It’s less than a month since the publication of Burke in Ireland. I had been hoping for the chance to concentrate on writing the next book in the series, but have been rather caught up by events.
I had always intended to republish the John Williamson Papers which start with The White Rajah – the story of a mid-19th century adventurer who became the ruler of a small country in Borneo. It was the first novel I wrote and although it sold quite well when it first came out, it’s rather languished of late. My experience with James Burke has shown that self-publication gives me the opportunity to market my books more aggressively, so republication was on my list of things to do. Still, there had seemed to be no hurry; but that has changed.
Ever since Errol Flynn tried to make a film about James Brooke (the eponymous White Rajah) back in the 1930s, attempts to make a film of his life have failed so often it seemed there was a curse on the movie. The latest attempt was supposed to be released last year but covid intervened. Finally, though, a movie of Brooke’s life (or some version of it) is about to hit the screens on 21 June – except that (covid again) by ‘screens’ I mean ‘videos’.
That’s a shame because the film (now titled The Edge of the World) is a major release, starring Jonathan Rhys Myers and the trailer looks fantastic. What I can see of the trailer (and what I’ve read of the romantic sub-plot) leads me to suspect that the film is not, perhaps, as closely based on the historical record as is my book but, with luck, interest in the film may lead to more interest in the book. In any case, it does mean that my plans for the reissue of the John Williamson Papers have had to be accelerated to make sure that the book has time to establish a presence before 21 June. I’m therefore planning to launch the book in mid-May.
The first stage of the re-launch is traditionally the reveal of a new cover. The cover for The White Rajah was done by Dave Slaney (who does all my covers). I think it’s rather lovely. Here it is.
Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290) lived during a period of great castle building particularly in Wales. However, what is not so widely known is that a reason she may have been considered a She-Wolf Queen is because her contemporaries often thought her greedy and accumulative. The truth is, Eleanor suffered greatly during the Barons’ War which opens The Damask Rose. Simon de Montfort, leader of the anti-royalist baronial faction, won the Battle of Lewes and took the King, Henry III, his son Edward and Eleanor prisoner amongst other royalist supporters. They were all held at separate locations and Earl Simon famously ruled England through the King for more than a year. Eleanor was impoverished and incarcerated at Westminster or in the Tower for the period prior to The Battle of Evesham which the Royalist faction won following Edward’s escape from captivity. Read The Damask Rose in which these events are dramatized to find out what happens next.
Once the monarchy was restored, encouraged by Edward, Eleanor began to accumulate property in her own name. Sara Cockerill, Historian, has written a superb non-fiction about Eleanor of Castile which has informed many of the events of The Damask Rose and which inspired me to write Eleanor’s story in fiction. Sara describes Eleanor’s property acquisitions which were accelerated once Eleanor was crowned Queen in 1274. She writes: ‘Eleanor, more or less uniquely among English queens, managed to combine her day job as queen carrying on another full time professional job as a business woman dealing in property.’
Eleanor worked incredibly hard with a well-selected team under her which she managed. She would not ever be flouted. This indicates her determination and indeed sometimes ruthlessness. She would never be poor again, so poor that during her nightmare year she had to borrow funds from her tailor to purchase firewood and pay her staff. Eleanor was extremely intelligent, competent and a passionately hands-on business woman. She travelled around the countryside visiting her castles and manors choosing them with care.
On occasion she borrowed money from friends to finance castle building works and without doubt she needed large sums of money to finance her great household. This would cost her around eight thousand pounds a year. Her properties helped finance her lack of income. By 1290, the year of her death, her estates provided her with around two to three thousand pounds annually. A ditty from the time went like this:
The King would like to get our gold The Queen our manors for to hold.
Another epitaph written by the Dunstable annalist after Eleanor’s death in November 1290 said ‘A Spaniard by birth, who obtained many fine manors.’ Her property acquisition was well-known during her lifetime. Sara Cockerill points out that Eleanor was associated directly with her estates in surviving correspondence. She made decisions and dealt with administrative detail, enclosures, land tract issues, confirmation of conveyances and even allocating wine from to vineyards for shipment. Letters show how staff were reporting to her. She was personally involved in her business empire and paid attention to detail.
During her time as Queen, her husband, Edward I ordered the royal apartments in the Tower of London redecorated. Today one can view the thirteenth century royal apartments in the Tower including the replica of Edward’s bedroom. The chamber appears to have been decorated in Eleanor’s favourite colours, red and green with a sprinkle of gold. They give a sense of what Eleanor’s favourite manors would have looked like inside. Close to where I live, is the village of Brill, to which Eleanor had title. The palace at Brill, which she sometimes occupied, was situated in the middle of Borstall Woods, part of Bernwood, a forest covering much of this part of Oxfordshire. Now the woods have dramatically shrunk and the palace has vanished. Eleanor loved to hunt and I am convinced I sense her presence when I walk through our local Piddington wood, a remnant of the royal ancient hunting forest owned by Queen Eleanor.
Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. She was born in Northern Ireland, and fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, reading children’s classics and loving historical novels especially Henry Treece, The Children’s Crusade, and, as a teenager, Anya Seton’s Katherine and everything by Jean Plaidy. Visiting the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace aged eleven was thrilling for her. Exploring Irish castles such as Carrickfergus introduced her to wonderful stories. At only nine years old an archaeological dig in Donegal was inspirational. Carol came away with a few ancient mammal teeth. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in records, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.
For more news, exclusive content and competitions, sign up to Carol’s newsletter at: www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk. Follow her on Facebook: /CarolMcGrathAuthor1 and on Twitter: @CarolMcGrath
The Damask Rose
1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron’s Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family – and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.
As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen – a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter – by her side But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .
I’ve been working on the next book about James Burke and I have a scene where he is fighting his way out of the Conciegerie in Paris. (This one is a lot of fun and a bit of a relief after the rather heavy story in Burke in Ireland.) I was looking up some floor plans of the old Conciergerie building when I realised that some key elements are still standing and the building is open to the public. I got quite excited. I could make a trip to Paris and explore the building. It would be fun and it would get me into the zone for writing Burke’s adventures there.
Only, of course, I can’t. Paris really isn’t a good place to be right now and, besides, the Conciergerie is closed.
It’s thrown me rather. I’m only working on the first draft and, unusually for me, my first draft is fast and dirty. (Most people say you shouldn’t edit as you go, but I can’t leave a mistake on the page once I notice it.) So I should be able to just leave this bit open and carry on with the rest. But writing (even though I write spasmodically) has been one of the things that I have been able to keep going through the last year. There has been little or no chance to dance with tango friends, going abroad to ski is out of the question, we have, for months on end, been unable to visit our son and even the street skates have been cancelled. Now covid is coming for my writing!
I think this period, where we are finally supposed to be able to leave home but all the places we might go remain closed to us – this is, in many ways, harder to deal with than just being stuck in place. As we re-emerge, blinking, into what I think will be a very changed world, we will, like all animals coming out of a long hibernation, find the transition back to daylight quite difficult.
Stay well; remember your mental health is as important as your physical health. Look after yourselves.
Readership of my blog fluctuates wildly at the moment and I can’t see any particular pattern to it. Some things obviously interest more people than others: do let me know what interests you and I’m then much more likely to write about it.
I was cutting back on book reviews, partly because fewer people tended to read them, but lately they’ve been proving more popular when I do carry them, so I’ve decided to offer a book review for my Good Friday blog.
Loren Estleman’s latest, The Eagle and the Viper, is the story of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon. In fact, it’s the story of two attempts to assassinate Napoleon: the first the real-life attempt in 1800 which is often cited as the first-ever use of a vehicular IED, the second a fictional effort the following year. Spoiler: Napoleon survives.
I’m currently working on the next a Janes Burke book, which is set in Paris in 1809, not that long after the events of The Eagle and the Viper, so I was fascinated to see how another author tackles the problem of writing about spies and assassins in that world. And, given that Loren Estleman is a massively more successful author than me, I hoped I might pick up some clues.
There’s a lot of research gone into this book, especially the account of the 1800 attempt which is more dramatised documentary than fiction. And Estleman can write (sadly not a given these days). His prose flows and his pacing is good too, bursts of violent action alternating with more descriptive narrative. His characters are rounded and credible – in part because he is happy to invent details that make them more relatable, though much of the personality of people like Napoleon fits well with what we know of him. With his fictitious characters he has full scope for invention and his villain is given an interesting sexual life which means that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to the vicar.
Overall, The Eagle and the Viper is an exciting book with a convincing historical background. It has an awful lot in common with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal although Forsyth’s murder attempt is covered up so that the story does not contradict the historical record. The Viper’s attempt is very public and definitely parts company with the historical record, which always seems to me to be an issue with historical fiction, though it doesn’t worry some readers. Many writers of historical fiction are happy to ignore the facts if they get in the way of a good story. Even Bernard Cornwell has Sharpe winning a crucial battle by exploiting a weakness in an enemy fortress where this weakness simply didn’t exist in real life. Personally, I like to try to fudge historical anomalies, for example by explaining that some events were covered up at the time, but that’s not always possible if you want to keep your plot moving. Every writer (and reader) has to draw their own boundaries. I am probably more worried by the fact that after all the cunning and the meticulous planning that carries the Viper to Paris, the attempt itself is crude and the escape plan relies heavily on luck and a following wind. Plotting the mechanics of villainy is surely part of the fun of writing a thriller of this sort.
Despite the untidy ending, I did enjoy the read and I’m happy to recommend it to Burke fans.
Other Napoleonic fiction is also available
Clearly there is a fair amount of overlap between the Viper’s fictional world and that of James Burke and I’m obviously going to be biased in favour of my creation. Burke doesn’t take himself quite as seriously as the Viper but his cunning plans are maybe rather better thought through. Burke has no desire to be a dead hero and will often plan his escape route before he plans anything else. He’s also an incomparably more considerate lover than the Viper, which I think makes him just a better hero.
Burke’s adventures have seen him spying in Argentina, Egypt, Paris, Brussels, Spain and Ireland. For more about any of the books, click on the images below.
Last Friday was publication day for Burke in Ireland which is the third new book I have published in lockdown. (They weren’t all written in lockdown, though Something Wicked mostly was. Plus I had a short story that was published in a collection last summer. There should have been parties. (The publisher was going to throw a proper launch party for the short stories.) Something Wicked should have been on sale at tango clubs (there’s quite a lot of tango in it). I should have been getting drunk and having fun with friends. And, instead … nothing. The sound of tumbleweed rolling across the desert of my social life. It’s affected sales – of course it has. There’s no excitement, there’s no buzz, there’s no word of mouth.
So, like everyone at some point over the past year, I’ve allowed myself a brief pity party, but then the sun came out and I was able to enjoy the good weather outside. I’m so lucky to live near Richmond Park.
And the river …
I even got to cycle as far as Hyde Park.
And then today I found this lovely review for Something Wicked.
See: life’s not so bad. And lockdown can’t fo on forever, can it?
Of course, you could always make things even better by buying one of my lockdown books (or read them on Kindle Unlimited). Click the images to be taken to the Amazon page.
How have you been spending lockdown? And what do you do when it’s all getting just too depressing?