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Publication Day for Pleasing Mr Pepys – Read an extract!

pleasing mr pepysPublication Day Pleasing Mr Pepys

I’m delighted to announce that Pleasing Mr Pepys is out today with Accent Press. In years gone by, when there were far less books produced, and all of them physical copies, publishing a book was a much more unique and celebrated event. Now there are thousands of e-books released every day and we have a new information age which is transforming the way we find and digest information.

But the beauty of books is that, like people, each one is unique. There is no other book that re-imagines the story of the events in Pepys’ famous diary from the point of view of Deb Willet, the maid he fell in love with. My portrayal of her is different from the Radio and TV interpretations which lost sight of the fact that she was very well-educated. I have given her a vibrant life which takes place both within the confines of the diary and within my imagination – a life that involves espionage, double-dealing, and treason.

I started the novel in 2013, so it is a joy to finally hold a copy in my hands.

The book has three women from Pepys’s diary as major point of view characters – Deb the maidservant, Elisabeth Pepys (wife of the famous diarist) and Abigail Williams, an actress who is mistress to Lord Bruncker and despised by Elisabeth. Here’s the first chapter to give you a flavour of Abigail.

 

Pleasing Mr Pepys

Chapter 1

September 1667

A metallic rattle – the key in the lock. Abigail Williams stiffened her spine as the draught from the downstairs door and the stink of the Fleet River blew round her ankles. Harrington closed the door and she heard him scratch the flint to light the wall sconces. Lighting up time already. It had been daylight when she had broken into his house. With one hand, she held her skirts closer to her thighs; with the other, she gripped the flat-bladed knife – a small weapon, but the edge sharpened razor-thin. She pressed back against the wall behind the door as the light from the hall flickered across her kidskin shoes.

Harrington’s footsteps lumbered up the stairs, his breathing laboured. She tightened her hold on the knife, preparing herself. These breaths would be his last. She found death harder to bear than she used to, now she had seen so much suffering – the plague years, the fire. Oddly, Harrington paused on the threshold of the room, as if he could sense her waiting presence. Through the crack of the open door she saw him standing motionless, his steeple hat a silhouette in the wavering light, his head cocked, listening.

He was an old hand, like her. She repressed a flash of compassion, the foolish urge to call out, to warn him. But then his dark back came through the door and he stepped in front of her, and without even thinking she moved like quicksilver. The knife slid easily across the side of his neck. With the other hand she pushed as hard as she could. He tried to turn, but it was too late, he was already falling, clutching his collar, blood slippery over his hands, hat rolling away under the table.

Experience told Abigail it had been enough. She ran, hoisting up her skirts, down the stairs, flinging the front door open, out into the cramped back alley. Nobody followed her; the passage to Fleet Street was empty. A brownish fog wreathed around her hem. When she finally slowed, she took a rag from inside her sleeve and wiped her blade, wrapped it, and stowed it in the pocket hanging next to her petticoats. She put a hand up to the bare skin at her chest, feeling the hot rise and fall of her collarbone.

She emerged onto the main thoroughfare where the houses were lit with torches, and walked, heart thudding, down towards the King’s playhouse. Arriving at the theatre, she saw Lord Bruncker’s carriage was where he had left it, across the road. His coachman was leaning against the wall, a smoking pipe in his mouth, waiting. She didn’t want to go in the front way – someone might ask why she was late – so instead she made for the tiring house behind.

The stage doorman knew her and nodded to her as she entered. The dressing room was empty, the actors ready to enter by the shutters for act two. From there, the audience sounded like the sea, the swell of all those voices. She checked her face and the satin of her dress for stains: a few dark spots on her sleeve, easily explained away.

Only now did she begin to shake. It was always like this: afterwards the weakness, nausea and trembling would set in. The moment when she wished she could turn back the day, the moment when she remembered their eyes, hollow with their unspoken question. Why?

Legs as unsteady as a newborn calf, she paused, leaned heavily on the trestle table, took out a phial of camphor from her pocket and inhaled. Better.

She arranged her face into a smile. Her performance for Lord Bruncker was about to begin. Her petticoat rustled against the boards as she went along the corridor and up the stairs into the box. On the way she almost bumped into Mr Pepys hurrying up the same stairs with a supply of nuts and oranges.

‘For Elisabeth,’ he said, obviously feeling the need to apologise for the sheer number of squashed bags hugged to his chest.

She nodded and stood aside, lowering her eyes to avoid his conversation. He could talk the baggage off a donkey. To her relief, he squeezed past and hurried into his own box further along the row.

When she got to her own, the candelabra had been lit, and upon her arrival Lord Bruncker drew out the chair so that she could sit.

‘Ah, there you are,’ he whispered. ‘You’re late. You missed the first act.’

She shook her head. ‘The traffic through town—’

‘Hush, they’re about to start again. Have a confit.’

She reached out her hand and smiled, took a marchpane cherry, but dropped it under her seat as soon as Lord Bruncker turned back to look at the stage. She was glad his attention was diverted, so he did not notice her pallid face or that she could not swallow.

The actor who had just entered rapped three times for silence, his face ghoulish from the footlights, which smoked in their holders. The hubbub fell to a hush. But Abigail’s thoughts would not lie quiet; she was thinking of Harrington, of how long it would be before they found him.

He should have listened to Piet. Then his mouth wouldn’t have had to be shut the hard way. She’d liked him, but in her business, liking was a luxury she was ill able to afford.

*****

Samuel_Pepys

You can buy the book here on Amazon in the UK or in the US , Waterstones, Guardian Bookshop or your local bookseller.

Deb Willet, Elizabeth Pepys’s maid and the object of Samuel Pepys’s attentions, is finally given centre-stage after 350 years, and her tale was worth waiting for. This is exceptional story-telling. L. C. Tyler author of the Historical John Grey Mysteries

Laced with emotional intensity and drama. Reader’s Favorite

The first chapter will suck you right in immediately; there is drama and intensity…before you even know who these characters are! I was hooked!  The Maiden’s Court Blog

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Carol McGrath’s ‘The Woman in the Shadows’ – Review

34379160Carol McGrath’s new novel is a wonderful insight into the world of the Tudor merchant class.

Elizabeth Williams, a widow who has inherited her husband’s cloth business, meets Thomas Cromwell, at her late husband’s funeral. She remembers him as a childhood friend, and from there a sturdy marriage alliance is begun. Like most marriages of the time, it is based on sound business sense as well as affection.

‘Lizzy, Master Cromwell is my new cloth middle-man. He would like you to show him your bombazine cloth. He has admired your mourning gown.’

We get a picture of an ambitious and somewhat closed man, one with latent power, who will later rise in society to be a great player at the court of Henry VIII. But all this is to come, and The Woman in the Shadows is a book that shows us another side of Thomas Cromwell, that of husband and provider. Through Elizabeth Cromwell’s eyes the author provides us with fly-on-the-wall detail of Tudor living, and the minutiae of the common rituals associated with birth, marriage and death, all within a living context. We are privy to everything about Elizabeth’s cloth business from monastic sheep breeding  to garment, including the sumptuary laws against certain classes wearing certain colours, and the difficulties that a woman at this time faces in trade.

‘Mother and I decorously arranged our skirts over the wherry bench. Mother’s green and gold gown complimented my pink kirtle with its new embroidered sleeves.’

The book is laced with subtle tension. Elizabeth fights off dangers from rivals in the business, unfaithful servants, an unwanted suitor and an arson attack, and she almost buckles under the discovery of her husband’s affair. However, the portrait we are left with, is one of a strong and capable woman, able to deal maturely with life’s trials. At no time does Elizabeth Cromwell seem like a modern woman in Tudor clothing – she retains her religion, and her position is always subordinate to her husband. Her life is one where she does not question her husband’s authority.

McGrath shows us the world of women and their servants. After one disaster, her mother urges Elizabeth to come home, but Elizabeth is quite clear that to do that would be to abandon her duty. As well as tender observations of female domestic life, there are also wonderful descriptions of gardens, churches, and the Augustinian Friary of Austin Friars where the Cromwells lived.

Some afternoons, as I listen to them play, I wish that time would stand still for us all. I wish we were a moment captured in a painting and that the moment will last forever.’

Carol McGrath has succeeded in doing exactly that. Through her words, the life of Elizabeth Cromwell has truly been brought out of the shadows.

Carol McGrath is a reviewer for HNS, 2016 HNS conference organiser and the best-selling author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy published by Accent Press. Find her on her website here.

The Woman in the Shadows BUY UK   BUY US

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Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux

I was offered a review copy of ‘Rembrandt’s Mirror’ by Kim Devereux, and was so fascinated I asked Kim for an interview about her debut novel and the experience of writing about such a well-loved artist.

Deborah: We get an intimate portrait of Rembrandt in this book, rebuilding himself after the death of his wife. Which facets of Rembrandt’s personality came as a surprise to you whilst writing, and do you think the women who came later in his life changed him?

Kim: I was surprised by something Rembrandt did. Simon Schama describes it as ‘a deed of great moral ugliness.’ It was omitted from many 19th century accounts of his life, as was his relationship with Geertje Dircx. Neither fitted in with Rembrandt’s status in Holland as a national hero. This ‘deed of great moral ugliness’, also comes as a surprise to Hendrickje. When someone you love does something truly reprehensible, it poses an interesting dilemma. Do you stop loving them? Do you try to change them? Do you wait for them to say sorry and only then restore your affections?

It made Rembrandt a more interesting character and I feel also a more convincing character because human beings are complex and often behave in contradictory ways. It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Did any of the women change Rembrandt? Well, yes and no. He was quite uncompromising which is a great strength in such a visionary artist. I get the feeling he was able to depart from convention and not worry about it, or the consequences in the slightest. I must admit I find this quite attractive in an artist and in a man. It’s freedom from the fear of being disapproved of. So if this was the case perhaps he could not be influenced by anyone, not even his partners in life? I wondered about this. In particular when it came to a scene where there is a disagreement between Rembrandt and Hendrickje. I found his state of mind so difficult to work out that I asked my boyfriend at the time to improvise the scene with me that I was working on.

My boyfriend grudgingly agreed to play Hendrickje and I slipped into Rembrandt’s shoes. Hendrickje was quite angry and I found myself responding and speaking to her in the conviction that I had done the right thing but what surprised me was that all of it was accompanied by a great warmth and softness. It was just the way Rembrandt felt towards Hendrickje, a fact of life. I think not everything can be explained and there are those times in life where I just find myself liking someone for no particular reason. Maybe I am a romantic but I think that’s love. And I believe that love changes people. So it changed Rembrandt and Hendrickje.

You work in films as well as being a novelist. Did you see the novel in your mind’s eye as a film? Or was it a more painterly experience for you as the writer?

I actually first wrote Rembrandt’s story as a screenplay so I had already visualized it in my mind. In terms of what goes on in my mind when I write: I set up a scene in my head. For example, two characters in a room with a fireplace that is belching smoke. I usually inhabit one of the characters as I imagine the scene but I also see it visually and I watch it unfold. I might write as I do this, simply recording what I experience.

You convey the tactile experience of painting brilliantly. Which of the paintings did you find yourself the most taken by, and can you give us a detail from one of the works which you found particularly interesting?

I was taken by all of the paintings and drawings that function as chapter headings in the novel. I have always loved The Jewish Bride, which has now been renamed as Isaac and Rebecca. I have seen it on three different occasions and each time the experience was quite different. Rembrandt achieves this by using shadows, painting parts of a face in an ambiguous way (similar to the Mona Lisa’s smile) and this means we can project our own interpretation onto the painting. The Jewish Bride in particular draws me into a dialogue each time I look at it. I can happily contemplate it for half an hour and watch it change; first the woman’s smile seems a little sad, almost wistful, then again it seems an expression of her happiness at the deep communion with the man next to her. What moves me every single time though is the way his hand rests on her breast. So still, as if he could listen to her very state of being with his palm. I also love the paintwork of the golden sleeve. The paint is applied with a palette knife, almost sculpted into a three dimensional landscape. I experience a sense of freedom when I look at work like this, because it so boldly departs from anything that has gone before.

In the novel a sense of the numinous seems important both from a religious and an aesthetic point of view. How does Hendrickje’s Calvinism affect her view of Rembrandt and herself?

On the negative side women’s attitudes towards sex and relationships were shaped by religious doctrine. Calvinism in particular viewed sex as sinful, especially outside of marriage. So it would have been extremely shocking for Hendrickje to discover what Rembrandt was up to. And also because sexual feelings were something to be feared than for her discovery that she has them causes inner conflict and turmoil.

On the positive Rembrandt’s art, especially late in his career, has a sense of the numinous. This is true of paintings such as The Return of the Prodigal Son. And his very last work too Simeon and the Christ Child in the Temple, despite being heavily damaged, has that numinous quality. I love that word by the way ‘numinous’. The thesaurus describes it as airy, divine, ethereal, incorporeal, sacred and otherworldly. The way the blind Simeon holds the saviour, as a baby, in his hands. The way the paintwork seems to dissolve around him (an impression that is enhanced by the damage) suggesting that he has already one foot in the next world or perhaps he is inhabiting this world in a way that is alive with beauty.

These are just my personal musings, sparked by Rembrandt’s art and it’s what is so fascinating; that a piece of painted canvas becomes an experience, a space that allows one to get in touch with something within oneself.

Will you stick with historical fiction? And if so, which period are you researching now?

I’m toying with setting my next novel in the present day but it too will explore fundamental questions of what it means to live and to love.
Find out more on Kim’s website
rembrandt