Friday, January 11, 2019

Thank you, Ian Rankin!

I'm an admirer of the novels of Ian Rankin. I think I've read every Rebus book, and I've seen both of the TV series made from the books.

Which is why I'm so thrilled by his liking my book:


Saturday, December 29, 2018

What Links 'The Blue' to 'Last of the Mohicans'






By Nancy Bilyeau

It's exciting to set a historical novel in a time period that's rarely chosen by other writers.

And ... it's frightening too.

When I decided to write a thriller set during the competitive rage for porcelain, the 18th century jumped into play. The famous Meissen Porcelain began operation in 1708 and dominated Europe until Sevres Porcelain overtook it mid-century. But the English factories were contenders as well.

It's been called the long century and one thing is certainly clear: the 18th century was dominated by wars fought among the great European powers. France and England clashed again and again, beginning in the reign of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, and continuing right through to the end with the Napoleonic wars.

A smart editor friend of mine, Daryl Chen, told me that she thinks historical fiction benefits from being set during a war. I agree with Daryl, and after researching the timeline of porcelain competition in Europe, I decided the Seven Years War was perfect. It began in 1756 and ended in 1763.

I don't know the percentage breakdown for the wars chosen by historical novelists being published in the 21st century, but I'd wager a guess it is 70 percent are set during World War Two, smaller numbers for World War One or the American or English Civil War. The Seven Years War? It might come in at .05 percent: my book, The Blue. :)

Which is too bad, because the Seven Years War was a dramatic, high-stakes, game-changing conflict that raged in Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. Its resolution changed the world significantly. It left such resentment in the hearts of the losers, the kingdom of France, that when colonists rebelled against England in America in 1775, the French, driven out of North America in the 1760s, were eager to send money and officers over the Atlantic to do damage to their enemy. Many believe that by doing so, France set up the conditions for its own revolution in 1789. There were many, many reverberations from the Seven Years War.

The famous Battle of Warburg, 1760

I never regretted choosing this time period for my fourth novel. But it was lonely. When I was finished writing The Blue and was going through the editing stage, in a moment of curiosity,  I plugged into Google "Movies set during Seven Years War."

A very short list popped up, but I smiled when I saw one title: The Last of the Mohicans. Of course! I saw the film in a theater when it came out in 1992 and I loved it. The Seven Years War is called the French and Indian War in North America, and the movie tells a story set amid that conflict.



In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper published his novel set in the upstate New York wilderness, detailing the transport of the two daughters of Colonel Munro, Alice and Cora, from Albany to Fort William Henry. Guarding the women during the journey are frontiersman Hawkeye and his loyal Mohican friends and adopted family Chingachgook and Uncas as well as a British officer, Major Duncan Heyward. After being betrayed by the renegade brave Magua, the party reaches the fort, only to lose it in a French siege. In the violence that follows, some of it along a cliff in the New York mountains, Cora, Uncas, and Magua are all killed.

In his film, director Michael Mann made huge changes in the plot. The thrust of the film is a romance: Hawkeye and Cora are the ones who fall in love, upsetting Major Heyward, who wished to marry Cora. After the surrender of the fort, betrayal, and flight, Major Heyward is burned to death by order of a Huron tribal leader, and Cora's sister Alice, Uncas, and Magua die.

It was the romance between Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day Lewis, and Cora, played by Madeleine Stowe, that captivated audiences. In particular this scene became immortal:




I decided to watch the film again recently, to see if there were any common themes between my novel The Blue and The Last of the Mohicans. I wasn't sure there would be. Different continents, for one thing. And Mohicans is a story paying tribute to the struggle over America, fought deep in the wilderness. My novel is about the frenzy for fine porcelain that preoccupied Europe regardless of the war, and how a young female painter's quest to discover the most beautiful shade of blue became tangled with objections of that war.

I was, quite simply, stunned by the beauty of this film. The love story is powerful, no doubt, but I swooned to the costumes, the sets, sophisticated cinematography, and the musical score that has taken its place as one of the best of the last 50 years.

In the opening of the film, cinematography, music, and action fuse in an elk hunt that is unforgettable:


In his first major Hollywood film, Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye carries the film, but I found the performances of Wes Studi as Magua, Russell Means as Chingachgook, and Stephen Waddington as Major Heyward (a difficult part) nothing less than amazing.

It is a bit easy to miss in such a romantic, gorgeous film, but there is a serious political theme to the film, one that resonated with me. As the story begins, the British are trying to recruit colonial settlers in New York to serve in a militia, a proposition that Hawkeye has nothing but scorn for. This puts him on a collision course with Major Heyward, a stiff officer obsessed with rank and victory who is appalled when a general tells the colonists that they'll be allowed to leave the militia should they hear their farms are being attacked by the French-led Native Americans. Once they reach Fort William Henry, the news of just such attacks--the enemy murdering helpless women and children--leads the colonialists to insist they be allowed to go to their families. But the British renege and refuse to let them go. "Those considerations are subordinate to the interests of the Crown," declares Colonel Munro. Hawkeye helps the Americans sneak away, but then he stays behind to be with Cora, who he loves, and is arrested for sedition. 

Hawkeye is arrested for sedition

 After the French blow holes in the fort with their superior guns, the English surrender and retreat. Although the sequence of multiple battles and escapes that takes up the last one-third of the film is for some fans their favorite part of the movie, I disagree. The theme of whether a person should stand up for their rights and personal freedom is lost among the running, attacking, and burning. And a weakly established romance between Uncas and Alice Monroe suddenly guides the narrative. 


Magua is killed in the finale, but Chingachgook has lost his son. He is now the "last" of the Mohicans,


But fighting for your freedom is still the deepest message of the film. And that dawning awareness of a person's right to determine their own fate amid a meaningless and brutal war between superpowers is an important part of my novel The Blue as well. The ideas sparked by the Enlightenment cannot be extinguished. The chemist who is creating the color blue, Thomas Sturbridge, puts science above politics. He is unimpressed by the war, and his ideals spark important changes within my main character, Genevieve.

In a Hollywood now dominated by cartoons and superheroes, it's sad to think about the narrative ambition and beauty of Last of the Mohicans. Happily, the film is admired and written about by others than me. I found a great story on its 25-year anniversary.

And because no one can be unmoved by the song "The Kiss," I leave you with this clip:




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The Blue is an editors pick by Goodreads and Bookbub. Publishers Weekly said: "historical fans will be well satisfied." To learn more, go here.








Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Thank You, Alison Weir!

I am pretty sure I've read all of Alison Weir's books, not just those bestsellers set in the Tudor era but books on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katherine Swynford, and the Wars of the Roses players. Her current series of novels on the wives of Henry VIII is fantastic--she unveils new theories on each wife through the novel. And I particularly enjoyed Queens of the Conquest: England's Medieval Queens.

And it's not just me that enjoys and values her work. Alison, the biggest selling female historian in the United Kingdom, has sold more than 2 million books around the world.

When I found out Alison liked my Joanna Stafford trilogy, it was a surprise. I hadn't sent the first novel to her--I was too nervous--but when I worked up my courage to friend her on Facebook, she accepted and told me she'd just read The Crown and really liked it. That was a good day!

I am thrilled and grateful that Alison posted this: "Nancy Bilyeau, whose wonderful Crown trilogy I hugely enjoyed, has just published a new novel, The Blue, which I highly recommend."

 (https://www.facebook.com/alison.weir.980)

Happy dance!


Alison Weir

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas in Georgian England: The Magic and the Myths

By Nancy Bilyeau



Some people cherish an image of Victorian Christmas as the peak of all celebrations. This was when the Christmas tree first found its way into English homes, thanks to Prince Albert, and when families gathered to "make merry" and give thanks for their good fortune, just as they did in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Um, that's not quite right.

While there is a strong belief that Albert brought with him from Saxe-Coburg the tradition of a Christmas tree, the honors belong to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. She was raised in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and it was following her marriage to George in 1761 that the tree tradition found its way to England.



As for the bubbling warmth of a Dickens' Christmas, look closer. He actually wrote it in a fury to make a point over the government's callousness to hunger and poverty in England--"the Hungry Forties"--as well as to make some money quickly. Dickens himself was strapped for cash. Much of the original novella is a passionate argument for more compassion for the near-starving in England. (You can read more about it in my article about The Story Behind Dickens Writing 'A Christmas Carol')

No, I would argue that it's the people of the Georgian era, encompassing my beloved 18th century, that got Christmas off the ground, so to speak.

Queen Charlotte's Tree
 

The tradition of chopping a yew branch and bringing it inside for Christmas was quite popular in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Samuel Coleridge, while visiting the Northern German duchy in the late 18th century, was impressed enough to write about it:

"On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces."
Queen Charlotte

At first Queen Charlotte confined her importing of German Christmas traditions to mounting a decorated yew branch, but in 1800 she threw a memorable party at Windsor for the kingdom's leading families, showing off an entire tree. Dr John Watkins wrote with some awe of how "from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles." He said that "after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted."

Before long, anybody who was anybody wanted a Christmas tree.


The Punch Bowl 

Who doesn't enjoy a dip into the punch bowl during the holiday season?

Any idea that the punch bowl belongs to the Victorians is wrong. This was not only a custom but an obsession for the Georgians. They did not do things by halves in the 18th century. Everyone drank. A lot. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister from 1783 to 1801, was said to have drunk a bottle of port before giving a speech before the House of Commons.

Punch was made using a mixture of rum or brandy, adding sugar, citrus fruit, spices – sometimes grated nutmeg – and adding water. The punch bowls could be ordinary, or splendid. Some were created to commemorate a victory or birth.

Gathering around a punch bowl was seen as the height of happiness. One man wrote:

"…we hope nothing will ever hinder a Man drinking a Bowl of Punch with his Friend, that’s one of the greatest pleasures we enjoy in the Country, after our labour."


It cannot be denied that imbibing punch, at Christmas and other times, sometimes went too far. William Hogarth captured that in his satirical print A Modern Midnight Conversation. Says the British Museum about Hogarth's creation, dated to 1733: "A drinking scene with eleven men in a panelled room around a table on which is a punch-bowl decorated with Chinese figures; wine bottles on the floor and mantelpiece and an overflowing chamber pot at lower left."

The oil painting of Hogarth's widely disseminated image was, interestingly, purchased by King Edward VII.




Hogarth's 'A Midnight Modern Conversation'


Plum Pudding

You can get into deep trouble claiming a century as the most important in the evolution of plum pudding, but I'm going to live dangerously by claiming the 18th. True, it was invented in medieval times but it was called "frumenty," made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices, and very watery. The Puritans banned it, who knows why, and when Charles II restored the monarchy, nobody particularly wanted to restore frumentary.

The story goes that George I, after tasting it, called for its return shortly after his accession in 1714, and it was served at royal feasts for Christmas. He was accordingly dubbed the "Pudding King." (By the way, this has been debunked by some as hokum invented during the 20th century reign of George V to bolster the image of the monarchy, though why the much-respected George V needed a boost from George I two centuries later is unexplained.)

In any event, plum pudding, as it was now called, tasted differently than frumenty. Recipes called for more dried fruit and sugar. There were rarely any plums but there were raisins. Samuel Johnson himself wrote that the definition of plum was "raisin; grape dried in the sun."

Plum pudding became more and more  popular, and was officially linked to Christmas in the 1830s, in the reign of William IV. He was quite fond of it, and even gave a feast for 3,000 people on his birthday in 1830, offering boiled and roasted beef and plum pudding.

The bowling ball we love: plum pudding


Some historians and food writers declare that plum pudding took its place as dessert for Christmas dinner in the Victorian era, during the time of William IV. It's been a staple since. One writer sighed over "the glossy, currant-speckled cannon-ball that appears on Victorian-style Christmas cards."

Only one problem with that: William IV, uncle of Victoria, was the last Georgian king. :)

Victorian family enjoying their Christmas dessert, one made possible by the Georgians




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Now that you're in a proper mood to celebrate the 18th century, I'm giving away three signed copies of my new novel, The Blue. It's the story of a Huguenot artist who becomes caught up in a spy mission in a porcelain factory.





And in the novel, William Hogarth and punch bowls do appear :)

To enter the competition, leave a comment below. If it's appropriate, share with us in your comments your favorite Christmas tree tradition.

Thank you!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unbearable Beauty of a Sevres Porcelain Ship

My novel The Blue sends the main character, Huguenot artist Genevieve Planche, into the heart of the porcelain business that thrived in Enlightenment Europe. It is a spy story, a love story--and also a story of art.

This is not about making plates and cups and other dishes, although in the 18th century wealthy people did use their porcelain at the table.

The celebrated Sevres pieces of the 1750s are ravishing. They are works of beauty, but so elaborate and decorated that it's like eating too much rich candy. You feel as if you could get a stomach ache looking at Sevres porcelain. And you'd still enjoy it.

Madame de Pompadour


The preeminent porcelain factory, or workshop, of the time was that of Sevres, near Versailles in France. It was the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, the elegant and cultured mistress of Louis XV, that powered Sevres. Without her, Sevres could not have survived. Fortunately for the many highly trained artists, sculptors, chemists and decorators employed there, Pompadour was obsessed with the factory.

It is difficult to even grasp the difficulty and expense of creating an intricate piece of Sevres soft-paste porcelain in the 1750s, when my novel takes place. Jean Hellot, the chief chemist, said the goal was to produce porcelain of such translucence it was like "squeezed snow." Then came the painters and the gilders.

I offer you as an example one type of porcelain Sevres produced: Pot pourri à vaisseau, or the pot pourri holder as a ship. These were produced from 1757 to the early 1760s. Frivolous to an extreme, they were exquisite--and decadent. While war raged and some French people were starving to death, enormous effort was put into these ultra-luxury objects. Supposedly they held the pot pourri people used in order to scent a room.




They were some of the largest pieces produced by the factory, and quite difficult to fire. They tended to collapse in the kiln. Only ten survive today. The one shown in the photo above is part of the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of only four "ships" in the United States.

Resting on a gilded wooden base, it takes the form of a stylized boat, complete with rigging, port-holes and a flag. The lower part is decorated with a scene of sailors packing fish on the front, and a marine themed trophy on the back, painted by Jean-Louis Morin.

The scene of sailors preparing a boat, painted during this period, could only have been inspired by the Seven Years War, in which France and Austria battled England and Prussia. What was at stake was supremacy in Europe and the colonies spread across the world--would it be France or England? Historians say that Madame de Pompadour supported this war, and pushed her royal lover to declare it. But it was a loss for France, a turning point, and she was ultimately blamed.

The design of the vase is attributed to Jean-Claude Duplessis père. He was a a goldsmith, sculptor and ceramics modeller, bronze-founder and decorative designer who worked in the Rococo style. He invented these boats, which were cherished by Madame de Pompadour.

A number of boats survived the French Revolution, as did the factory itself. The Revolutionaries did not burn down Sevres but respected its talent. A little later, Napoleon and Josephine took pride in Sevres porcelain, as did Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

At the turn of the century, a wealthy Baltimore railroad magnate and collector named Henry Walters took a fancy to the ship, purchased it, and bequeathed it to the city in 1932.

Across the centuries, the porcelain ship still exerted a fascination for the wealthy. Some things just don't change. :)

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the 18th century-set novel 'The Blue,' published on Dec. 3, 2018, in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. The protagonist is a Huguenot artist living in Spitalfields who becomes a spy in a porcelain factory. Publishers Weekly said, "Historical fans will be well satisfied."



















I'm on the Cover of The Big Thrill!

Very pleased to be on a magazine cover for the first time ever :) I was interviewed by Dawn Ius, an editor of The Big Thrill, on my new novel The Blue. How I got the idea for the book, the historical underpinnings of the 18th century, and creating the characters.




She concluded the feature with:

"The novel, both beautifully written and historically impressive, delivers surprises not only for the author, but for the reader as well, demonstrating just how much one is willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of their dreams."


To read the whole story, go here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Historical Novelist Tony Riches on Finding the 'Real' Mary Tudor








I've been impressed with the fiction of Tony Riches for quite some time. Tony writes about the early Tudors, bringing to life the exciting dramas of Owen Tudor and his sons, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. Without these men, there'd have been no dynasty at all!

The novel I just read is Mary, Tudor Princess. It's a book about the sister of Henry VIII. I liked it so much I asked Tony for an interview!


NB: I found your depiction of Mary Tudor very fresh. She seemed younger and more naive in this story than in other depictions. Did you have a strong idea of her character before you began or did it evolve as you wrote?

TR: My first encounter with Mary was her birth in book three of my Tudor trilogy. She was close to her mother and shared many of her mother’s qualities, and of course her paternal grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. When I finished the trilogy, I had a wealth of information about Mary Tudor – and decided her amazing story would make the perfect ‘sequel’.


What were your main sources of information on Mary?

One of the most useful sources was Erin Sadlack’s book ‘The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Queenship and Power)’. As well as translations of all Mary’s surviving letters, this has invaluable analysis of the context. I also discovered a wonderful biography, ‘Mary Tudor the White Queen’, by Walter Richardson. This is full of fascinating details which I could research further to bring her world to life. The most intriguing research was my visit to her home at Westhorpe and to see Mary’s tomb in Bury St Edmunds (where I also saw a lock of her hair).


What surprised you the most in your research of her?

I think it was her stoical acceptance of her brother Henry’s insistence that she should marry the aging King of France. It seems she accepted his wishes as her duty – and tried to make the best of it. Mary insisted on being referred to as ‘Queen of France’ for the rest of her life.


Your depiction of Catherine of Aragon came alive in this novel. Young Catherine is so different than the woman we meet in the many Anne Boleyn novels. How did you develop this view of her?

As with Mary, I’ve ‘lived’ with Queen Catherine for the last few years, as she first appears as a fifteen-year-old in my Tudor trilogy. I recommend Giles Tremlett’s biography, ‘Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s Spanish Queen’ to anyone who would like to see beyond the more traditional treatment of Catherine. The developing friendship between Catherine and Mary was interesting to write.




What led you to this series, and specifically to Owen Tudor?


I was born in Pembroke, Wales, birthplace of Henry Tudor, and began researching his life – as like most people I barely recalled a mention of him in school history lessons, as the focus was always on Henry VIII and his wives. I eventually had so much material I realised I could write his story as a trilogy, with Henry being born in book one, ‘coming of age’ in book two and becoming King of England in book three. At the time I wrote Owen there were no books about his life, so I wanted people to appreciate how he founded the Tudor dynasty.



Does living in Wales give you a special viewpoint on the early Tudors?




Yes. Pembroke Castle is well preserved and only a few miles from where I live, as is Edmund Tudor’s tomb at St David’s Cathedral. Henry and Jasper escaped to exile from the nearby coastal town of Tenby, so it was easy for me to ‘follow in their footsteps’ all the way to the remote chateaus in Brittany which feature in my books. Last year a group of us raised the funding for a bronze statue of Henry Tudor to be placed in front of Pembroke Castle, so now no one can forget the Tudor connections to the town.

Henry Tudor statue at Pembroke Castle



I must confess I find the romanticism of Charles Brandon in many mediums trying. I think a lot of it has to do with Henry Cavill playing him in The Tudors. How did you approach such a famous figure from Henry VIII's court?


I researched Charles Brandon for my book on Mary, and realised there was much more to him than is generally known. This inspired me to write my latest book, ‘Brandon – Tudor Knight’ which follows him from his early days with Anne Browne and the young Henry, through his life with Mary, and on to his final marriage to his young ward, Catherine Willoughby. Brandon was no saint - but I’ve tried to show why he acted as he did. I also kept his story as factually accurate as possible and hope this new book will help readers understand him.



Do you think that in the end Mary made the right choice in Brandon?




Mary’s life would have been so different if King Louis XII of France had lived even a few more years, as I don’t think Brandon would have been able to wait for her. The problem she had was that Louis’ successor, King Francis, would have happily married his widowed stepmother off to whoever he wanted a favour from. I believe Mary married for love, despite the risks – and that Brandon loved her in his own way for the rest of her life.





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Tony Riches


Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony was a finalist in the 2017 Amazon Storyteller Awards and is listed 130th in the 2018 Top 200 list of the Most Influential Authors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.