Faded Love

I’ve always enjoyed romantic suspense, especially if it leaned really hard into the suspense aspect of the sub-genre. This sub-genre was enormously popular in the mid-to-late twentieth century; with authors like Dorothy Eden and Phyllis A. Whitney and Susan Howatch, among many others, scoring a number of successes with their books and even becoming international bestsellers. The sub-genre was so popular, in fact, that other female writers–who technically didn’t write romantic suspense–were often marketed as such, with the same styles of cover and fonts and cover design; often covers featuring a cover featuring a wind-swept beautiful young woman with long-flowing hair and a long gown, usually in the foreground with an enormous, spooky, brooding house/castle/mansion in the background with a solitary window lit up and the woman almost inevitably had a look of fear on her face. (I’ve always thought of them as girl running away from lighted window covers.)

But Victoria Holt was different from the others. Her books were varied, and while there were certainly tropes she followed, she often toyed with them in ways that were always clever and smart and original. Sometimes she followed the Jane Eyre style; in which the first third of the book is the main character’s history and how she wound up “running away from the lighted window”; sometimes she just inserted you right into the midst of the story as it developed….and once the mystery/suspense kicked into gear, it was impossible to stop reading.

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I met Gabriel and Friday on the same day, and strangely enough I lost them together; so that thereafter I was never able to think about one without the other. The fact that my life became a part of theirs is, in a way, an indication of my character, because they both began by arousing some protective instinct in me; all my life up to that time I had been protecting myself and I think I felt gratified to find others in need of protection. I had never before had a lover, never before had a dog; and, when these two appeared, it was natural enough that I should welcome them.

I remember the day perfectly. It was spring, and there was a fresh wind blowing over the moors. I had ridden away from Glen House after luncheon ad I could at this time leave the house without a feeling that I had escaped. This feeling had been with me since I returned home from my school in Dijon; perhaps it had always been there, but a young woman senses these emotions more readily than a child.

My home was a somber place. How could it be otherwise when it was dominated by someone who was no longer there. I decided during the first days of my return that I would never live in the past. No matter what happened to me, when it was over I should not look back. Early in life–I was nineteen at this time–I had learned an important lesson. I determined to live in the present–the past forgotten, the future left to unfold itself.

Kirkland Revels  was the second novel British writer Eleanor Hibbert wrote under the name Victoria Holt; she used, over the course of her incredibly prolific career (using a manual typewriter for most of it) many different pseudonyms, including Jean Plaidy (historical fiction focusing on royalty; fictionalizing the lives of kings and queens and the mistresses of kings) and Philippa Carr (historical romantic suspense novels, all linked by the concept that each novel featured the daughter of the main character in the preceding novel, beginning with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s). The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, launched the Victoria Holt name quite successfully; she wrote numerous bestsellers under that name for decades. The first Holt novel I read was The Secret Woman, a novel I still remember fondly because its plot was so complicated and the mystery essentially unsolvable–the twist at the end caught me completely by surprise. Holt often did this with the mystery/suspense side of her novels–tightly plotted, and just as many twists and turns as any other suspense novel. (Although one of my personal favorites, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, has about as original–and far-fetched–a plot as anyone could have ever dreamed up; I’m still surprised, all these years later, her agent and publisher went with it.)

Kirkland Revels was unique for its sub-genre in that the heroine, Catherine, spent the entire suspense part of the book pregnant. The first half of the book details Catherine’s background and sets up the suspense half of the novel; she’s come home from a boarding school in France, her home is empty and strange, haunted by the absence of a dead mother and an absent-minded, rarely present father when she meets Gabriel Rockwell on the moors and also finds a stray dog. She and Gabriel have a whirlwind romance, they wed, and he brings her home to meet his family in the brooding mansion, Kirkland Revels–which is located near the ruins of an old abbey, whose stones were used to build the mansion and is supposedly haunted by a monk. But her time in this strange house is limited when Gabriel falls from a balcony to his death and the dog also disappears; she returns to her home as a young widow…only to discover she is actually pregnant from her brief marriage, and returns to the Rockwell manse as her child, if a boy, will inherit everything.

And soon, things take a turn to the dark side:

One prospective master of the Revels had died violently; was something being plotted against another?

That was the beginning of my period of terror.

Catherine soon finds out that her mother isn’t actually dead, but completely insane and locked away in a mental hospital; her father tried to shield her from this knowledge, and Catherine herself isn’t so sure of her own sanity as weird things continue to happen to her at the Revels. Is she imagining things? Is she really seeing the ghostly monk or is her grip on sanity slipping, the same way her mother’s did? (It was widely believed in the past that madness, or insanity, was inherited; the prospect of inherited insanity drove the plots of several of Holt’s books set in the past.) Holt was really good at building suspense and tension; all of her books read quickly, despite the old-fashioned, formal style in which she wrote them.

Kirkland Revels was never one of my favorite Holt novels, and I rarely, if ever, reread it when I was younger–I used to reread favorites over and over again–but now, as an adult, I realize that the reason the book wasn’t a favorite was the notion of a pregnant heroine in danger, the danger growing as she grew closer to term, made me uncomfortable; much the way Pet Sematary by Stephen King disturbed me so much I never reread it until recently. I’m glad I gave Kirkland Revels a reread; it’s actually quite well done–and while later Holt heroines might have been mothers (hell, the heroine of The House of a Thousand Lanterns was not only a mother but was on her THIRD marriage in that book!), they were never again pregnant throughout the suspense portion of the book.

Definitely worth a look, Constant Reader.

Frosty the Snowman

And just like that, we are now at Tuesday; a week before Christmas Eve.

Recently, I was tagged in one of those “post seven books you love with no explanation” things on social media–I posted the book covers on both Facebook and Twitter–and while I understand the motivation behind these things (someone might see one of the posts and think, Oh I want to read that) but for me, it’s always difficult to boil things down to a finite number; only seven books that I love? I don’t have favorites, really; the books I love can be quantified any number of ways: ones I’ve reread the most, etc. And I’ve literally read thousands and thousands of books over the course of my life; picking seven absolute favorites is always an odious chore, particularly as I inevitably forget one or more books. This last time, I decided to go with women crime writers I enjoyed reading when I was young, and excluding Agatha Christie. The seven books I chose were all written by women between the years 1956 (the oldest) and 1972 (the most recent); and they were all books that had appeared in print at least once with the inevitable women’s suspense book cover: woman in long dress running away from, or standing some distance in front of, a haunted-looking house, and the woman also always has long hair, usually blowing in a sharp breeze of some sort, and her face has a look of either apprehension or terror, or both, on it.

Those covers were almost inevitably always slapped on any book with any sort of suspense in it, if it was written by a woman and the main character was a woman. Thus, Mary Stewart often got categorized as romantic suspense–and while there might have been some romance in her novels, the mystery/suspense was the primary aspect of the books…I’ve always thought her novels were just straight up mysteries with female protagonists–in Airs Above the Ground she’s married, for Christ’s sake–but Charlotte Armstrong often got the same kind of covers, and she was far from romantic suspense.

But when I posted the cover of The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt, a friend commented, asking if “the secret woman” was a mistress. And I realized how deeply clever the novel actually was, as I started to reply.

There were several “secret women” in the book. One was a ship, the Secret Woman; the wealthy family in the book, the Creditons, were a shipping family with a fleet of merchant vessels. The main character in the book was a young orphaned girl who goes to live with her aunt Charlotte, who lives in the Queen’s House (supposedly because Queen Elizabeth I once slept there) and is an antiques dealer. Young Anna Brett is trained by her aunt her entire life to take over the antiques business, and nearby is the home of the Crediton family; and Anna’s life becomes eventually entwined with theirs, when she is hired as a governess for the son of an illegitimate Crediton–old man Crediton had an affair with a young woman named Valerie Stretton, who was also the “secret woman” the ship was named for. Anna needs to get out of England because she was tried for murdering her aunt when she died; she became friends with the nurse who took care of her aunt, and she takes the job so she and her friend can go take care of the young boy’s mentally deranged mother on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. She of course falls in love with the boy’s father…but all kinds of strange things go on, until we finally find out who has actually been going around killing people, and why. Anna herself is a ‘secret woman’; because she is in love with a married man and he with her. Holt was a pseudonym of British writer Eleanor Hibbert; who also wrote as Philippa Carr and Jean Plaidy. I went on to read most of her work under all her names, and enjoyed most of them. The Holt novels began to seem repetitive in the 1980’s, and so I stopped reading her at long last then.

I may revisit some of her work–Kirkland Revels is the one I’ve been thinking about; it;s the only romantic suspense novel I can recall whose heroine spent most of the novel pregnant.

I also finished reading  Watchmen last night, and it’s extraordinary. I will undoubtedly discuss it further, once I’ve digested it a bit more. It really is exceptional.

Insomnia also paid me a visit last night–which sucks, as today is a long day, but on the other hand I can’t complain because it really has been a long time since I lay in bed all night half-asleep/half-awake, only having to open my eyes to be awake. Hopefully that means I’ll be tired this evening and able to get right to sleep.

We shall see, at any rate.

I also got some writing done last night, so the malaise has, for now, gone away.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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Show Me the Way

Saturday morning and I slept in, as I always seem to do on Saturday mornings. But really, things have truly come to a sorry pass when getting out of bed at nine is considered sleeping in. But that’s when I got up and I feel good and rested this morning, which bodes well for the things I’d like to get done today.

I spent yesterday afternoon getting caught up on laundry (there’s a load going in the dryer now), and doing a surface clean of the apartment. After Paul got home last evening we finished watching Dead to Me, which is really fantastic–if Christina Applegate doesn’t at LEAST get an Emmy nomination, it’s a travesty. The show is fantastically written, has two amazingly great roles for the two lead actresses (Linda Cardellini, of Freaks and Geeks/Mad Men fame, is the secondary female lead and is heartbreakingly terrific as well; I’d be hard pressed as an Emmy voter to chose one over the other), and the writing is also award-worthy; the premise is in and of itself exceptional, thematically exploring the grief of two women who’ve suffered recent great losses; but it is ever so much more than that. It’s smart, angry, funny, and oh-so-twisted, oh-so-clever. Bravo to Netflix; this is up there with Ozark for dark comedy with a crime twist. I cannot recommend Dead to Me highly enough, Constant Reader.

I also, before Paul came home, rather than falling into a Youtube vortex of LSU or Saints highlights or Game of Thrones fan theory videos or whatever might strike my fancy at the moment (music videos or Dynasty clips or whatever), switched on Starz and started watching The Spanish Princess, which is the latest Starz mini-series based on a Philippa Gregory book. We’d watched and liked The White Queen, but gave up on The White Princess relatively quickly. I’ve not read Gregory, and I’ve seen all sorts of mockery of her on-line as to her changing history to fit the needs of her narrative, but that isn’t why I’ve not read her work; I’m just not that interested in fictional biographies of royalty anymore, certainly not the way I was as a teenager. As a teenager I would have read everything Gregory wrote, anxiously awaiting the next. But I’ve read Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts, and of course others like Maurice Druon and Thomas B. Costain, so Gregory’s work has never held much appeal for me; I am more apt to read an actual biography now rather than fictionalized versions (although I do want to read Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books). The Spanish Princess is, of course, about Catherine of Aragon, who has gotten mostly favorable press throughout history as Henry VIII’s poor, abandoned first wife; I’ve always viewed that with an arched eyebrow, primarily because she had a great PR machine in the Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, and of course she had the entire PR machine of the Hapsburg empire behind her as well–whereas Anne Boleyn, her replacement and the cause of her misery, soon enough had Henry’s PR machine blackening her name. At least this production had the wisdom and sense to ignore modern sensibilities; this is the first time I’ve ever seen Catherine portrayed on film (since the 1970s BBC The Six Wives of Henry VIII) to have the actual coloring she had in real life; she is usually shown as dark when she was actually fair; like her husband, she had reddish-gold hair; and she also had Plantagenet blood as a descendant of Edward III–her grandmother was Blanche of Lancaster, a daughter of John of Gaunt, and as such had her own legitimate but unrecognized claim to the English crown herself (since no illegitimacy was involved, she actually had a better claim than her own husband–his claim was based on his grandmother’s descent from John of Gaunt, but she was descended from his liaison with long-time mistress Katherine Swynford–whom he later married and legitimized their offspring–but Catherine’s descent was not marred by the bar sinister).

However, they did depict Catherine’s mother, Isabella, as being dark–which she wasn’t, either. Isabella of Castile was blonde and blue-eyed, but she’s a minor character we’ll never see again, so I will overlook it. (Isabella is one of my favorite historical queens; she was kind of a bad-ass but at the same time her bigotry planted the seeds for the eventual downfall of Spain from the great power she turned it into; but more on her at another time.) Anyway, I enjoyed the first episode; which also has laid the groundwork for Catherine as stubborn, proud, and arrogant–qualities that eventually led to the upheaval that changed world history forever. I’ll keep watching, of course–but at the same time, it’s not “must watch”; it was okay and can serve as a time-filler when I need to relax and when Paul’s not home and I don’t feel like actually wasting my time on Youtube.

I also want to watch the Zac Efron as Ted Bundy movie on Netflix.

So many riches, so many choices! It’s kind of like my TBR pile.

The plan for today and tomorrow is to work on the WIP and work on the article a bit, maybe even work on a short story. Given I have the attention span of a squirrel lately, I am not sure how much work I am actually going to get done today, but I have good intentions. I also have a Bouchercon subcommittee conference call later on this afternoon as well, so I should be able to bounce back and forth between cleaning, writing and reading until such time as the conference call; after which time I can call it a day and relax for the rest of the evening.

Ah, to have the energy and ambition I have in the morning after a good night’s sleep and two cups of coffee, right?

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me.

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Ride Like the Wind

Yesterday I felt fantastic. Yes, I overslept, not getting out of bed until a disgraceful almost ten am, had a couple of cups of coffee while checking social media and writing yesterday’s blog entry, and then buckled down to clean, organize and write. I got about 2400 words down on Chapter Ten of the WIP–which I originally thought was Chapter Nine but I had already written that chapter so this was ten, which means the first draft is over halfway done. How marvelous is that?

Pretty mother-fucking marvelous, if I do say so myself.

I slept well again last night, but set the alarm so I wouldn’t stay in bed as late. As it is, I set it for eight and hit snooze repeatedly, not to sleep more, but rather because I felt so relaxed and comfortable in the bed I didn’t want to get up. But I still have some laundry to do, a grocery store run to make (KING CAKE!), and I want to spend the day cleaning and editing a hard copy of the Scotty book. (Yes, I do my original edits on a paper copy. SUE ME.) I also want to finish rereading The Shining so I can move on to Pet Sematary. I am not reading as quickly as I used to, which is aggravating. Once I finish these two rereads, I am going to dive into reading for the Diversity Project, and I also want to get back into the Short Story Project. I also need to clean the apartment more thoroughly–I spent most of the day yesterday organizing and filing, as well as purging books. But I need to get the floors done today, and finish the laundry. This is my first full week of work since before Christmas, and I am hoping if I can focus on getting to bed at a decent hour on the nights before I have to get up early, I can get things done and not wear myself out too terribly along the way. I am not going to try the gym this week, as I need to get a handle on my work schedule and see how I can make that work, with plans to make it back to the gym this coming Friday or Saturday. There’s also no Saints game today, which makes today easier. One of the things that was amazing to me yesterday was how much time I had…it’s amazing how that works. No LSU or college football, and the day is suddenly wild and free. Go figure.

And yesterday was Twelfth Night, so it’s now officially Carnival. Hurray! The city will soon be festooned in purple, gold and green; the bleachers will be going up on Lee Circle and St. Charles Avenue on the downtown side of the circle; King cakes will have their own enormous display table at the grocery store; and that sense of anticipation of the coming madness can be felt in the air. It’s going to be weird not going to work on Parade Days, but it will also make life a little bit more interesting. I’m obviously hoping to get a lot done on those days, but we shall see how that all works out, shan’t we?

I also need to do some cooking today; trying to get food for the week ready and for our lunches. Which means making a mess in the kitchen and something else to do for the day; cleaning the mess. But I don’t like going into the week with a messy apartment; it gets messy enough during the work week when I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with it (or the filing, for that matter). So, there’s some touching up I need to do on my office space, and I can vacuum and so forth while I am editing.

Last night we started watching Homecoming on Prime. What an amazing cast–Julia Roberts, Bobby Canavale, Sissy Spacek, and Dermot Mulroney, just for starters. The plot is also interesting–we’re about half-way through. and will probably finish this evening. We may go see The Favourite  next weekend, which is kind of exciting. I can’t remember the last time we saw a non-popcorn movie in the theater. I’m sure the film is rife with historical inaccuracies–what historical films aren’t–but my knowledge of Queen Anne is fairly limited; I’ve not even read the Jean Plaidy historical fiction about her, so perhaps that won’t be too much of issue to keep me from enjoying it (I’ll watch the new Mary Queen of Scots movie when I can stream it for free; every film biography of Mary Stuart is rife with license and inaccuracy; but it’s always a great opportunity for two great actresses to chew the scenery. The 1971 version with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson is probably, in my opinion, the best; I always picture Glenda Jackson whenever I think of Queen Elizabeth). I did know that Queen Anne had seventeen children that all died; she didn’t particularly want to be queen, and she had female ‘favorites’–it wasn’t common, but several English kings and queens had same-sex favorites, including Edward II, James I, and Queen Anne. Histories and biographies and encyclopedia entries would mention this, but gloss it over….it wasn’t until my late teens that I began putting together the coding and realized these monarchs were queer.

Yup, queers have been systematically erased from history, glossed over and forgotten, for centuries. Yay.

Part of the research/reading I am doing into New Orleans history is precisely to try to uncover the city’s queer past; trying to find the clues and coded language in books as we are glossed over and hidden from incurious minds. Every once in a while I’d find a glimmer of a hint in Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, for example, that there were gay male prostitutes working in Storyville, and I kind of want to write about that. As I’ve said a million times before, New Orleans history is rife with terrific stories that would make for great fictions. One of the reasons I am so bitter about the Great Data Disaster of 2018 is not only because of the time spent reconstructing things but because it so completely broke my momentum and totally derailed me. I’m not sure how to get back on that streetcar (see what I did there?) but I’m going to have to relatively soon. But i’ve also been so focused on the Scotty and the new WIP that I’ve gotten away from it. I think diving back into The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury will help.

I also bought some cheap ebooks on sale yesterday, including Sophie’s Choice by Williamt Styron and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. When I was checking the Kindle app on my iPad to make sure they downloaded properly, much to my horror I discovered that I have almost 400 books in that app–which doesn’t include the ones I have in iBooks or the Barnes & Noble app. YIKES. Clearly, I don’t need to take any books with me when I travel, because there are plenty in my iPad. I also have a ridiculous amount of anthologies and single author short story collections loaded in there…so yes, the Short Story Project will be continuing for quite some time, I suspect. There are also some terrific books in there I’d like to read, or reread, as the case may be…I have almost all of Mary Stewart’s novels on Kindle, for example, and a lot of Phyllis Whitney’s. I also have a Charlotte Armstrong I’ve not read, The Seventeen Widows of San Souci, and on and on and on….I really am a book hoarder, aren’t I?

Ah, well, life does go on.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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Miss Me Blind

The last Friday of 2017. I am working a very abbreviated day at the office today; and have a three day weekend. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning–nothing new there this week; I’ve felt that way every morning this week–and am really looking forward to being a lazy slug and staying in bed as long as I can the next three days. Huzzah for being a lazy slug! I am also starting to come out of this whatever it was that I had; its lovely to feel this close to normal–I was beginning to forget what close to normal felt like, to be honest.

I finished reading The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo last night, and I have to say, it was refreshing to read something about Anne Boleyn that tried to take a look at her in an objective way; who she was has been so defined over the years by so much misogynistic garbage, as well as the highly biased accounts of two men who hated her–the Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, and the Venetian ambassador–that it was lovely to read  a book about her that tried to take a look at who the real Anne was, and debunk the myths that have, over the years, come to be taken as facts.

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The sixteenth century is one of my favorite periods of history, and always has been, as far back as I can remember; the Tudors in England and the Valois in France; the unification of the Hapsburg empire; the rise of Spain as a nation and its own colonial empire and systematic looting of the Americas; the corruption of the papacy and the Reformation; the Renaissance; and the rise of England as a world power. The sixteenth century is also remarkable in that it is the first century of European history where women rose to prominent positions of power, more so than any other: the list of powerful, influential women ranges everywhere from intellectual influences (Marguerite de Navarre) to regnant queens (Mary I and Elizabeth I in England, and even the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey; Mary Queen of Scots; Jeanne d’Albret, Isabella of Castile) to powers behind the throne (Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici) to regents (Margaret of Austria, Maria of Hungary, Marie de Guise), among many other women who influenced the course of history. I’ve always wanted to do a Barbara Tuchman style study of the century and its powerful women, called The Monstrous Regiment of Women. 

The century was also terribly unique in that precedents were set by things that had never happened before: England executed three of her queens, and another in Mary Queen of Scots; France saw a non-royal crowned queen in Catherine de Medici; and of course, there were the marital shenanigans of Henry VIII. And while I am fascinated by many  of the century’s women and their place on the stage of history, perhaps the most fascinating, for me at least, has always been Anne Boleyn.

I’ve never understood the bad rap that Anne Boleyn has gotten over the years from historians; the very first biography of a Tudor woman that I read, Mary M. Luke’s Catherine the Queen, was obviously very anti-Anne Boleyn; she has been painted with the brush of misogyny throughout history as everything from the husband-stealing vixen to the great whore; and yet, the answer has to be more complex than that. Anne Boleyn was responsible for England’s break from the Catholic Church, and while her predecessor Catherine of Aragon is often depicted as the long-suffering victim, there was also no question, in any histories of the period or biographies, that Catherine of Aragon was, the entire period of her marriage to Henry VIII and after being discarded, very much a Spanish agent working against England’s interests in favor of those of her family; the ruling house of Spain. Her goal was to eventually see her daughter, Mary I, sit on the English throne and marry her cousin Charles, thus bringing England into the Imperial fold. She violently resisted any other possible marriage for her daughter; and it cannot be questioned that making England a basic vassal state of the Hapsburgs was hardly in England’s best interests going forward (as was seen when Mary did eventually become queen and married Charles’ son, Philip). Catherine, no matter how romantically people want to view her as the wronged wife and victim, allowed her own pride, and her own ambition, to cause England to be separated from the Catholic Church despite her own seeming piety; for her, her own pride was more important than the souls of the English people. So even the stories of her deep religious faith as a sign of her great character really don’t hold water. And at any time, she could have relieved, not only her own suffering, but that of the daughter she loved so much. I’ve always found these depictions of Catherine of Aragon to be more emotional rather than logical.

No matter what, Anne Boleyn inspired great passion in both her adherents and her enemies. After her death Henry VIII destroyed all of her papers, so very few letters of hers exist and so there are no primary sources of information on her that aren’t tainted by the opinions of the person writing; the Spanish ambassador, so clearly an agent of Queen Catherine, can hardly be trusted to be unbiased. Likewise, the Venetian ambassador was no fan of Anne Boleyn. Yet I’ve never seen any letters from the French ambassador; or from the Scottish ambassador, or any that might actually have been anti-Spanish. All that exists is basically propaganda. And there are few women in history who’ve been more slandered than Anne Boleyn; and not only was she slandered for being the mother of the English Reformation, she was slandered for not being a typical woman of the time. She was intelligent, she was educated, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind during a time when women were primarily expected to be quiet and listen to the men.

It was not, of course, uncommon for women who didn’t fit the desired societal mold of their time to be trashed and slandered; it still happens today. Another woman of the century whom I find fascinating–Catherine de Medici–also has had a horrible reputation throughout the years…Jean Plaidy’s trilogy of historical novels about her bears some of the names she was called for titles: The Italian Woman, Queen Jezebel, Madame Serpent. Elizabeth I was also slandered; one can only imagine how the historical views of her would be different had the Spanish/Catholic view of her prevailed.

I am really piquing my own interest in this project again here.

Anyway, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating read, and one that Tudorphiles definitely should look into. I highly recommend it.