Thursday, November 21, 2019

Tudor to Georgian: When a Novelist Jumps Centuries

By Nancy Bilyeau

Sometimes an idea for a new novel is part of a carefully worked out strategic plan, and sometimes it pops into your brain seemingly out of nowhere. In the case of my historical novel The Blue, it was the latter.

While touring Hillwood Estate in Washington D.C. with my sister in 2013 and gazing at the spectacular 18th century porcelain collection, I heard the guide say, "Porcelain was very competitive in Europe--during this time it was like the Space Race." I was excited at the thought of writing a spy thriller set among the porcelain workshops of the 18th century.

Before I knew it, I was creating characters. This meant making some big changes in my writing. My novels The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry take place in Tudor England. For my new book, I plunged forward into the era of Rococo art and Enlightenment thought, of war and revolution. This was the Georgian period.

When it came to my protagonists, I exchanged a Catholic novice for a Huguenot artist. And since I like to weave "real" people from history into my plots, I read up on the monarchs, artists, and scientists of the 18th century. The similarities and the contrasts were highly interesting. Allow me to share a few.

Henry VIII to Louis XV

King Henry VIII is one of the most famous kings of England--or any European country for that matter. He was of course married six times and the monarch who broke ties with the Pope, which led to the English Reformation. In his time, Henry was also known for being extremely handsome--over six feet tall, with red hair and glowing skin--and accomplished, but the latter part of his reign was marked with tyranny and sudden, fatal reversals of favor. No one was safe, not his wives nor his ministers.

Since the main character of my trilogy is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice fighting for her way of life, Henry VIII is an ongoing source of fear and frustration. But Joanna is from an aristocratic family related to the royals, so at times she is pulled into the court, particularly in the third book, The Tapestry. Her talent with tapestries wins the admiration of her cousin the King, ironically. My research confirmed that Henry Tudor was a dedicated, if not obsessed collector of Renaissance tapestries. He spent the equivalent of a warship on one series of tapestries in the early 1540s.

Louis XV, "The Beloved"

In most people's minds, Louis XV is overshadowed by his predecessor, his great-grandfather Louis XIV, and his successor, his grandson, Louis XVI. Yet during his long reign, he was often regarded as the most powerful man in the Western world. Few celebrate that reign today, though. His inability to curtail spending or to deal with famine and poverty set France on the road to revolution. He led his nation into expensive wars. His most famous words are "Après moi, le déluge."

While his character was reserved and melancholy, Louis, like Henry VIII, was outstandingly handsome, and many of the women in his court were eager to be his mistress. He is famous for his taste and is not given enough credit for his role in supporting architecture, art, and music.  In the 1750s, the time of my novel The Blue, France was considered superior to England in art, fashion, science--and, most significantly, porcelain. Louis was obsessed with France being the creator of the most beautiful porcelain in the world.

If some people think Henry Tudor is over-represented in books and films and television (he's been played by everyone from Richard Burton to Damian Lewis), Louis XV shows up almost nowhere. He's perhaps most familiar to audiences as played by Rip Torn in the 2006 Marie Antoinette movie starring Kirsten Dunst.

My main character, Genevieve, is a Huguenot, part of a French Protestant community that the Catholic kings hated and successfully drove out. Her family took refuge in England--the word "refugee" was coined to describe the French Protestants flooding London. Genevieve despises Louis XV and fears him, knowing that if England were to be invaded by France, as threatened to happen in 1758, it would not be good for her.

Anne Boleyn to Madame de Pompadour

All of the wives except Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr appear in my trilogy. Fifth wife Catherine Howard has the largest role in my novels, but in my opinion there's no question but that Wife Number Two, Anne Boleyn, was the most significant to English history. My personal sympathies may rest with the wife she dislodged, Catherine of Aragon, but Anne was the love of Henry VIII's life and a woman of remarkable intelligence, style, and taste.

Louis XV was the opposite of Henry VIII when it came to women. He married once but had many, many mistresses. His court was dumbfounded when he slept with four sisters in the same family, one after another over a period of years. But then came Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, known to history as Madame de Pompadour. She was the love of Louis XV's life. For almost twenty years, she was his cherished companion, even after the sexual part of their relationship faded. 

I like to think that Anne Boleyn and Madame de Pompadour would have been fast best friends. They were both sexy and smart, leaders in art and style, Anne being musical and Pompadour being a talented actress who loved performing in small productions put on for Louis. But neither woman was popular beyond a small circle of loyalists. This contributed to Anne Boleyn's downfall; as for Pompadour, being surrounded by people who hated her eventually wore her down. She died of illness at age 45.

In films and TV, Anne Boleyn has been played by a staggeringly long list of talented actresses: Merle Oberon, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, and Natalie Dormer, among many others. But what about Madame de Pompadour? Like Louis XV, she's been seen onscreen comparatively rarely.

Hans Holbein to William Hogarth

Art plays a crucial part in my fiction. In the Joanna Stafford trilogy, the tapestries the sisters weave are important to plot and character. The Blue revolves around the creation of porcelain--and the longing of my main character, Genevieve, to become a real artist. I am fascinated by the lives of artists of the past, and I placed both Hans Holbein and William Hogarth in my books.

Hans Holbein

Holbein, court artist to Henry VIII, was the ultimate survivor. A German, he came to England under the sponsorship of Thomas More. When that man was beheaded, he switched over to Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Holbein was sent to paint Anne of Cleves when a widowed Henry VIII was looking for a new wife. He decided to marry her based on the portrait--and was furious and upset when he met the "real" woman, saying, "I like her not!"

It's in the lives of the artists that the difference between the 16th and the 18th centuries is most pronounced. Holbein must have been nervous of Henry VIII, along with everyone else, and certainly painted him with flattery.

But that was hardly the career course pursued by William Hogarth.

William Hogarth
Coming for a lower-middle-class family, Hogarth, a painter and printmaker, used his talents to make blistering comments on English society, even those at the top.  Many of his works are satirical caricatures, showcasing the greed and heartlessness of the ruling class. Some of his work attacked politicians for their corruption and the aristocracy for making loveless marriages purely for money.

After Hogarth's death, the actor David Garrick composed this for his tombstone:

Farewell great Painter of Mankind
Who reach'd the noblest point of Art
Whose pictur'd Morals charm the Mind
And through the Eye correct the Heart. 
If Genius fire thee, Reader, stay,
If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear:
If neither move thee, turn away,
For Hogarth's honour'd dust lies here.

In The Blue, Genevieve's admiration for Hogarth--and her determination to use her talent to show society with all honesty--is what sets the entire plot in motion.:)

I could go on, but you get the picture. (So to speak.) Whether it's the 16th or the 18th centuries, these are fascinating people. I loved researching them and working them into my fiction.

Reviews for THE BLUE:
Ian Rankin: "Fascinating."
Kate Quinn: "Definitely a winner."
NB magazine: "Fast-paced and highly engaging historical thriller"
E.M. Powell: "Transports the reader into the heart of the 18th century porcelain trade—where the price of beauty was death."

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