Month: May 2012

Sweet Caroline?

Crowds pack the street, waving flags and singing. People are so eager for a view of the procession that they hang out of windows, scramble onto rooftops. Every mouth, every banner proclaims ‘God Save the Queen’. Is it the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II? No; it is a far more infamous occasion: the trial of Queen Caroline for adultery.

To punish his estranged wife for returning to England and stealing the thunder of his ascension, George IV subjected her to the ultimate shame. Unfortunately for him, Caroline soon became a focus point for the common people and radicals to rally around. So why did the people of England love Caroline? She suspected their support had more to do with politics than the plight of an injured woman. But it cannot be denied that many people were caught by her frank, easy manners and found her a breath of fresh air compared to the stuffy monarchy they were used to. These are the same reasons I still find Caroline appealing in the 21st century. She was a determined woman who wasn’t afraid to be herself. Her sense of mischief makes her a joy to write. Yet I have to admit, if I was George, or even a lady in high society at the time, I would find her company less appealing.

For a start, she smelt. Several people testify that she hated to wash and seldom changed her underclothes. We also have a few anecdotes of her sitting on the floor eating raw onions, so I doubt her breath was enchanting. Her wit was coarse, she liked to flirt and she loved to shock. She would lie to people just for effect – even big lies, like telling her parents she was pregnant. I can’t say I’d want her as a friend. George, used to society darlings, certainly didn’t want her as his wife. Perhaps if he had tried more with her early on she would have improved, but I have my doubts. When Lord Malmesbury informed her of the virtues she would need as Queen of England, she pretty much argued them down.

Although the upper crust, who depended on the King for their patronage, shunned her when she returned to fight her cause, she found friends among the commoners. She played the part of a wronged heroine superbly, rallying the crowds to her side. But perhaps their enthusiasm had more to do with the eloquence of her radical supporters, using the case to further their own means, than her innate charms. It was also a case of the underdog against the establishment – we English are never able to resist that. And, perhaps most importantly, it was a cry against George, his ministers and their despised articles and taxes. Caroline was just the figurehead.

Bizarrely, the public who had shown so much support at the trial, turned against Caroline when she tried to storm George’s coronation. Her popularity only returned with her death. The sentiments of the nation towards this exceptional woman were confused – and so are my own. She was admirable – but was she likeable?

I can’t wait to get stuck into writing A Forbidden Crown and seeing what you guys think of her!

Telling others you write

I tend to forget that disappearing home every night and scrambling about on a keyboard isn’t normal. What with Twitter, Authonomy and all the author blogs I read, it feels like every man and his mother is writing a novel. I spend days psyching myself up to “Eye of the Tiger” and telling myself how fierce the query competition is. But then I go out and meet the general public…

People as a whole seem to realise how hard it is to get into the music industry. They also understand how actors struggle to get agents and auditions. But they seem to think being an author is simple. I’d like to share with you some comments that came up when I attended a friend’s wedding.

Now weddings are tricky, because you meet a lot of new people and they all ask you what you do for a living.  I answer “Oh. I’m an administrator.”
I have no interest in it, they have no interest in it (how could they) and it cuts the conversation dead. So then out comes the little gem.
“But what I really want to do is be an author. I write around work, it’s like a second job. One I don’t get paid for.”

The invariable response is “What, you’ve written a book? A whole book?” The fact that it’s a whole book always seems to impress them. I nod in confusion – I’ve been writing whole books since I was fifteen and it doesn’t seem that incredible to me. But at least it’s got the conversation going again.

Depending on the person you’re talking to, they’ll either ask this other question or jump straight into the next paragraph. The question is “What kind of books do you write?” I like this question – it’s always lovely to have people show interest in my work and I like to talk about it. The only problem is, when I reply “historical fiction”, very few of them know what I mean. I get a blank stare.
I try to expand.
“I take a historical figure and research about their life and their character. Then I turn it into a narrative, I mean a story. I try to bring them to life.”
More blank.
“Erm… have you ever read Philippa Gregory? Kinda like that I suppose…”
Only one of the people I spoke to had heard of Philippa Gregory. One. I wanted to kiss her.
The others tended to respond with “Oh, I don’t read many books” which rather left me wondering why they asked in the first place…

People may not know Philippa Gregory, but they do know one author: J K Rowling. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had to say something about her. Now I think J K’s alright, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and stuff. I don’t understand the full amount of hype around her, because I don’t think she did much that was new – in fact, Ursula le Guin had already written some rather fabulous books about a boy who became a wizard before she even put pen to paper. But I detract from the point. The one sentence that everyone says when you tell them you write is this: “So you could be the next J K Rowling!”
Vain, hopelessly vain, to point out that she doesn’t write historical fiction. Even more useless to suggest you don’t aspire to be her.  Best to smile, nod and say “I don’t know about that.”

It’s around here I try to point out just how hard it is to even get a book published, let alone succeed. When I tell people my book is finished, they say “Are you going to send it off to publishers then?”
I have to explain about agents, the query process, partial submissions, full submissions, editorial suggestions from the agent before trying publishers, the rarity of getting a book deal, then working with the publisher’s editor…
Their eyes start to glaze over. I begin to think I’ve finally got through to them – this is a tough and gruelling business.  They open their gaping mouths and say “Well, I’m sure J K Rowling got rejected lots of times before she made it.”
Seriously, again with Rowling? Do they know any other authors?

I think people mention J K Rowling so much because she’s clearly made a lot of money from her writing. And sad as it is to admit it, people seem to see writing as that: a get rich quick scheme. Of course all us authors out there, starving in garrets, laugh in their faces, but they do really believe it. On the way back from said wedding, I popped into the W H Smith at the services. There was a guide on publishing your ebook which I decided to flick through. The contents made me recoil in horror.

It had, as I expected, many pages on formatting, the differences between Smashwords, Kindle etc etc. But it also had a chapter on writing your ebook. Choosing a subject. As if you’d decide you were going to do a book just for the hell of it without even knowing what it was going to be about. Nothing on editing, nothing on proofreading. It was coming up with a money spinning idea.

Now let’s do a reality check here. If  I was going to publish my own work in an ebook I would do these things: hire a professional editor, hire a professional copy editor, hire a professional cover designer and hire a professional type setter.  I would consider this the bare minimum. All these extra people working on making my  project perfect would cost me upwards of £1,000. Let’s say £2,000. And, being an unknown author, the most I could sell the ebook for and get sales would probably be around £2.50.  My goal would be to break even. And since this would mean selling 800 copies without any kind of professional marketing, I would consider this a rather unrealistic goal. At what point is this going to make me a millionaire?

It may be hard to make people understand, but my writing goals are these:

  • Write the best story I can
  • Give someone a book to read that they can’t put down and feel glad to have read
  • Do justice to my characters
  • In some small way spread awareness of Georgian history and its forgotten women

It would be wonderful if could make enough money from this to mean I could write full-time and give up the day job. But that’s not my writing goal; that’s my writing dream.

So perhaps for the moment I shouldn’t tell people that I write. I should just give them the link to this blog post.

Have you had any funny or frustrating conversations with others about writing? I’d love to hear them!

George IV and Henry VIII – BFF?

I went to great pains in my previous post, Less Henry, More George, to convince you the Hanoverians were at least as interesting (if not more interesting!) than the Tudors. Yet the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to see similarities between my two favourite periods.

As you may have seen from my Tweets, I’m deep in research for my next book, “A Forbidden Crown”, which revolves around Maria Fitzherbert and Caroline of Brunswick. I’m currently pouring over accounts of Caroline’s famous trial for adultery. In their political excesses, George’s enemies compared his behaviour throughout the whole with that of  Henry VIII.  My first response was to laugh at their exaggeration. But then I thought long and hard about the lives of these two monarchs… They have more in common than  you might think!

Both started life as remarkably handsome young men. Just look at the pictures at the top of the post! Henry was renowned for his jousting ability, athletic good looks and success with the ladies. As for young George, he was dubbed “the first gentleman in Europe”. He had it all: wit, brains and wealth. Is it any wonder they both thought so highly of themselves?

Each, in their way, was a mother’s darling. Henry was perhaps spoilt more by his grandmother, but he retained a great fondness for his mum Elizabeth of York too throughout life. Historians argue about George’s relationship with his mother, Queen Charlotte. It was tempestuous at times, but all the evidence suggests that she doted on him. She might not have been brave enough to take his part with the King on all occasions, but she spoilt him when she could. And although George III and Queen Charlotte prescribed a “plain” upbringing for their children, it was only simple in comparison to previous monarchies. I’ve seen George IV’s baby clothes and toys and there’s nothing plain about them!

Considering this, it’s interesting to examine Henry and George’s first marriages.  Both favoured an older woman, an almost maternal figure.  They also chose brides who raised religious issues and were not approved of by their families. Catherine of Aragon was Henry’s widowed sister-in-law, so the marriage required a Papal dispensation. This match was looked on unfavourably by Henry’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. George also married a widow, Maria Fitzherbert, who was a Catholic in a Protestant country. Needless to say, his parents failed to endorse the match.

Both these remarkable women, Catherine and Maria, had the knack of keeping their boisterous husbands in check. It was when the Kings strayed from their safe, mothering  first wives that life became rather more complicated for them…

We all know the story of how Henry fell head over heels for Anne Boleyn, tore the country apart for her, but ended up executing his once beloved wife. But few people realise the impact George’s marriage to Caroline, and his attempted divorce from her, had upon the country.

To marry Caroline, George had cast aside his first wife, Maria. But sources indicate the separation was mutual – or pushed more by Maria – so we must not see her as a Catherine of Aragon pining away. In fact, it was probably a lucky escape for Maria. If the marriage was proven, George could have been removed from the throne and Maria executed.

George’s choice of second bride had none of the romance of Henry and Anne – he had never met Caroline when he proposed to her. But all the same, he pursued the idea of marrying her with a frenzy that reminded me of the besotted Tudor. He redecorated apartments for her and imagined many perfections she did not have. He pushed for the marriage to happen sooner than it possibly could. And when he met her – well, the fallout was highly reminiscent of Henry with Anne of Cleves. George’s account of the wedding night echoes Henry’s criticisms of Anne – he points out her stench, her flabby body and suspects she is not a virgin.

Sadly, both Anne and Caroline were doomed to displease their husbands, and became loads that needed dumping.  It is when I read the accounts of George’s desperation to get rid of Caroline that I think most of Henry. He was frantic, he did not eat, he did not sleep. He was obsessed with clearing his wife right out of his life. He wanted, more than anything, to try her for High Treason – the penalty being death.

It is possible Caroline committed adultery many times, but fortunately for her, the only instance with anything like proof occurred on the Continent. This lessened her offence and she could not be sentenced to death. As matters stood, the matrimonial fracas threatened to rip the country apart, with Caroline being used as a figurehead for radicals and the disenfranchised, so it would have been extremely unwise to execute her even if the law allowed it. But the main point that stands out to me is this: George would have executed a wife if he could. With less restraints on his power, could he have been another Henry?

The role of the monarchy had altered by the time George came to the throne – he couldn’t reek bloody revenge on the people who protested against him.  He was thwarted by parliaments in both his public and private life. His temper tantrums were less terrifying than Henry’s because he had less power. Admittedly, George frequently burst into tears instead of bellowing, but this needs to be seen in the context of the era. It was fashionable for men to cry – it showed a superior sensibility. I always considered Henry a popular monarch and George an unpopular one, but I’m not sure this is fair. After all, there were the northern uprisings and the Pilgrimage of Grace. If the Tudor people had the same freedom of speech and press as the Georgians, would they have hissed at their King and gathered round his wronged Queens, like with Caroline? We will never know.

From love of women, we move onto love of food. These guys were big eaters. It’s common knowledge Henry was immensely fat in his old age, but did you know George was actually heavier than the Tudor monarch when he died? Both turned to food for comfort and refuge from their shattered love lives and ailing bodies. It makes me sad to see them, aged, as in the caricatures at the bottom of this post. Actually, the picture of George is not from old age – he took care that all the portraits of him, even in advanced years, were flattering –  but it suggests what he would have looked like as an overweight dandy. It’s hard to believe, but even as old, fat men, both George and Henry were sexually incontinent. All their lives, they were vain men, believing themselves irresistible to the opposite sex. The truth was by old age, Henry had a rotting leg and George looked like a pantomime dame, but no one was going to tell them that. Certainly not their many mistresses.

As well as being connoisseurs of the palate, our Kings were great patrons of the arts. Henry was fond of music (possibly composing some songs of his own), he designed palaces and patronised Holbein. As for George – I literally cannot list his collections. No monarch has done more, in my opinion, for the royal collection or the national treasures. Sadly, it was all at the expense of the tax payer…

Of course there are great differences between Henry and George, in their characters as well as the tone of their reigns.  All the same, I hope you have found it interesting and thought provking to see  what their lives look like side by side. I like to think they would have been buddies. At least until Henry tried to have George beheaded for eating the last pie and he burst into tears 😉