Saturday, December 30, 2017

"You Never Know If You Are Pulling It Off": Sue Grafton In Her Own Words



By Nancy Bilyeau


I had the privilege of interviewing Sue Grafton twice, each time for The Big Thrill. Soon after I became an editor for the digital magazine for International Thriller Writers, I was keen to profile Sue. I'd long been a fan of her Kinsey Millhone private-detective series, and though we hadn't met in person I saw firsthand her bond with readers when at the Bouchercon Conference in Albany, New York, the lines stretched around the conference hall for those who wanted her to sign a book.

In the late summer of 2015, I asked Sue's publicist at G. P. Putnam's Sons if she would like to be on the cover of The Big Thrill with her novel X, and Sue agreed, to my excitement. I talked to Sue on the phone for more than an hour; the result was a smashing story. When her novel Y was coming up in 2017, I again emailed Sue's publicist, Katie Grinch, and we arranged the second of my phone chats with Sue.

At the end of that conversation, she told me how much she had enjoyed our talks--"You're a real reader!"--and that it was important to her that we talk again when she was publicizing her final book in the series, Z. I had no inkling that Sue was ill. When I saw the post on the facebook page of Margery Flax sharing the news released by Sue's daughter that she had died of cancer this week, tears filled my eyes.

Sue Grafton had many, many readers, as well as friends and admirers in the mystery community. I found her an exceptional interview. Everyone knows how talented Sue was. But she was also very funny and very down to earth. She was more honest on her middle-of-the-night doubts about her work than almost any other writer I've interviewed!

I've combined and condensed my two interviews, in 2015 and 2017, to share with everyone Sue Grafton, in her own words.




THE FIRST INTERVIEW, PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2015


There are series and then there are series. In 1982, Sue Grafton, a Kentucky-born writer with a fondness for Ross Macdonald, published A Is for Alibi. The novel introduced readers to Kinsey Millhone, a young female private investigator working in the fictional California town of Santa Teresa. As the books made their way through the alphabet, the mystery series attracted a growing, deeply loyal following and won Grafton multiple Anthony Awards and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. One caveat: She has vowed to never option her books to Hollywood and made her children promise to do the same “or else I will come back and haunt them.”

Grafton's W Is for Wasted, published in 2013, offered two plot lines: Kinsey discovering relatives she never knew existed after a homeless man is found dead, and a shady investigator named Pete Wolinsky trying a dangerous move to get a big payday. In this August’s release, X, Kinsey is on the trail of a possible art thief while dealing with the collateral damage of Pete’s tragic mistakes--and in so doing attracts the attention of a serial killer.

Many novelists are dying to make it as screenwriters. And yet you were once a working screenwriter with a lot of credits and dying to quit that and get into fiction. What's the story there?

I worked in Hollywood for 15 years. And I don’t play well with others. I don’t like anybody’s help. I was getting angrier and angrier. I knew they were ruining me. There is no use making a decision if four people after you will have their ideas. I thought, I have got to get out of here. I wrote A Is for Alibi as my way out, to dig my way under the wall. It took me five years to write that book. I wrote it for love. I had never done a mystery before. I felt like I don’t know what this is, but it feels good to me and I am my own boss again. I got paid $10,000 for that book. And here I am today. There you have it.

X is a suspenseful read and it is a fast read, but it’s also a deceptively complex novel. You have three strands running through the plot, all of a different tempo. There's the investigation, the detecting, both a new case and the unfinished business of Pete Wolinsky’s. There are character-based comedic passages. At times, it almost feels like a caper. But in the climax of the book I was terrified. So on one page I was laughing, and on another I was shaking.

I liked having the three strands. It seemed like a piece of knitting where you’re weaving colors together, and I enjoy that. If I have one story to tell, I worry I will get stuck or bored. I want to have cutaways.

Not every book in your series was written in Kinsey’s first person point of view. Why have you changed your technique?

In S, T, U, and V, I was doing multiple points of view and time switches. The first 18 books were all first person. Then I got to a point I felt, I’ve got to break out of this, I need some air and sunshine in here. I started using multiple point of view. It was liberating. The reader knows more than Kinsey does, which I think is fun. Then a reader, I don’t even know who, said in passing, “Why don’t you go back to writing the book from Kinsey’s point of view?” I thought, That sounds like fun. Well it was a nightmare.

A nightmare?

It was like all the action was taking place elsewhere. That drove me insane. 

So after all this time the books are still difficult to write?


Well, with W it became stressful. W was fun until I got to Chapter 32. I woke up one day and I thought, I don’t have any idea how this book ends. None. I had to write to my editor and my agent and the president of Putnam and say, “I really feel bad about this. This book has no end.” They were all, “No, you’re meticulous, you’re resourceful. We know you’ll figure it out.”

I know you must be facing many questions on why the book is called just “X” and not “X Is for…”

Originally I assumed it would be X is for Xenophobe or Xenophobia, and I’m writing away, until I’m like, "Hello, there’s not a foreigner in sight." Well I can’t stick in a killing of a foreigner, just to have a foreigner. I have learned to stay out of my own way, so I kept writing. When I got to the end, there were X’s in there but they would be for the B story or not really work, so I thought to myself, Oh, hell with it, I’m the one made up this rule and I shall break it. I think my foreign publishers love it.

In reading your novels, I adore the details of Kinsey’s life. What she eats for breakfast, how she takes care of her car. How important is it to you to have that layer in the novels?

I just project myself into the part and try to describe what I would do in her shoes. While ever so grateful I don’t face half the dangers she does. I just face the critics and that’s scary enough.








So you don't compile lists of traits and tastes to build your characters.

I don’t intellectualize too much about it. I think about these people and these stories incessantly and more so as I get toward the end of the book. I try to operate out of my gut and not out of my intellect. There’s right brain being creative, and left brain being analytical. That balance is important. You can’t write without stopping to evaluate what you’ve done. But if you are in your editor brain it can shut you down.

You can’t write and criticize yourself at the same time. I have to take a lot of deep breaths.
I go by instinct. Even this late in the game I work by trial and error. I am very slow and I waste a lot of time thinking I have a good idea, and I pursue it and then I think, I don’t like this, and I have to back it up.

Have you had to completely start over with any of your books?

Oh, yes, Ma’am. I did that with H. I did extensive notes and I did research and I started to write the book and I couldn’t see how to project the story to the end. I junked it, and I was on deadline.

This is a lesson I learn every single time I write a book. Each time I think, Now I’ve got it, now I’m on track. And I start the next book and I’m right back at square one. But maybe that is what’s keeping me in business. I never get to a place where I think that I know what I’m doing. Each book is a special challenge in itself. Eudora Welty said, "Every book teaches you the lessons necessary to write that book." To which I might add, But those lessons don’t carry over.

You must know that people are mourning the end of the series as it gets closer.

On my final tour we’re going to do group therapy and I will have medication for everyone. We will work on our separation anxiety.

It’s four years from now, and I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen. I want the freedom to see what it feels like when I get there. I’ll be close to 80. Someone suggested I start a little family with fertility treatments the way they are.

What do you think it would be like if you started the series now, with the pressure on authors to have a platform and so forth?

I put more pressure on myself than I get from my publisher. My editor, my agent, and the president of Putnam, they are so protective of me. I am the one generating the stress. To me, writing is stressful. It’s like an out of body experience. I have to give up the shell of Sue Grafton to get into Kinsey Millhone. But no, I can’t get caught up in the expectations of others. That’s not my job. I have to be as truthful and write with as much integrity as I can manage. I don’t cheat, I don’t take shortcuts, I don’t fake. That’s part of what puts such a burden on the process. But I only have two to go!




SECOND INTERVIEW, 2017



Sue Grafton is very much aware that, having written and published Y Is for Yesterday, she only has one book left in the alphabet, and for the legions of fans of the 35-year Kinsey Milhone series, there is going to be some separation anxiety.


But before there is Z, there is Y Is for Yesterday. Readers are definitely responding both to the momentum of the series reaching the end and the storytelling strength of this particular novel. As of September 1, Y Is For Yesterday was No. 1 on the USA Today bestseller list and the third most read book on amazon.


In Y, Grafton has created a tense and involving story that delivers two perspectives and runs on two timelines. Some chapters are narrated in the first person by Kinsey, and in others we see the characters she's investigating, both now and then. The key to the plot is a group of teenagers at a high school catering to wealthy families, and a test-cheating scandal that leads to a worse scandal revolving around a sex tape, and then to an even more serious crime, a murder.


You did intense research for this novel, X. Tell me about that.



The son of the sheriff got involved with two or three other guys and mistreated a girl sexually and filmed it and circulated it among their acquaintances and the poor girl didn’t even realize what was going on until she was thoroughly exposed. There was a big court case over that and it was tricky because this was the kid of the sheriff, you know. The other case involved a 15-year-old kidnapped by drug dealers because his brother owed them $1,200. It was a kidnapping in which a large group of teenagers knew what was going on but no one told a parent or called the police until it was too late and the boy was dead. I couldn't believe how clueless these kids were and how irresponsible. They disassociated themselves and felt no particular responsibility.


While Kinsey is investigating a case, she has her own lethal reminder from the past to worry about. Throughout the book she is fighting down fear and taking steps to protect herself from Ned Lowe, a serial killer who is determined to get to her. Those parts of the book are downright scary. How do you do that?


You have to stay in the moment, and really imagine and not try to paint it with adjectives. What is she seeing, what is she smelling, what is going through her mind?

You've said writing isn't easy.


Oh, no. You never know if you are pulling it off or not.

I understand you don't have a circle of readers to workshop the books.

When I am working on a book, nobody reads it—nobody. If I get stuck, I start whining and I go into my husband’s office and talk about it. 'I screwed it up—you've got to help me.' And most of the way he helps me is to assure me that I’m not off track. I just lose confidence once in a while because you’re so close to the bone.

Here's what's puzzling to me. Lately I’ve been reading books and at the end there’s this lengthy mention and thank you for thirty people. I see 'Oh, Joannie, thank you so much for cookies,' and then there's Barry and Sandra. I think, Has this writer given a draft to every single one of those people? Because that means the work is homogenized. Everybody got to vote and everybody got to make decisions. The book is an amalgamation of other people’s opinions.


You make it sound as if it's dangerous to operate like that.

It is. Three-quarters of the time your instincts and impulses are correct and theirs are not. Once you start changing a little bit here and a little bit there, it throws the dynamic off. You don't have the book you thought you were writing.

The last novel in your series is taking on the importance of a top-ratings network-TV series finale.

I am not going to have a grand finale with fireworks, music and drum roll, and "Ta da." What I'm hoping is that Z will be a hell of a good read. I want to make sure I don't slack off. I have made a point of not cheating, not taking shortcuts, and I don't want to get like a barn sour horse, galloping at the end.

So Z is not going to be a hugely different book than those preceding it.

I do not want to end the series with fireworks, I want the book to be like the other books, with a good solid story, a beginning, middle and end, and a sense of who's who. I don't mind finishing up a couple of threads, I don't want to leave people hanging. But I don't feel any obligation to wrap it all up with a bow.


And what's next after that?


Maybe I'll write a standalone. That might be fun.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


I'll miss you, Sue Grafton

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Story Behind Charles Dickens' Writing of "A Christmas Carol"

This story was written for The Vintage News. Photos are courtesy of The Morgan Library. For more information on the wonderful exhibit at the Morgan Library on Charles Dickens, up this season until January 9, 2019, go here.





By Nancy Bilyeau

In the autumn of 1843, Charles Dickens was at something of a crossroads in his writing career. At the age of 31, he enjoyed literary fame due to the success of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, but his latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not selling well in serialized form, and Dickens feared that his popularity was sinking.


He also had money problems. Dickens had a wife and four children to support; in late 1843 his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth. Dickens had just returned from a year-long trip to the United States that had been quite costly. His idea was to rent out the London home and for the family to retreat to the Continent for a year, but for that he needed funds.


So Charles Dickens needed a hit and quickly, but it's doubtful that in his most extreme fantasies, he could have foreseen the success and lasting cultural impact of A Christmas Carol.


At this time of year, attention often turns to Dickens's novel of Ebeneezer Scrooge, which gives us a superlative ghost story while introducing so many things that make up a "Merry Christmas." We enjoy the novel, the many film versions (while arguing over which actor is the best Scrooge), the new theatrical adaptations, even the cartoons.

"A Christmas Carol" original manuscript, purchased by J. P. Morgan in 1897.   Author: Courtesy of the Morgan Library


The original Dickens' manuscript is owned by the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, one of its prized possessions, and from November 3, 2017, to January 14, 2018, the manuscript showing Dickens' own corrections is on display in the exhibition "Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas."


Dickens was always preoccupied with the poor of England, especially in London and other cities. The country was going full tilt as an industrialized society, but that meant brutal working schedules for many, often 16 hours a day in the factories for six or seven days a week. "Child labor at the time was synonymous to slavery," wrote scholar Dr. Anindita Dutta. "Children were subject to inhuman torture, exploitation, and even death."

"A Christmas Carol" title page bearing Dickens' writing. Author: Courtesy of the Morgan Library


Some politicians, religious leaders, artists, and writers called for reform, but many others felt that there was no need to protect children from parents or guardians forcing them to work.

The year that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a newly married Victoria was on the throne, the Conservative Robert Peel was prime minister. The year before, 1842, an income tax was levied in England, for the first time in peace. There was a sense of turmoil in the country.


The 1834 New Poor Law had done much to criminalize poverty. Up to then, it had been up to the parishes to try to care for their poor as best they could. The new law said parishes must come together and create workhouses where aid would be provided. In the "workhouse," where families fallen on hard times were forced to live, conditions were kept as unpleasant as possible without actually killing people on order to make sure the message was clear. Inmates of the workhouse were fed three meals a day of thin gruel, with an onion twice a week and on Sundays perhaps a roll. When Ebeneezer demanded of those trying to collect money for the poor, "Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?" and a man quietly answered that many would rather die than go there, he was speaking to an urgent social issue of the era.

Moreover, Dickens had experienced poverty firsthand. When he was 12, he was removed from school and sent to work at a blacking factory for at least 10 hours a day, six days a week. At the time, his father, John Dickens, was sentenced to Marshalsea Prison because he couldn't pay a debt of 40 pounds; his wife and children joined him there, while Charles lived alone in lodgings nearby, under pressure to help his father relieve the debt, which was the only way out of prison. The memories of this time scarred him for the rest of his life: "My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation."

The Ghost of Christmas Present. Author: Courtesy of the Morgan Library


By the time of the writing of A Christmas Carol, England was in the grip of "the hungry forties." Despite punitive measures—or perhaps because of them—there was rising unemployment and malnutrition in 1840s England.

In September 1843, Dickens visited the Samuel Starey's Field Land Ragged School, where the most deprived children of London's slums were taught lessons. He was disturbed by what he saw, and decided to tackle the gross unfairness of London society, its greed and callousness, in his book. "He had an idea of the state as a bad and neglectful parent of the poor," wrote Michael Slater in his biography Charles Dickens.
Dickens' portrait by Jeremiah Gurney. Author: Courtesy of the Morgan Library


Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, writing intensely from about 9 AM to 2 PM every day, followed by long, brainstorming walks, as far as 20 miles. He penned it in black ink, with a goose quill. There was no outline, no first drafts. He wrote the novel in one sustained effort, making numerous corrections in the margins.


Perhaps because he was on a fierce deadline, Dickens took much from his own history to create the characters. Many believe that Bob Cratchit and his large family trembling on the brink of ruin was based on Dickens' own father, the hapless clerk John Dickens. "He had begun, from the time of writing A Christmas Carol onwards, to draw on his own early life for fictional purposes at a much deeper level than before," said biographer Michael Slater. "It comes closer here to the factual sufferings of his childhood than ever before."


When finished, A Christmas Carol was 68 pages long, what would now be called novella length. Incredibly, he conveyed it to a publisher on December 2nd and it was available for the reading public to purchase on December 19th.
Ghost of Christmas Present illustration. Author: Courtesy of the Morgan Library



The book met with universal delight, and sold 6,000 copies in five days. By Christmas Eve it was sold out and new printings ordered. Dickens was very pleased by the reviews—“a most prodigious success, the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved”—but upset that initially, the book did not fulfill his goal of making him a lot of money.


Dickens himself was responsible, for he had taken control of the printing details, and he insisted on expensive production, with salmon-colored cloths and finely detailed colored etchings, but a relatively low price of five shillings. This meant a very narrow margin of profit. After deducting all of his expenses, Dickens made a grand total of 137 pounds from A Christmas Carol in its first round of publication.


"What a wonderful thing it is, that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!" he wrote of his sales.

Charles Dickens did come around to believing that his creation of A Christmas Carol was well worth his time. Most immediately, it initiated the lucrative series of Christmas books that he wrote over the next few year. The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848) are all on display at the Morgan Library and Museum, along with the first one, the book that has never gone out of print: A Christmas Carol.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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."










Monday, December 18, 2017

Steve McQueen, Anyone?

I've always been fascinated by Steven McQueen--and I feel it's safe to say I'm not alone--but when I researched this story on him for The Vintage News, I learned about his ambition, his competitiveness, his troubled childhood, and his talent.





Steven McQueen, the Icon Who Started Out As a Scene Stealer


Ever since his death in 1980s at the age of 50, Steve McQueen’s reputation as the King of Cool has grown and grown. Black-and-white photos of McQueen’s lean, weather-beaten face squinting into the sun compete with vivid color images of him straddling a motorcycle or climbing out of a race car, his eyes startling blue. Then there are the photos of McQueen with his arm around his second wife, Ali Macgraw, the patrician brunette beauty fresh off Love Story who he stole from her Hollywood husband, Robert Evans, while she was his co-star in The Getaway.
An essential aspect of a cool persona is a temperament that is laid-back and confident. In the photos, it’s as if McQueen were saying, “I don’t have to work to get these acting parts or awards or million-dollar fees, or these race cars, or even these beautiful women, they just come to me without effort.”
But what is being lost in the iconography of Steven McQueen is how badly he wanted certain things, none more so than a film career in the late 1950s. There wasn’t much of anything he wouldn’t do to get it. The Magnificent Seven, released in 1960, is the story of McQueen’s reality. The King of Cool did more than break a sweat to get cast in and film this movie–he had a series of meltdowns.


To read the whole story, go here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Debut Thriller That is Literary, Edgy, and Fun


The Kindle Scout competition is an amazon program that gives book contracts to promising writers who post a cover and first chapter on the site. One book that won this year's Kindle Scout is The Gods Who Walk Among Us, written by Max Eastern. He loves noir and suspense fiction, and writes about his heroes Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and Raymond Chandler on his website. This novel is his debut.

The eye-catching cover was designed by artist Stephanie Jones, who has worked for
Elle, DuJour, and Yahoo. Her website is here.


Amazon is discounting the price of the ebook to 99 cents until Dec. 16th, and I urge everyone who likes modern mysteries to check it out.

Here are a few reviews from talented authors:


"Fun, funny, twisted and surprising, this is a gritty and salicious New York City version of Raymond Chandler, and it's just what we needed here. I happen to really enjoy hard boiled noir and this was all that and the biscuits, too. If you dig the gossip pages, detective mysteries, and smart one-liners, then this is a book for you. Highly recommended." -- screenwriter and novelist Joshua James, author of Pound of Flesh


“I found a great new to me author in Max Eastern. I love how he brought his characters to life and made the situations in this novel seem as though they were happening in front of me.”–Terrie Farley Moran, national bestselling author of the Read Em and Eat Em mysteries.

“Max Eastern’s debut is witty, clever, and superbly executed, and I could not get enough of Adam Azoulay, the down on his luck failing lawyer turned paparazzi. If you want a fun ride and read, look no further than The Gods Who Walk Among Us.” — Robert K. Lewis, author of Critical Damage, finalist for 2015 Shamus Award.

To order the book, go here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Medmenham Abbey: Medieval Monks, a Georgian Hedonist--and "Downton Abbey"

By Nancy Bilyeau

I've written about abbeys both beautiful and sacred, with ivy-covered crumbling walls and skeletal spires. "In lone magnificence a ruin stands" is a line contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate. The monasteries have been places of sacrifice and study, of drama and struggle, of sad abandonment.

But the story of Medmenham Abbey is, safe to say, this abbey is in a category all its own.


Painting of Medmenham Abbey, as seen from the Thames

History does not record a single event of interest that took place within the abbey walls while Cistercian monks actually inhabited Medmenham between 1207 and 1536. It's what happened to a woman around the time of its founding and to a man two hundred years afters its dissolution that spark interest--and, in the case of what happened in the 18th century, an infamy that reverberates today.

THE FOUNDING: The person responsible for the abbey's existence was Isabel de Bolebec, a woman of strength who was determined to have a say in her own life. This was no small feat in the early 13th century, especially for an heiress.

The de Bolebecs were a family that possessed extensive land at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, mostly in Buckinghamshire. Isabel was the daughter and co-heiress of Hugh de Bolebec--builder of a stone castle with a moat--and is believed to have been born shortly before his death in 1165. Her first husband was Henry de Nonant, Lord of Totnes; they had no children together.

The mound is all that remains of
Bolebec Castle, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell

At some point Isabel granted lands to the abbey of Woburn, an existing house of Cistercian monks, and they decided to expand, using those lands. Medmenham Manor had belonged to her father, and she decided to bestow the land between the manor and the Thames to the Cistericians. She was clearly a pious woman who believed in religious patronage--she is best known for being a major benefactress of the Dominican order in England. In 1204 a colony of Cistercians began to live in the newly constructed abbey on the Thames.

King John, who controlled
heiresses and widows' lives

In 1206, Isabel's husband died, and she took the not-unusal step of petitioning King John for the right to not be married again or, if she did, to choose the man herself. She was about 40 years of age. Nearly all marriages of heiresses were arranged, with their fortunes as rich prizes for the king to bestow on men who he wished to favor. Some of these marriages were unhappy, even traumatic. Henry I is known to have charged rich widows for the privilege of remaining single. Sometimes the women had to pay the king in order for him to release back to them their own inheritances!

Isabel paid King John three hundred marks and three palfreys (horses) for the right to marry the man of her choice. He was Robert de Vere, a man her own age from a family as old and prestigious as the de Bolebec's. They had a son right away, naming him Hugh, and in 1214 her husband inherited from his brother the earldom of Oxford. The de Vere's managed to hold onto the the title of Earl of Oxford until 1703, all of them  descended from Isabel. Many of her descendants also carried her family's title--either Baron, Viscount or Lord Bolebec.

Isabel's descendant: The controversial Elizabethan nobleman
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of  Oxford and Viscount Bolebec

On June 15, 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta, Isobel's husband, the Earl of Oxford, was one of 25 barons elected to guarantee its observance. Clauses seven and eight protected widows, by forbidding forced marriages at the command of the king and exempting them from having to pay for their own inheritances and dower. Those reforms must have had special meaning for the Earl of Oxford.  He died six years later; Isabel purchased the wardship of their son and the two of them went on a pilgrimage "beyond the seas."

Isabel died in 1245, around 80 years of age. When the Dominican friars of Oxford needed a larger priory in the 1230's, she and the bishop of Carlisle bought land south of Oxford and contributed most of the funds. She is buried in that church.


THE DISSOLUTION: When Henry VIII broke with Rome and began to dissolve the monasteries, the smaller ones were broken up first. Medmenham Abbey definitely fell under that category. In July 1536, the abbot and only one monk lived there--when they were evicted and pensioned off, the abbot received a pension of 10 marks. The Valor Ecclesiasticus put the abbey, the small village lying a quarter-mile away and the parish church at an estimated combined value of 20 pounds, 6 shillings.

An even graver tragedy struck at nearby Medmenham Manor. It had come into the possession of the Pole family, cousins to Henry VIII due to the bloodline of its matriarch, Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of the Duke of Clarence. In a fit of paranoia that those who possessed royal blood could try to overthrow him, the king lashed out at the Poles in the late 1530s. Margaret's son Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, who owned the manor, was beheaded for treason on Tower Hill, and his manor was claimed by the crown.

As for the abbey itself, Henry VIII granted the stone buildings and land to Thomas and Robert More; it passed to the Duffield family  in the late 16th century. Two centuries later, Francis Duffield leased the abbey to one Sir Francis Dashwood. It was then that everything changed.

THE INFAMY: Sir Francis Dashwood was born in London in 1708, the only child of a baronet who made a fortune in trade with Turkey. Sir Francis inherited his estates, title and money at the age of 15. He went on the Grand Tour of Europe in high style. Gossip circulated that along with a passion for art and literature, the young baronet formed a fondness for brothels.

By the age of 18, Dashwood was a prominent member of the Dilletanti Society, devoted to celebrating the values of ancient Rome and Greece. He spent a great deal of money turning his father's country estate, West Wycombe Park, into an Italianate villa that eventually became known as one of the most beautiful houses in England.

West Wycombe Park today
 He was obsessed with private societies, and in 1752 he formed what he dubbed the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe with likeminded friends such as the Earl of Sandwich. He soon decided a discreet location was needed, and Dashwood poured money into Medmenham Abbey, which was near West Wycombe Park. The abbey was easy to reach by boat from London.

The 13th century ruin was renovated to resemble a Gothic structure with this theme written in stained glass at the entrance: Do What Thou Will. Dashwood and his friends came up with a new name for themselves: the Monks of Medmenham. It was later that their most famous name sprang up: the Hellfire Club. Among its rumored members: the Earl of Bute, Frederick Prince of Wales, the Duke of Queensbury and even, as a visitor, Benjamin Frankin.

Sir Francis Dashwood, painted by Hogarth

What transpired inside the onetime abbey of Cistercians? Did the "monks" merely read poems and get drunk? Or were these gatherings blasphemous and pornographic, with Georgian aristocrats performing anti-Christian rituals and entertaining prostitutes dressed as nuns? Another theory was that the debauchery was a guise for political discussions, since many were members of the government opposition. Although a well-known hater of the Catholic Church, Sir Francis was dogged by suspicion of being a secret Jacobite.

London gossiped about little else but the secret society until the scandal overwhelmed the Medmenham community. Although Dashwood employed many people in the area, he must not have been popular after he and the Earl of Sandwich released a monkey into the parish church during services, and watched the worshippers flee, screaming. Dashwood took the Hellfire Club underground--literally. He moved the gatherings out of the abbey and into a series of tunnels he'd had carved out of the chalk and flint of West Wycombe Hill. The reports of the members' misdeeds grew even more shocking there. Amazingly, Dashwood, who inherited the title 15th Baron Le Dispenser, served in Parliament and rose to Chancellor of the Exchequer although, as was agreed upon by all: "Of financial knowledge he did not possess the rudiments."

Dashwood's "Hellfire Club" caves are today a tourist attraction

The Duffield family took back the abbey and sold it to the Chief Justice of Chester. It is unknown what the new owner did to Dashwood's Gothic creation. In 1898 the abbey was "restored" by a Mr. Hudson, and in the early part of the 20th century was owned by an army colonel. It is now the site of a prosperous waterfront property in private hands. Nothing of the abbey remains.

The Hellfire Club permeated the culture, popping up in new forms all over England and Ireland, and references can be found in novels, films, and songs. Often there is a whiff of blasphemy, of dark doings taking place in an abbey ruin. It didn't help that Alistair Crowley, the notorious occultist, adapted the Hellfire Club's "Do What Thou Wilt" to be a personal motto.

Diana Rigg in an Avengers episode
revolving around a 1960s Hellfire Club

THE FILM SET: But it is Sir Francis Dashwood's undeniable taste that brings the story from hell back to a bit of heaven. West Wycombe Park, his estate, is owned by the National Trust, although the present head of the Dashwood family lives in part of it with his family. The interiors are used by many film and TV companies today, including Downton Abbey's. When fans look upon the aristocratic rooms inhabited by the show's characters, they are catching a glimpse of the man who shocked Georgian society to the core.


Aunt Rosamund's London drawing room is actually the interior of West Wycombe Park
----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical novels set in Tudor England: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, published in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Russia, and six other foreign countries. Her historical thriller set in the art and porcelain worlds of the 18th century, The Blue, will be published in late 2018.

The Chalice is being discounted by the publisher to .99. Go here for more information.















----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In my series, I've written about other monastic ruins with fascinating histories.

Such as....

Rufford Abbey: Errant monks and the life of Arbella Stuart. Read here.

The Haunting Power of Whitby Abbey. Read here.

Tintern Abbey, a Treasure of Wales. Read here.

Searching for London's Blackfriars. Read here: