venus_in_winterAround the time she was twelve years old, Bess Hardwick was sent to be a lady in waiting to Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche, at Codnor Castle, about twelve miles from her home in Derbyshire.

It was common for well-born girls and boys to be “put out” in this way and live in the households of people higher up the social scale, frequently relatives. These young people were not servants as we think of them. The girls served as ladies in waiting, and performed such duties as helping their mistress dress, mending clothes, writing letters, or helping amuse the children. Boys began as pages, carrying messages and running errands, and rose to become gentlemen ushers, who helped serve during the enormously ceremonial meals, or performed other non-menial tasks.

The purpose of this kind of service was to learn how to behave in good society, to develop relationships with people who could help the young people rise in the world, and to meet potential mates. Acquaintance with and the ability to call on the support of more powerful people meant everything when extended networks of family connections and personal relationships were even more important than now.

Bess of Hardwick met her first husband, Robert Barlow, another distant relative, because he was also serving the Zouches. She met her wealthy and well-placed second husband, Sir William Cavendish, through Frances Brandon Grey, the Marchioness of Dorset, who she attended after leaving Lady Zouche. Sir William’s older brother George had served in the household of Cardinal Wolsey and then that of Thomas Cromwell, and it’s likely that William followed him into Wolsey’s service before joining Cromwell’s household.

Under Cromwell, William Cavendish was very much involved in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, visiting, auditing, and accepting the assets of many religious houses. The job made him a wealthy man. By the time he married Bess, he was the treasurer of the King’s Chamber and the Court of General Surveyors, a member of Henry VIII’s privy council, had recently been knighted, and was the auditor to Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford.

Seymour, the brother of the late Queen Jane Seymour, was a powerful patron. He became Lord Protector of the young Edward VI after Henry VIII died, and essentially ruled England—that is, until he was ousted and executed in one of the many deadly shifts of power that occurred during the reigns of the Tudor monarchs.

This kind of patronage extended in layers all the way to the top of the social ladder. Bess was distantly related to Sir George Zouche and his wife, whom she served. Lady Zouche had been a lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn as early as 1528, and later served Jane Seymour. Sir George was an equerry in Anne Boleyn’s household (and may well have met his wife there), and in about 1540 he attained the prestigious position of Gentleman Pensioner to Henry VIII.

Bess of Hardwick is an outstanding example of how successful service in noble households could be. With each marriage, she rose higher in society and became acquainted with more influential people. With each widowhood, she became more wealthy. After her fourth husband died, she was the richest and most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth. Her position enabled successive generations to rise even higher. Her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish married Charles Stuart, the Earl of Lennox, brother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who married Mary Queen of Scots. Bess’s granddaughter from this match, Arbella Stuart, was a potential successor to the throne, though ultimately she lost that chance to her cousin James, the Scottish queen’s son. Still, it was a spectacular rise for the Hardwick family from the genteel poverty into which Bess had been born.

Please visit Gillian’s website, Facebook Page, and Twitter feed for more on her books and upcoming events.

first_poemsName: Benjamin Lytal, author of A Map of Tulsa

Favorite Penguin Classic Title/Author: Homer in English, edited by George Steiner

Why do you love this Penguin Classic? I’m a fool for comparative readings.  How did Alexander Pope translate versus Robert Lowell!  In this anthology, we can finally see what was the big deal for Keats in Chapman’s Homer.  Truly an editorial godsend.

What should I read next? The First Poems in English, edited by Michael Alexander. Worth reading for the Exeter Riddles alone.  But you also get the Seafarer, the Wanderer, the Battle of Maldon.


venus_in_winterBess of Hardwick is probably best known for having survived four husbands, and for having built the grand house about which Robert Cecil famously quipped, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.”  But in an age when women rarely wielded much power or had control of their own money, Bess not only built from the ground up the forty-six room house that was then referred to as New Hardwick Hall, she also converted her childhood home, Hardwick Manor, into a grand edifice known as Old Hardwick Hall; built Chatsworth House, still the seat of her descendants the Dukes of Devonshire; and carried out extensive improvements to several other houses that she and her husbands owned.

Bess’s third husband, Sir William St. Loe, addressed her fondly in a letter as “chief overseer of my works,” and she was that. In those days there were no architects as we know the term, but a master builder would be responsible for the design of a house. Bess worked with Robert Smythson, a master stonemason who also designed Longleat, on building Hardwick. But on that project as well as Chatsworth, she personally oversaw armies of masons, carpenters, sculptors, plasterers, painters, glaziers, and other tradesmen and artisans. She employed some of them for years or even decades. The account books for the building of the new Hardwick Hall list more than 375 men, many of whom had also worked on Chatsworth.

In December, 1551, Bess and her second husband Sir William Cavendish paid master mason Roger Worde twenty shillings to design a house at Chatsworth. They were living in part of the new house by 1554, though construction wasn’t fully complete until more than thirty years later. Bess’s house doesn’t exist as she knew it because of extensive rebuilding in 1687-1707 by her descendant William Cavendish, the first Duke of Devonshire, which resulted in the elegant and imposing house that visitors can still see today.

But Hardwick Hall remains as Bess built it. She didn’t begin the project until after the death of her fourth husband, George Talbot, the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She had great ambitions when she built the house, because her granddaughter Arbella Stuart was a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth, and she made bold architectural choices that set the place apart from its contemporaries, most notably the vast windows, produced by her own glassworks.

Bess moved into the house amid great festivities on October 4, 1597, which her biographer Mary Lovell believes was Bess’s seventieth birthday. Arbella didn’t succeed to the throne, but Bess became the wealthiest and most powerful woman in England next to the queen, and through her six children that survived to adulthood, she is the ancestor of numerous noble lines in Britain, including the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Norfolk, Somerset, and Newcastle; the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke; the Baron Waterpark; and the current queen. Princes William and Henry are descended from Bess on both sides, so it seems likely that Bess’s progeny will occupy the throne for a very long time.

Visit Gillian Bagwell’s website for more on her books and upcoming events.


narrow_roadName: Lydia Davis, translator of Madame Bovary

Favorite Penguin Classics Title/Author: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho

Why do you love this Penguin Classic? I have loved this one for decades.  What is consistently pleasing is the alternation between a fairly matter-of-fact prose narration of Basho’s journey, on foot, with a companion–complete with the difficulties of a muddy road or a missed turn in the path–and the lovely haikus in which he distills moments and images along the way.

What should I read next? New Grub Street, by George Gissing, a novel of the late 19th century set squarely in London’s literary world, one character an idealist, another a pragmatist, one a virtuoso, another a novice, all trying to make a name for themselves through their writing. It is all too full of tragedy, and a page-turner.

the_crucibleName: Tana French, author of Broken Harbor

Favorite Penguin Classic Title/Author: The Crucible, by Arthur Miller.

Why do you love this Penguin Classics? On the surface, it’s a play about how Puritan repression triggered the wild explosion of accusations that led to the Salem witch trials. Officially, it’s about McCarthyism. But because Miller’s characters are vividly, passionately real, and because what he’s exploring isn’t an era but a dark, snarled place deep inside the human heart, this play doesn’t date. In any time and place, it cuts right to the bone.

What should I read next? For a total change of pace, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pure magic wrapped in some of the most beautiful lines ever written.

Excerpt (8)
Excerpt And the Mountains Echoed Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead)
Excerpt Dire Desires Stephanie Tyler (Signet)
Excerpt Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love  Sarah Butler (The Penguin Press)
Excerpt The Road to Burgundy Ray Walker (Gotham)
Excerpt Affliction Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley)
Excerpt A Serpent’s Tooth Craig Johnson (Viking)
Excerpt The Boys in the Boat Daniel James Brown  (Viking)
Excerpt The Lemon Orchard  Luanne Rice (Pamela Dorman Books)

Reading Group Guide (1)
Reading Group Guide  The Mark Carver’s Son Alyson Richman (Berkley)

Video (3)
Video The Last Camellia Sarah Jio (Plume)
Video Wilson A. Scott Berg (Putnam)
Video Affliction Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley)

cannery_rowName: James Franco, Academy Award Nominated actor and poet

Favorite Penguin Classic Title/Author: When I scan the Penguin Classics list, so many titles and authors jump out at me, like old friends. Here’s one that’s been very important to me: Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Why do you love this Penguin Classic? I’m proud to say that I have spent half of my life in books. I think it was John Ruskin who said that a good book is preferable to conversation because a book contains a more concentrated and intense version of a person. Nabokov would agree to interviews only if he could write out his answers beforehand because he knew that he was a genius on the page and bumbling when he spoke. Harold Bloom champions books for providing the closest kind of connection to another human. So when I find a book that speaks to me, like the one above, I feel I am in the presence of a friend. Books are the perfect embodiment of principles over personalities: I get to befriend so many people through their writing, people who in life, as their embodied selves, I might hate.

What should I read next? Moby-Dick by Herman Melville or The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck or On the Road by Jack Kerouac; these are all voices that make up the chorus of the spirit of America, at least the America that I love.

gerard_manley_hopkinsName: Geraldine Brooks, author of Caleb’s Crossing

Favorite Penguin Classic Title/Author: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose

Why do you love this Penguin Classic?: To read Hopkins’s poems is to gain a new set of eyes with which to see the world. His descriptions of nature are so rich and original that it becomes impossible to look at a weedy field or a speckled horse without his words bouncing into your mind, springing up out of the subconscious like freshets of delicious, revivifying water. This edition is particularly valuable because it includes prose passages that give insight into the tortured soul behind the glorious visions.

What should I read next?: Fagles’s translations of Homer.

tarnishI get asked a lot of questions about writing and history.  From, “How long does it take to finish a book?” to “”What is your favorite thing about Anne Boleyn?”  But The question I get asked most frequently is “Why do you write historical fiction?”  And I don’t have a single answer.

I have many.

The most glib would be, “Because I get to talk about codpieces and bumrolls.”  As a former student of costume design, I love the lushness and extravagances of Renaissance fashion.  The almost exhibitionist quality of the enhancements of always gets a laugh.  But I don’t do it for the clothes.

The advice often given to new writers is, “Write what you know.” I know how to sew a dress, drive a manual transmission and make a mean cappuccino.  I have experience teaching preschool, traveling the world and acting on stage.  I will never know how it felt to be a woman in the 16th Century or experience life in the Tudor court.  I love to write what I imagine.

I love immersing myself in a completely foreign, dazzling and dangerous world.  A place where beauty was prized and opulence expected.  Where a single word could raise you up or get you executed.  Where who you know—and with whom you ally yourself—is more important than honesty or affection.  A place utterly and tyrannically dystopian, before the term was coined.

If I were feeling self-deprecating, I might say, “History is a crutch.  It provides characters, setting, structures—I just write the dialogue.”  Except that would be patently untrue.  Sometimes I think it’s more difficult to penetrate the noise generated by the past 450 years of anecdotes and rumors and extract a story that feels fresh and new and hopefully escapes the prejudices created by others.

The good and honorable answer to that oft-repeated question would be that we ought to be exposed to history so we are not doomed to repeat it. By showing a world where girls are held hostage to the belief in their weakness, perhaps readers might be more aware when they see it in their own lives.  But any novel written to preach a moral is not fiction as much as propaganda.  Something I wish to avoid.

So why do I write historical fiction for teens?

Because it makes me, as one of my friends said when I posed the question on Facebook.

I write historical fiction because I love the lush setting, the extravagant clothes, the jigsaw-puzzle structure already laid out before me.  I love finding the right voice for a well-known figure, the bright detail in a palace no longer standing.  I love the sense that I might connect a modern teen to the sixteenth century by a thread of understanding, and that through that thread a reader may discover her own path to solve a problem.

I love history.  I love writing.  How lucky am I that I get to combine the two?