2008 United States Election

From dinner last night. My caption ” can’t tell you how scared I am really right now about the world grown ups are making for you, Melanie. All I can do is enjoy being with and say how proud I am of people who are working to make a difference and that I’m trying to do my own bit to help make things better.”

I was in the midst of working on copy edits for Gilded Deceit this weekend when the news about the ban on refugees and travel from some predominantly Muslim countries hit. As readers of the series know, revelations about Suzanne’s past have sent Malcolm and Suzanne into exile. Exile in many ways is the theme of Gilded Deceit, with the Rannochs and their friends encountering other expatriates, including Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley. I looked up from fine tuning their longing for home and conflicted thoughts about a home they’ve been forced to leave to read, appalled, about what is happening today. To worry about friends like a young Canadian, Iranian-born singer who now can’t visit her family in Canada for fear she can’t return to the U.S. Or another friend whose father-in-law now can’t come here to visit his toddler grandchildren. Other friends, artists, students, academics  with young children, who now may not be able to travel to and from the country I call home. The plight of those one knows personally brings home the concrete reality, but far worse is the plight of refugees whose very lives are at stake. Many of those refugees have children my daughter’s age or younger. Yes, I tend to focus on the plight of children. Having a young child sends my thoughts in that direction.

Compared to these people, Malcolm and Suzanne and the other characters in Gilded Deceit are comparatively fortunate. They have a secure fortune, and Malcolm was careful in advance to move funds out of Britain. Malcolm even has a house (a very beautiful house) in Italy where they can seek refuge. They may have to look over their shoulder for Lord Carfax and the Elsinore League, but they have financial resources and their own skills as agents to fall back upon. That somehow drives home to me how bad the current situation is. We tend to think of progress. Of the world being a safer, saner, more just place now than it was two hundred years ago. As writers, we devise hair raising situations for our characters. Usually their plight is much worse than what one looks round and sees in the present day. Instead, I look at the news and at people I know personally and find myself thinking ‘“Malcolm and Suzanne are the lucky ones.”

Malcolm struggles a lot in Gilded Deceit with what it means to be British and what he’s done in Britain’s name. At one point he says, “Being loyal to a country doesn’t mean taking on the burdens of the men who run it.”

This weekend, I am having a similar struggle.





A later update this week because my friend Penny and I just got back from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s wonderful going to the theater with a good friend who’s also a writer. Between performances we walked, shopped, lingered over meals at favorite restaurants, and analyzed the plays.

We saw a wonderful mix of plays. One favorite was Equivocation, a world premiere by Bill Cain in which William Shakespeare is commissioned (or rather commanded by King James’s right-hand man Robert Cecil) to write a play about the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. A brilliant, layered play about politics, writing, family–and theater. Another surprise favorite was Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. When Penny and I first heard OSF was doing The Music Man, we were a bit skeptical about a Broadway musical mixed in with OSF’s usual blend of Shakespeare, modern and older classics, and edgy new plays. We left the theater completely entranced. It was a wonderful, clever production that brought out how River City, Iowa, is changed by musical con man Harold Hill and how Harold Hill is equally changed by River City and its inhabitants.

Particularly Marian Paroo, the town librarian. The romance at the heart of The Music Man is delicate and heart warming. Con man Harold Hill who is looking for a “sadder but wiser girl” and librarian Marian Paroo who is waiting for her “white knight” seem complete opposites and yet you root for them to get together. More than that, you believe in their happy ending. Perhaps because, as Penny and I discussed, while Marian and Harold are both misjudged by those round them, they see each other with surprising clarity. Marian falls in love with Harold knowing he’s lied about his past. Harold sees past Marian’s frosty demeanor. Meredith Wilson’s clever lyrics point to the fact that this seemingly mismatched couple may have more in common than one thinks. In the song “The Sadder but Wiser Girl,” Harold refers to The Scarlet Letter and the goddess Diana. He may be the most well-read person in River City next to Marian, who shocks the town by reading Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. And musically, their two signature solos, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-six Trombones” have the same melody.

This got me thinking about other favorite mismatched literary couples who are soulmates under the skin. Such as Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing (which OSF is doing later this year). Despite their war of words Benedick believes Beatrice without question when she swears to her cousin Hero’s innocence. Or Mulder and Scully who begin as skeptic and believer but become each other’s touchstone. Or in a different way Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit (I came home to watch the last episode of Little Dorrit). In their case the apparent mismatch isn’t personality it’s age and circumstance, which prevent Arthur from seeing Amy’s feelings for him or acknowledging his own for her.

Mélanie goes into her marriage to Charles knowing they are an impossible mismatch in ideology, loyalties, background, and life experiences. Yet when she realizes she loves him it’s because “though he might not know her true name or any details of her life, he understand her as no one else ever had”.

Do you like stories about mismatched couples? What does it take for you to believe they have a chance to be happy? Did you find Little Dorrit as engrossing as I did?

Inspired by fabulous theater, and particularly the scenes among the acting company in Equivocation, I wrote this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition as Simon’s update to David on the production he’s staging in Edinburgh.

Happy Martin Luther King Day and Inaugural Weekend! As I prepare to watch Barak Obama’s Inauguration with my family on Tuesday, I remember my parents letting my stay home from school on a January morning in 1977 to watch Jimmy Cater’s inauguration (after the inauguration, I went to school for afternoon classes :-)). This year I’m planning to watch the inauguration live in the morning and then again in the evening at a family party. So many historic moments only seem historic in retrospect, but this is undoubtedly a time to stop and remember (and, at least for me, a time to savor).

Last night, my cousin and I watched a movie that seemed particularly apropos on the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday. Something the Lord Made, about breakthrough heart surgery at Johns Hopkins and the role played by a brilliant African American lab technician who never went to medical school but was probably a better surgeon than the doctor he collaborated with (both men made indelible contributions to medicine). Highly recommended as a film and a piece of history.

With history on the mind, I thought I would post a video clip about a very different sort of historical perspective, the historical context of Beneath a Silent Moon.

Do you like a sense of historical context in historical novels? Do you think the story of Beneath a Silent Moon is linked to the era in which it is set? How would the book be different if it was set in a different era? Do you think about historical context when reading? Any novels to mention in which historical context plays a particularly strong role?

Any special plans for inauguration day?

I just posted a new letter in the Fraser Correspondence–from Oliver Lydgate to Charles, commenting on a (real, historical) treat with Spain concerning the slave trade.

I spent most of the night of November 4th in front of the television, in tears much of the time, savoring the moment, wishing my parents were still alive to see it. As I blogged about last week, politics has been a fascination in my family for as long as I can remember. So it’s perhaps not surprising that I frequently write about politicians.

Charles, of course, is a Member of Parliament, as is David and their friend Oliver Lydgate, who has only been mentioned in the published books so far but who plays an important role in The Mask of Night along with his wife, Lady Isobel (David’s sister). Thinking back over my earlier books (including those I co-wrote with my mom), I realize I’ve written four heroes with active political careers. Of the others, three were diplomats (two of whom developed active parliamentary careers), one was a novelist and one a playwright (both with strong political views), one was a journalist, and one a soldier/spy who became a journalist. So in all cases, politics were there in one way or another.

Yet trying to think of other literary examples, I come up rather short. Which I think is too bad, because it’s a profession that offers such wonderful opportunities for characters who range from idealistic to conniving, visionary to myopic, generous to greedy–and very often all of them wrapped up together in fascinating shades of gray. Georgette Heyer’s tiltled heroes would sit in the House of Lords, but I don’t think any of them is actively involved in politics (in Frederica, Alverstoke’s secretary, Charles Trevor, regrets that his employer doesn’t take a more active role in politics). Robert Goddard has a wonderful early 20th century M.P. in his novel Past Caring, who falls in love with a suffragette and endangers his career (I picked bought that book on the strength of the premise and was not disappointed; Goddard became one of my favorite writers). Two of my favorite literary politicians are Robert Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a fascinating look at ambition, ideals, and human frailty. And Guy in Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, who finds himself caught between his ambitions, honor, and the love of his life.

The Regency era offers a wonderful array of real-life politicians, many of whom have made appearances in my books. A few notes about just a few of them:

Charles James Fox, the leader of the liberal wing of the Whig party, a brilliant orator who spent much of his life out of office and died while trying to achieve peace with France.

Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary for many years, a man of keen intellect if narrow vision, with whom Charles clashes in my books over his view that the way to peace and stability is to preserve the status quo at home and abroad. Tragically, Castlereagh suffered a breakdown and committed suicide in the 1820s.

George Canning, a long-time rival of Castlereagh’s, also a Tory but with more moderate views (his support for Catholic Emancipation was a source of strain between him and the Tory establishment). Castlereagh’s and Canning’s disagreements led them to actually fight a duel at one point. Canning eventually became Prime Minister in the 1820s, though his health failed and he died in office.

William Lamb, whose career in the Regency era seemed hampered by his unstable wife, Lady Caroline, but who would go on to become Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister.

Lord Palmerston, like Canning a Tory of the more moderate variety, who carried on a long-term love affair across party lines with William Lamb’s sister, Emily Cowper. Like many moderate Tories, he eventually joined the Liberal Party. He also married Emily after her husband’s death. Eventually he too became Prime Minister in the Victorian era. Palmerston appears in several of my books, particularly Dark Angel.

Henry Brougham, also a brilliant orator, called an opportunist by many but also a man of passionate beliefs. He defended Queen Caroline when George IV tried to divorce her before the House of Lords in 1820 (the centerpiece my mom’s and my Frivolous Pretence). He was one of Harriette Wilson’s lovers and she ultimately blackmailed him over her memoirs. He also ran off to the Continent with Caroline Lamb, not William Lamb’s wife but the wife of William’s younger brother George (George’s Caroline was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and his mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster). Emily Cowper had to to after Brougham and “Caro George” and bring her home. Brougham appears in several scenes in Rightfully His as a friend and confidant of the politician hero, Frank. They have a number of talks about political ideals and political expediency.

Do you like politics and politicians in historical novels? Any favorite examples to suggest? Any favorite real life historical politicians you’ve read novels about or would like to see in novels? Any political issues you’d like to see Charles, David, and Oliver confront in future books? Any real life historical politicians you’d like to see them interact with?

This week’s edition to the Fraser Correspondence is a letter from Aspasia Newland to her sister Cressida Moreton, shortly after her marriage.

It’s difficult to believe November 4th and the United States election is only two days away. This presidential campaign has taken twists and turns I doubt I could have dreamt up as a novelist. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as excited for an election night as I am for this Tuesday–an excitement tinged of course with nerves (the memories of 2000 and 2004 are too vivid). So often, we only see in retrospect that we’ve lived through something historic. But whatever its outcome, we know going in that November 4th will be an historic night in American politics. I’ll be glued to the television of course to see the outcome of the presidential race (I’ve cared passionately about every election I’ve voted in, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about the candidate I voted for as I am about Barack Obama). But also to see what happens with the House and Senate. With state propositions, most importantly if California’s Prop 8 loses and in losing preserves equal marriage rights for same sex couples, including a number of my friends who’ve been married recently. To watch the hundreds of mini-dramas that play themselves out across the country–local initiatives, unexpected upsets, recounts, voting machines, turn-out.

My memories of election nights stretch back to 1972. My father was at an election night party. My mother, home with me, turned on the news and said “let’s see how bad it is” and there was President Nixon saying something along the lines of “as a man looking ahead to four more years in office.” Which in retrospect, has the ring of irony. In 1976, my mom let me stay up the networks called Pennsylvania for Carter. The next morning, the first question I asked her when I woke up was “Did Carter win?” In 1984, I called my dad from college, depressed and a bit lonely (growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d never spent an election night surrounded by so many people who had voted differently from the way I had; an eye-opening and valuable experience). In 1992 my parents and I drank champagne while we watched the returns. In 2000, my friend jim and I kept checking the electoral map online as Florida changed from blue to red to uncertain.

Growing up with a fascination for politics, it’s perhaps not surprising that my historical novels involve politicians and politics. I think most historical fiction says something both about the time in which the novel is set and the time in which it is written. I love finding parallels and resonances between the political situation in my books and the situation today. In this election week, I thought it would be a good time to post a new video clip about those resonances:

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition continues the theme with a letter from Charles to David in which he recalls the night he was first elected to Parliament.

Do you have special plans for election night this year? Do you like historical novels about politics and politicians? Do you look for resonances to the world of today or prefer to see the past as entirely separate? What kind of political couple do you think Charles and Mélanie would be if they lived today?