You can now download FREE software onto your PC for Kindle books! I'll be doing some shopping this weekend. Sure, I needed one more outlet for impulse retail therapy. I can't exactly lug my PC to the doctor's office to read something while I'm sitting there waiting, but maybe this'll convince me to eventually buy a real Kindle - or just Kindle books, period. Smart marketing move, if you ask me.

To get yours, go here.

P.S. And here's what I'm reading now: Coombe's Wood by Lisa Hinsley, a 2009 ABNA semi-finalist. Suspense-filled, fast-paced horror.

Until later,

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trunk Novels and Deadlines

Last night I was searching under my bed for my fuzzy slippers (seeing as how it's practically winter already and my feet were freezing), when amidst the dust bunnies, de-gutted squeaky dog toys, and socks-without-partners, I re-discovered two long-forgotten trunk novels. One was my first ever attempt at a novel, which I'll very loosely describe as historical fantasy, and the other a slightly better attempt at real historical fiction, for which I actually did research, about 15th century Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr. And yes, those are the real trunk novels above which I certified mailed to myself, still sealed, just in case someone hacked my computer, stole my brilliant idea and hit it big - at which point I could sue them and make my millions that way.

What is a 'trunk novel'? As a writing mentor of mine once described, it's one of those feeble attempts at putting together a whole story, which we eventually come to realize isn't the best we can do. And so we nudge them aside (i.e. bury it in a trunk) and write something better. It's hard at the time to admit it and let go, but in retrospect a writer has to see the effort as a learning experience and not time wasted.

On another note, last night I was sprung with a deadline for submitting some blurbs about my stories and the latest revision of my manuscript about Queen Isabella. Isn't it amazing how a deadline can turn you from a brain-dead, thumb-twiddling zombie into a focused, productive individual? I was up until 3 a.m. and I'm operating on two cups of coffee already this morning, but it's done. Now, if you'd have given me a month to do it, I probably would have taken a month. Not that I ever procrastinate or anything...

Until later,

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why Read Historical Fiction?

To my infinite delight, last night The Man in the Iron Mask was on the local TV station. Even though I've seen this movie before (the 1998 version with Jeremy Irons and Leonardo DiCaprio), my teenage daughter was watching it for the first time. She was entranced and so was I. So much so that I totally forgot about The Amazing Race, which was on at the same time. It bears noting here that I am wholly devoted to my favorite reality TV shows. I do not miss them and every time my favorite player or team doesn't win, I vow never to watch that show again - but I always do.

Anyway, it reminded me that the first book that really captured my imagination and made me a lifelong fan of historical fiction was another of 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas' timeless works, of which the above is the sequel: The Three Musketeers. After that, there was no stopping me. I devoured every historical work in the classics section and then went on to read more contemporary HF authors of that time, like Jean Plaidy.

All this time, I was also scouring the historical entries in my encyclopedia set. Odd for a teenager, I know, but there was something about not just reading for pleasure, but dipping into the past that made the escapism factor that much more powerful for me. I never actually believed Louis XIV had a hidden twin brother, as is the pivotal element in The Man in the Iron Mask, or that d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis even existed. I simply enjoyed the stories. If Alexandre Dumas were writing today, I sometimes wonder if he'd be able to get away with his creative license, because his stories do involve real historical figures?

Still, I often ponder on why historical fiction has so many ardent readers? What is it about events and people from the past that so fascinates us? Adventure, romance, simpler times, or making sense of complex events and how human nature molded them? Lots of reasons, I suppose. What's yours?

Until later,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Doors: A writer's best friend

True. I don't think I need to say much about this. And my friends who are photographers or artists who also spends loads of hours by themselves, content and absorbed in their work, also concur: Doors are a creative person's best friend.

Working at home (and yes, I do consider writing to be more than a hobby) provides tremendous distractions. Housework is the least of these. If the laundry needs to be done and I'm home alone, I can pop up from my swivel chair and attend to it in between scenes or when my brain gets stuck. Laundry does not bark at the meter reader, it does not ask to be fed or taken to school, and it does not rev up the power tools to give me a headache. In short, although it needs to be washed, dried and folded occasionally so that my family can venture out in public without the shame of smelling like the bottom of a gym locker, if I ignore it for a few hours a a few days, no one will die and the world will not end. Yay for that!

Lately, I've been in major writing mode. The family has not yet caught on to this. Me hunched over the keyboard, grumbling at intruders or altogether ignoring them has not been blatant enough. Apparently I need to send up signal flares and an airplane trailing a banner that says: MOM IS WRITING. PLEASE WAIT FOR HER TO EMERGE. UNTIL THEN, ASK YOUR FATHER.

Since I have neither of those, I will go back to hanging the little handwritten index card on my door that says: WORKING, DO NOT DISTURB. EXCEPTIONS - BLOOD, BROKEN BONES, VOMIT AND DOG FIGHTS.

Having said that, I'm having a guilt complex about being anti-social. Writers and artists work odd hours and do, by nature, tend to be reclusive - at least while they're in a creative mode. Some can shut out the world entirely, writing in coffee shops or painting while crowds pass by and ask questions. Some can snap out of the zone to attend to those nearby, then jump right back in. Some of us need chunks of uninterrupted time.

Me, I like my door.

P.S. And I still love my family.

Until later,