Sunday, January 22, 2006

Banquet for four offer

Also in today's blog

Jean Plaidy revival
Heavy on drama, light on romance
Discovering the Gruffalo
A children's publishing revolutionary
An email from India triggers new quest

Last November, the chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association received an email from Louisa Gibbs, Marketing Executive at The Random House Group. Ms Gibbs explained that in 2006 they would be starting to reissue the novels of Jean Plaidy, beginning with four Tudor novels in February
and moving to the Medici trilogy in July.
"We are very keen to try and unearth any Jean Plaidy fans amongst the literary community," she wrote, "so naturally we thought of the RNA as a good starting point. To that end, if there is anyone who might be interested in Jean Plaidy, we'd love to send review copies to them."

When this appeal was posted on the Association's online forum I responded because, a long time ago when I was a young writer, I met Jean Plaidy, whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert, and whose other pseudonyms included Victoria Holt.

Early in January, a copy of Katharine, the Virgin Widow reached me on a day when there was a long power cut. After my laptop battery had run down, I couldn't continue working, or go into housewife mode and do some much-needed vacuuming. So, without feeling guilty, I settled down to read. What struck me first was the beauty of the Arrow paperback's jacket and of three other jackets shown inside the cover.

"Win a banquet for four at Hatfield House" said a red sticker on the cover. At the back of the book, I read "Random House is pleased to be able to offer one lucky winner the chance to enjoy a sumptuous banquet for themselves and three friends in the Old Palace at Hatfield House. Dining in the same Great Hall that Elizabeth I held court [sic], you will be entertained by a selection of mediaeval characters who will engage you with singing, dancing and duelling while you enjoy a four course meal with unlimited wine and mead. A wonderful evening of entertainment that any fan of historical fiction will enjoy!"

Actually I am not a big fan of historical fiction, preferring my history straight. But as I spend a lot of time in the country the subject of the book came from, I thought it would be interesting to read about her first marriage to Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's younger brother. I knew that later Henry married and divorced her, and that it was the refusal of the Catholic Church to countenance that divorce which led to the Reformation. So this Spanish princess played an important part in the history of England.

After admiring the presentation of the new edition - the first was published 45 years ago - I wondered why Plaidy had chosen to call her subject Katharine rather than Catherine [of Aragon], the more usual spelling. Before she arrived in England, she was known as the Infanta Catalina.

The book opens with a Henry VII, his two sons and their courtiers watching a fight between a lion called Rex and four English mastiffs. The dogs kill the lion and then, on the king's orders, they are ceremonially hanged. "So perish all traitors!" he says, while the dogs are dying.
I can't remember reading about this incident before, but there's an impressive bibliography of sources at the end of the book, so presumably Plaidy didn't invent the gruesome event.

Heavy on drama, light on romance

A New York Times review on the back of the paperback says "Plaidy excels at blending history with romance and drama". There's certainly plenty of drama in the book, but rather a dearth of romance.

After Prince Arthur has died, his marriage to Katharine unconsummated, the storyline switches to her not-entirely-sane sister Juana,Queen of Castile, whose husband also dies and whose embalmed body Juana keeps in an open coffin.

The novel ends with Katharine's marriage to Henry VIII.
"And so from the pleasant Palace of Greenwich came the dazzling cavalcade, through the gaily decked streets into the precincts of the Tower of London. The grey fortress looked grim, the stone towers menacing; but Katharine only saw [sic] the golden beauty of her bridegroom, only heard the shouts of the people : 'Long live the King's bride! Long live our Queen, Katharine of Aragon.'

Plaidy, who became famous in the days before sex was considered an essential ingredient in historical novels, did not speculate on whether the Spanish girl's second wedding night was more enjoyable than her first. Judging by his portraits, I should be surprised if Henry VIII was a tender and imaginative lover. His features suggest that he was selfish and brutal.

I can't honestly say I enjoyed the book, but it wouldn't surprise me if it sells as well second time around as it did in 1961.

Discovering The Gruffalo

Last weekend our 18-months-old grandson and his parents arrived in a large van with a canoe and a sea kayak on its roof. They had been exploring the lower reaches of one of Spain's famous rivers, the Ebro, and spent the last night of their journey on the Ebro's large delta. Which is why, this week, I've been reading The Gruffalo and Where's Spot and a "lift and look" book called Trucks.

I had heard of The Gruffalo, of course, and enjoying the book sent me off its search of its author and illustrator. Unfortunately the intro page of the book's website is very slow-loading on a 49 kps dial-up connection.

I wanted to see Julia Donaldson and her husband Malcolm [a guitar-playing medic she met while studying Drama and French at Bristol University] perform The Gruffalo's Child's song. However I could see that, without broadband, it was going to take forever to download. After waiting for several minutes, by which time the indicator was less than a quarter of the way to completion, I gave up and read illustrator's Axel Scheffler's amusing diary instead.

A Donaldson-Scheffler book I liked even better than The Gruffalo is Room on the Broom about the adventures of a friendly witch, her cat and their various hitch-hikers.

A children's publishing revolutionary

Trucks is published by Usborne. It's part of a series which includes Farms, Trains and Diggers. I hadn't realised how many people were involved in the making of some of today's children's books. The production of Trucks needed a writer, a designer and illustrator, a modelmaker, a photographer and an additional illustrator. It's a far cry from the favourite books of my early childhood, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter.

At the publisher's website I read
"Founded by Peter Usborne over 30 years ago, the company revolutionized children's publishing with information books that combined very high educational and editorial standards - and made finding out fun. Within months of first publication, Usborne books were a major international success. Now translated into over 80 languages, the Usborne list has been widely imitated but never bettered and continues to earn glowing reviews and prestigious prizes. With the advent of the Internet as an exciting source of information, Usborne was the first UK children's publishing company to produce Internet-linked books - books with links via the Usborne Quicklinks Website to recommended websites that complement and enhance the information in the book with movies, sounds, pronunciation guides, games and quizzes on the Internet. There are now over 200 Usborne Internet-linked books including atlases, encyclopedias, language books and dictionaries."

More about Tikli Bottom

In my note thanking Martin Howard for the photograph [shown last Sunday] of himself and his wife sitting in front of their house in India, I wrote "I should have thought there was a book in the building of your lovely house, the visitors you've had etc. Tuscany, Provence and Spain have all been done to death. How about you and your wife starting a vogue for books about rural India?"
To which he replied
"Dear Anne, Jill Yadav's agent Hilary Rubenstein, tried hard to persuade me to write a book, about two years ago, but as I pointed out to him, the thing that makes it interesting, when talking about it is the scurrilous and illegal things that have been perpetrated, which one would never commit to print. And anyway, we are too busy doing the things we do to have time to spare for authorship. I am just about to start on a demanding new venture in Madhya Pradesh - relocating our farming activity there to give the organics stability enough to prosper; and I plan to launch a jungle lodge/retreat by the banks of the mighty river Chambal. Basically, I'm a builder not an author, but I do pen some poetry. Best regards Martin"

Inevitably this started me on a new quest but, as I've already overrun my intended length, I'll write about that next Sunday.